Rap and Revolution: Hip-Hop Comes to Cuba

September 25, 2007

Half an hour’s drive east of Havana is the suburb of Alamar, home to 300,000 Cubans. Built in the early 1970s, it is one of the largest housing projects in the world, made up of massive, Soviet-designed, walk-up buildings spread across 16 zones divided by stretches of tropical vegetation. It was here that in the 1980s young residents would construct antennas to put out on their balconies to capture the sounds of “la moña,” r&b and rap music from Miami radio stations WEDR 99 Jams and WHQT Hot 105. That is how the sounds of U.S. hip-hop arrived on the island.

Young, mostly black Cuban men adopted the genre, first by imitating it and eventually infusing it with their own roots and reality, transforming it into a space for self-expression that both reflects and constitutes their identity. Today there are some 200 hip-hop groups in Havana, and 500 throughout the island. The lyrical depth of this music, evidence of the benefits of Cuba’s educational system, speaks to the many ways in which race, gender, class and national identity intersect and are in constant flux. Their articulate rhymes flow at machine-gun pace, fusing words with Afro-Cuban rhythms to make Cuban hip-hop a distinct art form.

While not all rap is politically charged, a number of groups have begun an important movement for cultural and social change, using rap as a vehicle to speak out about racism, prostitution, police harassment, growing class differences, the difficulty of daily survival and other social problems of contemporary Cuba. While rap is not necessarily offering solutions to these problems, the movement has created an opening for freedom of expression under the threat and pressure of state censorship. It was certainly a struggle to bring this music out of the underground during the 1980s and early 1990s, when hip-hop concerts and parties—seen as carriers of capitalist, anti-social influences—were closed down by police, to a time when the movement has the attention of the local and international media. Cuban rap can now be heard on a weekly radio show, “Esquina de Rap,” and seen on television Saturday afternoons. Now the government even promotes and supports, to the extent that it can, the yearly rap festivals held in (aptly) Alamar.

“Those are the best four days of the year for us,” Julio Cárdenas and Yohan Linares of RCA (Rapperos Crazy de Alamar) told me in October 2000 as they showed me the amphiteater where the festivals are held. But the success of the festivals is only one step in a struggle that continues “por el suelo,” they tell me using a Cuban expression for crawling across the floor, as in avoiding the cloud of smoke lurking above in the middle of a fire.

Cuban hip-hop artists have had help in dissipating some of that smoke, clearing the way toward gaining a certain amount of legitimacy. Nehanda Abiodun, a U.S. Black Liberation Army activist in political exile in Cuba, began her involvement with Cuban rappers after arriving on the island in 1990. That was when Abiodun encountered thousands of young Afro-Cubans enjoying themselves and breakdancing to U.S. rap music at street parties. “What made it exciting for me was that there were a number of brothers with X’s carved into their hair. Once they found out I was here and that I was part of a movement, they began to ask me questions about the Black Panther Party, Malcolm X, what happened to Angela Davis. I found it very comforting and exciting after eight years living underground and even more than that struggling against racism back home.”[1]

At the same time, Abiodun noticed Cuban rappers imitating U.S. “gangsta rap.” The aggressive, mysoginist lyrics about the violence of U.S. inner cities did not fit the Cuban reality, so Abiodun began working with organizations in the United States to bring progressive U.S. rappers to perform in Cuba. Since then, Mos Def, dead prez, Black Star, Common and other U.S. rappers have brought their politicized messages to Cuba and since 1998, the New York-based oganization Black August has held fundraising concerts in the United States to support the Havana rap festivals and establish a hip-hop library and studio there. This bridge between the Cuban and U.S. hip-hop communities continues to strengthen, despite the U.S.-imposed embargo. The latest evidence of this has been the October 2001 visit of Cuban hip-hop groups Obseción, RCA and Anónimo Consejo to New York City as part of this ongoing cultural exchange.[2]

On the island, the hip-hop movement found support in the mid 1990s from Grupo Uno, a collective from an East Havana cultural center, and rock promoter Rodolfo Renzoli, who set out to launch the festivals in 1995.[3] They allied with the Asociación Hermanos Saíz (AHS), an organization that promotes young artists and is linked to the Communist Youth Organization, and got official endorsement for the festivals. By comparing it to the Nueva Trova of the 1960s, Ariel Fernández of AHS sees the Cuban hip-hop movement as a revolution within the revolution. “The social role it is playing is very important,” says Fernández. “Cuban rap is criticizing the deficiencies that exist in society, but in a constructive way, educating youth and opening spaces to create a better society.”[4] The government began sponsoring the festivals and listening to what the rappers were saying and to sponsor the festivals. Cultural officials decide who gets to participate and perform in the festivals, however, and on occasion some groups have felt they have been unjustly excluded.

While competing to be part of the 2000 festival, for example, the group Free Hole Negro was asked to explain their name on television. They said that besides being an obvious pun (free hole=frijol=black bean), it was calling for a space where all black people could be free. This got a little too close to the sensitive issue of racism in a context where revolutionary discourse has declared it to be a non-issue [See de la Fuente, “The Resurgence of Racism in Cuba,” NACLA May/June, 2001]. Free Hole Negro was not part of the line-up of artists featured in the festival that year. Other groups performing denounced their exclusion and Free Hole Negro got to perform the following year.

That Cuba is not a bastion of racial equality became crystal clear to me during my first trip in 2000. While renting a room from a white couple, I overheard the husband complaining about a co-worker, whom he described as “one of those with bad hair.” Then when visiting an Afro-Cuban friend I noticed a poster (from a women’s group in the Dominican Republic) behind her door that listed “Ten racist expressions we should not repeat. ”[5] She pointed to number nine, “she is black but has a white soul” and told me she herself would use this expression even well after the revolution. Further, there were no black newscasters and few blacks in general on television.

Given the lack of public discourse on race and racism, and the continuing resonance of José Marti’s “more than black and more than white, we are Cubans,” it is not surprising that there is not a strong sense of belonging to an African diaspora among rappers. In “Afro-Cuban,” the accent is on the Cuban. The reluctance to talk about race and racism is slowly wearing away, however, with youth taking the lead. Cuban rappers are cultivating a sense of blackness through their music, but they are doing it in a way that is specific to their own racialized context.

The media attention the movement is getting provides opportunities to get their expressions of racial identity to mainstream society. For example, hip-hop producer Pablo Herrera was asked in the Cuban press whether there were any white rappers. He replied: “Well, let’s say there are lighter-skinned rappers, because no one in Cuba is white.”[6] In a country where some official documents consider mulattos white, and many mestizos self-identify as white, Herrera’s response is like dropping a bomb. [7]

Racial identity is also mediated by other factors. Most young Afro-Cubans recognize that racial prejudice was more pronounced during their parents’ generation and that intermarriage is far more common today. For example, Doris Agramonte from Instinto, a female rap trio, identifies as both black and mixed race. “I am Cuban—I am black, very black but my grandmother was Phillipine and my grandfather was Catalán. I have the whole world in me.” [8] Instinto feel they have been discriminated against not for being black, but for making music that originated in the United States and for being women who rap. “We defend our right to do rap, but we do it sensually,” Janet Diáz told me. Instinto likes to rap to live drums—“catá, tambor, the sound of beating on goat skin and wood, mixing rumba and rap.” Like the majority of groups, they mix Afro-Cuban rhythms, referred by most as simply “traditional Cuban music”(that it is African in origin is assumed), with their rhymes.

Young Afro-Cubans also recognize that the police brutality against blacks is worse in U.S. cities than the police harassment they experience. They frequently asked me about the human rights abuses under the Rudolph Giuliani administration, especially about the Amadou Diallo and Abner Luima cases. At a party welcoming back to Cuba the delegation of groups that visited New York, Coquino from Anónimo Consejo confirmed others’ belief that “African-Americans have had it worse than us.”

At a presentation in an art gallery in East Harlem, Magia López of Obseción introduced a song about racism: “It is an undeclared racism…. There are people who reject blacks and we live this and feel this in Cuba.”[9] The song speaks to racial codes that use notions of “decency” to exclude blacks.

Cuban rap often voices its criticism with satire, or with dispersed and double meanings. The Reyes de la Calle, for example, have a song about people who devoutly pray while still holding on to their prejudices, and their likely reaction if at the world’s end, God turned out to be black. Lester Martínez of Free Hole Negro says that the use of satire is more than just about getting around censorship. “Cubans always laugh at themselves, at what is funny and at what is unfortunate,” says Martínez. “We make music of the street to make people dance and think. We let the message be in the lyrics but in an ironic way. We feed off rap, timba, soul, son and guaguancó.”[10]

Another example of satire is a song by Alto y Bajo that says, “This is the most beautiful island that Cubans have ever seen/I am the Cuban hip-hop, the international one.” The subtext here reads: Given the difficulty of travel for Cubans, Cuba is the only island they have ever seen. But the frequent references to Cuba and being Cuban are more often on a serious note. The Orishas, for example, rap about being unable to “stop the blood of love and homeland [patria] that runs through my veins” over the Buena Vista Social Club’s “Chan Chan.” These strong expressions of cubanidad could be interpreted as attempts to placate government paranoia that Cuba is losing its youth to globalized consumer culture. But they must also be understood as coming from an awareness of Cuba’s marginalization within that global order and the conscioussness that they represent Cuba in the cosmopolitan youth culture they also strive to be part of.

Despite Cuban rap artists’ dissatisfaction with the hardships of everyday life and their frustration with lacking the resources and technological equipment necessary to make their music, they appreciate the gains of the revolution and criticize Cuba’s rising individualism. All over Latin America, marginalized urban youth are taking hip-hop and reshaping it to express their own reality. In Cuba, hip-hop is a movement whereby black youth can celebrate and express themselves. To trivialize it as anything else would be to deny art’s political potential.

Margot Olavarria is associate editor of NACLA and a PhD candidate in political science at The New School for Social Research.

1. Interview with author, Havana, October 2000.
2. The project was organized by International Hip-Hop Exchange, a group of New York activists including actor Danny Hoch and Mairanieves Alba, director of Hip-Hop Leads, and the organizations Vera List Center for Art and Politics of the New School for Social Research and the Caribbean Cultural Center.
3. See Deborah Pacini Hernández and Reebee Garofalo, “Hip-Hop in Havana: Rap, Race, and National Identity in Contemporary Cuba,” in Journal of Popular Music Studies, Vol. 11-12, pp. 18-47.
4. Talk by Fernández at “Lenguas Libres” event at Mixta Gallery, East Harlem, NY, October 13, 2001.
5. Poster published by Grupo Identidad de la Mujer, Santo Domingo, DR.
6. Alessandra Basso Ortiz, “Rap: Por el amor al arte?”El Caimán Barbudo website, http://www.caimanbarbudo.cu/caiman303/page/rap.htm
7. Eugene Godfried, “Reflections on Race and the Status of People of African Descent in Revolutionary Cuba,” in AfroCubaWeb, http://www.afrocubaweb.com/eugenegodfried/reflectionsonrace.htm Pedro Juan Gutierrez, “Razas Diferentes Pero Iguales,”Bohemia, January 17, 1997, Vol. 89, No. 2, pp.4-9.
8. Interview with author, Havana, October 2000.
9. Presentation by Obseción at “Lenguas Libres” event at Mixta Gallery, East Harlem, NY, October 13, 2001.
10. Interview with author, Havana, October 2000.

Tags: Cuba, race, hip hop, rap, music, Afro-Cuban, identity

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