"Isolation has not worked," President Barack Obama said today in his address on U.S.-Cuba policy. "It's time for a new approach."
At the same time, Cuba's Raúl Castro, speaking to his own country from the capital city of Havana, delivered the news of the two nations' plans to normalize relations.
These announcements came in the wake of Cuba's release of American Alan Gross and a Cuban U.S. spy in exchange for the three remaining members of the "Cuban Five" spy ring jailed in Florida.
Under the Obama's "new approach," the U.S. will reopen its embassy in Havana. Travel restrictions for Americans will be eased. (However, tourist travel still isn't allowed.) And the ban on importing Cuban cigars and certain other goods will be lifted.
Diplomacy, travel, and trade between the U.S. and Cuba will affect the lives of millions. Average citizens. Businesspeople. And yes, musicians too.
See also: White House's Full Press Release on Cuba
Two years ago, Miami's own Crazy Hood Film Academy, run by Cuban-American hip-hop veterans DJ EFN and rapper Garcia, traveled to their "ancestral homeland for the first time," as they explain, to produce Coming Home, a documentary about their experience and the island's music scene.
The film was inspired by a desire to rediscover their roots and explore the world of Cuban hip-hop. But it was also an act of cultural exchange and personal diplomacy.
"That's part of the reason why we decided to go to Cuba and film Coming Home," EFN tells Crossfade. "Not on a strategic level, but I wanted to see for myself what was going on over there."
DJ EFN: Music producer, filmmaker, Cuban-American.
Courtesy of Crazy Hood Film Academy
Though he'd never been to Cuba before that trip, the Crazy Hood music producer and filmmaker had long been convinced there were better ways than embargo and sanctions to improve life for people on the island.
"I believed that we Americans had to change our approach," EFN says, echoing Obama's sentiment. "There had been a policy in place for 50 years, and it hadn't yielded what it was supposed to yield."
Cuba, a typical street scene.
Courtesy of Crazy Hood Film Academy
After visiting several times and witnessing the struggles of regular folks, friends, and fellow musicians, EFN became even more certain that a new approach to U.S.-Cuba policy was needed. But he was also amazed by the resiliency and creativity of the island's artists, rappers, singers, and musicians.
"They lack a lot of basic necessities," he says. "But their art was thriving. If you're going through any kind of struggle, it can help your art."
Of course, Cubans are deprived of the means to broadcast their work to the wider world and even their fellow citizens who reside too far away to see a live show.
"In terms of how to get their art out and develop their art, they don't have the tools they need," EFN explains. "So we just took some pads and pens for them to write down their lyrics. Even that was a big deal. Materials are just so scarce. Something so simple they didn't have. And that was partially because of the embargo.
"Very few people have the internet," he adds. "It's extremely expensive. It's almost impossible. And even if you do, it's dial-up.
"When we went over to shoot the movie, Danay showed us her internet and said, 'Look, I can't do anything with this internet,'" EFN recalls, referring to Cuban singer and rapper Danay Suarez, one of the stars of Coming Home.
"They can't get their music online," the Crazy Hood cofounder says, "let alone upload a YouTube video."
When Obama spoke today, EFN was shocked. He knew a presidential address was coming. But he didn't expect the policy changes to be so bold.
"I was just taking my mom out to breakfast," EFN says, "when I started getting texts and tweets from friends that Obama was making the announcement to normalize relations."
He certainly expects the end of the U.S.-Cuba cold war to further enliven the South Florida music scene.
"Miami, because of our geographical location, has always been influenced by the Caribbean and Cuba. So I think it might improve the cultural interactions between Miami and Cuba. Touring will be easier. And there could be more fluid collaboration between Americans and people on the island -- them coming here and us going over there, freely."
But EFN, like millions of others, is most enthusiastic about how freer trade and the exchange of information might affect the day-to-day lives of common Cubans who've been essentially stranded for more than five decades.
"Even if they can't physically leave the island," EFN says, "if musicians just have better materials and access to the internet, there is so much talent.
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"I'm telling everybody: 'We're going to see a renaissance of Cuban music and art,' just because of the possibility of it being able to reach the U.S. and the world."
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