An interview by Marjua Estevez for Billboard.
Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth is a proverb Cuban singer-rapper Danay Suarez subscribes to, ironically with a conviction as sharp as the poetics she waxes when she’s rapping about the ills of the world. Her sound, a sonic fusion of what is considered American hip-hop and Jamaican reggae, is one that Suarez has spent years trying to perfect.
“My music is not tropical, it’s not like reggaeton, because of my cadence, my flow and production,” she says to Billboard when she is done rehearsing for her show at Hialeah Park in Miami. “What I sing in Spanish, because of my style and flow, can almost always also be sung in English, and it will resonate the same.”
Surrounded by a band of husky male trumpet players, dapper dons of a drummer and pianist, a petite Suarez stands at a guesstimated five-foot-three, wearing her signature bohemian threads and a head of unruly curled locks. Her rehearsal alone summons a crowd of fans and new listeners alike, every one of them visibly dumbfounded at the shitstorm of funk this tiny woman is conjuring right before their eyes.
“Yo aprendí que la mayoría de las veces/ Las cosas no son lo que parecen,” she spits, swaying with one hand in the air, as if to beckon a higher being or musical anointing.
Danay was born in Havana, Cuba, and raised between El Cerro and Buena Vista, a pair of barrios she describes as historically “conflicted and riddled with social issues.” Her redemption song — earning four Latin Grammy nominations for an album, Palabras Manuales, that she originally lost and had to record not once, but three times over — is a testament to the artist’s internal compass and faith in Father Time.
“God raises those at the bottom, and lowers those at the top,” she points curiously to a starry night sky.
When we sit at a table by the Hialeah Park stage to talk at length about her coming-of-age, hip-hop and the current state of her career, it becomes clear almost immediately that Danay’s gentle spirit and humility is not to be mistaken for weakness or naiveté. In all her doe-eyed glory, Danay is — if nothing else — sure of her originality, artistry and worth as a modern day renaissance woman.
By the several fans of varying ages and background that interrupt our talk for a picture more times than I can count, it is evident Danay Suarez has begun to forge a lasting legacy.
The original recording of Palabras Manuales — all of it disappeared. What happened there?
I had already recorded the album in Cuba when Universal offered me a work contract, since I was already going to the U.S. to perform a concert. Because the United States and Cuba don’t have any other legal protocols, I had to get my residency in the U.S. to accept Universal’s contract. So that means I never returned to my house [in Cuba] thereafter. I had to follow through with the residency to further push with my music career.
In the time that I was gone from Cuba, the recording, the hard drive with the album on it, broke. What I had recorded in Cuba, also disappeared. Everything I had recorded in the studio in Cuba, was gone.
How did you come back from that, how did you return to the recording process?
I recorded this album three times. The first time, was composing all the music. The second was recording it in Cuba, with all the mixing and the works of Roberto Fonseca, who’s a jazz pianist. And the third was was while I was here, in this country, where I had to make the decision to just record the whole album all over again on my own accord, and without the help of Fonseca.
This album, this music, is totally original, genuine and authentic. Even the production is largely mine, about 80 percent of it. The experience gave me the opportunity to serve as a producer, and to also invite other artists like Stephen Marley, Aja Monet and El B of Los Aldeanos.
That same album earned you four Latin Grammy nominations this year. How did you initially react to the news?
I was normal. I am not chasing any awards. I am honestly not an artist that is chasing any of those big awards.
I, obviously, would love to win something as big in music as album of the year, but my reason is not personal or for personal gratification. My purpose lies in the art and love of music, and it’s a shame that this kind of music has to be buried under everything that is deemed popular or commercial. Because in reality, it’s bad. The honor and how it’s given is bad. And it’s always the same people. There has to be a change already.
That’s really my only position as far as the [Latin] Grammys are concerned. For an artist like me to win would go far in representation, but me, personally? I don’t have an interest in chasing awards. None of that defines my success. My success is defined when someone who is on the brink of suicide finds refuge in my words and decides to keep living their best life. That is my greatest purpose in music. A purpose rooted in humanity.
Take notice that I’ve collaborated with a lot of different famous artists to appropriate some of the markets; I’ve been able to perform on many different stages to expand, but that’s not at the core of my interests. Because fame is one thing, but success is another. There could be really famous people but doing really bad things for humanity, and that’s where I’m not falling into.
What exactly is your determined idea of success?
For me, the ultimate success is to construct good values in a person, without ruining any principles or stepping on anyone’s toes. For me, success is if I go to the Grammys and God favors me with an award, I will be able to say that I got here without hurting anyone, without causing anyone any pain. I got here without bribing anyone. I got here without paying anyone. I got here without prostituting myself. I got here without robbing anyone.
That’s success to me. To have the morality and power to tell people, “Yes, you can make music. You can actualize what you felt so many years ago inside yourself and make that music. That caliber of music can continue.”
Your music for me was sort of an introduction to Cuban hip-hop. As a singer and rapper, your sound and cadence is not a typical one when you consider other contemporary Latin American recording artists…
I have that flow, my words carry that weight. I’ve sung R&B and gospel, but I’ve also tried to maintain the Spanish-language. It’s not easy to design… I don’t know if you’ve ever heard Latino artists singing reggae, but it almost always sounds like… something tropical more than anything else. But my music is not tropical, it’s not like reggaeton, because of my cadence, my flow and production. And to construct that in the Spanish language — it’s a design I’ve been trying to perfect for some time now.
What I sing in Spanish, because of my style and flow, can almost always also be sung in English and it resonate the same. That’s what I’ve been working with throughout my entire career. It’s all by design and on purpose. I’ve been able to personally decide what to do with my voice, because I can go from classical to the most urban. But for me, above anything else, is the word — my lyrics. I’m more a lyricist than musician.
Is that why you would say hip-hop is important to you?
Hip-hop is the opportunity for someone to give a lesson or lecture on any given topic. But what lecture do you want to give, what do you want to talk about? Do you know how much weight your words carry? Words either save you or condemn you.
As a woman of Cuban heritage, what do your parents think of your career choice?
My father hasn’t yet understood my career as well as my mother. He has these fears, almost like insecurities about my career, and it’s always about whether I’ve won or lost. What I consider a win, is not what my father thinks is a win. For instance, my father is always super excited when the media writes about me, when I get honored with an award or something. When I don’t have an award for something, he feels insecure about that. But my mother does very clearly get where my roots are, what my music and career is about, what is really important to me. My mother knows that if I win anything, what that award really represents for me.
Is being recognized not important to you?
Everyone wants to be recognized. But me? I honestly just want to see people wake up. Everyone who has a platform and stage in the arts and in music, needs to wake up. What are you really dedicating your life to? What are you really putting value into? What are you really promoting? What are you sharing? Because there are your nieces and nephews, your kids, your family members and all the generations that will come after you — what are you doing with your life when all of them will have a worry, a challenge to overcome, an insecurity about life? There’s a passion in our souls, as men and women, that no award in the world can quell.
Having spent some time living here in the states, what’s your relationship with Cuba today?
I’m free. I have no reservations about my opinions. Cuba is a place stopped in time. It’s a very interesting place. It’s a place where time is on our side, where there is time to just be, to partake in the lives of loved ones, to share everything. But at the same time, for the one who wants to excel in something professional, in a certain career, you may have to find a way to leave the country. But for the one who desires to have a social life, a life of conversation and of relationships, Cuba is the place for that.
Cuba is the place where — it raises its artists, but doesn’t provide them with the opportunity to flourish or expand. But again, Cuba is also a place of pure ingenuity. Very little is thrown away without is being recycled, including when it comes to music.
A lot of your music, even if it comes with sharp lyrics and a hard beat, often point to love or the universal concept of it. What’s your current relationship with love?
Love? You have to be incredibly valiant to really love. Everyone wants to be loved. But would you dare love the one who doesn’t love you? That’s the point of many of my songs. Would you dare forgive the one who so badly hurt you, who caused you so much of that pain? Would you dare be happy in a room where all the artists around you receive awards but you get nothing? Would you be happy for them?
That’s love. Love is giving your everything without expecting anything in return. Love doesn’t look for its own fulfillment. Love supports it all, love is patient. Love doesn’t go away. Even more, love never stops being. One has to be incredibly valiant to love. One has to know God to love.