[Marxism] Cuba's Rap Vanguard Reaches Beyond the Party Line (NYT)

Walter Lippmann walterlx at earthlink.net
Fri Dec 15 18:18:30 MST 2006

There's been an improvement in some of the media coverage of Cuba
since Fidel went out on sick leave. Both the Wall Street Journal,
despite its notoriously hostile editorial line, and the New York
Times have begun to improve their coverage. This is one positive
example in today's paper. Read it and pass this one if you will.

How does a society with a one-party political system where open
expression of divergent viewpoints rarely occurs in the media, 
deal with the social conflicts and contradictions which exist in
the country? One way is through opening up space in the cultural
arena. Movies and music have long been vehicles through which we
see societal tensions taken up. Two recent books also provide us
with additional material on these topics: Robin D. Moore's MUSIC
AND REVOLUTION: Cultural Change in Socialist Cuba, and, even more
so, Sujatha Fernandes CUBA REPRESENT! Cuban Arts, State Power and
the Making of New Revolutionary Cultures (Duke University Press)
are worth looking at, especially the second. An Indian woman who
lived in Australia, travelled to Cuba where she studied, worked
and performed hip-hop on the island, and writes about it with 
enthusiasm and a close ear for the genre's nuances.

Background on Sujatha Fernandez from March 2001:

Film and Power in Cuba (2003)

Is Rap occupying its rightful place in Cuban life?

AMAZON.COM on Sujatha Fernandez's book:

Havana Journal


Cuba’s Rap Vanguard Reaches Beyond the Party Line 
The rappers Bian Rodríguez Gala, second from left, and Aldo Rodríguez
Baquero, right, of Los Aldeanos.

By MARC LACEY Published: December 15, 2006

HAVANA — In a country like Cuba, where the state has its hand in just
about everything, it is perhaps not surprising that there is a
governmental body that concerns itself with rap music.

Cheri Dalton, an American exile who goes by the name Nehanda Abiodun,
has been working with Cuban rappers to promote their music.

Alarmed by the number of young people in baggy clothing and
ill-aligned baseball caps rapping around the island, the government
created the Cuban Rap Agency four years ago to bring rebellious
rhymers into the fold.

The person chosen to lead the agency was Susana García Amaros, 46,
who studied Latin American literature at the University of Havana,
specializing in the writings of Afro-Cubans. She said that when
officials from the Ministry of Culture approached her for the job she
told them that she was not a rap expert. But she said she appreciated
the music and its underlying messages.

“Rap is a form of battle,” she said. “It’s a way of protesting for a
section of the population. It has force. It’s not just the beat — the
boom, boom, boom — it’s the lyrics.”

The rap agency became a co-sponsor of an annual hip-hop festival that
began in 1994, and it started promoting rappers and helping them to
produce occasional albums. But only artists whose rap does not veer
too much from the party line qualify for the government aid.

“We don’t have songs on a record that speak badly of the revolution,”
Ms. García Amaros said on a recent day. “That doesn’t make sense.”

Not surprisingly, most rappers, who are by definition a rebellious
lot, are averse to joining forces with the government, even as they
struggle to spread their rhymes on their own. Only nine groups are
working with the agency. Of the remaining 500 or more across the
island, some voice discontent with Cuban society in language that is
as blunt as the accompanying beat is loud.

“We are not in agreement with any political system, the one here or
the one you have,” said Aldo Rodríguez Baquero, 23, who teams up with
his friend Bian Rodríguez Gala in a popular group called Los
Aldeanos, or The Villagers. “We want liberty and freedom.”

While rap appeals to just a subset of Cuba’s youngsters, many of the
five million Cubans under the age of 30 similarly question the

The government’s own surveys have found that the bulk of the
unemployed in Cuba are young and that many youths are uncertain about
their future. The blame, the government argues, lies with the United
States trade embargo.

Foreign Minister Felipe Pérez Roque raised the disenchantment of many
of Cuba’s young people in a speech last year, which was reported by
The Miami Herald. “We have a challenge,” said Mr. Pérez Roque, who is
in his early 40s and is considered one of the next generation of
Cuban leaders. “These young people have more information and more
consumer expectations than those at the start of the revolution.”

He added that young people were more likely to hear their elders
telling stories about social progress under the current government
and respond, “Oh, please, don’t come to me with that same old

The situation among Afro-Cubans, about 60 percent of the population,
is especially acute. They are considerably poorer than whites,
according to studies. Among the reasons are that white Cubans are
more likely to have relatives sending remittances from the United
States, and whites hold the bulk of the jobs in the profitable
tourism industry.

Afro-Cubans complain that they have inferior housing and are more
likely than whites to be hassled on the streets by the police.

The rappers speak of these and other problems, often bluntly.

“What we sing, people can’t say,” said Mr. Rodríguez Baquero, who
wore a blue bandanna to pull back his braided hair as he rapped on
the sidewalk outside an overflowing club. “They think we are crazy.
We say what they only whisper.”

He acknowledged that his mother and his rap partner’s mother worried
about their outspoken ways. “They don’t want to lose us,” he said.

But they keep rapping, even though some of Havana’s club owners have
banned them for a time over some of their toughest songs, including
one dealing with police harassment.

As for the rap agency, Mr. Rodríguez Baquero dismisses that with a
wave of his hand. “We don’t want to be in any agency,” he said. “It’s
the same as slavery for us.”

But not all that many people hear what he and other independent
rappers have to say. They produce albums in their homes in bare-bones
studios and distribute them by hand.

“It’s very difficult to do rap in Cuba,” he acknowledged.

Cheri Dalton, an American exile who goes by the name Nehanda Abiodun,
has been working with Cuban rappers to promote their music. Photo:
Jose Goitia for The New York Times

One of those working behind the scenes to aid Cuba’s rappers is Cheri
Dalton, an American who goes by the name Nehanda Abiodun. She is a
black militant who is wanted by the F.B.I. in connection with a
string of robberies, including a 1981 holdup of an armored car near
Nyack, N.Y. Now living in exile in Cuba, she has formed a Havana
chapter of Black August, a grass-roots group that promotes hip-hop

“There’s always been a love for music from the States in Cuba,” said
Ms. Abiodun, who declined to discuss her own case. “You can go back
to Nat King Cole, Earth Wind & Fire and Aretha Franklin.”

Rap, first heard in the ’80s by those in eastern Cuba who picked up
Florida radio stations, is no exception. “They spit out rhymes on
everything from race to gender to police harassment,” she said of
Cuba’s hip-hop generation. “They point out contradictions in society
that were taboo to talk about.”

But despite the disenchantment of many young people with Cuba’s
system, rap appears to be losing some ground here. The hip-hop
festival, held every August, was a flop last year and was canceled
this year. Nobody seems sure why. Some rappers say the culprit was
not so much the government involvement as it was another musical
genre that is pushing rap aside. Reggaetón, a blend of reggae, rap
and Latin music that was born in Puerto Rico, is now the rage.

The governmental rap agency has begun promoting reggaetón artists,
whose messages are often intended more to get people on the dance
floor than to protest. It is harder than ever for rappers to find a

“Reggaetón is about sex and girls and that’s it,” grumbled Mario
Gutiérrez, 19, who criticizes his fellow rappers who have speeded up
their beat and gone reggaetón. “We are singing for change. We want
freedom. We want a better Cuba than this one.”

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