Rap y Revolución

“Conyo, ‘ta Buena,” (“Damn, that’s good”) I said when I heard it. It was a moment that touched my heart and opened my mind. I was hearing a lot of music from Miami radio, LL Cool J, 2 Live Crew, Queen Latifah, Monie Love, but the song inspired me. I thought it could really be the Latino-American-Cuban connection… When Fat Joe said, “Oh, Boricuas, clap your hands,” I started saying, “Todo el mundo con las manos arriba, negros, mulatos, blancos.” (“Everybody with their hands up, black, white, mixed.”) That was the basis of my first rap, “Hip-Hop Es Mi Cultura.” (“Hip-Hop Is My Culture”) It was an old-school rap, but it reached the people”
—Rapper JULIO CARDENAS, speaking of his introduction to hip-hop through the song “Boricuas on da Set” by Fat Joe1

In June of 1961, Fidel Castro delivered his famous speech “Words to the Intellectuals,” in which he highlighted cinema, television and the arts as important vehicles for propaganda and “the ideological construction of the people.”2 There is no doubt that Cuban culture and identity are markedly shaped by the visual and performing arts—a fact that has provoked much scholarly interest in the somewhat contradictory relationship between artistic expression and the state. An examination of history shows varying degrees of censorship and freedom in the arts, shaping a society in which the artist is both autonomous and dependent. The Special Period, from 1991-1998, resulted in drastic changes in every aspect of life in Cuba, including the arts, as well as Cuba’s position in the global market. It was an era of crisis, contradictions, and confusion, but it also marked the birth of hip-hop in Cuba.

Though the Cuban Revolution was generally seen as an empowering and equalizing force for most Afro-Cubans, the Special Period (1991-1998) subverted many of the Afro-Cuban revolutionary ideals of equality and nationalism. The demographic restructuring of urban areas resulted in an increase in racial inequality, causing Afro-Cuban youth to identify closely with the themes presented in American rap music. In the early ’90s, large numbers of primarily black Cubans were moved to the outskirts of Havana, resulting in a weakened sense of community and fewer economic opportunities3, the same conditions that spawned the hip-hop movement in New York. In the 1960s, black communities in New York were moved from their homes by slum-clearance programs and were relocated to areas such as the South Bronx. Displacement ruined long-existing community structures, and hip-hop became a way for displaced New Yorkers to voice their frustrations about marginalization and racism and to form new communities.4

People of all social levels were relocated to the Alamar district of Havana, but the majority were people from marginalized black communities and from slum areas. Isolated from the city, with fewer opportunities for employment and higher education, Alamar residents found it difficult to recreate a sense of community.5 The need to rebuild community and personal bonds gave rise to the popularity of hip-hop music among the young Afro-Cuban residents of Alamar. It was also easier to gain access to Miami radio stations in Alamar and there was less social control than in the city. Cuban hip-hop was a local reaction to displacement and impoverishment. Although Alamar is considered the birthplace of Cuban hip-hop, rap music and hip hop culture also experienced rapid popularity in urban areas that mainly consisted of black working-class communities, including Old Havana, Central Havana, Santo Suarez and Playa.6

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The crisis of the Special Period forced the government to adopt policies of austerity in order to increase Cuba’s competitiveness in the global economy, but anthropologist and historian Alejandro de la Fuente argues policies were most strongly felt by blacks.vi The legalization of the dollar created a dichotomy of those who had access and those who did not. White people usually received family remittances from the United States, while blacks did not. In the tourism sector, blacks were usually excluded because they lacked the education or proper appearance to interact with tourists. Racial prejudice became increasingly visible and accepted in the Special Period.

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By 1962, all discussions of race except those touting Cuba’s success as a color-blind society had been erased. The revolution had supposedly solved all racial conflicts. For this reason, identifying oneself in racial or ethnic terms, as opposed to simply as “Cuban” was considered unpatriotic. A husband-and-wife rap duo called Obsesión, one of Cuba’s more well-known rap groups, referred to this silencing of race in their 2001 song “Mambi”—which refers to mambises, the Afro-Cuban fighters in the war for independence from Spain. Obsesión employs a spoken-word style and uses the berimbau, a Brazilian instrument, and water sounds to evoke the slave era and Cuba’s rural roots.

Resulta q’así
Un montón de cualidades cayó encima de mi raza
Y muchos fueron en masa a pasar un curso
De cómo no ser racistas.
Se graduaron con honores y fiestas
Y hasta el sol de hoy permanecen
Escondidos en la frase esta:
SOMOS IGUALES
TODOS LOS SERES HUMANOS.

(It turns out like this
A ton of qualities fell upon my race
And so many went in masses to pass a course
On how to not be racists.
They graduated with honors and parties
And until today they stay
Hidden within this phrase
WE ARE EQUAL
WE ARE ALL HUMAN BEINGS.)7

Obsesión describes the transition blacks experienced from being in a low social standing before the revolution to having “un montón de cualidades,” or a number of good qualities, when the revolution turned them into social subjects. Yet, the line “fueron en masa a pasar un curso/de cómo no ser racista” suggests that the white revolutionaries’ dedication to anti-racism was mere lip service they paid to the ideal of color-blindness while avoiding the realities and racism of Cuban society. “Se graduaron con honores y fiestas” refers to the self-congratulatory and self-praising discourse of revolutionaries who marketed the eradication of racism as one of the revolution’s greatest achievements.

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Part of the reason the young Afro-Cubans of the Special Period and the early 21st century were so disillusioned by the re-emergence of racism and class distinction was the huge contrast between reality and the hopes of the previous generation of blacks that the revolution would mean the end of racism.  One of Cuba’s most lauded Afro-Cuban poets, Nicolas Guillen, wrote a poem in 1964 entitled “Tengo” (“I Have”) that listed the revolutionary changes that empowered blacks.

Tengo, vamos a ver,
Que ya aprendi a leer
A contar
Tengo que ya aprendi a escribir
Y a pensar
Y a reír.
Tengo que ya tengo
Donde trabajar
Y ganar
Lo que me tengo que comer.
Tengo, vamos a ver,
Tengo lo que tenia que tener.

(I have, let’s see,
That I’ve learned to read
To count
I have that I learned to write
And to think
And to laugh.
I have what I already have
A place to work
And earn
What I have to eat.
I have, let’s see,
I have what I needed to have.)8

In a dark satire of this famous poem, the rap group Hermanos de Causa (Brothers of the Cause) borrowed the title and structure to manifest the reality faced by young Afro-Cubans during the Special Period.

Tengo una raza oscura y discriminada
Tengo una jornada que me exige, no da nada,
Tengo tantas cosas que no puedo ni tocarlas,
Tengo instalaciones que no puedo ni pisarlas,
Tengo libertad entre parénthesis de hierro
Tengo tantos provechos sin derechos que a mi encierro,
Tengo tantas cosas sin tener lo que he tenido.

(I have a race that is dark and discriminated
I have a day that takes from me, doesn’t give anything.
I have so many things that I can’t even touch
I have buildings I can’t even step in
I have freedoms between parentheses of iron
I have so many benefits without rights, that I am imprisoned.
I have so many things without having what I had.)9

The first line of the song is very explicit: “I have a race that is dark and discriminated.” The rappers then refer to the institutions the revolutionary government has supposedly provided for blacks: health, education, welfare, but say that they do not see them, cannot set foot in them, cannot touch them. The line “Tengo libertad entre parenthesis de hierro” refers to the hypocrisy of the revolution that Cuba fought to free itself from neocolonialism but whose victors now hold black Cubans’ liberties in ironclad limits. The last two lines, where the singer says “I have so many benefits without rights that I’m imprisoned/I have so many things without having what I had” imply that despite the material benefits the revolution may have provided for blacks, it has taken away young black people’s rights to speak out as an ethnic minority. The group Junior Clan has a song that asks “Para mis negros sigo preguntando, donde esta tu voz?” (“For my brothers keep wondering, where is your voice?”)10

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Though the state controls virtually every aspect of Cuban rap, it is very common to see songs that make direct reference to political authorities or the state, referring to police harassment, government corruption or the state’s tendency to silence any dissenting voices. One of the most notable political rap songs by an underground group is “A veces” (“Sometimes”) by the group Anonimo Consejo. In the song, Anonimo Consejo refers to corruption, the black market, and bribery within the government.

Los tipos con “money” trafican en sus oficinas,
Gritan resistimos y anda en carro noche y dia
Robandole al pueblo como el alacaran a su cria

The men with money traffic in their offices
They shout “Resist” and ride around in their cars night and day
Robbing the city like the scorpion his Young.11

The rapper depicts the state and the police as criminals. Anonimo Consejo wanted to subvert stereotypes about crime, pinning these actions on the authorities instead of on the black population that is often accused of them. Government officials are depicted as hypocrites who employ the revolutionary language of resistance but in fact create a wall between themselves and the rest of society with their expensive cars and their offices. Anonimo Consejo accuses them of “robbing” the people. In the same song, Anonimo Consejo draws a link between slavery and modern times to demonstrate how a history of exploitation is still seen in contemporary race relations. The link between slavery and the modern day is a trope that presents itself often in global rap. Ethnomusicologist Paul Gilroy asserts that history is central to African diaspora music: “it demands that the experience of slavery is also recovered and rendered vivid and immediate.”12 Musicians use slavery as a metaphor for their current struggles.

Hoy parece que no es asi
El official me dice a mi, “no puede estar alla, mucho menos salir de aqui.”
En cambia al turista se la trata diferente.
Sera posibile que en mi pais yo no cuente?

Today it seems it’s not like that
The oficial tells me, “You can’t be there, even less can you leave here.”
On the other hand, the tourist is treated differently.
Is it possible that in my country, I don’t count?13

Here the rapper points to the evident racial hierarchy that has presented itself in his country: police targeting young black people to harass, and tourists receiving special treatment. At a different point in the song, the rapper refers to himself as the descendant of a “cimmarón desobediente,” a runaway slave. The allusion to Cuba’s past as a slave nation in a song about modern race inequalities connects the rapper to his slave roots and leads him to ask the question “Is it possible that in my country, I don’t count?”14

Part of the appeal that rap had to young black Cubans was that it provided a venue for them to manifest their racial or ethnic identities: something that, due to the color-blindness of the Cuban government, was considered taboo. Yet, hip-hop was viewed as something specifically and especially black.

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Considering Cuba’s history with censorship, it may be surprising to the outside world how much rap is controlled by the state that it regularly criticizes. Yet, just as hip-hop emerged under extremely specific conditions during the Special Period that led to the Afro-Cuban community’s identification with American rap, the Special Period is likewise responsible for the somewhat contradictory relationship of state and music.

With the fall of the Soviet Union, Cuba’s cultural industries underwent considerable transformations due to the decline in the traditional export market.15 Culture itself became an exportable commodity, partly commercialized as a way of enticing foreign investment into Cuba. Through foreign licensing of Cuban records, overseas contracts for musicians, joint film productions with overseas companies, and foreign sales of Cuban art, the Cuban government was able to attract revenue. International projections of vibrant Cuban culture have been vital to promoting the tourism industry. “The international prominence and marketability of the arts has reduced the importance of ideological considerations for the Cuban government.”16

This international marketing of culture has produced a “politics of difference,” according to anthropologists Lisa Lowe and David Lloyd.17 This “othering” of one’s own culture reifies the exotic features of a non-Western culture for the purpose of mass consumption: in Cuba’s case, Afro-Cuban themes that had previously been either marginalized or silenced because of Cuba’s proclaimed “racelessness” have become more visible because the global market finds the “different” alluring. Afro-Cuban culture is being simplified and made into a commodity to be sold to tourists. The Cuban state, while in some senses creating more leeway for artistic expression due to this need to sell culture, still monitors and determines domestic cultural production. The Cuban state uses cultural expressions to its advantage “by partially incorporating them into visions of a revised revolutionary project.”18 The Cuban state tolerates some counter-hegemonic expression (in the form of critical art) because this expression can be deployed by and incorporated into official institutions to raise state popularity, set boundaries and limits, and promote a specific vision of national unity despite the growing racial and economic disparities of the Special Period. 19

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Though early rap was looked at with much suspicion during the early 1990s because it was an import from the United States, the state gradually came to accept rap as an authentic expression of Cuban culture once Cubans started to produce their own music. Later, by adopting rap into official discourse, the state gained the power to exercise more control and limitations on its distribution. The relationship the Cuban state has with rap can best be described as ambivalent. Certain sectors of various state institutions try to build alliances with rap networks, and political officials sometimes attempt to appropriate transnational agencies for their own benefit.20

The state has formed its own record label, “Agencia de Rap Cubano”, which in the early days generally produced more commercialized or salsa-infused rap artists.21 Ariel Fernandez, one of Cuba’s biggest rap promoters and intermediary between rappers and the state, said that in the mid- to late-1990s, “the discs of more politically engaged groups [such as] Obsesion and Primera Base gathered dust on the shelves of music stores and broadcasting studios, and the more commercial discs of SBS, with its dance-oriented mixture of salsa and rap, was heavily marketed.”22 Hernandez states that SBS was more heavily promoted because its qualities were popular and commercial, its lyrics were harmless, and it was good dance music. The state initially tried to promote more commercialized and less politically or socially oriented rap to try to undermine rap’s attempts at radicalism. Foreign producers were attracted to the sounds of groups such as SBS because their music used Cuban culture in a way that was accessible and enjoyable to the outsider. “The Cuban state exploited the commercial rap for its revenue earning potential, as part of a push to attract foreign funding through Cuban music and art.”23

At the start of the 21st century, however, the Cuban state realized that it needed to identify more with underground rappers, mostly due to the increasing radicalism that was starting to appeal to Afro-Cuban youth. Minister of Culture Abel Prieto put an emphasis on supporting rappers who were pro-Revolution. Prieto stated that he was impressed with the young rappers he had encountered, “the level of commitment they have to this country and the seriousness and rigor with which they take on real problems, and at the same time rejecting commercialism.” Additionally, the state realized how it could possibly appropriate underground rap to bolster Cuban nationalism and spin the messages to spread revolutionary ideals. Since race is such a prominent factor in rap, the state could take critiques of a color-blind society and market them as an image of Cuba as a mixed race nation with African roots. The state had previously been known to use Afro-Cubanism as a way of promoting national cohesion during times of crisis, despite the long-standing idea that race was irrelevant. “In post-revolutionary Cuba, race has served the additional purpose of being a formidable ideological weapon against the United States and a source of domestic and international political support.”24 Since the Special Period increased racial disparities and led to some cynicism about the revolution’s ability to help Afro-Cubans, the state used these pronunciations of blackness to construct an image of national union and to regain popularity worldwide and nationwide.

There has even been a change in ideology which has led some Cuban officials to commend rap for showing the existence of discrimination in Cuba. Cuba’s Minister of Culture said, “We are supporting this movement because the vision of rap profoundly reflects our contradictions, the problems of our society, the theme of racial discrimination, and it strongly highlights the drama of marginalized barrios.”25 The 21st century has paved the way for more institutional support for underground rap, including state-supported concerts and festivals. Yet, this means the government gets to choose who can perform, who gets radio time, and who gets to release CDs produced by their agency. In 2004, Anonimo Consejo and other rappers complained that discrimination, marginalization and limited resources were just as bad as they had been years before.”26

The government rap agency, instead of looking to give rappers autonomy, wants to create a dependent relationship. The rappers have to appeal to the state for funding and permission to produce work. Therefore, it may also be a possibility that part of the state “embracing” rap was a political move to exercise greater censorship through institutionalization. Since the Ministry of Culture and the Agencia de Rap directly support the rap festivals, this means that the artistic process can be hindered by political control. Rappers are very aware of the increase of control the state has over music as this music is integrated into official institutions. Osmel Francis Turned, a rapper in Cubanos de La Red (Cubans of the Network), does not approve of state control and the lack of rapper’s autonomy. “Rappers can’t wait for the state to resolve their problems, because tomorrow I might say something that bothers the state and then I’ll have to forget being a rapper, because they’re going to tell me I can’t do it.”27

Many rappers complain about not being able to appear on radio programs until they get rid of offensive language or dissenting political lyrics. Rappers try to take some initiative in maintaining their autonomy by releasing their own CDs or leaking their music online. Today, artists are trying to maintain their close ties with international rappers and agents so they can gain control over their own businesses and futures. The success and exposure of rap groups is almost entirely dependent on their relationships with official institutions, a fact that many artists feel negates the original purpose of rap as a creative and free expression of their generation. Rappers and young Afro-Cubans definitely appreciate the prominence Cuban rap has reached through state help, but they generally look at state sponsorship with suspicion and reluctance. Ariel Fernandez is worried that rappers will lose the autonomy they have been fighting so hard for, saying “Cuban rap will lose its essence the day it doesn’t criticize anything.”28

 

Read the full essay here.

  1. Fernandes, Sujatha. Close to the Edge: In Search of the Global Hip Hop Generation. London: Verso Books, 2011. Pg3
  2. Fernandes, Sujatha. Close to the Edge: In Search of the Global Hip Hop Generation. London: Verso Books, 2011. p.5
  3. Fernandes, Sujatha. Close to the Edge: In Search of the Global Hip Hop Generation. London: Verso Books, 2011. 231-233.
  4. Basu, Dipannita, and Sidney J. Lemelle, eds. The Vinyl Ain’t Final: Hip Hop and the Globalization of Black Popular Culture. London: Pluto, 2006.
  5. Fernandes, Sujatha. Close to the Edge: In Search of the Global Hip Hop Generation. London: Verso Books, 2011. 245-246.
  6. Fernandes, Sujatha. Close to the Edge: In Search of the Global Hip Hop Generation. London: Verso Books, 2011. 225-227.
  7. Rodríguez Mola, Alexey and López Cabrera, Magia in Fernandes,Sujatha. Close to the Edge: In Search of the Global Hip Hop Generation. London: Verso Books, 2011. 178
  8. Guillen, Nicolas in Fernandes,Sujatha. Close to the Edge: In Search of the Global Hip Hop Generation. London: Verso Books, 2011. 222.
  9. Hermanos de Causa in Fernandes,Sujatha. Close to the Edge: In Search of the Global Hip Hop Generation. London: Verso Books, 2011. 223.
  10. Basu, Dipannita, and Sidney J. Lemelle. The Vinyl Ain’t Final: Hip Hop and the Globalization of Black Popular Culture. London: Pluto, 2006. 313.
  11. Basu, Dipannita, and Sidney J. Lemelle. The Vinyl Ain’t Final: Hip Hop and the Globalization of Black Popular Culture. London: Pluto, 2006. 321.
  12. Paul Guilroy in Fernandes, Sujatha. Cuba Represent!: Cuban Arts, State Power, and the Making of New Revolutionary Cultures. Durham: Duke University Press, 2006. 130.
  13. Fernandes, Sujatha. Cuba Represent!: Cuban Arts, State Power, and the Making of New Revolutionary Cultures. Durham: Duke University Press, 2006. 131.
  14. Fernandes, Sujatha. Cuba Represent!: Cuban Arts, State Power, and the Making of New Revolutionary Cultures. Durham: Duke University Press, 2006. 132.
  15. Fernandes, Sujatha. Close to the Edge: In Search of the Global Hip Hop Generation.
  16. Fernandes, Sujatha. Close to the Edge: In Search of the Global Hip Hop Generation. 16.
  17. Whiteley, Sheila, Andy Bennett, and Stan Hawkins. Music, Space and Place: Popular Music and Cultural Identity. 207.
  18. Fernandes, Sujatha. Cuba Represent!: Cuban Arts, State Power, and the Making of New Revolutionary Cultures. Durham: Duke University Press, 2006. 18.
  19. Fernandes, Sujatha. Cuba Represent!: Cuban Arts, State Power, and the Making of New Revolutionary Cultures. Durham: Duke University Press, 2006. 18.
  20. [18. Fernandes, Sujatha. Close to the Edge: In Search of the Global Hip Hop Generation. 154.
  21. Fernandes, Sujatha. Cuba Represent!: Cuban Arts, State Power, and the Making of New Revolutionary Cultures. Durham: Duke University Press, 2006. 114.
  22. Fernandes, Sujatha. Close to the Edge: In Search of the Global Hip Hop Generation.115.
  23. Fernandes, Sujatha. Close to the Edge: In Search of the Global Hip Hop Generation.119.
  24. Fernandes, Sujatha. Cuba Represent!: Cuban Arts, State Power, and the Making of New Revolutionary Cultures. Durham: Duke University Press, 2006. 16. 122.
  25. Fernandes, Sujatha. Close to the Edge: In Search of the Global Hip Hop Generation. 17.
  26. Fernandes, Sujatha. Close to the Edge: In Search of the Global Hip Hop Generation. 32.
  27. Fernandes, Sujatha. Close to the Edge: In Search of the Global Hip Hop Generation. 154.
  28. Fernandes, Sujatha. Cuba Represent!: Cuban Arts, State Power, and the Making of New Revolutionary Cultures. Durham: Duke University Press, 2006. 16. 122.