For Cuba’s disillusioned youth, hip-hop offers a way to speak out

Fellows Fall 2001

By Marc Ramirez

June 01, 2009

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CIENFUEGOS, Cuba - Here on the outskirts of this industrial southern coastal city, a thousand excited youths gather in the November darkness of a community center turned concert venue. Bicycles are hoisted off an outdoor stage the length of a '57 Chrysler as rappers crowd onto the platform.

As he awaits his debut entrance, Carlos Diaz, of the rap trio Concepto Cuba, whispers a rapid-fire rhyme while a handyman checks the sound system. Then poof! A circuit blows, leaving the sea of Nike caps and halter tops fidgeting in street-lamp shadows.

"These people all paid five pesos [about 25 cents]," a rapper groans. "If we don't play, they're going to kill somebody."

In Cuba, where teenagers and young adults see their world torn by social ills including street hustling and racism, there are worse things to worry about than power outages. And it's hip-hop - not salsa or rumba or the Buena Vista Social Club - that sustains the disillusioned.

"Everybody wants to sing about love, about happy things," says university student Carlos Infante, who weathers the concert's two-hour delay. But rappers, he says, "are very brave. They talk about topics in our society that nobody wants to talk about."

Naturally, there are limits: Few hip-hoppers would shout "Down with Fidel!" or demand free speech in a society that still jails people for "counterrevolutionary" actions. Decrying social ills is fair game; dissing the government is not.

But the House That Castro Built is undergoing a socioeconomic identity crisis, having borrowed from capitalism to shore up its socialist foundation. A secondary economy based on U.S. dollars - which have far greater buying power than pesos - has etched class lines through Cuba's largely egalitarian society, and a country defiantly resistant to foreign influence now depends on tourism.

Cuba's cities stream with unlicensed taxi drivers, youngsters hawking stolen rum or cigars, and dolled-up women offering nightly companionship for $20 or $30 - twice a typical Cuban's monthly salary.

"Everyone just wants to use you to get money," Diaz says. "After that, you're worth nothing."

Diaz's commentary on what he sees is contained in his rap "Afuera Acechan los Demonios," or "Demons Lurk Outside." "In my solitude there is safety, and a way to pass the day," its lyrics go. "Let them think me crazy. Evil is all around me."

Faced with political and moral uncertainty, young Cubanos are all over hip-hop, that mosaic of music, dance and fashion that began 25 years ago in New York and is now a global phenomenon. They call it el rap, and it's produced in typical duct-tape fashion, without the mentoring of old-school veterans and with a shortage of the genre's basic tools, such as turntables and samplers. The result is a hybrid with distinctly Cuban influences - salsa instrumentation and Afro-Cuban spiritual references.

"Our work is practically self-taught," says rapper Alexander Guerra, among the droopily stylish crowd awaiting hip-hop night at Havana's Cabaret Las Vegas. "But we have it in the blood, we have it in the heart."

Few, however, have it in the wallet. With hip-hop still getting a foothold in the government-controlled music industry, most rappers are limited to cheap cassette recordings. Even Pablo Herrera, Cuba's premier hip-hop producer, operates from his apartment in a dusty, potholed Havana neighborhood.

In September, Cuban Hip-Hop All-Stars, an Herrera-produced compilation of some of the country's most successful hip-hop artists - Obsesión, Anónimo Consejo (Anonymous Advice), and Grandes Ligas (Big Leagues) - was released in the States. Most of the acts are from the Havana area, home to the majority of the island's estimated 500 raperos and site of an annual summer hip-hop festival, now in its seventh year.

Rap hit Cuban shores 20 years ago. But it was mostly an import until the 1990s, when the fall of the Soviet Union, Cuba's main trading partner, crippled the economy and forced a period of contraction.

Youths stopped wearing the heavy jackets and skull caps favored by rappers in less tropical climates and began to fashion hip-hop according to their own realities. In 1996, the group Amenaza released "Ochavon Cruzao" ("Mixed-Up Octoroon"), a song about racism and being of mixed race, which describes more than half of Cuba's population. That work, from a group that once focused on hormone-driven bubblegum rap, "marked a moment of transition," says Herrera, 32. "People were saying, 'Let's get real, let's talk about what we really are.' "

Meanwhile, the annual festival was drawing global attention and appearances by U.S. acts such as Black Star, Dead Prez and Common. In 1999, a Dutch producer interested in compiling a Cuban hip-hop CD dropped off a load of recording gear with Herrera and said he'd be back in 10 days.

"I'd never had this equipment," Herrera says. "This is stuff I'd just been looking at in magazines." But he got the word out to local rappers, and in 10 days, he had 10 songs - the bulk of Cuban Hip-Hop All-Stars.

Because the country's rappers have traditionally marketed themselves on the streets with self-produced recordings, it's hard to quantify sales of domestic rap in Cuba. Even relatively well-stocked music stores are more likely to feature Eminem than Obsesión or the Orishas, among the few Cuban-born acts to produce compact discs.

Hip-hop is particularly popular among young Afro-Cubans, who are among the country's most disillusioned groups. Already underrepresented in government, many say their access to jobs paying American dollars is limited. And because it was primarily wealthy whites who fled after Castro came to power in 1959, few black Cubans benefit from the $800,000 to $1 million in remittances sent each year from relatives abroad.

One of the most emblematic hip-hop songs among Afro-Cubans has been Anónimo Consejo's "Guapo Como Mandela" ("Tough Like Mandela"), which promotes Afro-Cuban pride in a society that had hoped to wipe out racism by promoting the idea of Cubans as a single, colorblind people.

Initially, Cuban authorities shut down rap shows, unaccustomed to the music's aggressive, gesturing style and messages. Police once stopped members of Anónimo Consejo after a show, concerned about the meaning of their songs.

"The government didn't know what to make of it," says Ariel Fernandez, who hosts a hip-hop radio show in Havana. "Then they saw its power. They realized that without it, the revolution can't succeed."

While official acceptance is promising, says Marc Perry of the University of Texas, some could read the government's growing tolerance as a move to control potential opposition.

Either way, says Perry, a doctoral student studying Cuban race issues and hip-hop, "this movement earned a space." It grew "to a point where it could no longer be ignored."

Though increasingly willing to voice criticism, Cuban youths remain proudly nationalistic. They aren't necessarily down on Castro or high on capitalism - they just want to push the boundaries.

"We want change," says Infante, the university student. "More freedom of the press, more ideas. More freedom to speak."

The shift, he knows, will have to come slowly and within the system, or there's a risk of disaster. Rappers, he says, are negotiating a territory between social commentary and dissidence that most Cubans, fearing loss of privileges or even imprisonment, dare not enter.

"[Cubans] say, 'You are with Castro or you are with Bush,' " Infante says. "But I am not with either Castro or Bush. And there are many people like me."