The New York Times
15 December 2006
HAVANA — In a country like Cuba, where the state has its hand in just about everything, it is perhaps not surprising that there is a governmental body that concerns itself with rap music.
Alarmed by the number of young people in baggy clothing and ill-aligned baseball caps rapping around the island, the government created the Cuban Rap Agency four years ago to bring rebellious rhymers into the fold.
The person chosen to lead the agency was Susana García Amaros, 46, who studied Latin American literature at the University of Havana, specializing in the writings of Afro-Cubans. She said that when officials from the Ministry of Culture approached her for the job she told them that she was not a rap expert. But she said she appreciated the music and its underlying messages.
“Rap is a form of battle,” she said. “It’s a way of protesting for a section of the population. It has force. It’s not just the beat — the boom, boom, boom — it’s the lyrics.”
The rap agency became a co-sponsor of an annual hip-hop festival that began in 1994, and it started promoting rappers and helping them to produce occasional albums. But only artists whose rap does not veer too much from the party line qualify for the government aid.
“We don’t have songs on a record that speak badly of the revolution,” Ms. García Amaros said on a recent day. “That doesn’t make sense.”
Not surprisingly, most rappers, who are by definition a rebellious lot, are averse to joining forces with the government, even as they struggle to spread their rhymes on their own. Only nine groups are working with the agency. Of the remaining 500 or more across the island, some voice discontent with Cuban society in language that is as blunt as the accompanying beat is loud.
“We are not in agreement with any political system, the one here or the one you have,” said Aldo Rodríguez Baquero, 23, who teams up with his friend Bian Rodríguez Gala in a popular group called Los Aldeanos, or The Villagers. “We want liberty and freedom.”
While rap appeals to just a subset of Cuba’s youngsters, many of the five million Cubans under the age of 30 similarly question the system.
The government’s own surveys have found that the bulk of the unemployed in Cuba are young and that many youths are uncertain about their future. The blame, the government argues, lies with the United States trade embargo.
Foreign Minister Felipe Pérez Roque raised the disenchantment of many of Cuba’s young people in a speech last year, which was reported by The Miami Herald. “We have a challenge,” said Mr. Pérez Roque, who is in his early 40s and is considered one of the next generation of Cuban leaders. “These young people have more information and more consumer expectations than those at the start of the revolution.”
He added that young people were more likely to hear their elders telling stories about social progress under the current government and respond, “Oh, please, don’t come to me with that same old speech.”
The situation among Afro-Cubans, about 60 percent of the population, is especially acute. They are considerably poorer than whites, according to studies. Among the reasons are that white Cubans are more likely to have relatives sending remittances from the United States, and whites hold the bulk of the jobs in the profitable tourism industry.
Afro-Cubans complain that they have inferior housing and are more likely than whites to be hassled on the streets by the police.
The rappers speak of these and other problems, often bluntly.
“What we sing, people can’t say,” said Mr. Rodríguez Baquero, who wore a blue bandanna to pull back his braided hair as he rapped on the sidewalk outside an overflowing club. “They think we are crazy. We say what they only whisper.”
He acknowledged that his mother and his rap partner’s mother worried about their outspoken ways. “They don’t want to lose us,” he said.
But they keep rapping, even though some of Havana’s club owners have banned them for a time over some of their toughest songs, including one dealing with police harassment.
As for the rap agency, Mr. Rodríguez Baquero dismisses that with a wave of his hand. “We don’t want to be in any agency,” he said. “It’s the same as slavery for us.”
But not all that many people hear what he and other independent rappers have to say. They produce albums in their homes in bare-bones studios and distribute them by hand.
“It’s very difficult to do rap in Cuba,” he acknowledged.
One of those working behind the scenes to aid Cuba’s rappers is Cheri Dalton, an American who goes by the name Nehanda Abiodun. She is a black militant who is wanted by the F.B.I. in connection with a string of robberies, including a 1981 holdup of an armored car near Nyack, N.Y. Now living in exile in Cuba, she has formed a Havana chapter of Black August, a grass-roots group that promotes hip-hop culture.
“There’s always been a love for music from the States in Cuba,” said Ms. Abiodun, who declined to discuss her own case. “You can go back to Nat King Cole, Earth Wind & Fire and Aretha Franklin.”
Rap, first heard in the ’80s by those in eastern Cuba who picked up Florida radio stations, is no exception. “They spit out rhymes on everything from race to gender to police harassment,” she said of Cuba’s hip-hop generation. “They point out contradictions in society that were taboo to talk about.”
But despite the disenchantment of many young people with Cuba’s system, rap appears to be losing some ground here. The hip-hop festival, held every August, was a flop last year and was canceled this year. Nobody seems sure why. Some rappers say the culprit was not so much the government involvement as it was another musical genre that is pushing rap aside. Reggaetón, a blend of reggae, rap and Latin music that was born in Puerto Rico, is now the rage.
The governmental rap agency has begun promoting reggaetón artists, whose messages are often intended more to get people on the dance floor than to protest. It is harder than ever for rappers to find a stage.
“Reggaetón is about sex and girls and that’s it,” grumbled Mario Gutiérrez, 19, who criticizes his fellow rappers who have speeded up their beat and gone reggaetón. “We are singing for change. We want freedom. We want a better Cuba than this one.”