Hip-hop's Cuban connection

‘El Proyecto' parley offers lectures, music and films

by Steve Siegel

The Morning Call (Allentown, Pa.)

16 April 2008


From its modest roots in the South Bronx in the 1970s, hip-hop culture has become an international, multi-billion-dollar phenomenon. Originally a tool for social expression, rap music opened a window onto inner-city ethnicity, fashion and politics. Its primal, mesmerizing beat was hard-edged and male-dominated. Yet long before commercialism poisoned its lyrics with violence, drugs and misogyny, it had a social consciousness.

`EL PROYECTO’ (`THE PROJECT’) What: A conference to reunite Cuban underground hip-hop artists and the global hip-hop movement featuring performance, discourse and film. Where: Lehigh University - University Center (Packer Hall), 29 Trembley Drive, and Zoellner Arts Center, 420 E. Packer Ave., Bethlehem, Pa. When: 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Friday; 9 a.m. to 11 p.m. Saturday Admission: Free Info: 610-758-3819, www.lehigh.edu/~incuba

By the 1990s, that consciousness started incubating in an unlikely place: Cuba. During the island’s economic downturn, many social restrictions were relaxed, including prohibitions on makeshift TV and radio antennas on the roofs of buildings. Especially in Havana, Cuba’s youth began hearing signals from New York via Miami. Even if they didn’t understand all the English lyrics, they instantly identified with old-school videos like The Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” or Queen Latifah’s early rap.

“They had an immediate connection with the music,” says Tanya Saunders, a pre-doctoral fellow in Africana Studies at Lehigh University. “Cuba is a revolutionary country and its youth have been taught to be socially critical. They wanted to know what this music was, and where it came from. They started learning its history, its ties to disenfranchised and marginalized blacks and Latinos in New York.”

Saunders, who graduated from the University of Michigan with a degree in sociology, has put together a two-day conference of lectures, films and concerts Friday and Saturday at Lehigh that will provide the first international platform to unite the Cuban underground hip-hop movement with global hip-hop. “El Proyecto” (“The Project”) will explore the social and political impact of Cuban underground hip-hop worldwide and feature performances by leading international artists from Canada, the United States and Finland.

“I specifically say it’s an underground hip-hop movement to distinguish it from the commercialized hip-hop that, at least in Spanish-speaking countries, is manifested in a style of music called Reggaeton,” Saunders says. Derived from Caribbean beats and rhythm, Reggaeton is a kind of bass-dominated house music, often with sexually explicit lyrics.

Says Saunders, “Cuban underground hip-hop looks more towards the early New York style of socially critical music, but with its own stamp on it, adding Afro-Cuban rhythms and beats. So you have groups like Obsesion, who use sub-samples from Benny Moore (the 1950s-era Cuban band leader) and some old-school Rumba artists.”

The Afro-centric element of Cuban hip-hop is a key feature of the genre and extends deeply into its lyrics. “Particularly since 1995, there was a re-emergence of black identity in Cuba. Cubans wanted to explore their own relationship with African heritage. Classes in black history started to spring up - race had not been discussed in Cuba before,” says Saunders. “They started discovering this lost history and realized how much internalized racism they had. They started to notice that, along with the growth of Cuba’s tourist industry, the lighter-skinned Cubans were getting the jobs and those of darker skin were not.”

Interestingly, the Cuban hip-hop movement began through that government’s unique approach to culture. Says Saunders, “The Cuban government has a strong leftist segment that is adamant about freedom of speech and the importance of culture and art. Cuba’s art education system is highly respected throughout the Americas. Art is decentralized at the local level - every neighborhood has a `casa cultura’ where all materials needed to do a community art program are provided.”

“This encourages independent artists to do their work through their local `casa cultura,’” continues Saunders. “So you can actually disagree with the government, yet still be provided with amplifiers, microphones and a space to perform. The equipment might not be the best quality, but you’ll still get it. Compare this to the poor inner-city neighborhoods of the United States - those kids have no place to go, no place to learn art or anyone to teach them to think critically.”

Cuban hip-hop has had an enormous impact on the global rap scene, especially regarding the participation of women. “Cuban hip-hop takes a leaf from the early stuff - a lot of people look to Cuba as the rebirth of the hip-hop movement,” says Sujatha Fernandes, assistant professor of sociology at Queens College, City University of New York, and a keynote speaker at the event. “Women had been more involved in hip-hop in the early days, but the record companies were more interested in promoting the men because of the male rapper image.”

Fernandes says that in 2001 there were more than 13 all-women hip-hop groups in Cuba, an impressive number considering the country’s population. “But now the majority of Cuban hip-hop is being done by people who have migrated to Europe and the United States,” she says. Fernandes will explore how Cuban hip-hop fits in with the global movement in her talk at the conference.

One of the the most popular groups emerging from the Cuban hip-hop diaspora is the female - and openly lesbian - Las Krudas, who have recently relocated to the United States. Las Krudas consists of Olivia Prendes and sisters Odaymara and Odalys Cuesta. Known for their feminist lyrics and onstage personae, they advocate human rights and deplore the manipulation of women as the “weaker sex.”

One might not consider Finland to be a hotbed of hip-hop culture, but Helsinki rapper Randy Acosta would disagree. Acosta says he is inspired most by American artists Chief Kamachi and Reef the Lost Cauze for their style and lyrics. “My music represents the oppressed masses of the world, especially in Latin America, because that is where I come from. I want to be the voice of the people who don’t have a voice for themselves. I try to explain to the world that there are things going wrong and need to be changed,” says Acosta.

“I think a lot of people don’t realize the global impact hip-hop has had relating to the civil rights and human rights discourses that have come out of the United States,” says Saunders. “There are leaders even at the national level in the Caribbean and Latin American countries who talk about a kinship with performers such as Chuck D or Milli Millz.”

But politics, as usual, has reared its ugly head, and it is unlikely there will be any groups from Cuba itself at the conference. Although Cuba has given two controversial groups permission to come to the United States, ironically an amendment to the Homeland Security Act identifying Cuba as a terrorist state will keep them out. It would take two to three months for the groups Obsesion and Anonimo Consejo to clear the terrorist screening process.

“This is the first time artists from around the world will be performing in an international context. The ones that are coming are considered to be the key members of the contemporary underground hip-hop movement. It’s unfortunate that the Cubans aren’t going to be here,” Saunders says.

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