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Cuban Hip-Hop, Underground revolution

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  • Walter Lippmann
    (Nice photographs and inserted boxes appear at the original source site, but since CubaNews is formatted in plain text only, it cannot be sent to CubaNews
    Message 1 of 1 , Sep 2, 2002
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      (Nice photographs and inserted boxes
      appear at the original source site, but
      since CubaNews is formatted in plain text
      only, it cannot be sent to CubaNews list,
      except via the URL. A link to snippets
      of Cuban hip-hop which can be heard
      via the internet is at the end of this.)

      Cuban Hip-Hop, Underground revolution
      by Annelise Wunderlich
      Researcher: Eve Lotter


      It's a late Friday afternoon in downtown Havana and an old
      man in a worn-out tuxedo opens the doors under the
      flickering green and red neon of Club Las Vegas. A poster on
      the wall, its corners curling, advertises the usual cabaret
      fare: live salsa, banana daiquiris, beautiful women. But the
      people standing outside are not tourists looking for an
      exotic thrill. They are mostly young, mostly black, and
      dressed in the latest styles from Fubu and Tommy Hilfiger.
      And despite the $1 cover charge-steep for most Cubans-the
      line to get in is long.

      Inside, two young Afrocubans appear on a small stage in the
      back; one tall and languid, the other shorter and in
      constant motion. They wear baggy jeans, oversized T-shirts,
      and sprinkle their songs with "c'mon now" and "awww' ight."
      But while they admire American hip-hop style, MC Kokino and
      MC Yosmel rap about a distinctly Cuban reality.

      "It's time to break the silence.this isn't what they teach
      in school.in search of the American dream, Latinos suffer in
      the hands of others."

      A young man wearing a Chicago Bulls jersey stands near the
      stage and waves his hand high in the air. "This music is not
      for dancing. It's for listening," he says. "And for Cubans,
      believe me, it takes a lot to keep us from dancing."

      Kokino criss-crosses his arms as he moves across the stage,
      and the crowd follows him, word for word. Yosmel stands
      toward the back of the stage, his handsome face impassive as
      he delivers a steady flow of verse. The audience is enrapt.
      Anonimo Consejo-Anonymous Advice-is one of Cuba's top rap
      groups, waiting for the next big break: a record contract
      and a living wage to do what they love.

      The two young men are not the only ones. Three girls, decked
      out in bright tank tops and spandex, sit on the sidelines
      and watch Kokino's every move. Yordanka, 20, Yaima 19, and
      Noiris 17, are cousins, and a year ago started their own rap
      group, Explosion Femenina. So far, the only explosion has
      been in their living rooms or at school talent shows, but
      that could change. In a week, they will perform for the
      first time at Club Las Vegas. If Cuba's top rap producer
      likes them, he'll groom them just as he has Kokino and

      Right now that producer-Pablo Herrera-is in the DJ's booth,
      looking down at the two rappers. "What you're seeing is
      Cuba's underground. I'm talking the empowerment of youth as
      a battle spear for a more conscious society," he says in
      English so flawless that he's sure he lived another life in
      Brooklyn. And he looks it-from the braids in his hair to the
      New York attitude.

      Herrera and a fellow representative of the Young Communist
      Party put on the weekly Las Vegas hip-hop show. With more
      than 250 rap groups in Havana alone, he chooses each Friday
      night's line-up carefully. "I can't work with everybody, I'm
      not a machine," he says with a shrug. "I mostly go with what
      I like."

      But even with Herrera's approval, the world for young
      rappers here is full of contradictions. They believe in
      Cuba, but they're not ideologues-they just want to make
      music from their own reality. Anonimo Consejo's lyrics are
      edgy, but getting too edgy could end their careers. The
      girls in Explosion Femenina try to be tough in the macho rap
      scene, but rely on their sex appeal to get in the door. Each
      day is a political and social balancing act.

      Orishas, the only Cuban rap group to make it big, traveled
      to Paris to perform in 1998 and stayed. Kokino and Yosmel
      look at them with both awe and disappointment. Once abroad,
      Orishas made a hit record, but they did so by adding Cuba's
      beloved salsa and rumba beats to their music. Kokino and
      Yosmel want to succeed by sticking purely to rap, but
      they've been at it for four years and their
      parents-supportive up until now-are beginning to talk about
      "real" jobs. All of these pressures bear down on a passion
      that began as a hobby.

      When they met eight years ago, Kokino, then 13, and Yosmel,
      17, were just kids looking for fun on an island so depressed
      that scores of their countrymen were building rafts out of
      everything from styrofoam to old tubes to take their chance
      at sea. Yosmel and Kokino watched them from their homes in
      Cojímar, a neighborhood on the outskirts of Havana where
      Ernest Hemingway once lived. Back then it was Havana's
      sleepy beach town, but by the time Yosmel and Kokino grew
      up, dilapidated Soviet-style high-rise apartment buildings
      and cement block homes had taken over.

      For relief from the dog days of 1993, the two young men and
      their friends hung out at Alamar, a sprawling housing
      complex nearby. The kids entertained themselves in an empty
      pool improvising, break dancing, and listening hard to the
      American music coming from antennas they rigged on their
      rooftops to catch Miami radio stations. This is what they

      "'Cause I'm black and I'm proud/ I'm ready and hyped plus I'
      m amped/Most of my heroes don't appear on no stamps," rhymed
      Public Enemy in "Fight the Power." Yosmel was hooked. "Their
      songs spoke to me in a new way. There was nothing in Cuba
      that sounded like it."

      Or anything that talked about issues that Afrocubans had
      only begun to face. Instead, Cubans have been taught to
      ignore race and the Revolution tried to blur color lines by
      opening all professions, universities and government to
      Afrocubans. Officially, race all but disappeared as a part
      of national identity.

      But increasingly, race is an issue in Cuba. If Afrocubans
      benefited most from the revolution, they've also suffered
      the most during its crisis. Every Cuban needs dollars to
      survive and the bulk of the easy money coming in remittances
      goes to the white Cubans because it was their relatives who
      left early on. Darker Cubans also face discrimination
      getting the island's best jobs in the tourism industry. Skin
      color-despite the Revolution's best intentions-has once
      again become the marker of a class divide.

      Kokino, Yosmel and others in Cojímar felt it. "Because we
      are black, wear baggy pants and have braids-which is strange
      in Cuba-on every block the police ask for our identification
      cards. There is this perception that all white people are
      saints and all blacks are delinquents."

      Like disaffected youth everywhere, they looked for role
      models that gave them a sense of pride. In school, when
      Yosmel tried to talk about his African ancestry, teachers
      called him "unpatriotic" for thinking of himself as
      something other than Cuban. Yosmel turned to his mother to
      find out more about his African roots, and before long, her
      stories became his lyrics: "In my poor bed, I read my
      history/Memories of titans/Africans kicking out the

      She also taught him about santeria, Cuba's African-derived
      religion that has outlasted any political regime. "In school
      they taught him about slavery, but they didn't go into
      depth," his mother says, standing in the dirt yard in front
      of their small, wooden clapboard house. Lines of laundry
      hang to dry in the hot sun. A single mother, she washes her
      neighbor's clothes in exchange for a few extra pesos each
      month. Yosmel weaves her lessons throughout songs like this
      one: "If you don't know your history/ You won't know who you
      are/There's a fortune under your dark skin/The power is

      He sought other teachers as well. Cuba has long welcomed
      black American activists and intellectuals. Yosmel and
      Kokino often stop by the house of Nehanda Abiodun, a Black
      Panther living in exile. There, Abiodun gives them informal
      sessions about African American history, poetry, and world
      politics. The messages in their music, says the 54-year old
      American, come from being "born in a revolutionary process
      where they were encouraged to ask questions and challenge
      the status quo." It also comes from their daily lives:
      "their parents, their experiences on the street growing up,
      what's going on in the world."

      If expats like Abiodun served as historical guides, African
      Americans gave Kokino and Yosmel their beat. "It was amazing
      to hear rappers from another country worried about the same
      issues I was," Yosmel says. Rap artists like Common Sense
      and Black Star have been travelling to Cuba since 1998 as
      part of the Black August Collective, a group of African
      American activists and musicians dedicated to promoting
      hip-hop culture globally.

      Even when unsure about the movement, the Cuban government
      welcomed American rappers because of their support for the
      revolution, says Vera Abiodun, co-director of the Brooklyn
      branch of the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, and part of the
      Collective. Cuban youth responded to the rhythm, but also to
      the visitors' obvious pride in being black. "We didn't know
      how huge this would become in the beginning," she says.

      Just as black Americans did in the 1960s, Afrocubans in the
      1990s embraced their African heritage. "Every time that the
      police harass me, I don't feel like being here anymore,"
      Yosmel says. "When that happens, the first place I think
      about is here," he touches an African amulet hanging around
      his neck. "When I feel African, I don't feel black." And for
      many young Afrocubans, rap music-not the syrupy lyrics of
      salsa-validates the ancestry they've been taught to

      Along with Che Guevara and Jose Marti, Yosmel and Kokino
      admire Malcolm X, Mumia Abu Jamal, Nelson Mandela and other
      black icons. They and thousands of other young Cubans heard
      Mumia Abu Jamal's son speak at an anti-imperialist rally
      last year. And when Yosmel and Kokino talk about meeting rap
      artists like Mos Def and dead prez, their faces beam. These
      members of the American rap scene's "underground" make
      social progress and black empowerment a running theme in
      their lyrics. Rap has similarly linked Kokino and Yosmel to
      a heritage that validates their existence - and they hope
      their music will also improve it.

      Even in poverty, the frequent foreign visitors and
      word-of-mouth popularity have given them a certain cachet in
      Cojímar. "What bug crawled out of your hair and ran around
      all night?" A middle-aged woman yells at Kokino as he walks
      by her front porch, his long afro gently bobbing in the
      wind. "People around here think we're a little crazy," he
      grins. "But they love us anyway."

      But you can't live on love. That's where Pablo Herrera comes
      in. A former professor who taught English and hip hop
      culture at Havana University, Herrera is both a devotee of
      black American culture and passionate about Cuba. He has
      also emerged as Cuban rap's main spokesperson
      internationally and at home.

      On an island where the government controls just about
      everything, rap is no exception. A few years ago, police
      regularly shut down hip-hop shows and labeled rap as
      "imperialist" music. But Herrera and other hip-hop disciples
      waged a campaign to revamp rap's troublemaker image. Young
      writers like Ariel Fernandez published numerous articles on
      rap in state-run newspapers and cultural journals, while
      Herrera organized round-table discussions with government
      committees about rap's relevance for the Revolution. Herrera
      reminded the old guard that the younger Cubans needed a
      voice-and rap music was their expression of choice. "The
      purpose of hip-hop is serving the country, not being an
      antagonistic tool," he says. "The idea is to improve what is
      already in place."

      His efforts were rewarded. In 1998 Abel Prieto, the Minister
      of Culture, officially declared rap "an authentic expression
      of cubanidad' and began nominally funding an annual rap
      festival. Even Fidel himself rapped along with the group
      Doble Filo at the national baseball championship two years

      Although officially accepted rap is still in its infancy,
      Herrera estimates that Havana alone now has more than 250
      rap groups. He is the only producer with professional
      equipment. Herrera, 34, works out of his sun-filled studio
      with a turn-table, a mixer, a drum machine, a sampler, and
      cartons of classic Cuban LPs. It may not seem like much, but
      by Cuban standards, it's a soundman's paradise. "Since most
      music here is not really produced electronically, there's
      not many people who can do this," he says.

      He produced Orishas, Cuba's only commercially successful rap
      group, before they left the island and became famous. Now
      that Orisha's remake of Compay Segundo's tune "Chanchan" can
      be heard all over Havana, rap music is more popular that
      ever in Cuba. Herrera hopes Anonimo Consejo can achieve the
      same stardom-without defecting from la patria.

      In a T-shirt with the words "God is a DJ," Herrera shuffles
      through a stack of CDs and smokes a cigarette while Yosmel
      and Kokino sit on his couch, intently studying every page of
      an old Vibe magazine. "Yo, check this out," Herrera finds
      what he's looking for. "En la revolucion, cada quien hace su
      parte." In the Revolution, everyone must do his part. Fidel'
      s unmistakable voice loops back and repeats the phrase again
      and again over a hard-driving beat. Herrera nods to Yosmel,
      who takes his cue: "The solution is not leaving/New days
      will be here soon/We deserve and want to always go
      forward/Solving problems is important work." The music stops
      when a neighbor comes to the window and tells Herrera that
      he has a phone call. Off he goes, dodging boys playing
      baseball and dogs scrounging for food as he makes his way to
      the neighborhood phone.

      Herrera may not be the only hip-hop promoter on the island,
      but rappers say he is the best connected to the government.
      As a key member of the Asociacion Hermanos Saiz, the youth
      branch of the Ministry of Culture, Herrera has rare access
      to music clubs like Las Vegas. Any rapper who hopes to be
      seen at a decent venue must first get the Association's
      approval, and that can only happen if their music is seen to
      serve the Revolution.

      Herrera is also the unofficial ambassador of Cuban hip-hop
      for the recent flood of foreign reporters, musicians and
      record producers coming to the island in search of the next
      big Cuban musical export. He discovered Yosmel and Kokino at
      the first rap festival six years ago. "I work with them
      because their music is really authentic," Herrera says. "I
      like their flow, but what is really striking is what they
      say.so mind-boggling."

      Up to a point. Cuban rap-and Anonimo Consejo is no
      exception-pushes the envelope, but not so far that it
      offends the government. The duo has become a favorite at
      state sponsored shows, warning young Cubans against the
      temptations of American-style capitalism. In the song
      "Appearances are deceiving" they rap, "Don't crush me, I'm
      staying here, don't push me, let me live, I would give
      anything for my Cuba, I'm happy here." Their nationalist
      pride recently helped them land a contract with a state-run
      promotion company. All that means, though, is that their
      travel expenses are covered when they tour the island and
      they receive a modest paycheck, usually around 350 pesos
      each (US$ 17.50), after each major show. That money doesn't
      go far in an economy increasingly dependent on U.S. dollars.
      And it's getting harder to convince their parents that a rap
      career is worthwhile.

      Kokino quietly slips out of the recording session at
      Herrera's studio and doesn't return all afternoon. Later he
      says that he was upset and needed to cool off after an
      argument he had with his mother that morning. "She says that
      I'm a grown man now and she's tired of supporting me. She
      thinks that I should get a real job," he says, twisting the
      end of a braid between his fingers and looking at the
      ground. "She doesn't understand that this is what I want to
      do-this is my job."

      Five years ago, both Kokino and Yosmel decided to forego
      Cuba's legendary free university education and devote
      themselves to making music. Today, they both still live at
      home with their mothers, depending on the state's meager
      ration cards to eat. Herrera is trying to help them pay the
      bills. "They are already the top group in the country," he
      says. "They deserve a very good record deal, and they
      deserve to be working at a studio every day making their
      music." But for now, when their session is over, they still
      need to borrow a dollar to catch a bus back home.

      Record deal or no, the girls from Explosion Femenina would
      do almost anything to be in Anonimo Consejo's place. A faded
      portrait of Fidel smiles from the dark walls of their tiny
      apartment in a rundown tenement in Central Havana. The girls
      fill up the entire space as they crank up the volume on
      their boom-box and rap about boy troubles over U.S. rapper
      Eminem's hit song, "Real Slim Shady." Whatever they lack in
      technique they make up for with sheer enthusiasm.

      "When they first started out, I thought it was just a fad,"
      their mother says. "But then they wouldn't let me watch my
      soap opera because they were practicing all the time. We
      live like this," she squeezes her palms together, "So I had
      no choice but to go next door to watch my show." All the
      practicing has paid off. At next Friday's Las Vegas show,
      Herrera will be listening.

      On their rooftop, with the sun setting over the maze of
      narrow streets below them, they practice their one finished
      song. Yaima, born for the spotlight, undulates and shimmies
      as all three harmonize about the hardships they've faced as
      women rappers: "With my feminine appearance I've come to
      rival you/If you want to compete, if you want to waste time
      trying to destroy me/I'll get rowdy and impress you." The
      song is a flirtatious challenge to the male rapper's ego.
      "If you are a man, stop right there/Don't hide, kneel before
      me/Put your feet on the ground and come down from the sky."

      They know their music needs a sharper edge to win over
      Herrera and they practice another song about prostitutes.
      "We wrote this because so many guys we know assume we're
      jinateras just because we like to look good," Yaima
      explains. "Even though about 70 per cent of the girls we
      know do it, we don't, and we're sick of them judging us."

      Their most pressing worry at the moment is how to pay for
      their outfits. "It will be about $30 for each of us just to
      buy the clothes," Yaima complains. "It's also about $25 for
      a producer to make us original background music. That's
      impossible. We would have to give up going to the disco for
      about three months if we wanted to come up with that." She
      laughs, but the danger to their budding career as rap
      artists is real. Without the right look or sound, they won't
      get much respect on stage. And without dollars, those
      essential elements are out of reach.

      The next Friday, outside Club Las Vegas, the girls are
      giddy. They excitedly snap photos of one another and
      different rapper friends, laughing to disguise their
      nervousness. They huddle with Magia, one of the few women
      rappers in Havana, and also their mentor. "Remember to pay
      attention to where you are standing on stage. And sing in
      tune," she warns, rubbing their backs in encouragement.
      Yaima frequently whispers to Papo Record, her rapper
      boyfriend, and looks worriedly around the crowd gathered out
      front. Papo, wearing a white Adidas headband and a spider
      tattoo, puts his arm around her and kisses her forehead.
      Time to go in.

      Santuario, a group visiting from Venezuela, are the first
      on. Adorned with heavy gold chains, gold-capped teeth, and
      designer labels, they clearly come from a different economic
      situation than their Cuban hosts. Their manager films them
      with an expensive video camera, and their background music
      is slickly produced. Yaima, Noiris and Jordanka look on.
      Unable to afford the outfits they wanted, they wear ordinary
      street clothes. "[Santuario] are so amazing," Noiris says,
      biting her lip. "Do you really think we are good enough to
      be up there after them?"

      Good enough or not, DJ Ariel soon calls out, "Explosion
      Femenina." The girls breathe deeply and take the stage,
      looking very young and decidedly unglamorous. Spare
      background beats boom out of the speakers, and they begin.
      Tentative at first, it doesn't take Yaima long to get into
      the groove, and soon all three are rapping and shaking their
      hips with confidence.

      Their one song is over fast, and the applause is friendly
      rather than deafening. Herrera takes Yaima off to a corner.
      When she returns, her eyes are moist. She forces a smile.
      "Pablo says that he is used to strong rappers," she says.
      "He still sees us as very weak. He says that for our first
      time we sounded good." But not good enough for Herrera to

      Nevertheless, the youth branch of the Communist Party
      schedules the girls for an early appointment to audition at
      the Ministry of Culture. They show up in their best clothes,
      with boom box in hand, but no one is there to greet them.
      They wait for an hour, and then leave. "It's always hard for
      rappers just starting out," Yordanka says. "We just need to
      get some good background music and keep practicing." But
      that will be difficult. Yaima will leave Havana for a
      six-month stint as a cabaret dancer at a resort in Trinidad,
      and Noiris and Yordanka have a lot of schoolwork. "I love
      rap, but I am also really invested in my studies," says
      Yordanka, who wants to be an orthodontist.

      For Pablo, there's only one formula for success, in Cuba or
      anywhere. "Write great lyrics, have dignity and be hard
      working," he says. But it takes more. A week later, Club Las
      Vegas closes its Friday hip-hop show to make room for a
      salsa band. "That's the way it goes in Cuba," Kokino says,
      bitterness in his voice. "With salsa comes the money."

      For now that leaves them with Alamar, the first and last
      refuge of Cuban rap. Located on the eastern side of Havana,
      on the other side of a long tunnel, Alamar is home to more
      than 10,000 of Havana's poorest residents-most of them
      black. Once billed as a shining example of communal living,
      the giant housing complex was Fidel Castro's pet building
      project in the 1970s. Now, rows of shabby white buildings
      look out over the sea, far from most jobs and services.

      It is here in a giant empty pool where Cuban rap began and
      continues. Every Friday night, Havana's aspiring and already
      established rap groups pace the pool's concrete steps and
      strain to be heard over a lone speaker in a corner. For only
      five pesos, hip-hop fans can make the long trek out here to
      hear what they won't hear on the radio: the music of their

      Yosmel and Kokino pay the entrance fee like everyone else
      and mill with the crowd. Kokino sips from a small bottle of
      rum and greets his friends with high-fives, while Yosmel
      cuddles with his girlfriend off to the side of the pool.
      This is their territory-everyone knows them, and no one
      cares much if they have a record deal-here they are already

      When it comes to time to perform, the sound system fades and
      in the middle of one song the CD skips, leaving them with no
      background music. Yosmel glares angrily into the bright
      light coming from the DJ's booth. They start again, but
      their energy is low. Next, a group of five young rappers
      come out grabbing their crotches and doing a poor imitation
      of the American gangsta poses they've seen on TV. Kokino
      cheers them on, but Yosmel sulks on the sidelines. "I'm
      tired of this place. There are always problems," he mutters.

      Despite their lyrics about staying put in Cuba, Yosmel and
      Kokino want more. "We are waiting around for an angel to
      come from abroad who recognizes our talent and is willing to
      invest a lot of attention and money in our project," Kokino
      says. But celestial intervention moves slowly. Anonimo
      Consejo has appeared on an US-produced compilation that has
      yet to be released, and Kokino and Yosmel were featured in
      recent issues of Source and Vibe magazines. But so far, none
      of that has translated into a deal or dollars.

      "Sometimes I think we're supposed to live on hope alone,"
      Kokino says, back at his mother's house where his bedroom is
      plastered with magazine photos of NBA basketball stars and
      his favorite rap musicians from the United States.

      Then he hikes up his baggy pants and goes outside to wait
      for a crowded bus to Herrera's studio. A couple of British
      hip-hop producers were supposed to swing by to hear he and
      Yosmel lay down some beats.

      If you have not heard Cuban hip-hop music beyond
      the music of Las Orishas, you can listen to a series
      of thirty-second clips from the album
      CUBAN HIP-HOP ALL-STARS, Volume 1, here:

      [Non-text portions of this message have been removed]
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