With U.S. record companies waiting at their door steps ‘raperos’ remain uncertain about their fate
By Brendan K. Edwards
On the 40th anniversary of the Cuban Revolution, Alexey Rodriguez shook hands with Fidel Castro. “I haven’t bathed since that day,” jokes Rodriguez, a member of the rap duo Obsesion, along with his wife Magia Lopez, who performed during the celebrations.
Drawing on Afro-Cuban rhythms, Obsesion have mastered their skills as rappers, singers, producers but also social workers, performing for inmates and animating workshops for youth both in Cuba and Venezuela. The group has been together for more than 10 years and once a week they host a half hour radio show that is broadcast nationwide. They are currently working on their second album, which includes collaborations with Montreal musicians Nomadic Massive and Kalmunity and artwork by Monk e.
With Castro in a hospital bed and his brother Raul in power, it is unclear what will become of the Cuban hip-hop movement. When Obsesion first visited Montreal a couple of years ago, Rodriguez was already wary about what would happen when record companies from the US would start making inroads into the Cuban hip-hop market. “We’re preparing for the invasion when all of the record labels start swooping into the country,” says Rodriguez. “Until then we’re living on an island and we’re trying to protect hip-hop and make sure that it remains as pure as possible.”
The seeds of Cuban hip-hop were planted just east of Havana among the massive, Soviet-designed high-rises in the densely populated suburb of Alamar. In the 1980s, the residents of the housing projects constructed homemade antennas and attached them to their balconies so they could tune in to Miami radio stations. The locals were soon exposed to the latest songs from The Sugar Hill Gang and Eric B. and Rakim along with black and white images of break-dancers on Soul Train. By the late 1980s, break-dance competitions had become ubiquitous in the streets of Havana.
In the early 1990s the fall of the Soviet Union (Cuba’s main trading partner) crippled the country’s economy. The tumultuous years that followed, euphemistically dubbed the “special period” by Fidel Castro, played a key role in defining Obsesion’s generation of Cuban B-boys, DJs and graffiti artists. While many of their countrymen built rafts out of Styrofoam and old tubes, the youth used hip-hop as their own form of escape, traveling to Alamar to take in late night showcases. “If it weren’t for hip-hop a lot of us would be lost or in another country or we would be depressed,” says Rodriguez.
Although it grew out of entirely different conditions, Cuban hip-hop of the early 1990s was mainly an imitation of the music being produced in the US. “Under a tremendous sun we put on these big coats with fur and these toques, talking about guns and all of that stuff,” laughs Rodriguez. Unlike in the US, creating music in Cuba was a constant struggle due to nightly electrical interruptions, unrelenting heat and financial constraints. Throughout the early 1990s, hip-hop concerts and parties were also seen as carriers of capitalist, anti-social influences and were often shut down by police.
1994-95 saw the birth of the first Havana Hip-Hop Festival, which attracted musicians from across the country. In 1996 and 1997 a number of groups began using rap as a vehicle to speak out against racism, prostitution, police harassment, growing class differences, and other social problems. This movement gave rise to Cuban rappers like The Reyes de la Calle (Kings of the Street) and Free Hole Negro, who voiced their criticism through satire and double meanings. “Since hip-hop is in the street, people have access and it’s easier for people to approach it,” notes Lopez. “You can define the social being that you are through music.”
Cuban Minister of Culture Abel Prieto finally acknowledged hip-hop as part of Cuban culture in 1999. In 2000 the Orishas put Cuban hip-hop on the international map with their hit song, 537 Cuba. Their album A Lo Cubano, produced in Paris, sold more than 400,000 copies in Europe. Orishas’ success energized the island’s small rap community consisting of some 200 rap groups including Obsesion, Doble Filo Reyes de la Calle and Anonimo Consejo. Later in 2000, twelve of Havana’s rap groups appeared on the compilation CD The Cuban Hip-Hop All Stars.
Cuba’s annual hip-hop festival, presently sponsored by the Cuban rap agency, now attracts more than 2,500 every year and garners global attention. Last summer, Obsesion also helped organize the first hip-hop symposium in Cuba.
Rodriguez and Lopez are some of the few Cuban ‘raperos’ groups to have participated in international exchanges. In addition to their two trips to Montreal, the duo has traveled to France, the UK and the US, where they joined the Roots and Common in an historical performance at the infamous Appollo theatre in Harlem, NY. They have also performed alongside subversive underground rap instigators Dead Prez.
However, unlike many of their contemporaries in the US who produce scathing criticism of the US government, Rodriguez and Lopez make socially conscious music that supports the Cuban administration. “We could have defected 1,000 times by now,” says Rodriguez, pointing out that he thinks that it is important to work within the socialist framework. He also argues that Cuban citizens should be proactive and not totally dependent on the government. “At times we’re victims to this paternalism because we’re looking up to [the politicians] like: what am I going to get? Instead of trying to think in terms of what we can do for ourselves,” he says.
Lopez notes that expressing a critical perspective is key. “Just recognizing that something is wrong is great because it’s human nature to recognize these things. If you create a fountain out of these thoughts the people are going to drink it,” she says. Despite her commitment to politically conscious beats and rhymes, Lopez also worries that the Cuban hip-hop movement is on shaky ground. “I don’t know what the future will be. I don’t know what will happen to me tomorrow. Every day I get up and I try to make my life better and make life in Cuba better.”
Thanks to Vanessa Diaz and Nathalie Teatin for helping with translation.