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Cuban Music Lesson: Cuban Hip Hop

Get ready to be schooled, asere. It’s time for a Cuban music lesson! Learn to tell your cha cha cha from your mambo without leaving your couch. Put on your dancing shoes, guayaberas, park your 57 Chevy, light up that Habano, and pay attention.

By Jack Tomas

A lot of people make the mistake in thinking that due to the whole political situation and the embargo, that Cubans are ignorant of American pop culture. This might have been true except for the fact that Cubans can pick up American radio and TV easily. It is only 90 miles away, after all. They watch the same shows you do and listen to the same music. A phenomenon that emerged in Cuba in the late 80’s and early 90’s was Cuban hip hop. The young people, particularly the young Black people, really identified with the things American rappers were talking about. This was before rappers only started talking about how much money they had. The Cubans can’t relate to that.

The birthplace of Cuban hip hop is a neighborhood in east Havana called Alamar. One of the reasons it began there was because they got the best reception of Miami’s hip hop stations. The other is that it is an economically depressed, mostly Black area. Back in the late 80’s, American rap was very political. It was all “Fight the Power!” and leather Africa medallions. These young Cubans began emulating American rappers and their political, racial, and nationalistic flows. One of the early groups was Grupo Uno, so-called because they were…well…the first rap group. Unable to afford the equipment that American rappers use to create their sounds and inspired by a nationalistic expression of their Afro-Cuban identity, Cuban rap often employs traditional Cuban rhythms and sounds. So, instead of sampling funk music, like a lot of early American rap did, Cuban rappers might be backed by a band playing on congas and bata drums. In the early days, Cuban rap fans got together at big house parties called bonches, to listen to hip hop and participate in rap battles. Eventually, this grew into The Cuban International Hip Hop Festival in which American artists like The Roots, Mos Def, Erykah Badu, and others have played along with Cuban hip hop groups. Initially, like any import from the United States, the Castro government was suspicious of hip hop. They worried that it might be a negative counter-revolutionary bourgeois, blah blah blah. Soon, the government began allowing the hip hop artists freer reign…as long as they towed the party line.

When the Soviet Union collapsed and the “special period” began, things got real. In the emerging tourist industry and post-Soviet Cuba, Black Cubans were largely shut out. Jobs in the tourist areas are highly sought after because you can make a lot more money there. I can tell you having visited Cuba that it is definitely true that most of the people working in tourism are white Cubans. Cuban rappers called the government on this. Cuban hip hop artists also point out that Black Cuban youth are harassed much more than whites by the authorities, as it is assumed that seven Black dudes hanging out are up to no good. Castro claims that since his revolution, Cuba is a post-racial society. This is clearly B.S. as any Black Cuban will readily tell you. This is one of the reasons that Cuba’s biggest hip hop stars, The Orishas, left Cuba in the 90’s. They wanted to have the freedom to criticize what they saw as injustices on the part of the Cuban government. There is a really good documentary called, “East of Havana” that talks about the whole Cuban hip hop scene and race relations and all that. Still, less controversial hip hop is still widely heard all over Cuba as well as that musical scourge known as reggaeton. See, that’s the problem with the Castros. They oppress the wrong things. Outlaw reggaeton, because isn’t totally sucking counter-revolutionary?

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