Whenever people ask me about Cuba, I never know where to begin. I find myself in the same place now, attempting to introduce a small island with a massive culture that resonates stubbornly around the world. Havana truly is the Paris of the Carribean, and I was fortunate enough to meet a multitude of poets, musicians, artists, and film makers while I was there. Their passion for their craft, in a society that cycles through times of artistic repression, is raw and real in a way no money-hungry American could be. There is an ironic sense of liberation in a world with no social mobility.
Given my affinity for hip-hop, I was anxious to find out as much as possible about the music and culture while I was down there. Like most people, I hadn’t heard much more than Orishas before arriving. Although I was ready to look beyond them, Orishas definitely formed part of my experience there. Seeing them open for Juanes while being baked in the sun with 1 million people was something I guarantee I will never experience again.
But my real hip-hop experience came at a much more intimate concert, standing in a small courtyard with people both around and above me. The Cubans did what they could; the stage had a projector that replayed irrelevant video clips next to a banner that read “Cuban Hip-Hop.” Cuban it was; the show was run casually as groups came and left the stage in no particular order or purpose. But, the energy was high, and you couldn’t help but feel warm inside watching a bunch of perpetually smiling (possibly drunk) rappers bounce around the stage. Or maybe it was just the rum juice box in my hand.
Shortly after arriving, we were lucky enough to catch a surprise guest appearance from a guy who would have headlined any other rap concert in Cuba. His name is Aldo, and makes up half of the group Los Aldeanos along with El B. To put it lightly, Aldo is filthy (in a good way). Having never heard much of his music before and barely understanding a word coming out of his mouth, I couldn’t help but be mesmerized by how talented he really was. Adding to his stature was an intricate script tattoo down his forearm reading Rap es Guerra, or Rap is War. For Aldo, a politically controversial figure, rap really is war. The tattoo on his arm only reminded me again of the tension these type of shows create. Rap concerts have been shut down in Cuba before, and it seemed every rapper that performed had their “suggestions” for the government. Overall, the concert was a uniquely satisfying experience. More than anything, it gave me a feeling for what a hip-hop show would have been like back in the day, before all the glitz and glam of show business caught up to the music.
The institution where I took classes, Casa de las Americas, was a hot spot for some of the most talented academics in the country. One of them, Zurbano, was the editor-in-chief of the only Cuban hip-hop magazine in the country, Movimiento. While this excited me at first, it actually ended up being a huge bust. The first dissapointment was a gathering to launch the release of a new issue. I showed up only to find a room full of seated old ladies fanning themselves, listening intently to a panel of writers who were also way out of the normal hip-hop demographic. There was not a single young person there. To understand this bizzarre experience, you really have to understand the way cultural movements in Cuba work in general.
Casa de las Americas, although a cultural and academic institution, is part of the government, just like everything else in Cuba. Everything else. The restaurants, the shops, the movie theaters, the writer’s unions, the soda, the rum; everything goes back to the government at some point. Hip-hop is no exception. Fearful that the hip-hop movement could raise anti-revolutionary sentiment, the government has completely co-opted the movement and taken it out of the hands of the actual artists and fans. What young hip-hop head wants to write for a magazine run by academics that is designed by the man to keep your movement under control? I’ll stick to blogging.