By Jacob Katel
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There were no diamonds sparkling from his ears. Save for a relatively thin and long silver chain, his neck didn't exhibit anything flashy or of significant proportions. The black leather watch strapped around his left wrist was reminiscent of an old-school Mickey Mouse or Timex watch instead of a Rolex. His semiwrinkled white T-shirt, baggy jeans, and sneakers didn't make much of a, if any, fashion statement. Even the beefed-up Ford Expedition in which he arrived at a Miami Lakes office complex isn't his, but his manager's, Key Records sales and marketing director Frank J. Campbell.
Aside from a "Qué bolá?" ("What's up?") greeting he delivered with panache after stepping out from the truck's passenger seat, it's clear right from the bat Mr. Haka, whose real name is Eidel Morales Cardenas, lacks the kind of attitude and swagger usually associated with a rap artist. "I'm not here to prove anything by the way I look," said the 23-year-old. "With me it's all about representing my music and people."
Both Mr. Haka and his music, which he described as pure hip-hop with Cuban influences like timba and punto guajiro, have made significant strides since he used to walk the streets of the Florida-Camagüey province in Cuba, begging people to listen to his songs.
Though he's far from a household name, the pale and rail-thin kid is slowly developing a following -- even if it's 2000 miles away from Miami and consists of a totally different crowd. This past Memorial Day weekend, while South Beach was buzzing over the likes of Fat Joe and Luke Campbell amid a bevy of babes and booze, Mr. Haka was doing the club scene in Houston, Texas. "I would love for things to work out in Miami, but the people over there have really adopted me," said Mr. Haka. "We've been going to Houston for a while and the response is always good. It's kind of sad that in your own back yard there's no support for what you do."
Until recently, things in his adopted homeland weren't exactly working out.
Shortly after arriving in Miami from Cuba in December of 2001, Mr. Haka met Don Dinero at a local car wash and handed the Latin rap star his demo. Dinero liked the demo so much he had Mr. Haka record several more songs and took Mr. Haka on the road with him. He also invited Mr. Haka, along with several other fledgling artists, to move in with him.
Mr. Haka says he did all of this because he was convinced he would sign with Dinero's Cuban Connection label. He traveled the nation performing with Dinero, something he now believes was a bad move.
"It was a complete disaster. I never got paid for any of the shows, and they ended up stealing a bunch of my songs that they still haven't compensated me for," said Mr. Haka. "We would go on the road and he would give us $30 for all of our expenses. We would spend three or four straight days eating McDonald's. Little things like that made me realize this guy was a complete joke."
"You gotta eat! You gotta eat, bro!" added Frank Campbell, who also managed Don Dinero for more than six years before the two parted ways in 2002. "At the end of the day you have to pay your mortgage, you got to pay the light bill, the phone, and get a gallon of milk for the kid," said Campbell.
(Dinero, who is currently signed to Universal Latino, could not be reached for comment despite repeated attempts.)
"He can run, but he can't hide," said Mr. Haka, who claims he still hasn't been paid for shows he did with Dinero in Houston and New York three years ago. "Eventually he'll pay for all the shit he's done to people; and believe me, if there's one thing he's good at, it's feeding people a lot of bullshit." Campbell said Mr. Haka's debut disc El Legendario, which was released on Key Records earlier this spring, has sold more than 16,000 copies, generating a moderate profit.
Although Latin rap has yet to penetrate the mainstream beyond a few hit records by Big Pun and Pitbull, Mr. Haka observes that the genre is slowly picking up steam. One of the main reasons? In an effort to gain credibility with the general public, most artists are making a conscious effort to clean up their image and want to be seen more as musicians instead of thugs rapping about "street life," he opines.
El Legendario is filled with explicit lyrics. But Mr. Haka usually refrains from degrading women, instead recounting his former life in Cuba -- from growing up poor and hungry to hanging out and freestyle-rapping with his friends on street corners. He stays away from Cuban émigré politics and keeps himself from burying women like "Lola," an ex-girlfriend who transforms from girl-next-door to high-maintenance material after arriving in the United States.
"I write and sing about real-life experiences, but that doesn't mean we have to drag the women in the mud all the time," he said. "I can use my energy on a lot of other stuff and have the same kind of effect on people. I want to keep it real."
And onstage he definitely tries his best to keep it that way. After barely showing an inkling of emotion or ego during a two-hour conversation, Mr. Haka lit up the stage at La Liga Contra el Cáncer's annual benefit concert June 5 at the Coconut Grove Convention Center, an event that also featured Albita and Gilberto Santa Rosa. Wearing an oversize red polo shirt, a black "305" fitted cap over a white do-rag, and matching silver earrings, he delivered his raps while strutting from side to side without missing a beat. He encouraged the crowd at the venue and those at home watching on Telemundo to keep making donations, all the while gesturing with his arms and bouncing to the music.
Mr. Haka's animated performance is miles away from the sober and calm rapper who submitted to an interview days before. But even then he had warned he has plenty of star quality: "Being up onstage is like being right at home for me. There's nothing better."