Exiled in Havana

With the FBI in pursuit, black activist Nehanda Abiodun a decade ago fled to Cuba, where she still dreams of fomenting a socialist revolution in the United States

This passionate conviction seems to have affected Abiodun physically. The Afro she wore two decades ago is trimmed down closely and her girth has increased slightly. But energy radiates off her body, making her look a decade younger than she is. The vitality might also be the effect of her social circle, which is primarily composed of people half her age. “I just like being around young people,” she said with a grin, a reference not just to her friends but also to the Cuban study groups and visiting brigades of activists and students for whom she frequently works as a guide. Of course not all of that younger set could fathom her initial arrival in Havana.

“Everybody's first question was, “Why are you here?'” she recalled. “I couldn't tell anybody who I was. I said, “I'm here studying, doing this and that.' After a while they were like, “Well, how long are you going to be studying here?' When I was able to tell them who I was, they loved me. “Oh, you're one of us!'” Laughing, she added, “Of course there were some people, mostly younger Cubans, who said, “You're out of your mind! You could have had so much back in the United States!'”

Not that there weren't moments when Abiodun agreed. “When I came down here, I didn't know what to expect,” she went on. “I didn't speak the language. The machismo wasn't what I was used to back home. It was just culturally different.

Revolutionary grandma: At age 50 Nehanda Abiodun continues her struggle from Havana
Brett Sokol
Revolutionary grandma: At age 50 Nehanda Abiodun continues her struggle from Havana
Like Abiodun, Black Panther William Lee Brent fled the U.S. for Havana, hoping to find "the antidote to racism"
zoran milich
Like Abiodun, Black Panther William Lee Brent fled the U.S. for Havana, hoping to find "the antidote to racism"

“I had supported the Cuban revolution since I was ten years old, since 1960, when Fidel met with Malcolm [X],” she added, referring to the famed tête-à-tête in the Harlem neighborhood where she grew up. Castro, in New York City to address the United Nations, checked out of his midtown hotel, choosing instead to spend the night in a district he considered more befitting a leftist in solidarity with the black community. “I remember my father taking me to the Theresa Hotel and me waving,” she recalled. It was just one of many childhood memories of listening to Malcolm X speak, the benefit of having a father who belonged to the Nation of Islam. “But I wasn't ready for Cuba. I had naively thought that Cuba had rid itself of all the problems. I thought I was coming to utopia.

“It was refreshing to a large degree because I felt safe here. Not only did I not have the worries about being captured by the FBI, but just walking down the street.” She paused and turned reflective. “I had a chance to heal when I first got here. I didn't realize how much damage being underground had done to me. My children -- I had to keep them out of my mind. It was killing me internally.”

Abiodun has long been guarded about her two children (both of whom live in the States), saying only that her son, now 24 years old, works in an art gallery and that her 32-year-old daughter is part of a major investment firm. Is she hoping they'll pick up the revolutionary torch one day? “My choices were my choices,” she replied. “They have the right to make their own choices. I've been through the period where what I've decided to do has affected their lives. I don't want them to live through that again.”

Suddenly she brightened. “I'm a grandmother!” she cried, beaming. “I have a beautiful two-year-old granddaughter!” Wagging her index finger with each word, she ordered, “Put this down: 'She is beautiful!' I'm not just speaking as a grandmother -- she is gorgeous!”

Over the past few months, Havana's nascent hip-hop scene has taken to gathering together every Thursday evening at a community pool complex in the Alamar neighborhood in eastern Havana. It certainly seems an appropriate spot for the music to blossom: Parts of Alamar bear an uncanny resemblance to the blighted blocks of the South Bronx, where rap first developed in the United States.

With the water drained, a steady stream of local raperos take up positions on the pool's stairs and proceed to breathe new life into the genre's building blocks -- two turntables and a microphone. Except that turntables are a rare commodity in Cuba. So with just a couple of weathered mikes and some minimal looped beats on tape, the island's rappers spin their own take on el rap for an adoring, fully pumped-up, largely black crowd.

In the early Nineties, rap concerts often were forcibly broken up by the police. Now the Ministry of Culture sponsors an annual rap-music festival in Alamar. Policy shifts such as this are what Abiodun sees as the government's growing “respect for the Africanism of Cuba.” Still, Cuban rap songs denouncing racism and the secondary status of blacks, even in the supposedly egalitarian air of socialism, are legion. To some critics (both on and off the island) the government's about-face on homegrown hip-hop has less to do with understanding than with fear, an attempt to keep a lid on what might otherwise turn a charged art form into a subversive movement.

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