Letters to the Editor

From the issue of August 17, 2000

David Williams

Hip-hop and Socialism
By Brett Sokol

The Rant on Cuban Rap
Exploitation is colorblind:
A few points on “Hip-Hop and Socialism,” Brett Sokol's “Kulchur” column of July 20:

Point #1: “I only sample Cuban music, nothing else,” says Cuban rap producer Pablo Herrera. I salute Herrera's choice. Cuban music has much to offer. But, gee, can't that also be interpreted as intransigence? Intense nationalism? A politics of exclusion? How would such a statement be interpreted by any New Times music correspondent if it were said by Willy Chirino or Gloria Estefan? Aren't they isolating themselves?

And while we're talking about Cuban music, why can't Herrera sample from Chirino, Celia Cruz, or Hansel y Raul? Aren't they allowed to be sampled there? Isn't the Cuban government against intransigence? It's not like it's not Cuban music. After all, Herrera himself says that “what makes Cuban hip-hop Cuban is that it's being made by Cubans.” I think all the aforementioned are Cuban. Isn't it all just about the music?

Point #2: Vincentico Valdez? Who is Vincentico Valdez? Might Sokol mean Vicentico Valdés, whose last name is spelled the same as Chucho Valdés, down to the diacritic? Is this more of the “strong writing and solid reporting” New Times, Inc., alleges to be committed to? The more interesting question, though, is whether these are merely typos of the kind associated with amateurish yellow journalism or whether they are an indication of a concern with primarily post-1959 Cuban music for the sake of the opportunities it affords “Kulchur” to be on the “cutting edge” of music journalism, thus allowing New Times to present itself as Miami's Village Voice and attract all those affluent readers so as to further enrich New Times's parent company. And exactly why and how does covering music from within the geographic boundaries of Cuba constitute an avant-garde position? How, if not merely through a myopic interpretation of political discourse, which is intransigently entrenched in a Sixties radical perspective of activism, of the type that never thought twice about the effect of calling Vietnam vets “baby killers”?

Point #3: I'm glad to see Herrera mention the fact of racism in Cuba. There's racism here, too, and as Herrera says, it's part of the prejudice that exists throughout the world. But such a statement could have been made of pre-1959 Cuba, and quite often is heard (and derided by some) on Spanish talk radio in Miami. Herrera justifies the racism in the socialist era as the product of the relative youth of said society: 41 years. But the Republic of Cuba was only 57 years old in 1959. That's only sixteen years more.

Point #4: So when Cuba's younger generation turns its back on salsa's milieu of prostitution and catering to foreign tastes (hey, let's get the U.S. travel restrictions down so we can join Sokol in his reveling, so reminiscent of Castro's version of pre-1959 Havana! Like, party, dude, with U.S. dollars and cheap Cuban whores!) and opts for hip-hop, are they really sucking up to a genre they see as free from the taint of tourism or are they making a calculated economic move to emulate a genre that has recently been discussed as one that has supplanted rock? After all, there is a New York City producer involved here. He's probably not thinking about money, right? Does this not say something about the power U.S. blacks have gained in the years since 1959, that now they too can exert a type of cultural imperialism over other nations' music? Or can it not be cultural imperialism if it comes from black people? Why? Because they're black? Does power have a color?

Is a black person who visits Cuba and speaks about the wonders of the revolution's contribution to the empowerment of the African diaspora worldwide (debatable) while paying for things in U.S. dollars and reaping benefits from the exchange rate -- is that person not a capitalist exploiter? What counts more, words or actions? Which color best travels the world, white, black, yellow, red? Or green? Isn't a record producer who capitalizes on your situation by promising you money for the cachet of your forbidden music taking advantage of you like so many other producers, no matter what color? Why is the influence of black U.S. culture not seen as negatively as the various other influences on Ricky Martin's music, a topic I remember your reputable publication dealing with not too long ago?

Point #5: Don't get me wrong. This is nothing against black culture or black music or anything of the sort. It's an attack on your own assumptions when discussing music in Cuba and of your appropriation of black culture to represent yourselves as liberal while actually perpetrating yet another instance of imperialism. One can only hope that those whose culture you're appropriating become aware that few Cuban exiles give a damn about Dr. Oscar Elías Biscet's race, a topic you seldom mention. [Editor's note: Biscet, a physician and political dissident, has been jailed in Cuba since November 3, 1999. He is serving a three-year sentence for publicly flying a Cuban flag upside down.] And to those Cuban exiles who do care about Biscet's race: Respect others as you would have them respect you.

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