MUSIC-CUBA: Rap Calls for 'Revolution Within the Revolution'
by Dalia Acosta
HAVANA, Cuba (IPS) - In makeshift studios, Cuba's hip hop movement keeps on recording music that goes to the heart of the country's troubles, in spite of the indifference of record companies and the media, and the negative response of society, which is perhaps afraid of hearing its defects exposed in song lyrics.
"People are making hip hop music in a very basic way, that is, with a computer and a microphone. They just squeeze into a small room or a bathroom," said Alexei "El Tipo Este" Rodríguez. A member of the duo Obsesión along with Magia López, Alexei is one of the few women rappers on the island.
They both had "a really bad experience" when they recorded with the state-owned company EGREM (Recordings and Musical Editions Company). "They lied to us about sales in the United States, and people in Cuba never got to hear about the album because they handled it so badly," said Alexei, 35, who has been in the hip hop movement for more than a decade.
"I think Cuban record companies are only looking for music that markets itself on its own, like salsa, reggaeton -- dance music," said Afro Velásquez, a member of the group Hermanazos, which with Obsesión. Together the two groups make up the independent recording project La Fabri_k, a response to the indifference of national recording studios to including rap in their catalogues.
"Our dream is to sign a contract with a foreign record company," said Rodríguez. "But the most radical, the most orthodox, don't want to be bound to any recording company."
Among the "orthodox" is Papá Humbertico, the driving force behind the Real 70 project, which produces rap discs and videos. The 23-year-old has become an almost legendary figure because of his tenacious defense of "underground" hip hop, following the rules of urban poetry and disdaining commercialism.
Real 70 emerged in 2001 as a result of the need for instrumental backing for rappers in this Caribbean island nation. "Very few people within rap were devoted to music production, and they charged prices that were impossible at the time," Humbertico said.
His studio is a room in the house where he lives with his family, in the town of Barreras, east of Havana. Groups will either pay for a recording or background music, or get them free, depending on their aims. "If we see they feel the same way as we do, they become part of the project," he said.
But hip hop isn't just a way of earning a living. "I'm doing something that gives me strength to live and carry on," said Humbertico, who was expelled from several schools before he found his true vocation. "If I hadn't become a rapper, I'd now be involved in dogfights or cockfights somewhere."
In 2002 his name hit the international media because of the controversy sparked by a song of his against "police brutality against young people," which finally got him hauled into the office of a high-ranking Havana police chief. "I see that as an achievement: I wrote that song, and it hit home where I wanted it to," he said.
Humbertico is also a member of the Mano Armada duo. He says that the country needs to "revolutionize the political sphere and the minds of the people" through new ideas. His latest disc, "Revolution within the Revolution," spells out these thoughts.
On a separate but parallel road, La Fabri_k's Third Symposium of Cuban Hip Hop, held last July, attempted to consolidate organization of the movement on the island and relaunch its community work, one of the core practices of Obsesión and Hermanazos' project.
"We are asking ourselves whether we are really progressive and revolutionary," López said. "We are marginalized, but that's not an impediment to organizing our work. The symposium has helped me see that the art of rapping, being a disc jockey, spraying graffiti or dancing isn't all there is to hip hop culture, because there's much more to it, it includes lifestyle and everything you can do to make the world a better place," Velásquez said.
Now La Fabri_k is working on a disc against violence, which will bring together various rap groups. The chosen tracks are about different expressions of violence in modern society, such as police brutality, wars, family and domestic violence, and violence promoted by the media. "It's a disc about violence, but in itself it isn't violent, because it's about finding love, which is so necessary," Rodríguez emphasized.
The aggressive gestures and lyrics of hip hop are one reason why this music style has been criticized in Cuba. "If (rappers) are aggressive on stage, it's because they've been downtrodden for 500 years, and because they live on a small plot, in a house that's falling down, and have no chance of recording a disc," said Carmen González, a poet and independent researcher who is writing a book about women's voices in Cuban rap.
According to González, the racial equality that was decreed after the 1959 triumph of the Cuban Revolution has not been effective because of the "five centuries of social disadvantage" suffered by black people, who comprise the majority of hip hop movement artists. "It's very hard for our society to recognize that there is a group that has been left out, and that is spelling this out to the country in art," she said.
As well as providing immediate social commentary, Cuban rap calls on people to think, poses historic themes anew, and attacks red-hot problems like homophobia and racism. "From a reality-based viewpoint, it is setting forth proposals, but people haven't learned to see and recognize what hip hop is proposing," said González who is also editor of the Movimiento magazine of the Cuban Rap Agency, devoted to hip hop in Cubaaid. "You can't just turn your back on them and say, 'this is just for marginal people.'"
"This must be defended in the way society works / it's not just about being clever at rhyming words /," López sings on a track of the first disc produced by La Fabri_k, while her partner Rodríguez appears to reinforce her message, singing on the same disc "don't mix up scarcity / with lack of honesty."
2007 by J. Bless & SEASUNZ. 16 cuts
Love hip-hop? Ok. I'll admit I'm neither a fan nor a follower of this particular music genre - but even so I really got into a lot of the songs on this CD.
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It's probably the heavy jazz, funk and soul overtones which carry this album for me - that and the messages of freedom - personal and social - that the artists have created in this musical firestorm commentary on everything from U.S. global policy and the "prison-military-industrial complex," to the soul and health crushing economics and policies of the global pharmaceutical companies. J.Bless & Seasunz present SOLAR STEREO is now available for purchase at: http://cdbaby.com/cd/jblessseasunz
RYAN FARISH SELECTED WORKS
13 cuts. New release.
All 13 tracks on this limited-edition CD - many of which have not been available for years - were hand-picked by Farish for the serious fan and collector. "These songs, represent several years of growth for me as a composer and producer," says Farish. "All of these songs, are very special to me, and really represent my love and passion for composition, and multiple genres. I am so excited to be able to make these songs available again."
Farish's piano leads most tracks which are multi-layered with flutes, world voices, children's voices, guitars and a variety of synthesizer layers. His themes are easy and yet memorable, sometimes simple yet never sophomoric, blissful yet never lose their way to satisfying conclusions - and all are set to comfortable - but never lazy! - drum beats. A consistent delight. Available at amazon.com