Haviken Hayes unloops dozens of cords and cables as he reassembles and reconnects his turntables and one-man sound system. He and his musical partner, JG, the sole members of Over the Counter Intelligence, are still riding high this recent Wednesday evening after performing during antiwar and antiglobalization protests in Washington, D.C., on April 12 and 13. The two 25-year-olds and their equipment are crowded into Hayes' bedroom, which is in a Hollywood duplex he shares with his mother and little sister. One wall is covered with an oversized flag of Puerto Rico, the birthplace of Hayes, who sports lengthy chin whiskers, wire-rimmed glasses, and a knit hat.
Sitting straight-backed on the bed and trying to give his collaborator ample room, JG talks with the stamina of a college professor. The son of Haitian immigrants, he wears a camouflage jacket, white T-shirt, khaki pants, and a black cap. He rushes breathlessly through a jag about South Florida apathy, telling the story of how a couple of career-minded Gen-Y'ers from South Florida became the scourge of American corporate greed while assuming high-profile roles as the electrifying rapping stars of a burgeoning civil rights movement:
"It's almost appalling to the populace of Miami for anyone to deliver some type of knowledge or criticism or truth in music -- and, yes, I know that my truth might not be someone else's." He adopts the stance of an ordinary ignoramus: "'No, we want to go to South Beach and get ridiculously intoxicated. We want to get high and take X.'"
To underscore the assertion, Hayes interrupts, pretending that a few of JG's words have hit home. "'Raving? X?'" he queries in mock enthusiasm.
Undeterred, JG continues his mimicking. "'We don't want to hear about the Zapatistas, the Sandinistas, the new Black Panther Party, Leonard Peltier, Mumia Abu-Jamal. We don't want to hear about opposition to the death penalty, the Haitians, the INS. And we definitely don't want to hear about antiwar. That is bad.' Because you've got the stereotypical hate clones -- Rush Limbaugh, John Ashcroft, Dick Cheney -- preaching to the American public that if you are opposed to the war, not only are you not patriotic, you are a traitor."
JG's face possesses the sharp features of a young and lean Muhammad Ali. As Hayes prompts the mix for "Ode to a Champagne Toast," a sardonic skoal to the status quo, the likeness between MC and boxer becomes more striking. JG jabs and pokes the air in front of him, his mouth snarling through rhymes. At times, he seems to spar with Hayes, who intermittently spits out a word or two to emphasize certain lyrics. "When my swollen visage was deep in tha sod/And twitched like hooked cod," JG raps, then shoots his arm into the air and yelps, "Where tha fuck was God?"
The music of Over the Counter Intelligence has been brewing for several years, but only recently have JG (Joel Gay) and Hayes (Edwin Guerra) found an audience for their rage against the political machine. (Commercial success for socially conscious bands, however, is far more elusive, though the likes of Dead Kennedys, System of a Down, and Dead Prez have managed to achieve it.) In late February, they traveled to California under the auspices of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers to perform during a ten-day hunger strike by farm workers at the headquarters of Taco Bell. The coalition began a boycott against the corporation more than two years ago. Immokalee workers earn 40 cents for each 32-pound bucket of tomatoes they pick, a rate that has remained unchanged since 1978. The workers have asked Taco Bell for a one-cent increase per pound, which would double the average picker's annual pay from $7,500.
The duo composed "Hunger Days" for the event, in which JG's lyrics ask, "One fundamental question/For tha Taco Hounds/1 more penny per pound/Won't shake tha foundation down." The song offers the straight-to-the-point and catchy hook, "We'll all boycott Taco Bell."
"We hadn't had a song written for the boycott before," coalition spokesman Greg Asbed says. "The song became a real rallying force. It got people excited. They're excellent performers, and the song captures the feeling of the boycott, of the community of people standing up to corporations, that human rights must be respected. We just think this is what music should be. In this day and age, music should not be separated from our political lives. There shouldn't be an escape from real life through music."
"Basically our music deals with indigenous causes, like Zapatistas and the Chiapans' plight in Mexico," JG explains. "Our music is definitely antiglobalization. We vehemently oppose NAFTA, the INS, World Bank -- or at least, how they've come to affect the Third World. One of the biggest issues of our music is the Haitians who are detained, unconstitutionally and indefinitely, at Krome Detention Center [in Miami-Dade County]. It's discouraging to see the wealth of young Haitians, kids like myself who have been educated in the United States, who are so apathetic." The Haitian-American community in Miami hasn't mobilized during rallies sponsored by the Florida Immigration Advocacy Center, he contends. "So you have 30 or 35 people at these rallies," he grouses. "It's horrible, embarrassing."
JG would seem an unlikely radical leftie. His parents emigrated to New York City from Haiti, where both attended City College of New York, from which only his father graduated. They moved to Omaha, where JG grew up, though they made regular visits back to Haiti. "It's a culturally homogenized state," he says of Nebraska. "I was the only black face most of the time -- white schools, white parties, white girls." In eighth grade, however, JG attended a concert in Minnesota, where the just-emerging Rage Against the Machine was playing a benefit on behalf of Leonard Peltier. "Zack de la Rocha blew me away," he says of the lead singer and lyricist for the group. JG became a devotee of the groups Bad Brains and the Clash. From there, he began reading political literature, like the works of linguistics professor and political dissident Noam Chomsky. He received a bachelor's degree in political science at St. Louis University and then attended St. Thomas University in Miami, where he received a BA in English and liberal studies.
While at St. Thomas, he met Haviken Hayes, who had begun deejaying while a young teen. (His stage name derives from lyrics by Black Thought of the Roots: "It's hard to see through the havoc and haze.") He evolved into serious mixing and for a while had an agent, who introduced him to JG. That led to friendship, then collaboration. JG has since moved to Naples, where he owns a landscaping business, but drives to the east coast two or three times a week. Hayes works for an environmental testing company in Miramar.
Early this year, they recorded a demo CD, which they sell at their performances, and began sending it out to political and grassroots organizations and record labels. "We started to establish a rapport with Sweatshop Watch in Oakland, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, and Latin America Solidarity Coalition," JG says. While in California in February during the so-called Truth Tour that was part of the hunger strike, Over the Counter Intelligence performed at numerous colleges, as well as the L.A. House of Blues. (A video stream of their performance at the hunger strike is at www.ciw-online.org.)
The Immokalee coalition's Asbed recommended the duo to the Latin America Solidarity Coalition, which was one of the groups planning an April rally and march in D.C. Thus, Over the Counter Intelligence marched with the Tour of Shame, which stopped first at Taco Bell, where the two performed "Hunger Days."
"Everyone went nuts," recalls Jon Everhart, an organizer with the coalition, of the duo's brief performance. "It was a peak as far as energy goes." The march moved on to the Inter American Development Bank and Occidental Petroleum and ended across the street from the offices of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.
During a fundraiser the night before, the pair had unleashed "Intestines for Oil," an antiwar song written for the occasion.
"The inspiration for the title came from one of the online independent news syndicates," JG explains. "There was a picture of this mother standing over this coffin, a large coffin, a coffin for four or five adults, and there were three of her children. They were lying side by side. Their heads were aligned. The middle child's intestines were sprawled over the torso and face of the other two children. It was one of the most gruesome sights I'd ever seen."
JG offers up a few verses, and his voice fills quickly with fury.
I hope Jesus weeps tonight/
on a crucifix laden with fright
a whored relic used to
flex AmeriKKKas might/
our brothas and sistas pay tha cost
of a love loss between
a Texas cop and a Iraqi boss/
a crusade in tha name of oil and ya drug-dealing pops/
tha stars and stripes may as well be a cross
Intestines for oil
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little child pay tha cost
Fuck tha stars and stripes
they may as well be a cross.
Taking a few deep breaths, JG waits for the power of his words to dissipate. He sits down and smiles expectantly.