Hip Hop is Alive in Cuba
There is a saying in Cuba, “Hip Hop didn’t die, it just went to learn Spanish.” Hip Hop in Cuba is not only very much alive, for those driving the scene it is a way of life. Cuban Hip Hop is distinct in its sound, its origins, and in the unique voice it has given a generation that grew up in the “Special Period” at the height of global tensions between US and Cuba.
The “Special Period” refers to the early to mid 90’s, after the fall of the Soviet Union, US sanctions were raised to an all-time high with the intention of toppling the Castro regime. As we all know it failed to create regime change, but it did create dire need and it is within this context that the conditions were created for Cuban Hip Hop to take root. Under strict social repression to block out all influence from the US, Cuban youth sitting on a rooftop in Havana caught a clandestine radio signal jamming Hip Hop from South Florida 90 miles to the North East. The new sound quickly resonated with the Cuban youth who began recreating it, celebrating their afro Caribbean origins and thus Cuban Hip Hop was born.
The mid to late 90’s was considered the golden years of Cuban Hip Hop. In that time US Hip Hop artists such as Black Star and Dead Prez came to Cuba and put on legendary performances. The Hip Hop scene in Cuba very much celebrated this brand of conscious Hip Hop, which provided them a platform for social commentary and critique. “DJ Leydis from Cuba” one of Cuba’s first female DJ’s describes her early experience with Hip Hop saying, “For the first time I felt I could be proud of my African heritage and nappy hair, it became part of our style”. Another influence in the conscious development of Cuban Hip Hop was US Fugitive and Black rights activist Nehanda Abiodun. Nehanda fled to Cuba in the early 90’s being persecuted for her involvement in the prison escape of Black Panther Assata Shakur. Nehanda connected with the Cuban Hip Hop scene taking on the role of educating them on the history of Hip Hop and African American history. She is referred to today as the Godmother of Cuban Hip Hop. When preparing to travel and connect with Cuban Hip Hop a good documentary that will give you the background on its origins is “Inventos” by Eli Jacobs-Fantauzzi.
Today at a time when many people in the US criticize that mumble rap and commercial Hip Hop are indicators that Hip Hop is Dead, the indicators are showing very different signs in Cuba. Because of Cuba’s isolation from the commercial influence of Hip Hop in the US and their affinity for prolific social critique, the seeds of conscious Hip Hop have flourished into the unique brand that is Cuban Hip Hop today. Hip Hop in Cuba is showing all signs that it is an art form that is very much alive.
In March of 2016, President Barak Obama made a historic visit to Cuba. The visit changed the game initiating a diplomatic process referred to as “Normalization.” This posture by the US has eased up the travel restrictions for US citizens. The increase in tourism and access to the internet has facilitated a renaissance in Cuban Hip Hop. Cuban Hip Hop is finally able to project itself to a global platform. The progressive social movements that characterizes Cuban Hip Hop are represented and can be seen alive and well in venues through-out Cuba.
A first stop to plug into this scene is world class art and music venue “Fabrica de Arte.” There are also hip hop festivals throughout the year. “Potaje Urbano” takes place twice a year on the first weekend of February and third weekend of August. The festival is an exhibition of Cuban Hip Hop represented through MC’ing, dance competition, Graffiti, and includes the Red Bull MC battle “ La Batalla de los Gallos”. Another underground gem of a Hip Hop club is “MaryLoo”. At MaryLoo you can count on a jammed pack dance floor with graffiti filled walls jamming your favorite hits from the 90’s to present.
Look out for artists driving the sound such as; female duo “La Reyna y La Real”, Feminist MC “La Fina”, spoken word artists El Brujo, Afrika Reyna, Luz de Cuba, Veteran MC’s Cuenta Clara, Pedro el Zulu Negro, and Innovative music events put on by DJ Jigüe and Guampara productions. To hear and see more about the sound of Cuban Hip Hop today check out the multimedia initiative Hip Hop está Vivo en Cuba (Hip Hop Is alive in Cuba) at www.hiphopestavivoencuba.com