Made in Havana City

Onstage is Instinto, a female trio extraordinaire. The divas are wearing shimmering strapless dresses with high heels. As a salsa beat kicks in, they rap in a lyrical prose, spin on their heels, and sing in three part harmony. This is Cuban rap  – where the streets meet high brow classical training from Havana’s best arts schools. It is an American-derived subculture that has flourished on the island despite the United States’ decades-long embargo against Cuba.

This year President Obama has relaxed travel restrictions to Cuba and has begun granting visas for visiting Cuban artists. In August, the Grammy-winning singer Pablo Milanes will tour the United States for the first time since 1979.  Many are celebrating these openings as the beginning of the end of the embargo.

But it’s worth remembering that, besides the hardships caused by the embargo, there can be benefits to living in a bubble. Islands are hotspots of biodiversity. And Cuban art has developed a particular richness and vitality because of its recent isolation. 

Take Cuban rap. Rap was originally an American import. In the early ’90s, young Cubans built antennas from wire coat hangers and dangled their radios out of their windows to listen to American radio. On the airwaves of Miami radio station 99 Jamz FM, they heard American rap acts like 2 Live Crew and Naughty by Nature.

Aspiring Cuban emcees rapping at house parties and in small local venues started out crassly mimicking their American counterparts. “Just like you, just like you, nigger, we wanna be a nigger like you,” Primera Base rapped about their hero Malcolm X. The group was known to sport thick imitation gold chains and fake diamonds — even though “bling bling” was a remote concept given Cuba’s endemic scarcities.

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But Cuban rap soon took on a life of its own. Unlike other hip hop fans around the world, young Cubans had little access to the latest trends in American rap. With only two state-run channels on TV, they couldn’t tune in to the globally televised Yo! MTV Raps to see pioneers Public Enemy or NWA. Havana was not on the circuit for touring acts like De La Soul. Lacking samplers, mixers, and albums because of the embargo — the key tools for making background beats — Cuban rappers instead drew on a rich heritage of traditional Cuban music. They recreated the rhythmic pulse of hip hop with instruments like the melodic Batá drums, typically used in ceremonies of the Afro-Cuban Santería religion. In the heavily Afro-Cuban-influenced eastern provinces, Madera Limpia rapped live with an entire ensemble of Cuban instruments. The group Obsesión used instrumentation to evoke the era of slavery. In their song “Mambí,” the gentle strumming of a berimbau musical bow and water sounds produced by the traditional palo de agua give the sense of being near a river as identified with the rural roots of slaves. In the tradition of artists like Vocal Sampling – who conjured up full salsa orchestras solely through their voices – Cuban rappers also developed the vocal percussive art of the human beatbox, mimicking not just drum machines but congas, trumpets, and even song samples. The lack of digital technology forced Cubans to innovate and gave the music a decidedly Cuban flavor.

Cuban rap is also special for the caliber of its lyrics. Thanks to the country’s excellent and free schools, Cuban rappers  — although predominantly black and from poorer neighborhoods  —  received a high degree of education. Cuba’s most prolific rap producer Pablo Herrera was a professor of English at the University of Havana. Rap lyrics mined Cuba’s literature and history in their portrayals of the tribulations of street life. “I have a race that is dark and discriminated / I have a work day that demands and gives nothing,” rapped Hermanos de Causa in their song “Tengo” (I Have). The song reworked a celebrated 1964 poem that had praised the achievements of the revolution for blacks; a new generation was watching those gains eroding. On one of their tracks, the group Anónimo Consejo pay homage to the mulatto independence fighter Antonio Maceo, and Pedro Ivonet who founded the Independent Party of Color in 1908. The rapper refers to himself as a “cimarron desobediente,” or rebellious runaway slave, in his criticism of police harassment of young blacks.

The trajectory of Cuban rap was in stark contrast to American rap, which was quickly and successfully packaged for commercial distribution. Hip hop had originated in the recreational outdoor jams and battles of the Bronx during the ’70s. But when the Sugar Hill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” became a hit in 1979, the genre proved it had a lucrative market. Over the next decade, global entertainment networks promoted influential rap artists like Run DMC and Salt n’ Pepa.

But by the late-’90s, commercial rap became ascendant within hip hop culture. The earlier diversity of sounds and themes was eschewed in favor of a catchy pop formula with a one-dimensional focus on consumption.

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Cuban rappers avoided this fate for a number of reasons. One was government support. Cubans were initially discouraged from participating in this foreign, “racially divisive” culture by the authorities. In 1999, one journalist brought up the concern that rap was creating “ghettoes” in a country where supposedly none existed. But by the following year, the state realized the need to relate to the rappers because of their growing appeal to black Cuban youth. The yearly hip hop festivals organized by the independent Grupo Uno were attracting some three thousand youth out in the Alamar housing projects on the periphery of Havana. Hundreds of rap groups were forming across the country. In July 2001, the newly appointed long-haired Minister of Culture, a poet, met with rappers to discuss forming a rap agency. Like with other musical genres where artists were full-time employees of the state and were paid a monthly salary for performing, composing, and rehearsing, prominent rappers too entered into this arrangement. The Cuban state invited American rappers Common, dead prez, Mos Def and Talib Kweli to Cuba for the festivals and to meet local artists. So while kids in other countries were being inundated with commercial raps’ gratuitous criminality and blatant consumerism, Cuban youth were discussing the politics of hip hop culture with some of the most intelligent and incisive American rappers. 

The sheltered existence of Cuban rap prevented it from encountering a fate similar to that of American rap. Cuban rap was not immune from commercial pressures and state sponsorship has impacted the music too. But censorship, like seclusion, may also foster innovation. Cuban artists had perfected techniques of metaphor, allusion and ambiguity. Just as filmmakers like the legendary Tomas Gutiérrez Alea or the black director Sergio Giral defended the racial politics of some of their films by saying that they took place in the era of slavery, so too the rapper Magia of Obsesión defended her song about prostitution by saying that it was about capitalist countries. But Magia had never seen a capitalist country, or even left Cuba when she wrote the song. The result is a textured and evocative account of the poor women who work the streets in barrios like Central Havana, but with no details to identify them as such. The song takes on a universal appeal because of the necessity of the artist to dissemble.

In our oversaturated commons, there is little that can shock or provoke. Conversely, in a place where public discourse is closely monitored, any critical utterance can have strong reverberations. When Cuban rapper Papa Humbertico unfurled a banner reading “Social Denunciation” on the opening night of the 2001 hip hop festival, the act immediately unleashed a series of debates on both sides of the Florida Straits.

This is not an argument in favor of either state censorship or the embargo against Cuba -both of which represent a violation of basic freedoms and rights. Rather it is a recognition that imposed, even self-imposed, isolation can be a crucible for artistic creativity.

In the digital era that we now inhabit – where wire coat hangers have been replaced by facebook and iTunes – such isolation may be a thing of the past. The underground rap group Los Aldeanos have little airplay on Cuban radio but are a sensation on YouTube. The recent openings initiated by the Obama administration should be celebrated, especially if they lead to the fall of the embargo, which has deprived Cubans of basic necessities like food and medicine. But we can also recognize that some things may be lost as Cuba opens to a global market economy, including distinctive subcultures like that of Cuban rap.

This piece is an extended version of an Op/Ed that appeared in The New York Times.  For more work by Sujatha Fernandes, pick up her book Close to the Edge: In Search of the Global Hip Hop Generation, due out from Verso Press next month.  Check out the Verso site for more information: http://www.versobooks.com/books/1014-close-to-the-edge

For a selection of global hip hop videos curated by Fernandes, check out http://www.close-to-the-edge.com/p/music.html

Thanks to Oriana Eliçabe for photo #1.  See her blog at http://vocesrebeldes.orianomada.net/en

Thanks to Jason Florio for photo #2.  Find more of his work at www.floriophoto.com

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Sujatha Fernandes