Miami & Havana & Hip-Hop

Bring together musicians from both sides of the Florida Straits, let them mix it up, and watch what happens

In an oft-quoted 1999 speech, Minister of Culture Abel Prieto called for the "nationalization" of rap, effectively approving the genre for Cuban consumption. But the government has been slow to actively demonstrate its support for rap artists, who are still known to be targets of police, as was the case at the 2002 rap festival, where a performer was detained even as he rapped about police brutality.

"The rap movement is advocating to be legitimized within Cuba as much as it's aspiring to be recognized on an international level," says Ariel Fernandez of Asociación Hermanos Saíz. One of the young founders of the Havana Rap Festival, he's the editor of a new hip-hop magazine to be published by the rap agency, and a frequent facilitator between the government and rappers. Looking a bit stressed as he stands outside the Rap Agency, he acknowledges the importance of the movement's increasing national prominence and its quest for international recognition as the state becomes more involved. "We all know where Cuban rap comes from," he says, referring to Alamar, where the graffiti-decorated Hermanos Saíz headquarters has served as a sort of clubhouse for young rappers, a place where they can hang out, listen to beats, write lyrics, and experiment. "Now that Cuban institutions that don't know the movement or understand it are getting involved, we have to keep a dialogue open between the people at the institutions and the artists and promoters involved in the rap scene."

With the number of rap and hip-hop groups in Havana estimated by many to be as high as 200, and with perhaps 500 on the island, the music presents an obvious vehicle for communicating with young Cubans, not to mention the possibilities for marketing artists and CDs abroad. (A state rap record label is soon to debut.) The Cuban Rap Agency was established in the fall of 2002 to manage and promote Cuban rap artists under the auspices of the Cuban Music Institute, which oversees all other professional musicians in Cuba. The Rap Agency and the Music Institute are similar to management agencies in the United States in that they claim a percentage of the artists' earnings from concerts or recording contracts.

Broadcaster Jorge Petinaud Martinez and Osmel Francis Turner, of Cubanos en la Red, chat at Radio Metropolitana during Petinaud's program La Esquina del Rap
david navas
Broadcaster Jorge Petinaud Martinez and Osmel Francis Turner, of Cubanos en la Red, chat at Radio Metropolitana during Petinaud's program La Esquina del Rap
The Cuban source: Yeomanson and Figueroa check out the vinyl bins in an Old Havana department store
Judy Cantor
The Cuban source: Yeomanson and Figueroa check out the vinyl bins in an Old Havana department store

"What we're looking for is the vanguard," says Susana Garcia, the Rap Agency's director. "The groups must have a certain artistic level, and in general, incorporate Cuban instruments into their music, because that is a manifestation of our identity."

If such aesthetic parameters seem artificially constraining, for Cuban officials they are deemed necessary to guide a musical movement that has developed outside the system. Since 1962 Cuba's musicians have been nurtured by the free musical education that begins when children are tested for ability at age four. Their subsequent comprehensive training in performance, composition, music theory, and history continues at Cuban conservatories and through college. This process has created a multitude of expertly versatile artists: Any salsa musician in Cuba is also likely to be a classical virtuoso, innovative arranger, and accomplished jazz improviser. Musicians in contemporary Cuba are career artists whose goal after graduating from school is to maintain their status as professionals, which allows them to perform, tour, and record with government consent, and to be represented by a state management agency.

But the majority of Cuban rappers have no musical training whatsoever. "In Cuba kids are attracted to rap because they like it, and also because it allows them to express themselves without any musical knowledge," says Osmel Francis Turner, leader of the group Cubanos en la Red (Cubans on the Net). "A lot of people who would have been rumberos in other eras are now rappers. To make rumba, all you have to do is pick up a wooden box and beat on it. And to be a rapper, you don't need anything -- just one person to mark a beat and another to start rapping."

While rap's accessibility has fostered its growth and popularity among the younger generation, performers like Saenz are now seeking the benefits of professional status. "With the new agency we'll have more opportunities to perform throughout Cuba," he says, adding that he's hoping to sign a contract with the agency that will guarantee Doble Filo five concerts each month. That, he figures, could earn him a thousand dollars.

Others involved in the rap scene say they have no interest in being part of the state music system. "We're from another world; our world is free," says Frank Kennedy Lambert, of Free Hole Negro, a hip-hop collective that comes together weekly in the back yard of one of its members, organizes concerts, and creates films in addition to making music.

The members of Free Hole have day jobs, a situation most professional Cuban musicians would likely consider to be beneath their social status. Kennedy is a cook; other members teach, practice graphic design, or work as animators for the film institute. Two back-up singers are members of the Cuban National Choir. "Here in Havana there's a lot of [artistic] energy to be discovered, although some people may want to keep it covered up," Kennedy comments. "We're just making music so people can have a good time. Music is what will free you."

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