Interview Nicole Velasco
Photos Jauretsi Saizarbitoria
Street-corner rap battles. Freestyling at underground house par- ties. 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 have 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 the 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 work- ing 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 writ- ing 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 con- nections between Black Cubans and African-Americans—Assata Shakur Stokely Carmichael, Angela Davis. In some ways I see the hip-hop move- ment 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 rap- pers. A lot of them hadn’t really thought about race in those terms before, because in Cuba people didn’t neces- sarily 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 through- out, 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 indus- try? 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.
Then in the late ’90s these trends start diverging. You get the development of an underground, more militant kind of hip-hop that criticizes race within Cuba, that makes demands on the Cuban state, that really begins to get a political voice; and on the other side, dance music, which is more about bringing rap into a popular context, into parties, to talk about having fun, and even trying to attract foreign record deals, which underground rap really didn’t attempt.
In the very beginning stages of Cuban hip-hop, who were some of the groups or artists who were paving the way?One of the groups that became internationally famous was Orishas. They started out in Cuba in the underground scene and had quite a large following there, and then because they couldn’t really tour and they couldn’t release records, they decided that they would leave and go to Spain. From there they started releasing albums that became really well known and have appeared in soundtracks for major films. They even won a Grammy.
That’s one side of things. On the other side there were people like Pablo Herrera, the producer; Ariel Fernández, a DJ and a journalist; and various other artists like Obsesión, Anónimo Consejo, and Los Paisa- nos. A lot of these groups worked to raise the profile of hip-hop—to create more venues and state recognition for what they were doing.
On the topic of state recognition, in your book you note that institutional support for Cuban rap comes from the Cuban state and that there are repre- sentatives from hip-hop bridging the gap between government and people. How does that relationship work?
I think we have to refer to that in the past tense in some ways. When I wrote my book I was talking about the situation back in 2001 and about how Ariel Fernández, Pablo Herrera, and Nehanda Abiodun—a Black Panther who is in Cuba—played a really impor- tant role because of their connections within state institutions, but also their legitimacy within hip-hop movements, both nationally and internationally. They managed to win themselves a certain degree of space within state institutions, partly by saying, “If the state does not recognize this very powerful and angry movement, then this movement is not going to sup- port it. And what is going to happen with this mass of angry young Black people? If they don’t work together with the government, they’re gonna work against it.”
I think at very high levels there was recognition that this was the case, and that’s why the state made a lot of effort to create a rap agency, to provide spaces for concerts. The annual fes- tival that was held every year up until 2002 in Alamar attracted around 1,000 young people from all over the city. The state paid for bringing in Cuban artists to perform at the festival. The state would provide food, transportation to events…the government put a lot of money into supporting these under- ground festivals.
In 2001 there was a meeting between rappers and Abel Prieto, the Cuban Minister of Culture. The rappers said, “We want our own agency,” because in Cuba all music is regulated through agencies. Any artist belongs to an agency that is of their musical genre, and any concerts they do, they do through the agency. As a musician in Cuba—whether you’re a rapper or whether you’re a renowned salsa artist—you receive a monthly wage from the state, so even a poor, strug- gling rapper can still receive a monthly wage, the same as the internationally touring jazz musician.
So in 2004 they created a rap agency, and the head of the rap agency was a woman rapper, Magia, from the group Obsesión. It was a really huge thing, because in rap generally women don’t have such a high profile. Right now I would say that people like Magia, Anónimo Consejo, all of these people who are in the Cuban Rap Agency, are playing a similar role to what Ariel and Pablo played ten years ago. Ariel and Pablo are no longer in Cuba. Ariel lives in New York and in DC and Pablo is in the UK.
Today, who’s carrying on the hip-hop scene in Cuba?
A lot of rappers have left. Obsesión is still there and Anónimo Consejo is still there, and those two groups are both in the rap agency. Instead of the rap festi- val, which finished in 2002, they orga- nize a yearly conference, a seminar on hip-hop, which still brings people from all over to talk about hip-hop, where it’s going, what they’re doing.
They’re also a bit older and they’re not the young people that were involved from the start, but I think that they’re still trying to do the work that they set out to do. They’re trying to expand hip-hop from beyond just music to do work in prisons and to take it into the provinces, because hip-hop has always been a very urban thing and it’s always been a very Havana-central thing. They’re trying to take it into rural areas and to Santiago, which is on the eastern side of the island, a very his- torically Black part of the country.
One of the main groups currently in Cuba is Los Aldeanos, and they are very critical of the Cuban government. The fact that they can say these things and still be able to have an artistic career would never have been possible 20 years ago. It shows, I think, a certain
moving away from the path that the earlier hip-hop artists have tried, which was about working with the state, still trying to maintain what they saw as the ideals of their parents’ generation or of the Revolution.
Can you see the trajectory of Cuban hip-hop?
I don’t know if we can talk about Cuban hip-hop as only in Cuba any- more, because many of the pioneers have left. Julio Cardenas is one of the first, from a group called RCA. He was one of the first to leave, in 2001. He lives here in New York City. From Julio onwards, Ariel left, Pablo left, Los Pai- sanos left, Las Krudas—a lesbian rap group—left. Many of the founders and pioneers of Cuban hip-hop no longer live in Cuba, so when we talk about the future, we have to recognize that the future is in the diasporates.
The second area I think that is the future of Cuban rap is in its mixture with other musical forms. The young generation coming up now is not nec- essarily listening to rap; it’s listening to reggaeton. But we have to recognize that reggaeton has its roots in reg- gae and rap. How rap music lives on through many of these other cultural expressions is really important to notice. That has been something very strong throughout the whole history of Cuban music, how these different genres meld into each other.
Cuban rap itself drew on many other forms, and you see Cuban rap groups using traditional instruments, using salsa, using traditional drums like the batá. Just as Cuban rappers nourish from all these diverse Cuban music traditions, so it gives voice to different musical traditions. Even if Cuban rap is not what 1,000 young Cubans will go to a concert for anymore, it’s living on.