At first glance you’d think you were watching a classic old-school underground rap battle: the MC takes the smoky stage in a Yankees fitted flat brim. He holds the mic in one hand and waves the other in the air. The crowd presses up against the stage; the lights are bright; he spits lyrics like: “As much as you try you cannot be happy/You can’t find the solution to your problems/You always feel like you’re at home alone/The hope of a country dies with you.”
Fairly run-of-the-mill. Except for one major difference: the setting is Cuba in February 2010, at a state-endorsed rap festival called La Rotilla. The Spanish-speaking rappers are Aldo and El B of the group Los Aldeanos, and their indictments of the Cuban social reality are biting, especially considering the Castro regime’s stance on freedom of speech: the country has the second-highest number of jailed journalists in the world, and the government controls all official media outlets.
Los Aldeanos is one of a very small number of Cuban rap acts at the festival that vehemently rejects the state support the Cuban government has offered them. In light of this context, the scene becomes infinitely sexier to the Western eye: it’s rebellion on rebellion, revolutionary sentiments criticizing the most revolutionary regime in modern Western history.
The result is in some ways a hypersymbolic, easily-appropriated picture of ‘political’ rap: Aldo and El B have emblazoned their forearms with tattoos reading “El rap es guerra” (rap is war). They glare into cameras, spout revolutionary rhetoric intended to endow the marginalized Afrocuban sector of the population with a space for discourse, with a voice. They don’t explicitly criticize the ideals of the Castro regime—that’s grounds for imprisonment. But they criticize much of what it’s created.
Their ‘message’ reveals as much about the social fabric of contemporary Cuba as it does about the broader conversation between hip-hop and politics. The American media’s depiction of that message, moreover, bespeaks a transient idea of what constitutes a revolution today.
Let the Beat Build
Rap in Cuba has grown over the last 20 years out of a social space that was by definition subversive: it was first popularized in the early 1990s, when gangsta rap dominated US radio airwaves and could be picked up illegally in a Havana housing project called Alamar from stations broadcasting in Miami. Around the same time, Cuba was reeling from the fall of the Soviet Union, its primary historical trading partner. Between 1989, the year before the start of the crisis, and 1993, one of its worst years, GDP in Cuba fell by 35 percent. In 1991, Fidel Castro announced the dawn of the euphemistically-named Período Especial en Tiempo de Paz (Special Period in Time of Peace), which placed harsh economic and living standard restrictions on Cuban citizens. The situation was dire: brownouts, famine, medicine shortages. In 1993 the Cuban government decriminalized possession of the dollar out of necessity, and the self-imposed isolation that contributed to Cuba’s mystique for Westerners slowly began to dissolve.
Cuba opened itself to tourism and remittance capital, and with that opening came a “second economy” which operated on an exponentially greater monetary scale than did Cuba’s socialist economy. For example, jineteros, Cuban hustlers who help tourists out finding cheap cigars and prostitutes, can make ten or twenty times more in a week than a Cuban government worker does. Remittances, for their part, come mainly from the white Cuban diaspora and fall into the hands of the white Cuban population.
In “Notes on Man and Socialism in Cuba,” Che Guevera alludes to the “close dialectical unity between the individual and the mass, in which the mass… is interconnected with individuals”—but in the Cuban reality, there was and is little to no official acknowledgement of racial inequity. Cuban law claims the country has overcome racial discrimination and achieved “no institutional racism”—in other words, that the equalizing goals of the revolution have been achieved. But poverty, economic inequality, and racial discrimination are social realities in Cuba despite the official doctrine of denial. This incongruity between official discourse and reality is largely what rappers like Los Aldeanos seek to address: “I don’t marginalize myself,” El B quips in “Letra de amor” (“Love Letter”).
The Cuban government was initially suspicious of rap and its association with American culture. But with the assistance of Cuban rap producer Pablo Herrera, rap music began to garner some support from the Cuban state. In 1999, Minister of culture Abel Prieto declared rap an “authentic form of Cuban culture,” and the burgeoning Cuban rap movement soon became associated with the state youth group Asociación Hermanos Saíz, which was a source of logistical support for the organizers of the Rotilla festival where Los Aldeanos performed. Involvement in rap grew in 2002 with the establishment of the Agencia Cubana de Rap. Rap became increasingly popular, and state sponsorship became an important step to proliferation and popularization in the Cuban rap scene, even though rap was often critical of the state. Various observers have speculated that the state either embraced the music to garner some control over it, or that it did so out of a genuine appreciation for rap as an organic art form of the Cuban masses. Whatever the motivation, the allowance made a first and tentative rip in the Cuban government’s stranglehold on political discourse in the media.
And so Cuban rap flourished, borrowing heavily from American rap tropes, but also reappropriating them. In one Aldeanos video, for example, El B waves a stack of bills in the camera lens—but then raps about his dream of the national currency being worth more than the Euro. As a whole, however, Cuban rap espouses gangsta rap aesthetics more closely today than the American rap scene does, and Cuban and American commentators like Joel del Rio have lauded it for preserving the “original spirit of hip-hop.” Whatever that means.
Cuban rap might be especially appealing to consumers who see the country’s music as the product of a culture they can’t touch, something immune to the far-reaching tendrils of globalization. When Ry Cooder and Wim Wenders made the Buena Vista Social Club documentary, critics lauded the group’s music for its ‘authenticity’ and its ‘antispectacle’ storytelling, the ways it captured Cuba’s rejection of capitalism in a world where music is increasingly commercialized. This Cuban music was largely apolitical, good for dancing. But, as José Quiroga writes, when we use music as a litmus test for cultural standards, as we do when we listen to ‘Cuban’ music, we expect it to project and communicate “certain kinds of values” about the culture as a whole. In other words, the generally apolitical nature of this ‘traditional Cuban music’ promoted a global conception of Cuban culture and politics as discrete or without tension. To the Western eye, Cuba became a haven of political consensus or apathy, where island music played and the state gave you free doctors (see: Michael Moore’s Sicko).
Perhaps the ‘authenticity’ that American listeners have tended to find in rappers like Los Aldeanos is simply a more politicized version of the same voyeuristic objectification with which they viewed Buena Vista. As a whole, the US fascination with Cuba has long been driven by an almost morbid curiosity, a desire to see an exotic, forbidden, and threatened way of life. (Paradoxically, the process of firsthand ‘seeing’—tourism—further threatens the ideology of the Revolution by drawing in foreign capital.) And as the Cuban economy opens more and more to foreign capital and with a decrepit Fidel having passed power to his brother in 2008, we’re ready to label the Cuban political dream as illusory and rappers’ political dissent as a new romantic form of revolution. CNN wrote in a 2009 expose on Los Aldeanos that “what makes Cuban rappers different is that rather than celebrating bling, girls, and guns, their lyrics address social issues in a country where free speech is tightly controlled.” The statement is a left mass media wet dream—it manages to rip on Cuba for censorship and celebrate ‘revolutionary ideology’ at the same time. It depicts Cuban rap as a pure or undiluted form of old-school political rap, immune to commercialization, purely an agent of social change.
The rhetoric sounds eerily similar to the initial media reception of American ‘political’ rap. An Entertainment Weekly review of Public Enemy’s Fear of a Black Planet said: “it [the album] stitches voices together to give the impression of a vast community… fists in the air to demand change. There’s nothing in pop music quite like it. It sounds like a partly African, partly postmodern collage, stitched together on tumultuous urban streets.”
In both cases, Westerners idealized rap as a political tool, as a method of social change. And it certainly is—for some rappers. But from whom, exactly, are such rappers demanding this change? In the Cuban context, do American voyeurs have the right to assign these artists political goals? The movement looks counterrevolutionary, but rap can be a form of cultural expression and a site of pleasure. It’s not necessarily a political platform.
Yet the American public has been weirdly hasty to give rap in Cuba a stated sociopolitical goal, an object, though there is little consistency in what this object is. The Miami New Times described Los Aldeanos as “virulently anti-government and explicitly anti-Fidel” when they performed in Miami this November, fitting the group nicely into an idea of a New Cuban Revolutionary generation, rebelling against the blights of the Special Period. But the very same concert drew right-wing Cuban expatriate protesters, angry that the venue was supporting what they considered a pro-communist act.
Los Aldeanos, for their part, reject political alignment and advocate more general social change. They also help to open a space for marginalized discourse in politically-stifled Cuba. “We are not in agreement with any political system, the one here or the one you have,” Aldo told the New York Times in 2006. Their lyrics eschew opposing political options with equal virulence: “You local managers don’t understand me!” (state support is out), and “I have no time for famous photos and autographs/I have a revolution to create with my pen” (but so is a glamorous record deal).
Obviously these one-line binaries aren’t sufficient to explain Los Aldeanos’ political standpoint. But they illuminate the bizarrely polarizing effect the idea of the Cuban rapper has had on American culture—the group doesn’t espouse one message or standpoint, but, according to its WordPress, rather aims to “create… musical dialogues between artists and their respective worldwide communities, using hip-hop as a tool for social change.” Yet listeners are obsessed with endowing the group with a subversive political end. Americans want to watch the rappers stage a revolution against an ideologically muddled state. That way, they get to believe in revolutions again without exorcising Joe McCarthy’s ghost for good.
This eagerness to view political Cuban rappers as revolutionaries and neo-Guevaras bespeaks a more general modern disconnect between political symbolism and political activism—specifically, a conflation of revolution and dissent. We wear the t-shirt; we like the general idea, but we don’t know the policy. Insofar as rap is one of the freer forms of political dissent in Cuba, perhaps the desire to call the movement revolutionary relates to a broader lack of stringency regarding what constitutes a revolution. Revolutions seek change, but historically, they’ve also made ideological demands. Conversely, recent uprisings like the Greek Riots of 2008 have rejected the political status quo without proposing a set alternative to it. Paired with the organizing avenues created by new media, this makes for a more organic form of revolution—but also, perhaps, one less likely to succeed in the long run. As the Cuban state opens and dissenting cries come from within it, the US turns its head to hear the battle cries of the legacy of the Eastern Bloc. But American fans should be wary of taking political art for overthrow, because such an overthrow is not theirs to shape.
Mimi Dwyer B’13 comes mainly from the white Cuban diaspora.