Rap Becomes the Medium for a Protest Song About Austin’s Gentrification
By Destinee Harrison
“I still take pride in my town, but it’s changing too often. It’s got me asking myself, partna, what happened to Austin?” – Lyrics from Lench Martinez’s rap about gentrification
Lawrence “Lench” Martinez, a rising artist in the rap industry, has lived in East Austin since the late 1980s. His family’s roots in the area date back to when Texas was Mexican territory.
“There is no definite number, but it is definitely more than eight generations,” Martinez said. “And not many families can say that.”
But Austin has been transformed, just since his youth, into a city that he barely recognizes and where working-class people can no longer thrive. His response was to write and produce a politically charged song that he calls “reality rap.” “What Happened to Austin? (My Beautiful City)” is about how Austin has marginalized poor people and people of color. A video of him performing the rap has been viewed more than 28,000 times since it was posted on YouTube in late January.
“Built up an interstate, hoping to discriminate
Hoping we would stay put, and we would never penetrate
The west side of 35, isn’t it ironic that,
We were exiled now these MFs want it back?”
His song highlights how newcomers are pushing out families and businesses that have been in the city for generations. In 1990, Austin’s population was 346,000 residents. It tripled to more than 900,000 in 2015.
Longtime residents in neighborhoods that once were affordable are finding themselves squeezed out. The average selling price of an Austin home last year was more than $278,000, according to the Austin Board of Realtors. The growth has been fueled in part by the rise of the creative and tech scenes in the early 2000s. The new arrivals saw the East Side as prime real estate because of its proximity to downtown. In the 78702 ZIP code, just across 1-35 from downtown, Latinos, African-Americans and other minorities were 46.9 percent of the population in 2010 but only 36 percent in 2013.
Longtime local businesses have been displaced. After 40 years in business on South Congress, Fran’s Hamburgers closed in 2013 and later was demolished. A Torchy’s Tacos replaced it. Martinez sees the same thing happening east of I-35 to local institutions such as the small TomGro grocery on Montopolis Drive.
“Everything about the East Side is going away one block at a time,” Martinez said. “The people who would have stopped [gentrification] are now too old to stop it, and the next generations aren’t interested enough to get involved. So now we are just waiting on the last structures to fall.”
“You seen what they did to the Fran’s on Congress,
now they wanna do the same thing to Montopolis.
Make it all spotless; take out the Tom Gro,
raise up the taxes, build up the condos.”
Like Martinez, Danny Camacho, who died in April at age 70, had deep roots in East Austin. His great-great grandparents moved to Austin in 1872 from San Antonio. In an interview not long before his death, Camacho recalled when there was a neighborhood laundromat near the now-closed Holly Power Plant. The building now is Launderette, a high-end restaurant that locals “cannot afford.”
“This kind of restaurant would have never made it if they were trying to attract the locals,” Camacho said. “We feel kind of displaced.”
Lench Martinez, 30, credits his social justice efforts to his father, Lawrence “Lencho” Martinez, who died of a heart attack at 39 in December 2002.
Martinez recalls that his father helped “keep the peace” in their community. One time, a violent feud erupted between two East Austin gangs, the Latin Kings and the Este Grande Varrios. Former state Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos, an Austin Democrat, sought out the elder Martinez to help, and Martinez managed to broker a truce that stopped the violence.
“He was that influential,” Martinez said of his father. “I am just trying to continue his legacy the best way I know how, and that’s with music.”
Tattoos cover Martinez ‘ arms, neck and face, including, behind his left ear, a guitar to commemorate his childhood hero, Ritchie Valens, a Mexican-American rock ‘n roll singer in the late 1950s. Martinez’ white and blue polo shirt matches his royal blue San Antonio Spurs baseball cap.
“I am a one-handed rapper filled with tattoos,” jokes Martinez, referring to the fact that he was born without a left hand. “But I’m not your average Mexican. People say fight fire with fire. I fight fire with water – put it out real quick.”
The aspiring barber “who happens to be a celebrity” got into music while in middle school. As a big fan of Tupac Shakur and Houston rapper Chamillionaire, Martinez found solace in music that was “real” and spoke of true life. After the release last year of “Straight Outta Compton,” a biopic of the hip-hop group N.W.A., Martinez left the theater inspired to tell Austin’s story of injustice.
“It stirred something in me,” Martinez said. “And I went right to the studio.”
He was all about peace and progress,
Way before you called it Cesar Chavez.
It was 1st Street, and the worst street,
A bunch of Mexicanos on a seven-day work week.
Selling raspas [shaved ice], corn and piñatas,
back when all the casas were owned by La Raza [Mexican-Americans].
“It all started with Jumpolin,” Martinez said.
Jumpolin was a piñata store on East Cesar Chavez that a developer demolished in October 2014 – without, according the store owners, any warning. French and Fisher Real Estate Ventures, which had just bought the property, informed Sergio and Monica Lejarazu that they were being evicted, even though their lease was not set to expire until 2017. When the Lejarazus arrived at their shop one morning, the building had been leveled with the merchandise and personal belongings still inside.
One of the first people to respond was Susana Almanza, who organized a group of protesters on behalf of the Lejarazus to persuade the city to take legal action. Almanza is the co-founder and director of the People Organized in Defense of Earth and her Resources (PODER). The nonprofit works to unearth environmental and social injustices.
“We began organizing around the issue, that this was the violent part of it, because it was actual destruction of someone’s livelihood,” Almanza said. “Same with the residents on Lakeshore now. Another form of violent gentrification.”
In a similar way, developers notified the low-income residents of the Lakeview apartments on South Lakeshore Boulevard last June that they would have to leave their apartments and that the buildings would be demolished by the end of September — before many leases were due to expire. They were torn down to make room for luxury apartments.
The combination of mistreatment and displacement of the Latino community over the years has inspired Lench Martinez to be a voice of the people. While “What Happened to Austin” is the rapper’s first political statement, he does not plan on it being his last.
“The only reason I did this song was because I hoped to influence someone that could help us to come help,” Martinez said. “But nobody is standing up for us. We don’t have a Jessie Jackson; we don’t have our Cesar Chavez anymore. It’s not what I planned on, but maybe I have to do it.”