Cuban Hip-Hop, Underground revolution
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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
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
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:
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