Some Useful Songs of Experience

The rappers of Free Convict aren’t ordinary singers: they’re former inmates now trying to keep Venezuelan kids far from jail. With Caracas Mi Convive and Alimenta la Solidaridad, they work to share what they learned.

Photos: Guillermo Sardi

“I can’t believe we’re doing this after all that madness,”  Trebor tells us as we finish the activities of the day. He belongs to Free Convict, a group of rap singers who are also former inmates, now talking about violence to a bunch of kids. It is kinda crazy.

The group’s visits have become a bubble of resistance for these kids, a space where they can share their fears and angst of living in an environment that’s exposed every day to violence. It makes all the sense in the world for us in Caracas Mi Convive, and Alimenta la Solidaridad.

We’re two sister projects: Convive, born in 2013, executes violence prevention programs in vulnerable neighborhoods of the Libertador municipality, the biggest of the Venezuelan capital, as an alternative to the high levels of criminality in the city. Alimenta la Solidaridad, on the other hand, came about in 2016 when its founder, Roberto Patiño, noticed the high levels of food insecurity among children in La Vega, and started to organize soup kitchens, with the help from local mothers, for children at risk of malnutrition.

In Pinto Salinas, a working-class neighborhood, Alimenta la Solidaridad has one of such kitchens. The children who attend often have no major activity after lunch; while the parents are at work, they roam Pinto, often running into people selling or taking drugs.

The mothers helping the organization were worried about the kind of impact this had on kids, especially on the temptation of following those footsteps. That’s why the victim’s attention unit of Mi Convive contacted Free Convict.  

Free Convict first appeared in the Penitenciaría General de Venezuela (PGV), one of the most overcrowded and violent prisons in the country, now closed. Most of the current members met there and began rapping behind bars. As they developed their skills, they gained recognition among other inmates, even getting the “carro de los raperos” sobriquet, meaning a respected group made of rappers.

That’s where Andrés, Jose, Isaac and Pavlo enter the story. As journalism students, they were doing a documentary about the Venezuelan prison system and met Free Convict in one of their visits to the PGV. Feeling really inspired by what they saw, they provided support so that their music had a greater reach. Nowadays, Ray, Trebor, Héctor, Daniel and other members of Free Convict not only do concerts in different venues, they’ve also developed a violence prevention program for the Pinto kids. They’re teaching them how to use rap to translate emotions into words, especially those that are often left unsaid in the midst of the chaos that is Venezuela today.

Rapping non-violence philosophy

We were quite impressed by how Free Convict can communicate the scientific evidence-based violence prevention strategies that are in books, without all the technical-jargon. One of the things they did was they asked the audience—including us—to answer on a piece of paper some personal questions. Some of them included: What are you most afraid of? What things give you peace? What annoys you the most?

When we finished our answers, Ray read them protecting everyone’s anonymity. One of the first ones said: “What annoys me the most is when people feel that they’re better than others.” Quickly, one of the kids replied “Yes! That annoys me a lot, especially when you ignore them and, because you don’t respond, they call you a pussy!”

From that kid’s commentary, Daniel began to share his own experiences as a former bully. He once picked a fight with a classmate, but the kid had a bigger brother. Daniel knew he didn’t stand a chance with this guy almost twice his size, but he was so proud that he kept picking fights and getting beaten. After the fourth or fifth time with bruises on his cheeks, the brother went  “I’m tired of busting your ass, just stop bothering my brother.”

Daniel says that this experience taught him two things: first, picking fights out of pride only leads to more violence, so one day you’re fighting with a classmate and, before you know it, you’re in jail fighting other people. Second, when he was fighting, he noticed that other people came to watch, no one stopped the tussle. He told the kids that if they see two people fighting at school, it’s on them to stop it, and their role as bystanders is to end the cycle of violence.

Calm as a source of respect

This idea is an evidence-based violence prevention intervention, and Daniel figured it out on his own. Social psychologist Ervin Staub, a distinguished professor of peace studies from the University of Massachusetts, proposes a similar idea.

Staub emphasizes the key role that witnesses have in preventing societies to escalate violence to a point of no return. When people disapprove violence (instead of just watching it) they increase the cost of perpetrators to continue their acts, preventing that aggression from intensifying.

After Daniel shared his advice, Free Convict made a freestyle rap session, talking about how the alternative of gaining respect through violence is maintaining calm, that kids can become heroes of their families by staying in school and making an effort every day. All these things may sound like clichés, but in an environment where nobody says it and violence is a daily affair—but treated as taboo—the reach and importance these words have can be a gamechanger.

When you work with such complicated contexts, success stories might be few, but they feel like great victories. Listening to “We were part of the problem and now we want to be part of the solution” from the mouth of Ray, who has overcome violence as a victim, and as an aggressor, is very inspiring.

These kids’ lives are worth Free Convict’s effort.