Street-corner rap battles. Freestyling at underground house parties. Lyrical illumination of the hardships of the oppressed. These vignettes of early American hip-hop have crossed the border to set up shop all over the world.

Author and professor Sujatha Fernandes has taken particular interest in rap’s place in Cuba, where a simmering youth culture turned into a national movement. Her book, Cuba Represent!, sets out to explain what hip-hop means to the island.

What’s your academic background, and how did you become involved with Cuban hip-hop?
I did a Ph.D. in political science and I now teach in the sociology department at Queens College City University of New York.

I became interested in Cuban hip-hop in 1998 when I was in Australia, where I was already involved with the hip-hop scene.

My sister is a journalist who was working for Radio Habana in Cuba, and she emailed me from there and said, “I’m meeting all these fantastic hip-hop artists and producers. You really have to come and check this out.” So I went in January 1998, and through her I met all of these people. It was very low-key; it was more just hanging out with them at parties and going to a few shows and talking to them. I left after three months totally fascinated. I hadn’t even been thinking about writing on Cuba or on hip-hop, but it struck me that this was really something that I wanted to devote more time to and learn more about.

In Cuba Represent! you mention hip-hop is largely a US import by way of Miami. How have American rappers influenced Cuban hip-hop, and which rappers have had the most influence?
American rappers in Cuba have had a very big influence. It’s mostly been what’s sometimes referred to here as conscious rap or underground rap—people like Common, Mos Def, Talib Kweli. Paris was the very first American rapper to go to Cuba, in 1997. So there’s been a long history of these more militant rappers—message rappers some people call them—going to Cuba and talking about issues of race, particularly.

When you look back to the ’60s, there’s a long trajectory of people who went and talked about issues of race and tried to make these connections between Black Cubans and African-Americans—Assata Shakur Stokely Carmichael, Angela Davis. In some ways I see the hip-hop movement as a continuation of that, these rappers going and talking about issues of politics and race to Cuban rappers and exchanging ideas. It’s both a continuation of that and it’s also very unique, because for many countries, their majority experience of hip-hop has been what comes through MTV or radio or multinational record companies.

The unique thing about Cuba was, because of this history and tradition, they were hearing a very particular strain of Black nationalist rap, and so that had huge influence on Cuban rappers. A lot of them hadn’t really thought about race in those terms before, because in Cuba people didn’t necessarily think in racial terms. There’s this idea that, “We’re all Cuban, whether we’re Black or White or whatever.” That’s been very powerful throughout, both prior to the Revolution and especially during the Revolution. But as economic and racial inequalities started emerging in Cuba during the ’90s when they suffered a very severe economic decline, young people in particular started questioning, “If the Revolution is supposed to be all about racial equality, why is it I’m treated this way? Why is it that I’m not given access to working in the tourism industry? Why is it that Black people on the whole are poorer than White people?” American rappers were providing an answer that really seemed to fit with the Cuban experience. Finally there was the possibility for speaking out and for talking about issues of race.
In your book you mention a difference between popular rap and underground rap in Cuba. Can you explain that?
Cubans were listening to rap music in the early ’90s, but it wasn’t until really the mid- to late-’90s that kids started rapping on the corner. Much like it started here, it was a really local thing that happened at the fiesta—the local party. It wasn’t yet something where people thought of themselves as groups and composed lyrics and had concerts. At that point it was still what I would call the more popular commercial kind of rap. They were mostly imitating American rap that they were hearing from 99 Jamz FM or from other radio stations coming from Miami.

Want more from this Chapter? Cop Chapter 42: Cuba.