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Castro's Cuba Hosts a Rap Revolution

HAVANA -- FUBU-clad and Nike-shod, Isaac Torres and Reynor Hernandez sat at a table in the Las Vegas club, nervously sipping from a bottle of rum as they waited their turn to perform. This dark little nightspot on the fringe of Havana's entertainment district usually offers a chorus-girl floor show to an audience of foreign tourists. But not at the Friday matinee.

The crowd at Las Vegas was all Cuban, all black and very youthful. The men showed up in baggy cargo pants or droopy jeans, worn with NBA basketball jerseys and unblemished sneakers. The women were outfitted in low-rise jeans and tight-fitting tops, with colorful head scarves and lots of bracelets and rings. Tattoos and dreadlocks were rampant, along with attitude.

Around six, the music started -- not sly, syncopated Latin sounds but hard, pounding hip hop beats -- and three young black men came forward, a group called 100 Percent Original. They had all the standard moves, the prowling, the scowling, and the arm-crossing, and within minutes of taking the stage the crowd was on its feet, moving to a bass line loud enough to rearrange internal organs. The rappers called out, and the crowd answered back:

"Pa' mis niches! Pa' mis negros," they sang, or "For my niggaz! For my black people!"

An all-star lineup of rappers followed before the sound died and the lights came up promptly at eight. A dark-skinned young man emerged from the DJ's booth and flashed a dazzling grin -- Pablo Herrera, Cuba's leading hip hop impresario.

"Did you like the beats?" he asked, fretting that the sound levels might not have been just right.

The beats were good, but it was hard to hear past the words:

"In the eyes of the police I'm nothing but a criminal."

"Nigga, nigga, open your eyes!"

These words had been spoken in Cuba, still very much a one-party state, before a fist-pumping crowd of young people who cheered wildly. Even with no direct challenge to the state, no questioning of the fundamental tenets of socialism, the words spoken at Las Vegas that night sounded like rap is supposed to sound: armed and dangerous.

Amid all the energy in the club, there was also the feeling that the matrix of what is possible in this country is somehow shifting.

"We like to talk about things people don't talk about," Reynor said. "Like how when the police see a black man on the street, and especially if he has dreadlocks or something like that, as far as they're concerned he's already a criminal."

All of Cuba's rap stars venture into the same Outer Limits, unexplored for decades: calls for racial solidarity, blasts against discrimination, bitter denunciations of the arbitrary and heavy-handed police and narrative tales of the bizarro-world travails of daily Cuban life. Cuban hip hop sounds as if it's not really about the music at all, but about the future of the nation.

It all started, everyone agrees, in Alamar.

Hugging the coastline east of Havana proper, Alamar is a vast reservation of squat Soviet-era apartment blocs, the biggest housing project in Cuba and one of the biggest in the world. Within its dreary sprawl, some 100,000 souls hang laundry from their balconies, suffer with leaky roofs and cultivate warm friendships amid cold surroundings. Fidel Castro intended Alamar to be a monument to the revolution. He ended up building the South Bronx, minus the guns. The place is so bleak and isolated that people call it "Siberia," but it does have one amenity that most of metropolitan Havana doesn't: Away from the clutter and congestion of the city, there's decent radio and television reception from Miami. And that is how, in the early 1990s, Alamar's teenagers came to be seduced by messages from the imperialist enemy to the north.

They tuned to Miami radio, and through the static they heard hip hop music that took them to a different world. The kids memorized the lyrics, at first with only a vague understanding of what they meant. They discovered "Soul Train" and began to mimic the rappers' ghetto-fabulous wardrobe. They made copies of the music, and soon the tapes spread across Havana and the rest of the country, like samizdat.

Ariel Fernandez, Cuba's 25-year-old Minister of hip hop (his real title is more prosaic, but that's his job), was just a kid then, when he started going to hip hop shows with friends -- but the government didn't like what they were hearing one bit.

For one thing, rap was an alien art form imported from the United States, laden with undesirable baggage like materialism, misogyny and gun-worshiping violence. For another, the young people of Alamar were walking a dangerous line, particularly in what they were saying. They talked about racism and the oppressiveness of the police -- the least attractive aspects of Cuban life.

"You have to remember that rap came along at the same time as the Special Period," Fernandez said. "It was a very difficult time for the Cuban revolution. The rappers were expressing their support [for the nation], but they also had to be critical of what was going on."

"The Special Period in a Time of Peace" is the Cuban government's euphemism for the years of woe that have followed the collapse of the Soviet Union. Suddenly Cuba's sugar daddy was gone and the U.S. trade embargo, previously a chokehold, became more like a noose, with sudden shortages of everything -- food, fuel, electricity, soap, money.

Castro weathered the crisis by allowing Cubans to hold U.S. dollars, sanctioning more private enterprise than ever before and expanding the tourism industry. Things got better, but with the improvement came dislocation. Surgeons, engineers and scholars found themselves struggling to make ends meet, while blue-collar employees of tourist hotels (with access to precious dollars) became the new elite. Many black Cubans came to feel they were being overlooked for these jobs in favor of whites, and began to say so out loud. This spurred new discussion of racism in Cuban society, which the revolution had lessened but failed to eliminate.

So it turned out that the young rappers of Alamar had a lot to talk about. "The rappers are not trying to escape from society's problems, they're trying to solve them," Fernandez said. "Being revolutionary is to recognize things as they are and not be afraid to say it."

In the early days, unsanctioned shows were sometimes raided. In one celebrated incident in Alamar, police tried to shut down a concert and the crowd defiantly formed a shield in front of the rappers until the cops retreated. The next day, one of the performers was arrested and spent the night in jail. But the key moment came in 1999 when Minister of Culture Abel Prieto declared that hip hop would receive state support as "an authentic expression of Cuban culture."

One recent Friday, as a crowd walked from Las Vegas to the rec center, where the second hip hop show of the night was about to start, in the middle of the parade was a strikingly tall, chestnut-skinned, 51-year-old woman who spoke Spanish with an American accent: Nehanda Abiodun, political exile, fugitive from American justice and earth mother to the Havana hip hop scene.

A black revolutionary who took up arms against the state, Abiodun fled the United States. 13 years ago and is wanted on felony charges stemming from a series of robberies in which a security guard and two police officers were killed. She has mediated between the rappers and the authorities, using her credibility as a revolutionary on their behalf and argued that an authentic form of Cuban hip hop, shorn of negative American influences, ultimately will serve the Cuban revolution by challenging it to address problems it has long ignored.

In an effort to guide the Cuban movement, Abiodun encouraged bringing only politically "conscious" rappers -- not the bling-bling, mo'-money crowd -- from the United States to Alamar's yearly rap festival. Cuban hip hop is more than music, "it is a movement," Abiodun said firmly. She wants her young rappers to continue to pose sharp and inconvenient questions, but she wants them to do so "within the context of the Cuban revolution."

After Prieto declared hip hop's Cuban authenticity, things began to change. Officials purchased a sound system that rap groups (no group has enough money to buy its own) could use at their concerts. The state began giving funds and other support to the Alamar festival. Venues became available for hip hop performances.

At the same time, officials sought to establish a perimeter. Sanctioned performances only take place one or two days a week, and they start and finish very early in the evening. No one will say so, but it would seem that the government does not want large crowds of young black people whooping it up late at night.

Recent history would suggest this is like trying to hold back the sea. Hip hop is a powerful thing, the most potent force in popular music worldwide over the past two decades. It spreads like fire and it's accessible to anyone, as observer or participant. To express oneself eloquently in the hip hop idiom does require skills, but not years of practicing scales and finger exercises. You need only a microphone, something to say and somebody to listen.

Like Cubans in general, the rappers know where the uncrossable lines are. Most of them probably don't want to say "Down with Fidel," but even if they did they surely wouldn't -- that would be way beyond the pale. Likewise, most rappers probably don't want to overthrow the whole socialist order, which is all they have known, but if they did they'd keep that sentiment to themselves. But they do continue to make insistent and inconvenient demands for change. And that poses the question: If you let people make demands, at some point don't you have to show them some results?

So far, Cuban hip hop has virtually no presence on the international music scene, but Herrera is determined to put Cuban hip hop on the map. He said that since he grew up in socialism, he doesn't have, or want to have, "the mindset that you need for marketing." But he does have a clear idea of where he wants to take the music. So much of Spanish-language rap, he notes, is lame. Even in its infancy, Cuban hip hop is more musical, more literate, more powerful.

There are two potential barriers, though, aside from any business difficulties the U.S. embargo may cause. For one thing, the lyrics are so specific to their time and place, using arcane Havana slang, that many potential fans abroad would be lost even if they were fluent in Spanish. For another, the evidence suggests that hip hop fans like hearing tales about fast cars, faster women and $200-a-bottle champagne. Cuban rap offers none of that.

What it does offer is a challenge -- to its fans, and to Cuban officialdom.

"I see this as a revolution that comes from the bottom up," Herrera said. Not the kind where you "get yourself a gun and go up into the mountains." A revolution of sharp observation, and dark poetry, and tough questions that hang in the humid Havana air.

Answers are still pending. Meanwhile, how long will Cuban rappers be able to keep to this fine line they're walking? Constantly they are pulled in two directions, toward wholesale embrace of mindless Western materialism on the one hand and increasing stridency against state authority on the other. Either would be considered unacceptable, and neither is a conscious goal. Yet isn't it the nature of hip hop to be rude and defiant, to shock with its candor, to say things that aren't supposed to be said?

Isn't hip hop supposed to spin out of control? The godfather of Cuban hip hop shrugs.

"Hey, the truth is that we're going to have casualties of war," he said. "Like always."

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