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October 25, 2009

The Elements of Revolution: The Spirit of Hip-hop Thrives In Cuba


Sergio Elmir
Reprinted from Canada’s EXCLAIM magazine
March 2005

Loud chunks of laughter are erupting from around the theatre. The music is blaring hard and heavy, and every track is received like an anthem — hands are thrown into the air and girls stand on bench seats to dance. All eyes are on the stage, where the DJ mixes for MCs who spit hard and heavy lyrics that burn and sting with bitter honesty. Beautiful girls in short shorts and baseball caps bounce to hard bass lines and snapping snares; tough looking b-boys in military fatigues and baggy jeans nod their heads while puffing on tobacco and swigging from plastic water bottles filled with white rum. A wave of power-to-the-people fists sweeps across the sea of heads after one of the MCs calls out for revolution. The breeze blows across the river and down through the palms that roof the theatre as I take a hard swig from a passing bottle. I’m standing in a crowd of MCs, breakers, bombers and DJs, all friends and fans of the spiritual entity they call hip-hop. Every single person here believes that hip-hop has the power to lift them up out of poverty, despair and destitution. Tonight, under the stars, in the middle of the open-air parque Almendares theatre, a new spiritual movement has engulfed Cuba’s youth. The way the energy pulsates amongst the beauty of nature makes clear why so many heads call this place El Templo de Hip-hop.

Just a few hours earlier, walking past the gates of El Templo, the scene was very different. Chunks of cable and wiring that ran along the ground and up walls had been stripped; bandits had ripped out the fuse box and most of the electrical work — even the outlets had been pulled from the walls. In Cuba, even the most basic electrical components are valued on the black market.

Anywhere else, this kind of disaster would have resulted in the show’s cancellation, but with time running out, organisers are trying to wire a rudimentary sound board — not doing so hasn’t crossed anyone’s mind. Our friend Alexis, a local DJ, producer and promoter who helps run El Templo, knows an electrician who can help, but not for free. So we three visiting Canadians dig into our pockets to help out. The show goes on.

Later in the afternoon, watching Alexis set up his decks — or rather, his single turntable and a beaten-up CD disc-man — the economics of the Cuban music scene are thrown into high relief. The two friends who’ve accompanied me on this trip have been here before and have come with hip-hop care packages from the land of plenty: packs of blank CDRs, sketch books, Sharpies. These simple tools will help facilitate hip-hop expression here in immeasurable ways; it’s simply the reality of hip-hop in Cuba.

For his part, Lildo “Lildeano” Rodriguez Baquero, one half of Los Aldeanos, an outspoken duo of MCs from the heart of Cuba’s underground, believes it’s an insult that anyone with money can make a record in the U.S., while their message is held back for economic reasons. “There aren’t any studios,” says Lildeano. “Instrumentals are made by a few kids with computers. Cover art isn’t easy to make. All these things cost money. In the U.S., if someone gets an idea for a song and has money, they can go try it out in a studio. Here, in Cuba, you have to line up your songs, know exactly what you want to do, save the money and only then can you record it.”

A lack of access to equipment combined with a disorganised market for the music has stumped many Cuban artists. Although strides have been made, there is only so much that can be done while living under a 40-year-old economic blockade. Graffiti artists live without spray cans. Breakers live without sneakers. MCs don’t have notebooks and DJs have only one turntable and barely any vinyl. Yet no matter how sparse these tools might be, hip-hop is alive inside of them. Their expression won’t be slowed down by want.

“Óyeme papa, hip-hop is a daily lifestyle,” says Alain “El Profe” Varona Talavera, an MC and graffiti artist who frequents El Templo. “For me, hip-hop isn’t made — it makes you. Not just through the four elements and how you speak or dress or even live your life individually, but each of those things is a way for you to express the hip-hop inside of you.”

When American hip-hop was maturing into a dominant commercial sound, Cuban hip-hop was in its infancy. Originally, the music was heard on the island through broken radio waves from Miami in the late ‘80s, or through records sent from friends and relatives Stateside. But while hip-hop was breaking out, Cuba faced a crippling economic crisis prompted by the collapse of the Soviet Union and its $6 billion in financial aid. This “special period,” as Cubans call it, was the major reason for the decline of the country’s infrastructure and social development for the next decade. Poverty sent many young Cubans out on the street, where hustling and rum were easy temptations.

Meanwhile, a former black power activist named Nehanda Abdioun was being pursued by the FBI in connection to a 1981 robbery; in 1990, she fled to Cuba where she was granted asylum. In Cuba, Abdioun became something of a den mother to the young hip-hop movement, eventually forming the Havana wing of Black August with Pablo Herrera. (Black August is a grassroots movement inspired by the teachings of Malcolm X that helps to promote social justice and political awareness through hip-hop culture. Global exchanges are facilitated by Black August to help promote the power of hip-hop culture on a global scale.) With an informed political agenda behind her, Nehanda Abdioun was key to helping young kids apply the power of hip-hop culture to the realities of their barrio.

The early years for hip-hop in Cuba were difficult. Shows were regularly shut down, and many MCs spent a night in prison instead of on stage. The government saw hip-hop culture as counter-revolutionary and the lyrical content was often misinterpreted as open criticism of the Cuban government. After years of misunderstanding and repression, the Cuban government decided to stop beating them and joined them, establishing La Agencia Cubana de Rap in 1994. The state-supervised agency still runs a state-owned hip-hop record label, publishes a Cuban hip-hop magazine, and organises major events such as the Havana hip-hop festival. (Apparently, the change of heart stemmed from a lunch during which Harry Belafonte explained hip-hop culture to Fidel Castro.) The government, specifically the ministry of culture, would eventually proclaim hip-hop the new voice of the revolution. The biggest boost for Cuban hip-hop came in 2000 with the release of the critically acclaimed debut from Cuban hip-hop act Orishas, establishing Cuba as a new head on the hip-hop block.

More than race, gender or politics, culture is the most important unifier in Cuban life and hip-hop has taken its place in it. Poet Jose Marti has inspired at least two revolutionary movements in Cuba, and quotes from musicians like Ibrahim Ferrer dot a landscape of political wall art — a long-practised tradition that links easily to hip-hop graffiti. Puerto Ricans are famed for bringing break-dancing to hip-hop, but Cubans have been stomping to rumbas and other Afro-Cuban rhythms since the early days of Spanish colonialism and slave trading. An awareness not just of their revolutionary history but of their place in a broader cultural context lends great weight to the importance of hip-hop in Cuba — after all, without a commercial market, music can hardly be co-opted for commercial purposes.

“Hip-hop culture, to me, is a religion,” says Alexis. “It’s like a religion because it shares many common things. It comes from Africa, from the Caribbean. All these movements come from these places and so does Yoruba religion. On top of all this, we have musicians making hip-hop beats with a specific Cubanismo, with roots from Yoruba and rhythms like el Abacua, el Palo, and la cumbia. It’s a fusion of the real culture that is ours, that comes from Africa.”

Love for hip-hop culture — combined with a sense of betrayal at the state of hip-hop in the U.S. — fuels a desire to keep the four elements of hip-hop alive and to spread them as much as possible.

“It’s what we see in videos,” says Reynier “Adversario” Fumero, founding member of popular hip-hop crew Maxima Reflexión. “They promote the perfection trio: money, women and cars. It seems like they’ve lost a bit of the essence of true hip-hop, the eye of the streets and the voice of life in an urban society. They’ve lost hip-hop as a manifestation of social restlessness and a commentary on your place in your surroundings — the message that started hip-hop in the late ‘70s.”

The strength of the culture should be enough to unite Cuban hip-hoppers, but the bling temptations of American hip-hop remain. Workshops are set up at El Templo to promote the four principle elements of hip-hop. People like Alexis concentrate their energy in trying to teach the younger generation about the true spirit behind hip-hop.

“From what we see here in Cuba, hip-hop in the U.S. has very little cultural roots remaining,” says Alexis. “All we see here is purely commercial. Thanks to friends who come down to Cuba, I’ve gotten to see a small amount of what I consider to be close to the revolutionary roots of hip-hop. That’s very important to us. We need to be able to show people here in Cuba that the culture of hip-hop is break-dancing, graffiti, MCing and DJing. We need to rescue many here in Cuba who are beginning to lean toward the same as those commercial artists. That stuff, es una mierda.”

The state of American hip-hop is disconcerting for many young Cubans, who feel that a powerful revolutionary tool has been lost. For Kumar, a young MC who has found a way to tap into influences such as reggae, jazz and funk to express his social message, hip-hop in the U.S. has been taken over by outside influences. “I feel very full, as opposed to those who have been taken by the trans-nationals and have become very empty and very full at the same time,” Kumar says. “Very empty spiritually and very full of money and full of mierda.”

As ghettoised as conscious hip-hop is in the North American market, it’s practically impossible to separate politics, or “consciousness,” from Cuban hip-hop, yet Cubans have a clear knowledge of the broadness of politics. Instead of seeing politics as concerning matters of government, Cubans understand that politics is part of human nature and therefore encompass all human interaction.

“Many of the MCs working in music here in Cuba are very political,” Alexis says. “They are political in the sense that they speak about and defend peace and equality for the entire world. Because of all the commercial bling-bling music that’s seen here, we’ve lost a few to that side. Those who have remained have worked very hard on helping people understand that bling-bling is not hip-hop culture. Hip-hop in Cuba is very political, very revolutionary. Defending all the rights of human beings, that’s what we teach here in El Templo.”

Yanellis “NoNo” Valdes Herrera is a sharp graffiti artist and MC; she is joined by Eyastrefrazu “La Negra” Lopez Ramos in the group Atomicas. For these two women, politics is almost all-encompassing. “My politics can be about love, about nature, of women and our rights,” says La Negra.

“Of the community,” adds NoNo.

“It doesn’t have to be something so extreme politically.”

“And if we do speak about politics it’s an international issue, not just a Cuban issue.”

Where hip-hop in North America is slow to advance female MCs and women continue to be objectified and disrespected in lyrics and music videos, women in Cuba are encouraged to be a part of the scene. In fact, when I ask Yanellis about the challenges of being a woman in hip-hop, she twists her face. “Why not women in hip-hop? If a girl has that passion to be a rapper and can do it, she should follow it. Same goes for graff artists, b-girls, DJs, whatever, as long as there are women.”

“We have the same passion but we can express hip-hop in a different way,” says La Negra. “The men need us in hip-hop.”

I’ve met MCs, breakers, graff artists and DJs here in Cuba, all who hold hip-hop close to their hearts and have not yet allowed the conditions that they live in to stop them from expressing it. Hip-hop has found a new home in Cuba and in hip-hop, Cuba has rekindled its revolutionary roots. El Templo de Hip-hop both teaches and represents the roots of this cultural movement, and in turn helps to revitalise hip-hop in a way not seen since its birth. Cubans have a deep understanding of hip-hop, a shared knowledge that isn’t a musical fad, but a combination of different roots born from many shared struggles.

The lack of proper tools for these artists has created in Cuba a more roots-based hip-hop. Alongside his wife Magia, MC El Tipo Ese creates a style of hip-hop that reaches to traditional Afro-Cuban roots to inspire both the rhythm and the rhyme of their group Obsesion. “I don’t know if you knew this, but we got the chance to perform [in the U.S.] twice,” says El Tipo Ese. “We went to the cradle only to realise that the people weren’t saying anything and the movement itself wasn’t very strong. There wasn’t much heart — it was very shallow there. Not only did we see this but after we performed, people would come to us — American rappers — and tell us that we were an inspiration to them!”

Back at El Templo de Hip-hop, the beats are flowing soft and smooth; each lyric is mouthed by fresh-faced kids wearing shades and Castro caps. The girls shake hypnotising hips to the music as the performers bounce across the stage chopping the air with talking hands. The night is lit up with stage lamps and stars as the calm breeze cools the deep fire that burns on the stage and heats the crowd. A mutual love has developed between hip-hop and Cuba’s youth; both have rekindled a passion for revolution and re-awakened the power for change. Hip-hop has already become a global language, but Cuba has made the effort to cultivate and cherish a new voice as more than just a style of music. Today, at El Templo, a group of artists lives hip-hop as a community, a culture, a religion and a new weapon in the fight for social change. These artists are living hip-hop as it was born — not as a business or a marketing hunting ground for new urban trends, but as a force of the people.

Cuban hip-hop has to compete with the era of bling and hold its own in a time when representing hip-hop is more about album sales than skills. “The youth need to have a leader,” says El Tipo Ese. “Right now they have Snoop Dogg’s poster up on their wall. When they have a poster of a Cuban group, that’s a victory, because that shows that they’re finally identifying with one of their own.”



New Cuban Hip-Hop
Orishas El Kilo
Taking their name from the Yoruban word for gods, Orishas flip traditional, organic Afro-Cuban rhythms with their original laid-back Cuban drawl to create a distinct flow and style of hip-hop recognised as a pure example of hip-hop con Cubanismo. As the first group to put Cuba on the hip-hop map, Orishas have been turning heads and making noise since the release of their debut album, A Lo Cubano. Their second release, Emigrante, became an international smash, putting them at the top of many lists as the best international hip-hop act in 2003, as well as solidifying their place as pioneers in Cuba’s young hip-hop scene. Now living in Europe, Orishas is taking it up a level with their third release, El Kilo. An ambitious blend of that distinct mix of rhyming/chanting/singing between MCs Ruzzo, Yotuel and Roldan, bouncing along to new electronic chops and beats that cover everything from rumba and guaguancó to flamenco and reggae. Check out the electro-mambo of “El Bombo” or the electronic folklore of “La Calle” to see how their sound has progressed to include a mix of more outernational sounds. Even though El Kilo pushes Orishas into undefined territory, the question remains whether this album can actually carry them from the world music charts to the crossover urban charts. (EMI Latin)

Various Cuba 21
This compilation arrives just as Cuba is emerging from the dust left behind by the pre-revolutionary imagery championed by the Buena Vista Social Club. Showcasing a variety of new and young Cuban talent that is virtually unknown to the outside world, every track pulsates with the vibrancy of a reenergised Cuba, from the Afro-Cuban rock of Francis’s “Sentimiento” to the sweet bolero-soul of Haydeé’s “Siempre Que Te Vas” and the dubbed-out groove of Siete Rayo’s “Cumbia Reggae.” One of the most interesting tracks on this compilation, “Chinito” by Candyman (the only track that is labelled pop in the liner notes) is Cuban reggaeton that sounds more influenced by Trinidadian Soca than Jamaican dancehall. The new and strange sounds from Cuba carry both a revolutionary instinct as well as a spiritual connection to their traditional rhythms, creating a distinct collection of exciting and entertaining music. Even the worst tracks on this record are entertaining examples of Latin America interpreting Western pop. This record not only gives you a proper glimpse inside the island’s current musical state of mind but it also prepares you for the incredible wave of alternative music expected to burst from these shores. (EMI Latin)

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