Try Red Pepper in print with our pay-as-you-feel subscription. You decide the price, from as low as £2 a month.More info ×
Onstage is Instinto, a female trio extraordinaire. The divas are
wearing shimmering strapless dresses with high heels. As a salsa beat kicks in, they rap in a lyrical prose, spin on their heels, and sing in three part harmony. This is Cuban rap – where the streets meet highbrow classical training from Havana’s best arts schools. It is a US-derived subculture that has flourished on the island despite the United States’ decades-long embargo against Cuba.
This year President Obama has relaxed travel restrictions to Cuba and has begun granting visas for visiting Cuban artists. In August, the Grammy-winning singer Pablo Milanes toured the US for the first time since 1979. Many are celebrating these openings as the beginning of the end of the embargo.
It’s worth remembering, though, that besides the hardships caused by the embargo, there can be benefits to living in a bubble. Islands are hotspots of biodiversity. And Cuban art has developed a particular richness and vitality because of its recent isolation.
Take Cuban rap. Rap was originally an American import. In the early 1990s, young Cubans built antennae from wire coat hangers and dangled their radios out of their windows to listen to American radio. On the airwaves of Miami radio station 99 Jamz FM, they heard US rap acts like 2 Live Crew and Naughty by Nature.
Aspiring Cuban emcees rapping at house parties and in small local venues started out crassly mimicking their American counterparts. ‘Just like you, just like you, nigger, we wanna be a nigger like you,’ Primera Base rapped about their hero Malcolm X. The group was known to sport thick imitation gold chains and fake diamonds – even though ‘bling bling’ was a remote concept given Cuba’s endemic scarcities.
But Cuban rap soon took on a life of its own. Unlike other hip hop fans around the world, young Cubans had little access to the latest trends in American rap. With only two state-run channels on TV, they couldn’t tune in to the globally televised Yo! MTV Raps to see pioneers Public Enemy or NWA. Havana was not on the circuit for touring acts such as De La Soul.
Lacking samplers, mixers, and albums – the key tools for making background beats – because of the embargo, Cuban rappers instead drew on a rich heritage of traditional Cuban music. They recreated the rhythmic pulse of hip hop with instruments such as the melodic Batá drums, typically used in ceremonies of the Afro-Cuban Santería religion. In the heavily Afro-Cuban-influenced eastern provinces, Madera Limpia rapped live with an entire ensemble of Cuban instruments. The group Obsesión used instrumentation to evoke the era of slavery. In their song ‘Mambí’, the gentle strumming of a berimbau musical bow and water sounds produced by the traditional palo de agua give the sense of being near a river as identified with the rural roots of slaves.
In the tradition of artists such as Vocal Sampling – who conjured up full salsa orchestras solely through their voices – Cuban rappers also developed the vocal percussive art of the human beatbox, mimicking not just drum machines but congas, trumpets, and even song samples. The lack of digital technology forced Cubans to innovate and gave the music a decidedly Cuban flavor.
Cuban rap is also special for the calibre of its lyrics. Thanks to the country’s excellent and free schools, Cuban rappers – although predominantly black and from poorer neighborhoods – received a high level of education. Cuba’s most prolific rap producer, Pablo Herrera, was a professor of English at the University of Havana.
Rap lyrics mined Cuba’s literature and history in their portrayals of the tribulations of street life. ‘I have a race that is dark and discriminated/I have a work day that demands and gives nothing,’ rapped Hermanos de Causa in their song ‘Tengo’ (I Have). The song reworked a celebrated 1964 poem that had praised the achievements of the revolution for blacks; a new generation was watching those gains eroding. On one of their tracks, the group Anónimo Consejo pay homage to the mulatto independence fighter, Antonio Maceo, and Pedro Ivonet, who founded the Independent Party of Colour in 1908. The rapper refers to himself as a cimarron desobediente, or rebellious runaway slave, in his criticism of police harassment of young blacks.
The trajectory of Cuban rap has been in stark contrast to American rap, which was quickly and successfully packaged for commercial distribution. Hip hop originated in the recreational outdoor jams and battles of the Bronx during the 1970s. But when the Sugar Hill Gang’s ‘Rapper’s Delight’ became a hit in 1979, the genre proved it had a lucrative market. Over the next decade, global entertainment networks promoted influential rap artists such as Run DMC and Salt-n-Pepa.
By the late 1990s, commercial rap had become ascendant within hip hop culture. The earlier diversity of sounds and themes was eschewed in favor of a catchy pop formula with a one‑dimensional focus on consumption.
Cuban rappers avoided this fate for a number of reasons. One was government support. Cubans were initially discouraged from participating in this foreign, ‘racially divisive’ culture by the authorities. In 1999, one journalist brought up the concern that rap was creating ‘ghettoes’ in a country where supposedly none existed. But by the following year, the state realised the need to relate to the rappers because of their growing appeal to black Cuban youth. The yearly hip hop festivals organized by the independent Grupo Uno were attracting some 3,000 youth out in the Alamar housing projects on the periphery of Havana. Hundreds of rap groups were forming across the country.
In July 2001, the newly appointed long-haired minister of culture, a poet, met with rappers to discuss forming a rap agency. As with other musical genres, where artists were full-time employees of the state and paid a monthly salary for performing, composing, and rehearsing, prominent rappers too entered into this arrangement. The Cuban state invited American rappers Common, Dead Prez, Mos Def and Talib Kweli to Cuba for the festivals and to meet local artists. So while kids in other countries were being inundated with commercial rap’s gratuitous criminality and blatant consumerism, Cuban youth were discussing the politics of hip hop culture with some of the most intelligent and incisive American rappers.
The sheltered existence of Cuban rap prevented it from encountering a fate similar to that of American rap. Cuban rap was not immune from commercial pressures and state sponsorship has had an impact on the music too. But censorship, like seclusion, may also foster innovation.
Cuban artists had perfected techniques of metaphor, allusion and ambiguity. Just as filmmakers such as the legendary Tomas Gutiérrez Alea or the black director Sergio Giral defended the racial politics of some of their films by saying that they took place in the era of slavery, so too the rapper Magia of Obsesión defended her song about prostitution by saying that it was about capitalist countries. But Magia had never seen a capitalist country, nor even left Cuba, when she wrote the song. The result is a textured and evocative account of the poor women who work the streets in barrios such as Central Havana, but with no details to identify them as such. The song takes on a universal appeal because of the necessity of the artist to dissemble.
In our oversaturated commons, there is little that can shock or provoke. Conversely, in a place where public discourse is closely monitored, any critical utterance can have strong reverberations. When Cuban rapper Papa Humbertico unfurled a banner reading ‘Social Denunciation’ on the opening night of the 2001 hip hop festival, the act immediately unleashed a series of debates on both sides of the Florida Straits.
This is not an argument in favour of either state censorship or the embargo against Cuba – both of which represent a violation of basic freedoms and rights. Rather it is a recognition that imposed, even self-imposed, isolation can be a crucible for artistic creativity.
In the digital era that we now inhabit – where wire coat hangers have been replaced by Facebook and iTunes – such isolation may be a thing of the past. The underground rap group Los Aldeanos have little airplay on Cuban radio but are a sensation on YouTube.
The recent openings initiated by the Obama administration should be celebrated, especially if they lead to the fall of the embargo, which has deprived Cubans of basic necessities, including food and medicine. But we can also recognise that some things may be lost as Cuba opens to a global market economy, including distinctive subcultures such as that of Cuban rap.
A shorter version of this article appeared in the New York Times. It has been expanded exclusively for Red Pepper
Hsiao-Hung Pai meets people affected by the fire, and finds sadness and suffering mixed with a continuing wariness of the official investigations
Chris Williamson MP, winner of the election's tightest marginal, Derby North, and recently reappointed shadow minister for fire services, talks to Ashish Ghadiali about Jeremy Corbyn, the housing crisis and winning from the left
The Corbyn-supporting group is preparing for another election at any moment, writes Adam Peggs – and now has the potential to create powerful training initiatives, union links and party reform efforts
’We believe in you. We are with you. We will never forget.’ Grenfell solidarity sweeps East London in mass banner drops from housing estates
Michael Calderbank profiles Jeremy Corbyn's new supporters in parliament
The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) continues to witness devastating political violence, but the world refuses to act. Ishiaba Kasonga and Serge Egola Angbakodolo ask why?
When fire safety has become a privilege for the rich, it’s time to stop austerity and fund emergency mass works to raise standards immediately, writes Jane Shallice
The election result has irreversibly changed political discourse in the UK, writes James Fox
In commemoration of the 30th anniversary of Bernie Grant's election to parliament, Ayo Wallace explores the life and legacy of his radical representation of Tottenham's black communities.
Across Britain, hundreds of thousands of people have now taken part in mass rallies for Corbyn's Labour. Eli Regan soaks up the atmosphere in Warrington
Contribute to Conter – the new cross-party platform linking Scottish socialists
Jonathan Rimmer, editor of Conter, says it’s time for a new non-sectarian space for Scottish anti-capitalists and invites you to take part
Editorial: Empire will eat itself
Ashish Ghadiali introduces the June/July issue of Red Pepper
Eddie Chambers: Black artists and the DIY aesthetic
Eddie Chambers, artist and art historian, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali about the cultural strategies that he, as founder of the Black Art Group, helped to define in the 1980s
Despite Erdogan, Turkey is still alive
With this year's referendum consolidating President Erdogan’s autocracy in Turkey, Nazim A argues that the way forward for democrats lies in a more radical approach
Red Pepper Race Section: open editorial meeting – 11 August in Leeds
The next open editorial meeting of the Red Pepper Race Section will take place between 3.30-5.30pm, Friday 11th August in Leeds.
Mogg-mentum? Thatcherite die-hard Jacob Rees-Mogg is no man of the people
Adam Peggs says Rees-Mogg is no joke – he is a living embodiment of Britain's repulsive ruling elite
Power to the renters: Turning the tide on our broken housing system
Heather Kennedy, from the Renters Power Project, argues it’s time to reject Thatcher’s dream of a 'property-owning democracy' and build renters' power instead
Your vote can help Corbyn supporters win these vital Labour Party positions
Left candidate Seema Chandwani speaks to Red Pepper ahead of ballot papers going out to all members for a crucial Labour committee
Join the Rolling Resistance to the frackers
Al Wilson invites you to take part in a month of anti-fracking action in Lancashire with Reclaim the Power
The Grenfell public inquiry must listen to the residents who have been ignored for so long
Councils handed housing over to obscure, unaccountable organisations, writes Anna Minton – now we must hear the voices they silenced
India: Modi’s ‘development model’ is built on violence and theft from the poorest
Development in India is at the expense of minorities and the poor, writes Gargi Battacharya
North Korea is just the start of potentially deadly tensions between the US and China
US-China relations have taken on a disturbing new dimension under Donald Trump, writes Dorothy Guerrero
The feminist army leading the fight against ISIS
Dilar Dirik salutes militant women-organised democracy in action in Rojava
France: The colonial republic
The roots of France’s ascendant racism lie as deep as the origins of the French republic itself, argues Yasser Louati
This is why it’s an important time to support Caroline Lucas
A vital voice of dissent in Parliament: Caroline Lucas explains why she is asking for your help
PLP committee elections: it seems like most Labour backbenchers still haven’t learned their lesson
Corbyn is riding high in the polls - so he can face down the secret malcontents among Labour MPs, writes Michael Calderbank
Going from a top BBC job to Tory spin chief should be banned – it’s that simple
This revolving door between the 'impartial' broadcaster and the Conservatives stinks, writes Louis Mendee – we need a different media
I read Gavin Barwell’s ‘marginal seat’ book and it was incredibly awkward
Gavin Barwell was mocked for writing a book called How to Win a Marginal Seat, then losing his. But what does the book itself reveal about Theresa May’s new top adviser? Matt Thompson reads it so you don’t have to
We can defeat this weak Tory government on the pay cap
With the government in chaos, this is our chance to lift the pay cap for everyone, writes Mark Serwotka, general secretary of public service workers’ union PCS
Corbyn supporters surge in Labour’s internal elections
A big rise in left nominations from constituency Labour parties suggests Corbynites are getting better organised, reports Michael Calderbank
Undercover policing – the need for a public inquiry for Scotland
Tilly Gifford, who exposed police efforts to recruit her as a paid informer, calls for the inquiry into undercover policing to extend to Scotland
Becoming a better ally: how to understand intersectionality
Intersectionality can provide the basis of our solidarity in this new age of empire, writes Peninah Wangari-Jones
The myth of the ‘white working class’ stops us seeing the working class as it really is
The right imagines a socially conservative working class while the left pines for the days of mass workplaces. Neither represent today's reality, argues Gargi Bhattacharyya
The government played the public for fools, and lost
The High Court has ruled that the government cannot veto local council investment decisions. This is a victory for local democracy and the BDS movement, and shows what can happen when we stand together, writes War on Want’s Ross Hemingway.
An ‘obscure’ party? I’m amazed at how little people in Britain know about the DUP
After the Tories' deal with the Democratic Unionists, Denis Burke asks why people in Britain weren't a bit more curious about Northern Ireland before now
The Tories’ deal with the DUP is outright bribery – but this government won’t last
Theresa May’s £1.5 billion bung to the DUP is the last nail in the coffin of the austerity myth, writes Louis Mendee
Brexit, Corbyn and beyond
Clarity of analysis can help the left avoid practical traps, argues Paul O'Connell
Paul Mason vs Progress: ‘Decide whether you want to be part of this party’ – full report
Broadcaster and Corbyn supporter Paul Mason tells the Blairites' annual conference some home truths
Contagion: how the crisis spread
Following on from his essay, How Empire Struck Back, Walden Bello speaks to TNI's Nick Buxton about how the financial crisis spread from the USA to Europe
How empire struck back
Walden Bello dissects the failure of Barack Obama's 'technocratic Keynesianism' and explains why this led to Donald Trump winning the US presidency