Civil Society, Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean

MUSIC-CUBA: Hip Hop Sidelined but Still Rapping

Dalia Acosta

HAVANA, Mar 19 2007 (IPS) - Cuban hip hop music is past its peak, and is struggling to survive in a context where it lacks performance venues, receives only weak institutional support, and has to compete with more commercial music styles alien to the critical discourse that the movement has promoted since its origins.

The abrupt interruption in 2006 of the festivals that had been held for a decade in the Alamar district in east Havana was probably the point at which the definite decline of this movement began. Today it has hardly any venues for concerts or for expressing other aspects of its culture, such as graffiti or break dancing.

These are the findings of a study being undertaken by the University of Havana, to which IPS had exclusive access.

“I think that at this time the hip hop movement is on the wane, perhaps because it has already fulfilled its social function, or because its historical time is over,” said a musicologist from the government Cuban Institute of Music (ICM) participating in the research, who requested anonymity.

“We know that the Ministry of Culture is interested in providing more venues for concerts, but the real world is another thing,” said Magia, a singer with the duo Obsesión. Like many members of the hip hop movement, she prefers to be known just by her first name.

Hip hop reached Cuba around the late 1970s or early 1980s via international radio stations, the occasional record or cassette brought in by people travelling abroad, and contact with the Cuban community in the United States.

The genre’s expansion occurred during the economic crisis of the 1990s, particularly in poor suburbs of cities like Havana and Santiago de Cuba (about 700 kilometres from the capital), where mainly mixed-race, relatively marginalised youngsters made U.S. rap music their own, using it to express their concerns.

“Rap brought to light in a positive way our most difficult problems, the most negative aspects of our society,” said the ICM expert. Social inequality, racial discrimination, domestic violence and prostitution, among other issues, found expression in hip hop lyrics.

The first hip hop festival was held in 1995, with the support of the non-governmental Asociación Hermanos Saíz (Saíz Brothers’ Association), a centre for young musicians. The state Cuban Rap Agency was created in 2002 to produce and market albums and provide professional training for groups.

Although the Agency did contribute to improving the musical quality of Cuban rap, it also commercialised the genre, which to some extent was in conflict with the community spirit and collective nature that was its essence.

Because of these contradictions, independent projects sprang up, like La Fabri_k, started by Obsesión and Doble Filo, aiming to “claim our freedom to decide who we work with, who we produce with and who we negotiate our work with,” according to Vitalicio, a member of Doble Filo.

Now La Fabri_k is producing an album against violence, and have invited groups like Anónimo Consejo and Cuentas Claras to participate. “If you wait to be promoted here, for a recording proposal, or a show of interest in your project, you can be sure that it’ll never happen,” Vitalicio told Movimiento, the Cuban Rap Agency magazine.

In addition to the difficulty in gaining access to a recording studio, and the absence of a market in Cuba or abroad, the media are showing practically universal lack of interest. With the exception of a few radio stations, the rest only broadcast the more commercial type of rap made on the island.

“Most of the decision-makers responsible for what goes into the media don’t want to listen to what we are saying. They appreciate its value, but they are put off by the direct and rebellious way we express ourselves,” said Sekou Umoja of Anónimo Consejo, who changed his name in honour of his African ancestors.

Writer Roberto Zurbano said that Cuban television, in particular, “has corroded the authentic rap message because of the way it has portrayed its culture, and the superficial, distorted way in which it has presented a partial and ‘watered-down’ version of rap in Cuba.”

Observers consulted by IPS said that the growing popularity of reggaeton, a style derived from hip hop blends with Caribbean sounds, but with a very “machista” and materialistic message, has further narrowed the chances of air-time for rap.

Sekou found it hard to understand that in Cuba, “the synonym of all things revolutionary, broadcasting the most violent types of U.S. rap should be preferred to revolutionary hip hop, which is progressive and has a deep message.”

Spawned in the ghettoes of New York City, rap is the core of hip hop culture and is based on an electronic mix of background music provided by a DJ, over which the rapper recites the lyrics.

Since its emergence among poor Afro-Americans, it has become an alternative activity to crime and violence for young people.

Rap “criticises inequality, discrimination and oppression, produces collective ways of learning about social conditions in specific places, and transforms social relations,” wrote Arlene Tickner, a professor at Los Andes University, Colombia, in an article published by the Cuban magazine Temas.

The social reality of the black community in the United States is different from that of African descendants in Cuba, but they both share a common historical memory of racial oppression which is still very much alive, say the authors of the Havana University study.

Racial discrimination was officially abolished by the Cuban Revolution in 1959, but its expressions remain latent in day to day life. Hip hop takes the issue up vigorously, and also criticises marginalisation in a society shaken by the economic crisis of the last 15 years.

“Cuban rappers are people at the grassroots with the critical capacity to reject the excessively Eurocentric burden of our culture, because it undermines recognition of our own cultural means of expression outside of the Western canon, such as Afro-Cuban expressions, popular culture or oral culture,” said Zurbano.

Adeyeme Umoja of Anónimo Consejo criticised those who try to “‘bleach’ themselves racially and culturally: Your hair is your hair; your broad nose is your nose; your thick lips are your lips, and there is no need to have a complex or be concerned about Eurocentric standards of beauty.”

Beyond racial differences, rap lyrics offer young people in the suburbs an alternative vision of life, free from drugs or crime. “In our environment, if it weren’t for hip hop many of us would be in prison or dead, or would have floated away on a raft, and I’m not exaggerating,” said Alexei, a member of Obsesión.

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