Hip-Hop, Underground revolution
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 chargesteep for most
Cubansthe line to get in is long.
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."
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
this isn't what they teach in school
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 ConsejoAnonymous Adviceis 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.
by Mimi Chakarova
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 Yosmel.
Right now that producerPablo
Herrerais in the DJ's booth, looking down at the two rappers.
"What you're seeing is Cuba's underground. Im 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 itfrom 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
But even with Herreras
approval, the world for young rappers here is full of contradictions.
They believe in Cuba, but they're not ideologuesthey 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
Cubas 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 parentssupportive up until noware
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 heard:
"Cause I'm black
and I'm proud/ I'm ready and hyped plus Im 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."
by Mimi Chakarova
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 colordespite the Revolutions
best intentionshas 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 braidswhich is strange in Cubaon 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 Spanish."
She also taught him about
santeria, Cubas African-derived religion that has outlasted
any political regime. "In school they taught him about slavery,
but they didnt 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/Theres a fortune
under your dark skin/The power is yours."
like Abiodun served as historical guides, African Americans gave
Kokino and Yosmel their beat.
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 musicnot the syrupy lyrics
of salsavalidates the ancestry they've been taught to overlook.
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 Jamals 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 scenes "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.
around here think we're a little crazy," he grins. "But
they love us anyway."
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.
Thats 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 raps main spokesperson internationally and
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
raps 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 raps relevance for the Revolution. Herrera reminded the
old guard that the younger Cubans needed a voiceand 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
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, its a soundmans
paradise. "Since most music here is not really produced electronically,
theres not many people who can do this," he says.
He produced Orishas,
Cubas only commercially successful rap group, before they left
the island and became famous. Now that Orishas remake of
Compay Segundos 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 stardomwithout
defecting from la patria.
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 raps troublemaker image.
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. Fidels 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
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 Associations 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
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.
Up to a point. Cuban rapand
Anonimo Consejo is no exceptionpushes 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
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 dothis is my job."
by Mimi Chakarova
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
Consejos 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 rappers ego. "If you are a man, stop right there/Dont
hide, kneel before me/Put your feet on the ground and come down from
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.
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,"
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?"
by Mimi Chakarova
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 produce.
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 residentsmost 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 generation.
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 territoryeveryone knows them, and no one cares much if
they have a record dealhere they are already famous.
their lyrics about staying put in Cuba, Yosmel and Kokino want more.
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,"
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
were supposed to live on hope alone," Kokino says, back at
his mothers house where his bedroom is plastered with magazine
photos of NBA basketball stars and his favorite rap musicians from the
Then he hikes up his baggy
pants and goes outside to wait for a crowded bus to Herreras studio.
A couple of British hip-hop producers were supposed to swing by to hear
he and Yosmel lay down some beats.
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