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Cuba. It's the largest island in the Caribbean, a true paradise for more than 3 million people from around the world who visit each year.
Yet tragically, few Americans have set foot on the island nation despite its proximity to the United States. And even fewer are learning about the rich musical culture and the unlikely sounds lingering in Havana and beyond.
"The Cuban hip-hop culture is considered one of the best in Latin America for its socially conscious lyrical content, extraordinarily interesting sound, and use of sampling," says Cuban singer and rapper Danay Suárez, who'll perform for the first time stateside at Blackbird Ordinary this Sunday. "The music touches on not only the realities of the sociopolitical climate in Cuba but also the human condition."
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In South Florida especially, first-generation Cuban-Americans are often criticized for their desire to explore ancestral roots on an island just 90 miles south of Key West. But at 27 years old, Suárez has become that demographic's link to a place that many people have longed to know but still struggle to understand.
"The world isn't black-and-white. Sometimes we don't know what we're capable of doing until we're faced with certain challenges," she muses.
Rapping, for example, was a talent Suárez didn't know she had until she began writing rhymes at age 15. Influenced heavily by jazz, her flow took on an improvisational quality she calls "organic." Her style is also peppered with bits of folk.
"I love to discover music, particularly traditional world music," she says. "But my influences are wide-ranging. I don't listen to simply jazz or hip-hop; I'm on a constant search for traditional folklore — and generally interesting music."
Similarly, Miami's DJ EFN and business partner Michael Garcia are also on a constant search for new music. And in 2012, the duo's journey led them and five friends to the Havana neighborhood of Santa Fe, Suárez's home.
"I actually kept the trip from my family," DJ EFN says. "I only told my mother, who was worried but ultimately supported me."
Knowing his family would disapprove, the first-generation Cuban-American's trip to his familial homeland and subsequent documentary, Coming Home, remained a secret until he returned with an entirely new perspective on Cuba.
"When I came back, my family was a bit taken aback," he admits. "But at that point, they couldn't do anything. So they tried to be supportive of my film project. The film has since helped open up dialogue on a very taboo subject matter with my family. We have debates and discussions on how things are in Cuba and what should be done moving forward in terms of the embargo, travel, relations, etc."
EFN credits Suárez with helping him see Cuba through his own eyes, not through his family's justifiably biased lens.
"I felt she was a gleaming example of expression and womanhood in Cuba," he says. "She doesn't like to be compared, but it felt like she was the Lauryn Hill of Cuba. And to be clear, I mean the Lauryn Hill who was a positive role model for women, not the Lauryn Hill of today, who, unfortunately, is going to jail for tax issues."
Suárez is staying in Miami for three months before heading back to Cuba to work on new material.
"It's my first time in the United States. I feel great!" she enthuses. "The main objective of this trip is to meet with people, not to do shows. But the reason I chose to do a show in Miami is because Blackbird Ordinary reminded me of the place I began singing in Havana. It has great energy."
While she's thrilled to play in South Florida, she hopes to share her music with even more folks outside of Cuba.
"I've had the opportunity to tour most of Europe. But I'm interested in visiting Latin America. Music has a universal language, but the lyrics don't," she laughs. "We'll show visual representations of my lyrics on a screen when there's a language barrier."
Of course, that shouldn't be an issue in Miami.