SABADELL, Spain — It wasn’t your typical audience for a hardcore rap concert. There was a clutch of beery socialists with gray ponytails, alongside retirees with canes. There were pierced college students, and the mom of one of the rappers.
The few hundred attendees gathered here earlier this month not just to see a trio of previously niche musicians perform in this worn industrial town but to support the most notorious rappers in Spain.
These artists now find themselves the new vanguard for freedom of expression in Europe — pumping out rhymes about AK-47s in the palace and Marxist-Leninist cadres at the barricades, while condemning the Spanish royal family as a corrupt gang of mafia dons and elephant killers.
The headliner tonight was Josep Miquel Arenas, 24, the artist known as Valtonyc, recently convicted of three crimes: glorifying terrorism, committing serious insult to the monarch and making a threat against a Majorcan politician.
Regarding the last charge, Arenas called Jorge Campos — a prominent leader of a local nationalist group — a fascist, an everyday slur in Spain, and sang that he “deserved a nuclear bomb.”
Campos said he felt his life was in danger.
In his defense, the rapper asked, “Do I look like someone who has access to plutonium?”
Offstage, Arenas was pensive, a brooding poet. His day job is working for $10 an hour as a fruit vendor on the island of Majorca.
Onstage, he was all swagger and boast. He is as infamous in Spain today as Ice-T was in the United States in 1992 for his heavy-metal anthem “Cop Killer.”
The difference? Arenas isn’t just worried about having a song pulled by his record label, as happened to Ice-T. He’s going to prison.
For his lyrics, in songs circulated on YouTube videos and music-sharing platforms, a judge sentenced Arenas to three years and six months.
Spain’s Supreme Court upheld the judgment last month. His lawyer said that, failing a last appeal, his client is just awaiting a summons to surrender and begin serving his time.
So the concert in Sabadell was billed as a kind of farewell performance.
Advocates of free speech warn that overzealous prosecutors and conservative judges are dialing back the clock in Spain, which began its experiment with democracy only after the death of the dictator Francisco Franco in 1975.
Disappointed at hearing the high court had upheld a prison sentence for Arenas, the mayor of Barcelona, Ada Colau, tweeted that these are “sad and dark times when you have to fight for something so obvious as #rappingisnotacrime.”
Civil libertarians here say Spain is repurposing laws meant to stop incitement to terrorism to cover what should be protected political speech — including lyrics by rap artists, who often assume tough-guy poses and playact as marginalized, angry characters in their songs.
“These punishments, without a doubt, have a self-censoring effect,” said Yolanda Quintana, secretary general for the Platform for the Defense of Freedom of Information in Madrid.
Those who support prison time for the rappers say their speech is hurtful, insidious, dangerous — and it deserves to be punished.
“I don’t see a conspiracy against freedom of expression,” said Antonio Guerrero, an attorney for the Association of Victims of Terrorism in Spain. “As with every fundamental right, it’s not absolute. It has some limitations. And the limit is found in the respect for everyone else’s dignity. Someone’s dignity cannot be attacked under the protection of freedom of expression.”
Guerrero said that when a rapper praises the Basque separatists, “the victims are forced to re-experience memories related to the attacks they suffered.”
In some ways, the charges against the Spanish rappers mirror crackdowns on expression in Poland, Hungary and even Germany, where new laws will force social media giants to delete offensive content from their sites or face sanction.
Europe has experimented with strict hate-speech laws in the postwar years, forbidding praise of Nazis, for example, and seeking to shield minorities, such as Jews, Muslims and gay people.
This month, Marine Le Pen, the leader of France’s far-right Front National, was charged with circulating “violent messages that incite terrorism or pornography or seriously harm human dignity,” a crime punishable by up to three years in prison, for posting gory photographs of Islamic State beheadings.
Le Pen asked: Who is the real villain?
In Spain, the government is focused not on Google or Facebook — nor prominent artists and politicians — but on small fry.
Prosecutors pursued a pair of anarchist puppeteers in 2016 for waving a sign in a street play against police brutality that combined the words al-Qaeda and ETA, the Basque separatist group whose terrorist attacks left more than 800 dead in Spain before the group declared a cease-fire in 2010.
In a case last year, a college student named Cassandra Vera was convicted for tweeting jokes about ETA’s 1973 assassination of Luis Carrero Blanco, who served as prime minister under his patron, Franco. Vera was sentenced to a year in prison.
This month, the Supreme Court reversed her punishment, concluding that old jokes may be “socially and even morally reprehensible in terms of mocking a serious human tragedy,” but “a penal sanction is not proportionate.”
The list goes on.
A judge ordered that a newspaper reporter’s book about the flourishing drug trade in Galicia be pulled from store shelves because a former mayor was suing for libel.
Authorities last month ordered an art exhibit at Madrid’s main exhibition center to remove portraits of Catalonia’s jailed separatist leaders because they had been labeled “political prisoners,” though this is how the ousted officials and their supporters describe them.
Free speech advocates in Spain say that it is one thing for the state to try to censor books or puppets or songs — a censorship they oppose — but it is troubling escalation to put the artists in prison.
In the case of the rappers, prosecutors are pursuing not only Arenas but 14 other performers, including Pablo Rivadulla, known as Pablo Hasel, who was sentenced to a total of five years for 64 tweets and the lyrics of a song called “Juan Carlos the Fool,” about the former king.
If his sentence is upheld by the high court, Rivadulla will follow Arenas to prison in coming months.
At the concert in Sabadell, both performers appeared on stage separately, shouting their rhymes to a prerecorded backbeat. It was nothing extraordinary, very basic Rap 101.
Arenas was wearing a Tommy Hilfiger sweatshirt and black eyeglass, which made him look like a studious political science major. Behind him, a poster in Catalan read: “To prison for singing?”
He sang: “The king has an appointment in the town square, a rope around his neck that falls under the weight of the law.”
Arenas rapped, “Death to these pigs!”
The audience whooped it up and pumped fists in the air.
In his YouTube videos, Arenas splices in historic scenes of Spanish police and masked protesters, some from outlawed groups such as ETA and GRAPO — an anti-capitalist, anti-monarchy terror group responsible for dozens of assassinations that, like ETA, is now disbanded.
Before the Sabadell performance, Arenas took part in a question-and-answer session from the stage. He asked, “We should go to jail for having an opinion?” and “We’re aren’t allowed to be angry anymore?”
A man in the audience, who looked like a gentleman farmer, stood up. “I’m old. I don’t really like your music, your rap, but I like what you’re saying.”
One of the presenters gave a shout-out from the stage to the undercover cops presumed to be milling in the crowd.
Perhaps the performers flatter themselves, perhaps not.
After the concert, the rapper Rivadulla told The Washington Post he is a committed communist and also a big fan of country and western star Kenny Rogers. He’s 29 years old. The last regular job he had was picking grapes and apples. He lives with his girlfriend.
Rivadulla said, “You can’t compare victims. The king cannot say he is a victim. The police are not victims. The oppressor cannot be a victim.”
“I will go to jail,” he promised. “I can do it.” Like Arenas, he is awaiting his last appeals.
In the 24 hours The Post spent with Arenas, he was alternately engaged and anxious, intent on promoting his music and his case on social media, but worried about the future, which seemed to be hurtling toward him.
He was distracted by the need to sign papers so he and his girlfriend could become civil partners, giving her the right to visit him in prison.
“I worry about waking up and being alone,” Arenas confessed.
He said, “I feel bad that people think I am glorifying terror.”
Arenas said he, too, is a communist who is against the police brutality, injustice and the monarchy, but does not support everything that the Basque separatists or GRAPO did.
“I just want to provoke the extreme right, to stir up the fascists,” he said before his ride to head home. “It’s an exaggeration, to get a reaction.”
The rapper said he was surprised people didn’t understand this.
Rolfe reported from Madrid. Raul Gallego Abellan in Sabadell and Barcelona contributed to this report.