Not Only Built 4 Cuban Bronx

La Revolución embraces Hip-Hop—with Fidel’s blessing

Alamar, Cuba is by far the largest public housing project in the world. Construction started in the early 1970s with the help of Soviet architects, and the projects—located a few miles east of Havana—now house 300,000 people in over 2000 buildings. And they're still expanding. Alamar is the cradle of hip-hop in Cuba, and home to the National Hip-Hop Festival; Cuba's South Bronx, you could call it. It's surprising, though, that hip-hop didn't find its home in one of Havana's hipper, more urban neighborhoods: Old Havana, Vedado, or San Miguel. Alamar is a "new community." Most of the people living there were the new married couples and their children of the 1970s and '80s that moved out of their parents' houses in Havana proper. Alamar is also located on higher ground, so Alamareños get the best reception of Miami TV and radio stations. Lucky them.

Hip-hop is hot throughout Cuba, and has been for a while. In 1980, someone brought a copy of Sugarhill Gang's "Rapper's Delight" down to the island, and "people flipped out," says Pablo Herrera, a rap producer and English professor in Havana. "People were dancing the pigüe [breakdance] on street corners all over Havana, and the police used to break up the parties because they thought we were starting a protest." Sound familiar? Kids called "Rapper's Delight" "Apenejé," because they had noidea what Wondermike's "I said a hip, hop, a hibby . . . " meant. Unlike Pablo, few people had the opportunity to collect rap albums throughout the 1980s, so the music's popularity grew at a slow pace. But in the past seven years, hip-hop has exploded to the far reaches of all the provinces, even the rural tobacco farms of Pinar Del Río and the citrus groves of Isle Of Youth.

The loss of Soviet subsidy in 1990 sent Cuba through various stages of what's called a "special period." After rations were reorganized, the black market flourished; then the dollar became legal, but Cubans couldn't legally buy goods with dollars. When they finally could, there was nothing to buy. But now there are plenty of things to buy, to the point where capitalism flourishes everywhere—if you have the dollars, which is exactly what the revolution tried to avoid. Classes. Now almost every industrialized country in the world is doing business with Cuba, except the U.S. Ché Guevara's face is for sale on ashtrays and berets in the markets, so now tourists can buy a little part of the revolution and bring it home with them.

Representing Cuba culturally, all over the world
photo: David Ellis
Representing Cuba culturally, all over the world

The younger generation of Cubans has little or no memory of a successful revolution. Julio Cárdenas a/k/a El Hip-Hop Kid, of the rap group RCA (Los Rapperos Crazy De Alamar), makes 35 cents a day working at a fishery. So after nine years of hustling, when DMX comes along talkin' about money, clothes, and 'hos, shit is tempting.

In the U.S., hip-hop originates from marginalized communities. Since the triumph of the revolution, because of the U.S. blockade, Cuba has become like one big marginalized community, and hip-hop tries to express that isolation in a world context, the same way kids in the Bronx did in the 1970s.

Arguably Cuban rumba, a combination of chants, bragging, storytelling, and improvisationto African-derived rhythms and instruments, was the first "rap" in the Americas, far predating Jamaican toasting. Although rumba can still be heard all over Cuba—at private ceremonies, performances, and public tourist attractions—rap is now the preferred música of Cuban revolutionary youth. Every year, the Cuban national baseball team chooses a popular salsa song to play before the National Championship game. But this year, when they played against the Baltimore Orioles, they chose a rap song byDoble Filo, and had the whole stadium rapping with them—including Fidel Castro himself.

That's right, Fidel Castro is the first world leader to embrace hip-hop. In 1997, the questionthat came up at the Cuban Rap Colloquium was "Is rap revolutionary or counterrevolutionary?" Well, I think they've made up their minds.This past June, Cuba's Minister of Culture, Abel Prieto, officially recognized rap as a valid and important part of Cuban culture that must be supported by the people. In a ceremony on Cuban national television, he stated that "We have to support our Cuban rappers because this is the next generation of Cubans and they are saying powerful things with this art. I am responsible for giving this generation the freedom to claim their power culturally." And he delivered. For the previous four years, the Cuban Hip-Hop Festival had been supported with next to nothing—fundsleft over after Alamar's Casa De Cultura budget was exhausted. The old sound system worked half the time; lights went out. If you were a rapper, you had to get there yourself. But this year, an estimated $50,000 worth of goods and services went into the festival, an astronomical amount for a nontourist cultural event. The Anfiteatro De Alamar has never seen such a professional sound and light system, let alone monitors on the stage. Rappers from all over the country were flown in and given lodging and meals, all with government money. El Hip-Hop Kid laughed, "Damn, all these years we didn't get anything, and now we get driven around in a bus, and we got beans, yuca, and bistec for rehearsals! They're really taking us seriously. I think you could say things are changing."

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