Cuban Hip-Hop Was Born in Alamar

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This piece by Daniel Levin appeared in The Daily Beast.

Miles of Soviet era housing projects sat along on the ocean. From its exterior, nothing looked like it had changed since the ‘70s, yet here was the home of hip-hop in Cuba.
I am not the first or last person to document the hip-hop scene in Cuba. In 2000, when I was 18 years old, I traveled to Cuba to make my first film La Ciudad del Hip-Hop about the flourishing scene in Alamar, a district in East Havana that the locals referred to as “The City of Hip-Hop.” I made the film with my two best friends from high school, Ben Solomon and Filippo Chia. We immediately fell in love with Havana, the beauty and mysticism of the city and the warmth and intelligence of the people that lived there. Nearly 15 years later, Obama declared his plans to normalize relations with Cuba and the time was right for me to look back and find out what had become of my Cuban comrades, who so graciously opened their world and lives to us.

La Ciudad del Hip-Hop profiles two rap groups, Doble Filo (Double Edge) and RCA (Rappers Crazy from Alamar), who were at the forefront of the hip-hop scene in Alamar. Seventeen-year-old Edgar Gonzalez formed one half of the group Doble Filo. His mature wit and poetic style drew in those around him and we connected instantly. Julio Cardenas, 25 and an MC from the group RCA, was older but with a youthful smile that hid the harsher sides of Cuban life. Despite our differences, we all shared in common a creative sensibility, a thirst for knowledge of each other’s worlds, and a love for Hip-Hop culture. The trip embodied a sort of cultural exchange and we brought down mix tapes, t-shirts, graffiti magazines, and other items that we had easy access to in New York City, but that teens in Cuba did not. They wanted to know everything about New York and we wanted to know everything about Cuba. During our stay, Edgar and Julio served as tour guides through Alamar and introduced us to dancers, DJs, and other MCs who all shared their stories.

By 2001, both groups had achieved some notoriety and were invited to perform for American audiences at New York City’s Apollo Theater with The Roots, Dead Prez and the then still underground Kanye West. On that trip, while the rest of the artists including Edgar returned to Cuba, Julio made a life changing decision to defect and remain indefinitely in the United States. That same year, thanks in part to La Ciudad del Hip-Hop, I was accepted to film school in Boston, and after graduation returned to New York to continue working in film.

Fast forward to December 19, 2014, when the news that the United State intends to restore full diplomatic relations with Cuba breaks and my nostalgia for the artists who I’d connected with as a youth motivates me to try and locate them. Locate them I did, and I would soon reunite with friends from both another era and socioeconomic world, who since the film had gone on to take two very different paths.

I found Julio on Facebook and shot him a catch-up message. He quickly responded as spirited as ever: “Ha ha ha oh wow Dan what’zup!!!! ….Doin good …very funny I almost forgot about tha movie actually recently I just saw Edgar.”

While Julio’s instant reply and confirmation that he still lives in New York was good news, the prospect that Edgar might have also left Cuba for the states was a complete surprise. Could Edgar be in NYC, I thought? I immediately searched Edgar’s name on Facebook and boom, there he was! I shot Edgar a Facebook message.

Edgar replied within a few minutes: “Hey bro great hearing from you. Yes, its been a long time. Yeah I treasure that film, great memories. I’m living in NYC now.”

Here we were, all three of us living in New York City after all this time. I excitedly assembled meetings with both of them; and within 24 hours, I found myself sitting face to face with Edgar, my teenage friend, both of us now men.

Edgar and I sat in a cafe downtown and reminisced. From his purview, our visit and interest had brought excitement to him and his peers. “Back then, Cuban hip-hop had a momentum,” he said. “We ended up in the pages of Vibe. Mos Def, Talib Kweli, Hi Tek, Dead Prez came, it was a moment, everyone was around… For us it was like ok, people from America, people from New York, these kids are coming, everyone else was older, but they are our age, we connected on an original level. It was about documenting that, but it was also about having fun and exploring Cuba, so it was a really unique time that I treasure.”

“I was so nervous,” said Julio. “All my family was waiting for me, it was great moment. I feel like a tourist, like you, everyone asking you for money, what did you bring me? Give me this, give me that, pay for my beer.”
From his mother’s birthday celebration to everyday family gatherings, the Gonzalez family had embraced us as if we were siblings of Edgar. Alamar had a visually mesmerizing way about it. Miles of Soviet era housing projects sat along the ocean. From its exterior, nothing looked like it had changed since the ‘70s, yet here was the home of hip-hop in Cuba, stuck in the past and the future of Cuban culture.

A couple days following my reunion with Edgar, Julio and I reunited, as well. I learned that he was working and living in the Lower East Side, delivering orders for an Italian restaurant and raising two kids. Both Edgar and Julio shared the same smile and light-hearted manner that I remembered and appreciated from years ago.

Upon remembering our visit, Julio recollected, “When I saw you guys, we were so excited that you were going to make a documentary. Something about Alamar, our neighborhood, the way we lived, the way we expressed, the way we connect.”

Like Edgar, he remembers a unique time when American rappers came down and performed at the Primer Festival de Rap Cubano. They all felt that Cuban hip-hop was going to be a huge political force for change, and change their lives for the better in the process. In many ways it was and it did, but perhaps not in the ways they originally intended, having aspirations of signing with a major American label. However, they both did come to the U.S. and performed around the country. I listened and learned why Julio had decided to defect on that first trip to America in 2001 when they played at the Apollo, a decisions he attributes to the harsh living conditions and his personal life.

“I have to be honest with you,” Julio said, “I had both sides in my life, in my mind. I was thinking about forever being with the music. I love my group, I love hip-hop, but at the same time circumstances were very tragic, bad for me in my personal life, I was living with my mom, my sister, my nephew in the same apartment. You know its Cuba, it’s hard to get independent like here. I had to make a quick decision and I thought it was best to stay here in America.”

I noted Julio’s mixed sentiments on his life in America. At the time of his defection, he felt a strong need to get out of Cuba, and accomplished just that. He encountered struggles that many foreign newcomers face upon beginning a new life in America. He was treated like an immigrant, working for minimum wage, missing his family and having to move on from his musical career. Eventually Julio made the decision to become an American Citizen, and even voted for Barack Obama in the 2008 election. Today, he stands by and has pride in his decision, and points out that most of his Cuban comrades also relocated to America eventually, when granted the opportunity. Finally, he was able to return to Cuba in 2006 and reunite with family and friends with no legal repercussions and has plans to return again in the future.

“I was so nervous,” said Julio. “All my family was waiting for me, it was a great moment. I feel like a tourist, like you, everyone asking you for money, what did you bring me? Give me this, give me that, pay for my beer.”

Julio had come full circle and had returned to Cuba as a tourist in his own country. Meanwhile, Edgar had returned to Cuba after that 2001 tour and continued to make music. He became a well-known TV personality on the Cuban music show Cuerda Viva, and Doble Filo eventually released a critically acclaimed album Despierta in 2011, which won a “Cubadisco” award, the nation’s highest musical accolade.

In 2012, Cuba reformed its immigration policy and Cubans are now permitted to leave and return to the country with looser restrictions. Edgar was invited to study at the Berkeley School of Music in Boston and at NYU in New York City. He has been living, studying and working in the United States for the past year and a half.

With the recent news that Obama plans to normalize relations with Cuba, both men are very happy, but also take it with a grain of salt. In one of the final scenes in the film back in 2000, Edgar is asked about the future of Cuban and American relations, he replied “Lets see what happens when I am 30.” I couldn’t have imagined that I would actually be sitting with him, coincidentally at age 30, discussing the same issue. Edgar explained his opinion on the recent news.

“My mom was really happy,” he said. “Me personally, I have mixed feelings. I am a little embarrassed that everyone is so happy that ‘America’ decided to do this, the fate of Cuban politics and government is in the hands of the Cuban people. Cuba has one party: the Communist party. If you have a country that doesn’t have several political parties, that represent several ideologies, what change can come? I hope that America is going to hold Cuba accountable in public opinion. For example, if we can have open Internet, will it be censored? That will be really sad for me… Something is moving, it is better than before, but a lot has to happen.”

Cuban hip-hop has evolved as well, both Edgar and Julio talk about the band Los Aldeanos as the new generation of Cuban hip-hop. They took an anti-establishment stance to a new level, openly opposing the government. And now Reggaeton is king in Cuba as it is in most of the Caribbean.

Julio pointed out to me that Alamar is at the top of the charts this year. He is talking about one of the biggest Latin Songs of the year “Bailando” by Enrique Iglesias, featuring artists Descemer Bueno and Gente de Zona, a Cuban group who originated in Alamar and whose name referrers to the neighborhood as well.

Even though years had passed and we had grown into adults, what struck me most was that in a large sense, we had always been brothers—bonded by a creative need to express ourselves and the passion for learning and growing—both in an artistic and civic sense. Music, film, hip-hop were all tools that bridged the geographical and political gap between us at a time when our leaders could not make any common connections. I am excited that circumstances are changing, but as I have been known to point out, we’ve been normalizing relations with Cuba since the year 2000! It’s about time everyone else caught up.

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