Defending Rap in Cuba

In the article “La vida es rapear” [“Life is to Rap,” a nod to the film La vida es silbar, “Life is to Whistle”] Carlos Espinoza Domínguez speaks about a new generation of Cuban rappers, many of which are the grandchildren or even great grandchildren of veteran musicians of the Buena Vista Social Club genre. This new breed of musicians tend to incorporate or make references older genres such as cha-cha-cha, punto guajiro, rumba, and son, as a way to communicate with Cuban audiences or to give a sense of authenticity to their creations. According to Espinoza, the newcomers have not copied the more negative aspects of the U.S. models, for example, sexism, glorification of violence, or homophobia.

The Cuban rap movement, which has become a major force on the island since the 1990’s, first arose in densely populated Havana neighborhoods such as Central Havana, Arroyo Naranjo, Old Havana, Cotorro, and Alamar (and in similar areas of some provincial capitals)—all districts that have a marked predominance of Afro-Cuban population. Afro-Cubans represent the largest presence within this movement, and therefore, according to Espinoza, many of the groups address themes like discrimination based on skin color. He describes the different approaches to this topic by groups like Reyes de la Calle, Explosión Suprema, Obsesión, Cuarta Imagen (which incorporates verses by Nicolás Guillén), and the all-female collective, Instinto. Another group that incorporates traditional poetry and other literary genres are Hermanos de Causa.

The rappers’ questioning and critical look extends to other topics: police repression, prostitution, class differences, gossip, alcoholism among young people, and the need for change. In one group, LHA, the singers extend this criticism to the rap movement itself, critiquing the discrimination of women rappers by their male counterparts. “This,” says Espinoza, “makes this music to be listened to rather than to dance, despite having a highly contagious rhythm.”

In September 2002, the Cuban Rap Agency was created to promote the genre after Minister of Culture Abel Prieto pronounced that rap was “an authentic expression of Cuban culture.” The agency apparently arose from the need for a center for promoting and marketing, thus enabling the development of this musical genre. It has its own label, Asere Productions, under which several CDs have been recorded. The agency also publishes a magazine called Movimiento [Movement]. It organizes lectures and symposia as well as national tours of the groups that members of the rap agency. The most recent one was held in July 2010, with groups such as Doble Filo, Anónimo Consejo, Primera Base, and Adversario.

However, on many occasions rappers have brought to light the other side of the agency: its attempt to tame the rebelliousness and critical content of rap. Some of the most anti-establishment rappers, who refuse to align themselves with organized institutions like the Cuban Rap Agency are Mano Armada, Los Aldeanos, and Silvito el Libre (Silvio Rodríguez’s son).

Espinoza concludes that it is more difficult for the street poetry of rap to compete with invasion of reggaeton, which he says is characterized by “its stupid lyrics and pelvic gyrations.” He underlines that “if these are hard times for lyricism, it must be said these are hard times for the island rappers.” 

For full article (in Spanish), see http://www.cubaencuentro.com/cultura/articulos/la-vida-es-rapear-255195

Shown here: Obsesión (pioneering rap group), Hermanos de Causa, and Silvito el Libre.

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