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

For Abiodun, a woman who dedicated her life to fighting racism in the United States, addressing prejudice in Cuba is a complex matter. “There is not the ingrained, institutional racism that we experienced back home,” she said, choosing her words carefully, her brow furrowed. “But yes, in my opinion racism does exist here. It manifests itself not in terms of everyday policies, but in the way people think.” She shifted blame again to the United States and the “defensive stand” she says Cuba has had to adopt in response to American hostility. “It has not allowed Cuba the luxury to deal with certain internal issues to the depth they might have wanted to.”

As Abiodun studied a June New York Times article by reporter Mirta Ojito, she grew silent, clearly engrossed. The story traced two Cuban friends -- one white, one black -- and the changes in their lives since arriving in Miami in 1994. While exploring racism in the United States, the story also pointed an accusatory finger at Cuba, noting the paucity of blacks in top government positions or in higher education, despite accounting for, by some estimates, nearly 60 percent of the population.

The article also included quotes from former Black Panther William Lee Brent, another U.S. fugitive from justice now living in Cuba. In June 1969, facing charges of assault with a deadly weapon after shooting at several San Francisco police officers the previous November, Brent jumped bail and hijacked an airplane from Oakland, California, to Havana. Brent told the Times that when he first arrived in Cuba, he'd hoped the island had found the “antidote to racism.” Unfortunately, he discovered, that wasn't the case. “The revolution convinced everyone that they are all Cuban and that their struggles were all the same, not separate or different because of their race,” he stated. “If a Cuban raises his voice to say, “I am being discriminated against because I am black,' then he would be labeled a dissident.”

Life in Cuba for Abiodun and boyfriend Mario  isn't luxurious
Brett Sokol
Life in Cuba for Abiodun and boyfriend Mario isn't luxurious

Abiodun seemed momentarily at a loss for words, then said with a hint of resignation: “Bill's been here a whole lot longer than I have; he's probably seen certain processes I haven't.” Still she was not willing to wholly concede the point. “I'm not trying to duck the question; I do think racism exists here,” she acknowledged before stressing the larger issue. “I don't think that we as Americans -- and I use that term extremely loosely -- have the right to criticize this process. We're guests here. It's like me going to your home and telling you how to run your family. If African Cubans are really dissatisfied, they will do something about it.”

Cuban rap's fascination with its African-American parent hasn't been without problems. In the mid-Nineties, Abiodun explained, Cuban rappers often slavishly imitated not just the musical elements they heard in U.S. gangsta rap but also its verbal depiction of the thug life. “They would be calling people niggers and bitches, and then be, like, “Well, what is a beetch? What does beetch mean?'” She rolled her eyes. “They were just picking up words and not even understanding the meanings behind them.”

Abiodun's bemusement evaporated when she attended the island's rap-music festival in 1997. One group walked onstage and performed a song written in dedication to Malcolm X. “The chorus was, “A nigger like you, a nigger like you, we wanna be a nigger like you, Malcolm,'” she recalled with a look of horror. “You cannot call Malcolm a nigger!”

After the rappers finished, Abiodun went backstage to confront them: “People had to calm me down -- 'Chill her out; she's too old to understand.' I started out upset with this Cuban group, but then I became more upset with rappers in the United States. We were promoting this; we were responsible for this kind of language. Look at the history of the word: It was created to denigrate us, to make us feel worse than a penny waiting for change. So I cannot accept that the word has evolved into something different.”

One outgrowth of this semiotic battle was Abiodun's involvement in Black August, a New York City-based collective that seeks to repoliticize U.S. hip-hop with an explicit revolutionary flavor. Although Black August's outreach programs and benefit concerts (featuring marquee names such as Mos Def, Dead Prez, and Fat Joe) are hardly a new idea, its guiding principles are. As one of the organization's press releases announced: “Black August holds these elements -- hip-hop, U.S. political prisoners, and Cuba -- together with the common theme of revolution: Hip-hop was and is a revolutionary cultural art form. Cuba, with all its faults and attributes, is defined by its revolutionary history. And U.S. political prisoners and exiles, many of whom have been given asylum in Cuba, are products of revolutionary movements within the United States.”

It's a neat formula, using the wide appeal of hip-hop to draw attention to both black revolutionary traditions and their living embodiment in Havana -- of which Abiodun is hailed as one example -- a feat accomplished literally by flying U.S. rappers down to Cuba. This immersion theory seems to be working. Chicago rapper Common returned from a Black August-escorted visit to Havana last summer with “Song for Assata,” a tribute that grew out of his meeting there with Assata Shakur. In U.S. interviews this past winter, Common made a point of discussing that song, black revolutionary politics, and Shakur's status as a political exile.

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