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The Sound of Change: Hip Hop in Cuba

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Cuba is ripe with change. The government is opening up to private enterprise, and has urged the US to ease trade restrictions. Even Fidel Castro is musing about everything from the economic model to the treatment of gays.

Magia Lopez (left) and Alexey Rodiguez (right) of the Cuban Hip Hop group, 'Obsesion.' Credit: Oriana Eliçabe

 

On this edition, we hear about hip-hop and change in Cuban society, and what people on the ground are saying about new phases in the Cuban revolution.

Thanks to Sujata Dey for producing this radio documentary.

Featuring:

Alexey Rodriguez, hip-hop artist, co-founder of Obsesion; Magia Lopez, hip-hop artist, co-founder Obsesion; Roberto Ruiz Rebo, filmmaker and journalist for Cuban television; Roberto Zurbano, editor of Movimiento, and worker at the Casa de la Cultura Latinoamericana in Havana.

For More Information:

Agencia Cubana de Rap
Cuba

Cuba Absolutely
Concord, Ontario, Canada

Cuba Now!

Cuban Solidarity Network USA
Chicago, IL

Cubarte (website about Cuban Culture)

Pastors for Peace
New York, NY

Union de Escritores y Artistas de Cuba (Cuban Writers and Artists Union)
Cuba

Articles and Videos:

Interview with ‘Obsesion’ – Cuban Hiphop

‘Obsesion’ on Myspace

‘Obsesion’ on Youtube:

Music:

‘Los Pelos’ – Obsesion

Guasabara – Obsesion

‘Niche’ – Magia MC (Obsesión)

-‘Son de la Loma’ – trova music by the Barbados

‘26th of July March’ – Augustin Diaz

Nueva trova music by Pablo Milanes

———–TRANSCRIPT————

(sound of video of rappers in Regla)

DEY: Alexey Rodriguez Rodriguez Mola and Magia Lopez Lopez groove to the hip hop beat just as well as anyone else, East Coast or West.   Their beats are catchy, their rhymes profound. But they are not from L.A. or New York, they are from Regla, Cuba, a poor community with a rural character, just across the bay from Havana.In the 19th century, free black slaves immigrated to Regla and it remains a centre of Afro-Cubain culture.

In their video, Los Pelos, Alexey and Magia are dressed in large, bright, African-inspired shirts. They’re rapping on the pastel coloured, ragged streets of Regla.

Since 1996, Alexey and Magia have performed to crowds all over the world and on television.  Like most artists, you can catch them on MySpace or Youtube.   Despite restrictions, many Cuban artists have access to the internet through state agencies.

But the two are just as happy to be back in Regla helping their community. They are politically conscious rappers.  You won’t hear themdon’t rhyme so much about the Castros or politics, but  about the black experience, machismo, sexism, and inequality.  Alexey explains.

Alexei: We are very interested that people know that it is a black couple speaking.  Always, we take that subject, the subject of blackness is very, very ,very, very important to us.  When I picked up a book about Malcolm X,  We saw the book like Poof.  It was like “pow”  This was when we learned about much figures in the US like Black Panthers Ananda and Assata.  We learned many things, no?   And then, it was a little while very well, like, good,  why am I learning things about another country, when I know nothing about my own.   And then, my own country started to interest me.  It was a result of learning this history that I had much much more interest in my own country.

DEY:  In some ways, Alexey and Magia are modern-day Cuban revolutionaries trying to correct injustices.  They take after their forefathers, insurgents from the 1959 Cuban Revolution.

(Music, Son de la Loma)

DEY:  The barbados, or bearded ones, as they were called, also had a penchant for music and justice.

Son de la loma is one popular trova associated with Fidel Castro and his band of revolutionaries.  Trova was a musical genre played by guitar-wielding troubadours who criss-crossed the country.  Son de la loma was played on their own pirate radio station, Radio Rebelde.  It was played so much so that it was banned by the capitalist Cuban regime led by Fulgencio Batista.

Batista’s regime was seen by many as corrupt. The United States owned most of the island’s industries.

Roberto Ruiz Rebo: … before 1959, all the presidents in Cuba—the vast majority—were more interested in filling their pockets. And to fill their pockets, they had to serve the purposes of the United States.  You know, during Batista’s regime, there were a lot of assassinations on the street of the young people who protested in the street against the regime.  In fact, Fidel led one of the biggest movement that finally defeated the tyranny.

(26th of July March)

DEY:  Fidel Castro and Che Guevara’s 26th of July Movement aimed to bring ideals of equality to the island.

In 1957, the Marcha del 26 de Julio, or 26th of July March, was composed by one of the members of the movement: Augustin Diaz.  The song talks of a time of liberty, peace and prosperity away from insatiable tyrants.

Musicians were recruited from amongst the top Cuban musicians of the day, those who played in luxury hotels: Carlos Faxes of the Faxes quartet and others.

The song had to be recorded clandestinely.  To get recording time, they claimed to be recording songs to distribute freely to radio stations.  They rehearsed in moving cars so that they wouldn’t be caught by the capitalist authorities.

The anti-Batista movement from which the song came was banned, and Castro, exiled.  But eventually, they returned and toppled Batista on January 1st, 1959.

( Sound from old newsreel: (music) From his foxhole in the Sierra Maestra mountains, Cuba’s Fidel Castro emerges triumphant after two years of guerrilla fighting against the Batista regime.)

DEY: 39At first, Castro tried to maintain good relations with the United States.  He said he was more inspired by Roosevelt than Lenin.  But as relations soured, Cuba became an ally of the Soviet Union.  Property owned by Americans was nationalized, angering the US.  Eventually, in 1960, trade with Cuba was deemed illegal.

But Cuba’s revolution has still managed to improve the standard of living for its citizens.

Ruiz says the revolution has given people very tangible things.

Roberto Ruiz Rebo: Fidel has given us pride, has given education, has given the possibility of having medical assistant for every Cuban.  He has made sure that no Cuban goes to bed without having something to eat.

DEY:  In fact, since the revolution, Cuba has the lowest level of income inquality in Latin AmericaCuba ity in Latin America.  W. While Cuba is one of the countries with the lowest per capita GDP, it ranks high in the United Nations Human Development Index, which measures of poverty, literacy, longevity, and general well being.  And it has the second highest literacy rate in the world, at almost 100 per cent.

And while Americans have just started to implement key elements of universal public health care, Cubans have been able to see doctors free of charge in neighborhood policlínicos for decades.

(Ambient market sounds)

DEY:   Back in the Cuban market, there is talk of change in the air.  In 2008, Fidel Castro transferred the leadership to Raul Castro, his younger brother.  A wave of reforms were launched: more access to the internet, the end of prohibitions to own cell phones, televisions, cars and other electronic goods which were previously restricted, and new busses from China.   In spring of 2010, more reforms were proposed: foreign investors were needed to invest in golf courses.  While they still weren’t allowed to own the land, they were allowed to lease it for 99 years.  There is a bill before Cuba’s national assembly to allow small businesses in Cuba.

The American media has begun to speculate about the end of communism on the island.

Roberto Ruiz Rebo says people might criticize the system, but they are not dissatisfied with the socialist state.   Cubans have many internal forums for debate. and often, between Cubans and not on the microphone, they will talk about how there can be more openness, better management and less bureaucracy. But they will also say they do not want to be where they were before the revolution.

Roberto Ruiz Rebo:  Every Cuban can give you their own approach about this matter.  And knowing as well that Cubans very polemic.  They have opinions on everything.  Every one of us will have a different opinion.  What I think and I can say that is that most of the Cuban people appreciate what Fidel has done and what he is still doing for the nation

DEY:  And changes have already emerged.  Ruiz says they have even been welcomed— by Fidel Castro.

Rebo:  In fact, he said that we will have to change everything that needs to be changed.  And he said that that is a real revolution.  There are small changes. Although I think that sometimes we are afraid of the word change.  I don’t  know why.  Maybe because our enemies have used many times that word .  But these are real changes.  I think the big turn has been the fact that Cubans have discussed openly what they think about what are the failures of the revolution and what are their achievement.  And they have done that without any pressure, without any fear, and that is a big turn.  Because before there was not that possibility.

(Magia singing.)

0:03 MUSIC

DEY:  24Meantime, Alexey and Magia’s raps were born out of another major change.   It was called the “special period,” a harsh economic recession in Cuba in the mid-1990s caused by the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba’s main supporter. Fifteen years ago, Alexey was what many Americans often see on the news: a Cuban trying to get out on a raft. Magia explains:

Lopez: It was the special period.  There was nothing to do.  There were shortages of everything: food, clothing. Our generation … we believe ourselves to be youth, no?  It was very dramatic what we lived.  There wasn’t a lot going on.  There was prostitution, pimping, drugs, and everything else going on.  So people were asking: what do we do now?    Hip hop is our movement.  Instead of drugs and violence, we could write songs, we could sing, and we could and listen to this music. So the influence of hip hop was very positive for youth.  We would think of nothing but hip hop.

0:14 Alexey was working as a tour guide, Magia was studying communications.  After they met and married in 1993, they both founded the group.  At that time, hip hop was exploding in the Alamar neighbourhood East of Havana. ?DEY: Lopez:

DEY:  Alexey felt that during the special period, it was hip hop that saved his life.

Rodriguez: With hip hop, I was able to precisely speak of many things.  It gave me a very important voice, and influenced my self-esteem, it have me to possibility to grow.  In this neighbourhood, I learned very much.  It gave me values.

And because of this I divide my life into before and after hiphop.  Now, I could have been dead or in jail or god knows what, but hip hop has saved my life and people of my generation from many things.  Or something could have ended up badly in another country, you never know.

DEY: Often, Alexey and Magia rap about the same problems that Americans progressives do: racism, sexism, machismo, inequality.  They have taken their raps to do work in prisons, at the World Social Forum in Venezuela and to the Apollo theatre.,  They often use the black experience: Afro-Cuban music and poetry.  And also orishas, an Afro-Cuban religion.  Now, they rap with help of Assata Shakur, the Black Panther who fled the States after being convicted of killing a police officer.   Magia was inspired by meeting her.

( Magia Spanish)

Lopez:  In this time, for example, we had the presence of Nayanda and Assata.  Now, these were people who as well transmitted to us many things.  Much wisdom.  About how the US hip hop movement was being coopted and manipulated by the the media.  They were like lights to us.

0:04 Magia and Alexey try to bring both of their points of view to the table within a debate.  They feel that it is important to defend what each of them believes to be true.  says that

Rodriguez: Truth is not absolute, but we want to defend our truth.  To defend our truth, as Magia says.  Maya and I don’t agree on everything, but the same, we reflect on a song so that people will have access to debate, which is a weak point in Cuban society.

DEY: Other Cuban hip-hop artists rap about the same thing – change.

(background room sounds of the Casa de la cultura latinoamericana)

Roberto Zurbano works at the Casa de la cultura latinoamericana in Havana. He is the editor of Movimiento, a Cuban hip hop journal. Zurbano says that rap came from poor black, neighbourhoods which were especially hit by the special period.

Zurbano: During the economic crisis, the Cuban revolution could not give the same opportunities as before.  The hip hop movement was born exactly in the middle of the economic crisis.  Then, they were people who generally came from poor working-class neighbourhoods in the city.  These youth were the asking for more revolution and wanted more social opportunities.

DEY: In the past, there has been some suspicion about hip hop.  Not only is it  an American art form but it also raises questions.

Lopez:  0:57 am  It is possible that the misunderstanding of hip hop culture in Cuba is because it is not a traditional form of Cuban culture. An as well, hip hop culture asks a lot of inconvenient questions.  Without a doubt, these young rappers have a level of consciousness, have a high revolutionary consciousness which wishes to transform reality.  They make a social critic of the problems which the revolution has and they are capable of doing this with the utmost honesty possibility.  This social criticism is very responsible and creative, as well.  It helps the revolution to take into account its own problems so then can confront them.

DEY:  But while Alexey and Magia may criticize, they see themselves as strengthening the revolution, not going against it.

Rodriguez:  In the end, we are two black hip hop artists who are revolutionary.  We are also defending this system and not another one. We are improving or criticizing this system and not another one.  Our songs are very critical but we also give proposals for change.

DEY: Zurbano says,  for this reason, the contemporary hip hop culture in Cuba has been compared to the singers of the nueva trova in the 1970s.

(song from nueva trova: Pablo Milanes)

DEY: The song is Si el poeta eres tu. Sung to Che Guevera, it is an example of nueva trova.  This music was used to transport Cuban ideals throughout Latin America.  Like the trova before it, it uses the old folk singing but adds politics.   But just like hip hop, it was inspired in part by American music: protest singers like Bob Dylan and Joan Baez.

Like the Cuban beat, Cuba itself is constantly changing.  With young people, people who never knew the revolution making up a sizable part of the population, there will be many debates to come.

( Music: “ciao linda”)

DEY:  And in this market in Havana, people are watching. Haut du formulaire

This is Sujata Dey for Making Contact in Havana, Cuba.

————————————–

Thanks for Spanish help:

Louise Brownrigg, Luz Maria Olguin,Eric Hamovitch, Daniel Inostroza, Roberto Ruiz Rebo, Cuban Translator, Isidro Rojas, Katherine Beeman, Caroline Turcotte, Oficina de la Prensa Internacional de Cuba, Technician Montreal: Neil Griffith

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Author: Kwan

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6 Comments

  1. I’m originaly from Cuban and am so proud to see this clip and our culture exposure. I am very excited and happy about our music but most all how it’s changing their style to a more USA type of music it’s showing a great change with our hip hop music.

    LOVE IT!!!

    Post a Reply
  2. I really enjoyed the program about hip-hop and the changes going on in Cuba.
    Please contact me. I want a CD. Kraft

    Post a Reply
  3. This was an extremely interesting show — I thought the parallels drawn between Nueva Trova and the current Cuban hip hop movement were an effective (and unexpected) organizational tool. My only criticism is that the phone interview at the end was a little difficult to listen to, but I know that issue can’t be avoided sometimes. Great show!

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  4. Hi. Thank you for all of your comments. Margarita, Gracias. I am thrilled to hear your comment as I definitely wanted to convey as much a sense of Cuba as I could.

    Post a Reply
  5. Thank you for this great post. This is what I was looking for. I’m a beat maker.

    Post a Reply
  6. Hello, I’m going to Cuba in feb and wanted to find out where obsesion is playing. I know magia and Alexey. I met them on the boat over to Regla when I was there in 2007. I no longer have there contact info and wanted to reconnect with them. If you have an email address for them or can give them mine, I’d be very thankful.
    Sandra
    Thanks for your great work!

    Post a Reply

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