Josep Miquel Arenas Beltrán is behind the wheel, driving too fast. He’s coming back from dinner with friends in downtown Brussels, where he ordered a double cheeseburger with fries and showed off the AK-47 tattoo on his left forearm. The tattoo was sort of dumb, he admits. He was 18 when he got it, but he doesn’t regret it. The car’s sound system blasts a song that Josep’s friend Marc, a.k.a Poor Tràmit, who’s squeezed in the back with another friend, recorded in his living room this afternoon. “Turned out really cool,” Josep tells Marc, who grins.
Suddenly Josep brakes and the car lurches forward. Standing outside his apartment building is a stocky man wearing black military-style boots.
“Joder,” Josep mutters, cursing in Spanish. He stalls the car for a moment, then speeds away.
“Tío, do you see his boots?” says one of his friends.
“That’s got to be the police.”
Josep suspects the man might be Spanish secret service, though he doesn’t know for sure that they’re following him. He’s not usually paranoid. But sometimes he gets worried, especially for his friends, who he thinks might get in trouble just for spending time with him.
Josep has lived in fear of arrest for seven years, ever since the Spanish national police detained him in Mallorca in August 2012. Mallorca, where Josep grew up, is the largest of the Balearic Islands in the Mediterranean, and part of Spain. Josep, 18, had been leaving his apartment to catch a train in his hometown when he was arrested. The police had received a complaint from Jorge Campos, the president of a right-wing civic association, about the lyrics of a song Josep had posted on YouTube earlier that year under his rapper alias Valtònyc. (The name, pronounced Val-ton-eek, is an amalgamation of the words Valium, the anti-anxiety medication, and gin and tonic).
The song in question contained the line, in Catalan — a native language of Mallorca — “Jorge Campos deserves a nuclear destruction bomb.” Campos, who today leads the island’s branch of the anti-immigrant and anti-feminist political party Vox, had asked the police to investigate.
After a few hours in detention in Palma, Mallorca’s capital, Josep was released. But the police began investigating the content of his songs, most recorded with a microphone and laptop in his bedroom and posted to YouTube, where he had developed a modest following. In addition to the Campos line, the police focused on some five dozen other lyrics, ranging from, “Everyone who takes advantage of the trodden, the poor people … deserves to die” to “The king has a date in the public square with a noose around his neck.”
Josep was 15 when he created his rapper alter ego, Valtònyc. But it was only after Josep’s arrest that Valtònyc took on a life of his own.
Valtònyc is obscene, provocative. He has sung about the murder of politicians and burning the Spanish flag. He has praised Stalin and cursed the King of Spain. He has called former Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy a fascist and made frequent references to Spanish terrorist groups. He has advocated for independence for Catalonia, the mainland Spanish region that shares a language with Mallorca. The AK-47 tattoo is his trademark.
For listeners across the country, Valtònyc is synonymous with rage against Spain. He rages against a corrupt political elite, wealth inequality, crippling youth unemployment and repression of speech.
After Josep’s arrest, Spanish courts would determine whether that rage was a form of terrorism.
Eighteen-year-old Josep hardly looked like a threat. He was gangly, partial to wearing oversized shirts, loose khakis and clumsily tied tennis shoes, as though he anticipated the day he would grow up and fill in the baggy clothing. At the time he was detained, he was living with his older sister Magdalena in Mallorca, studying to be a computer programmer and working various odd jobs — serving pizza, lifting crates of fruit, patrolling the port of Palma at night — earning around €1,200 a month, just enough to live on. On the weekends, he staged rap battles with other young Mallorcans in open spaces around the island.
The sound quality of his early songs is rough, and his voice is ragged, hurt. He often gulps for air, as though he is having trouble breathing. Many of the songs are remarkably vulnerable for a boy who would later capture the nation’s imagination as a hardened provocateur. These early songs are written from the perspective of a teenager witnessing the rapid deterioration of his home life.
During his childhood, Josep’s parents were in and out of prison for drug trafficking. When Josep was 6, his brother Marcos died and his parents separated. His distraught mother sent him to live with his sister, 10 years older than him. He developed anxiety and turned inward, confiding in no one. He slacked off in school, failing his exams.
When Josep was 15, he met the well-known Mallorcan rapper Rafel Sastre, a.k.a Swing, who was a few years older than him and studied computer programming at the same school. Sastre invited Josep to hang out with him and record songs at his house.
Josep locked himself in his room and worked on songs for hours. “He found a way, with all of his frustrations, to pour himself into rap,” Magdalena says.
Valtònyc gave Josep a way to vent about everything he was living through. He was tapping into the anger that would define the rapper for the next decade.
At first, he blamed his father for his family’s situation. Then he blamed his mother. But as he started reading political texts, Josep decided that his parents were not the root problem. The problem was capitalism.
Spain’s 2008 financial crisis was one of the most devastating in Europe. A credit-fueled construction boom went bust, banks collapsed and the unemployment rate soared. In the following years, thousands of Spaniards protested against austerity measures in a movement that became a model for Occupy Wall Street. The rate of unemployment among young people reached 55 percent, and thousands left the country in search of work. Grassroots activism flourished as young Spaniards drew inspiration from radical socialist and anarchist movements from the 1920s and 1930s.
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Josep joined the protests. He struggled to land a steady job, and when he found work at a fruit market, he felt like one of the lucky few. He traveled to Catalonia for concerts, not telling his family he was leaving the island, and sleeping on the streets after performances.
Gradually, his songs focused less on his internal life and more on politics. Valtònyc became more radical. Friends who saw him perform were amazed at the transformation. Once on stage, their taciturn friend turned into a vociferous performer who, in Josep’s words, “seems like a violent person, a person who would kill, a person who doesn’t have fear or insecurities, who doesn’t care about what people say.”
Initially, the 2012 arrest did little to deter Josep. If anything, he was emboldened. “He thought it was cool,” Magdalena says. The arrest solidified Valtònyc’s credentials. He had more material to write about, and suddenly, more gigs to perform.
Sastre, the rapper known as Swing, warned him to be careful: “Be less direct, be a little more intelligent when you say things.” But Josep shrugged him off.
“They are the lyrics of an 18-year-old chaval mad at the world,” Josep says, using Spanish slang for “kid.” “No one should have to go to jail for that.”
The music video for Valtónyc’s song “La TuerKa Rap”
It took almost five years for Josep’s case to come before the Audiencia Nacional, a Spanish court that has jurisdiction over major crimes. On February 8, 2017, Josep, then 23, was summoned to Madrid for a hearing. Friends and family reassured him: What did you do wrong? You only wrote songs. How is that a crime?
At first, he believed them. But privately, Josep’s friend Mulay Embarek, who helped create a support group to pay Josep’s legal fees, was pessimistic about the outcome.
“This is the Audiencia Nacional,” Embarek says. “They’re not just going to say, ‘OK! See you! You can go home now.’”
Spain created the crime of enaltecimiento del terrorismo (glorifying terrorism) in 2000, at the height of a domestic terrorist conflict with the Basque nationalist group known as ETA, which killed 829 people in the span of half a century.
But a decade after the law was created, the threat of terrorism was lower than ever: In 2011, ETA announced a permanent ceasefire.
Instead, some legal observers worried that Spain’s conservative government was using the terrorism law to silence left-leaning activists and artists. Between 2011 and 2017, at least 119 people were convicted of speech-related “terrorism” offenses, according to Amnesty International. In 2014, Catalan rapper Pablo Hasél was sentenced to two years in prison for lyrics that called for the return of Spanish terrorist groups and the car-bombing of politicians. Rock singer César Strawberry was sentenced to a year in prison for tweets joking about terrorism victims. Catalan rapper Elgio was sentenced to two years, as were 12 rappers from the hip-hop collective La Insurgencia. They are all continuing to appeal their verdicts, and Josep was the first to be summoned to serve his prison sentence.
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A clip of Valtónyc holding up the Estelada flag, a symbol used by Catalan independence supporters.
Spanish freedom of expression advocate Ana Pastor argues that the root of Spain’s excessive sentencing was the economic crisis. “The subsequent years of harsh austerity measures generated vocal antigovernment protests and new social movements,” she wrote in a post for Freedom House, a D.C.-based civil rights NGO. In her view, the government, fearful of losing its grip on power, turned to criminalization of speech in order to maintain control of the public.
It was in this context that the court heard Josep’s case. They found him guilty of praising terrorism, humiliating victims of terrorism and insulting the king of Spain. He was sentenced to three and a half years in prison and fined €3,000.
Josep appealed the decision to Spain’s Supreme Court, which upheld the original sentence a year later.
Political leaders on the left condemned the sentence. Advocacy groups rushed to organize solidarity events, and international free speech organizations came to Valtònyc’s defense.
Josep became a national celebrity. In the spring of 2018, he traveled the country to perform as many as four concerts a week. He gave speeches at events promoting freedom of expression and rapped with other convicted artists. He wrote snarky Twitter posts and got thousands of retweets. He gave interviews calling for an independent Catalonia.
To keep up with his new pace of life, Josep quit his job at the fruit market.
When critics argue that Valtònyc deserved his sentence, they usually single out one moment, a concert he held on March 31, 2018. In a video from the concert, held at a peace festival, Valtònyc stands on a stage, wearing a white t-shirt and distressed blue jeans. Behind him hangs a Catalan independence flag. Valtònyc yells out at his audience:
“I know I’m a fucking heavy burden and I only provoke during concerts, but I don’t give a damn because I’m going to prison,” he says. “And if I don’t provoke now, later I’m going to be there, killing myself in the [prison] gym, thinking, ‘shit dude, you should have said that.’ And so I’m letting go. Kill a fucking police officer tonight, and go to another town and kill one.”
He keeps yelling, his voice cracking from exhaustion or anger or maybe fear. His rage is palpable; you can almost hear him spitting.
“Put a fucking bomb in the public prosecutor’s office.”
He throws up his arms and storms out of view.
At this point, Valtònyc wasn’t an unknown rapper from Mallorca anymore. His case had galvanized tens of thousands of supporters across Spain. His words held more weight than six years earlier, when he was first arrested, and with his imprisonment imminent, he risked piling on more charges. The call to kill a police officer wasn’t a lyric; it could easily be construed as closer to incitement.
Six months later, when asked about his intentions that night, he seems tired of explaining the concert. He argues it was unreasonable to expect anyone to follow through on his spur-of-the-moment provocation, and therefore, it could not be considered incitement.
American rappers like Eminem and Ice T have rapped about killing police, and you don’t see them serving time in prison, he argues. (In Ice T’s case, his record label stopped distributing his 1992 song “Cop Killer” after members of Congress and President George H. W. Bush criticized it.)
Politicians, Josep continues, don’t understand rap’s history as an artistic movement for the poor and working class to confront state violence. His words were meant to provoke; he didn’t actually want to kill police officers.
But courts rejected the notion that provocative rap should be protected under free speech laws. When they upheld Josep’s sentence, appeals court judges wrote that the “right to the freedom of speech is not of an absolute character.”
“In our case,” they wrote, “it is enough to read the proven facts to understand the gravity of the expressions.”
On May 14, 2018, Josep was given 10 days to turn himself in to the police.
“Tomorrow is the day,” Valtònyc tweeted on May 23, 2018. “Tomorrow they are going to kick down the door to my house to put me in prison. For some songs. I’m not going to make it that easy, disobedience is legitimate and an obligation against this fascist state.”
In the days before Josep was supposed to turn himself in, the national police were on high alert. Airline officials were instructed to monitor flights out of Palma de Mallorca Airport in case Josep tried to escape the island. In response, friends and fans bought 40 different plane tickets out of Mallorca under Josep’s name, seeking to confuse authorities. Newspapers reported that plainclothes officers patrolled the house of a friend who was watching Josep’s dogs. Another friend claimed officers were listening in on his phone calls. (The police declined to comment for this article.) Josep’s family had pleaded with him to leave the country, but by most accounts, he was set on going to prison.
When Josep didn’t turn himself in on May 24, few people — not even his family — knew where he had gone. Rumors abounded: He was hidden in Mallorca; he was hidden on the mainland; he had caught a flight to Algeria and was on his way to South America.
In reality, it had been a month since Josep had last stepped foot in Mallorca. In April, after holding a concert on the Spanish mainland, he boarded a return flight to Palma but told a flight attendant he needed to disembark because he had forgotten something.
Then, he walked out of the airport.
Josep is wary of giving details about his escape. What he can say is “some people” helped him hide in a house on the Spanish mainland as he waited for an opportune moment to flee across the French border.
For nearly a month, he didn’t leave the house. People brought him food and water, and he communicated with his friends infrequently — and only through Instagram — telling them he could let them know where he was in a month, or maybe two. “It was a really bad experience,” he says. “My hair fell out.”
Restless and stressed, Josep began writing the first lines of what would become the album Poemes per No Tornar, or Poems for No Return. He was writing to his ex-girlfriend, with whom he had lived for two years. When he told her he was fleeing, she broke up with him. They haven’t spoken since.
On May 23, after a month of hiding in the house, Josep stowed away in the trunk of a car headed to Ghent, in Belgium, where several Catalan politicians had recently settled after fleeing Spanish arrest warrants for declaring their region independent. He was stressed; he’d heard police were stopping drivers at the French border and was worried they’d find him, a 6-foot-2-inch man, lying supine in the trunk of a car. He wondered what his family was thinking. To ensure word didn’t get out that he was fleeing, he hadn’t told them that he was leaving Spain.
Josep lay in the trunk for 13 hours, drifting in and out of sleep while listening to his drivers chatting. In one of his dreams, they arrived in Belgium, and the car exploded.
Josep did not intend to live on the lam, but to contest Spanish authorities from afar. When they made it to Ghent, he immediately turned himself over to the Belgian police, but they let him go the same day because Spain had not yet issued an international warrant for his arrest. When he finally appeared before a Belgian judge in July, he was freed pending a decision on Spain’s extradition request, but he was not allowed to leave the country.
He moved to Brussels and found a job as a computer programmer. Now that he was no longer hiding, Josep’s every move appeared in Spanish gossip magazines. Photos from the late summer show Josep with a bald patch in the middle of his thick black hair.
In September, a judge in Ghent rejected the extradition request from Spain. In March of this year, the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France, agreed to admit Josep’s case for examination. In the best-case scenario for Josep, the court could oblige Spain to allow him to return without facing jail time. But that could take years. For now, he still cannot leave Belgium.
Josep at 25 bears little physical resemblance to Josep at 18. He’s tall and brawny, thanks to years of CrossFit training — “my only addiction,” he says — to calm his anxiety. A dark beard and thick-rimmed glasses give him the appearance of an economics student. His arms have accrued more tattoos — the face of a Soviet-era woman, a quote from the Spanish poet Leopoldo María Panero that reads, “Are you coming tomorrow? It’s easy to say that forever.” The new tattoos are more thoughtful, he says, than the AK-47 on his left forearm, or the crude hammer and sickle on his right.
Since 2012, Josep has transformed from a skinny kid with an air of arrogance masking deep insecurities to a soft-spoken adult whose face is recognizable in all of Spain. His new music is introspective, melancholy, softer in tone and slower in rhythm.
“I don’t go for easy provocation,” he says. Gone are the lyrics invoking terrorist groups and wishing death upon politicians. He’s more cautious now, knowing what could happen if he says the wrong thing. In short, he grew up.
On a recent evening in Brussels, he sits in the dull, corporate coffee shop where he brings most journalists, a short walk from the European Parliament. He has just gotten off work and seems drained, but after a sip of apple juice, he grows chattier and curious. He’s polite and self-effacing, as though a different person from the caustic, arrogant rapper seen on stage at his concert last March.
Yet Josep is in a gloomy mood. Exile has weighed heavily on him. He misses home, his sisters, his infant nephew, who was born in December. His family can’t afford to fly to Brussels more than once a month, if that.
In the year Josep has lived in Belgium, he’s become a spokesperson for many causes: freedom of expression, Catalan independence, ideological diversity. But Josep is tired of giving interviews. He is tired of being conflated with the rap alter ego he created a decade ago. “It’s not like when people read Nabokov, they think he’s a pedophile, or people think Tarantino is a murderer,” he says. He feels like his story — the story of Josep, the story of Valtònyc — is slipping out of his control. He laments that many people pay attention to his politics but don’t listen to his albums.
A few days later, Josep goes to the studio in Liège where he is recording his next album, titled Piet Hein, after a Dutch pirate who stole a silver fleet from the Spanish crown in the 17th century.
He sits attentively at the recording table, asking the sound technicians to tone down the drums on one track, to amp them up on another. It’s his first time recording in a professional studio. The sound is more Josep than Valtònyc, he says, and deeply nostalgic. In the songs, he reminisces about Mallorca and relates the anonymity he feels in a place as big as Brussels. It’s a deliberate change of style, one he hopes can let him slowly abandon the character he created a decade ago, a character consumed by controversy. He wants to be someone new.
“I think I have done everything I could,” Josep says. “I am going to kill Valtònyc. I am sure about it.”
Sometimes, Josep dreams he is back in Mallorca. The setting of his dreams is often Ca’n Joan de S’aigo, the pastry shop in Palma he used to visit with his ex-girlfriend when they were both off work. They would order a cup of thick hot chocolate and an ensaïmada, a spiral-shaped bun topped with powdered sugar.
In the dreams, once Josep realizes he’s in Mallorca, he tenses up.
“When I realize I’m there, I’m afraid,” he says. “Because I realize, if I am here, the police are looking for me.”
But he misses his island. In the springtime, Mallorca is a jigsaw of colors: fields of yellow flowers, wide green pastures, orange groves. Delicate white almond blossoms paper the trees. Lavender-hued mountains stretch along the coast like an arm thrown around the shoulder of an old friend.
In Sa Pobla, where Josep grew up, a crumbling building stands on the outskirts of town. The words “Llibertat Valtonyc” are spray-painted on its wall. A little farther up the road, where teenagers often sprawl over park benches drinking in the late afternoon sun, there is a mural, painted on a low wall under a drooping pepper tree. The mural depicts a raised fist clutching a microphone, along with the words “Llibertat d’expressió” — freedom of expression — and “#llibertatvaltonyc.” The paintings are bright, done in the past year or two, but they won’t stay bright forever. Eventually, the paint will fade under the perpetual burn of island sun.