Not Only Built 4 Cuban Bronx

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

Indeed they are. Finally Cuban rap is getting play on national stations like Radio Rebelde and Radio Taino. Groups like Primera Base and Proyecto F have toured and recorded songs in Europe. So has Instinto, Cuba's most famous female rap group, who rap about feminist issues, the environment, and partying. And this year, for the first time, Cuban rap records are being played along with North American ones at clubs.

Believe it or not, the first North American rapper that performed on the island was California's Paris, in 1992. Over 200,000 people attended, and they still talk about it today. There was a six-year absence of yanqui rappers until Mos Def, Talib Kweli, DJ Hi-Tek, and Dead Prez's M-1 performed at last year's festival. This year, late in August, Common performed with DJ Crossfader on a bill of 30 Cuban rap groups. And, as with all of the U.S. rappers, his lyrics had to be approved before he could perform. I wish they would do that on Hot 97.

At this year's Hip-Hop Festival colloquiums, the themes were Ancestors, Antecedents, and Contemporaneity in Hip-Hop. Speakers included writers, rappers, poets, and people active in government. Cuban poet Ismael Gonzalez Castañer spoke on ancestors: "The rapper isn't an extension of the storyteller in Africa, he is the storyteller from Africa. The only difference is that his attitude is shaped by where we are—America."

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

All rap and r&b from the U.S. goes under the umbrella name la moña,where rap is simply el rap. And like white kids in Iowa, some Cuban rappers have co-opted the irresistible gangsta attitude. Some raps are about guns, drugs, and violence, although for the most part the only violence the rappers have experienced is U.S. biological warfare. But videos are powerful. Andas most Cuban households have VCRs or access to them, every style is imitated. There are Cuban versions of Busta Rhymes, R. Kelly, Naughty ByNature, Mobb Deep, TLC—you name it, they got it. There's even a group of female vegans who wear clown hats and rap on stilts.

But not all Cuban hip-hop is imitation U.S. In fact, people that front like they're on some North American ghetto shit get dissed as being Miki-Miki—derived from "Mickey Mouse," no doubt. Groups like Amenaza, Doble Filo, and Los Rapperos Crazy De Alamar rap about racism in Cuba, police harassment, the effect capitalism is having on people's behavior. And also on jineteras—derived from the word "jockey", jineteras is now used to classify young women who "ride the backs" of the European tourists (tembas)to get some dollars (guanikiki)sometimes in exchange for sex. Groups like Madera Limpia rap to live traditional folkloric Cuban instruments like catá, marímbula,and cajón.

From the eastern part of the island, closer in proximity to Jamaica, groups from Guantánamo and Santiago infuse dancehall styles into their raps. A few years ago, an act from the remote Isla De La Juventud called Dos X Dos performed at the festival. It was kind of like Vanilla Ice performing at Millbrook Projects. They had no credibility, being from a rural province wherethe main occupation is agriculture, particularly grapefruits. The audience booed them off stage with jeers of "Grapefruit! Get the hell out of here. Go home, grapefruits!" Well this year, Dos X Dos came back with a vengeance. Decked out in Fubu, Tommy Hil, and stocking caps brought by relatives in Miami or bought off tourists, they opened up their act like a bad skit off a Master P album, and in the thickest of Cuban accents proclaimed, "Wasup nigger motherfucker! Shit Fucker Motherfucker Bitch! Yeah man! Represent Motherfucker Nigger!"

It recalled the time, at a previous festival, when a group of black rappers got on stage and prefaced a rap tribute to Malcolm X with the following: "This is a homage to Malcolm X, because he is our brother and we relate to black people all over the world, even the United States, and we feel sorry for our black brothers in the United States who have to live the way that they do. They have it the worst of the worst." Thesong talked of inspiration and resistance, yet the chorus went: "Malcolm, we wanna be just like you nigger, a nigger like you. . . . "

Just about every North American in the audience was appalled, including some exiled New Afrikan Freedom Fighters. A fierce debate about the N-word's use in hip-hop ensued. And the question was asked, "If you Americans are so bothered by Cubans using the word, then why are you exporting it like it was hot shit?"

Young Cuban rap promoter Ariel Fernandez said, "We have to be careful that we don't create rap for commercial purposes, because it represents us culturally all over the world." Ismael Gonzalez Castañer went on, "The violence that permeates North American rap is real, because the violence there is real. No rapper here has ever experienced that violence and never will, because we don't have the problems that they have, thank God! The question is, now that we have embraced hip-hop, what are we going to do with it in regards to the revolution?" As one New Afrikan exile said at the colloquium, "For one thing, the revolution ain't gonna have no 'Squeeze yo titties if you love hip-hop."'

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