The assistant professor of sociology at Queens College in New York lays out a brief history noting that Cuban hip-hop originally began as an imported influence via makeshift wire coat hanger antennas that brought in the signal of Miami radio station 99 Jamz. The music took on a life of its own as Fernandes notes how the uniqueness of the Cuban context influenced the beats, lyrics and politics of the emerging art form. The digital divide in terms of the availability of samplers and mixers, the article states, led to the inclusion of traditional instruments of the island rich musical heritage and beatboxing out of necessity. The outcome? Imagine the Buena Vista Social Club meets a Tribe Called Quest!
"Cuban rap is also special for the caliber of its lyrics," writes Fernandes. "Thanks to the country's excellent and free schools, rappers -- although predominantly black and from poorer neighborhoods -- received a high degree of education." This aspect translates into a vibrant conscious underground. There's no "bling, bling" to rap about as that does not correlate to the reality of many of the MCs active in the movement. Hyper-aware critiques of racism, sexism, and society permeate the poetics of Cuban hip-hop instead.
Those very rhymes, when they pertain to social situation at home, have to be crafty in how they are presented on the island."The government's interest in rap isn't all positive, however," Fernandes pens. "With state sponsorship comes state censorship: Rappers who criticize the government risk being censored on the radio or barred from performing in prominent venues." They also risk touring opportunities in other countries. Metaphors and allegories have blossomed under the tension - again, as in the case with beats, out of necessity.
Coming at a moment when the Obama administration has relaxed travel restrictions to Cuba and singer Pablo Milanés is set to tour the United States for the first time in decades, Fernandes ponders whether changes and further inclusion into the global market economy will wither away the distinctive artistic crucible, as she describes it, of Cuban rap. For a deeper understanding of the music as it is now and how it came to be, Fernandes' book "Cuba Represent! Cuban Arts, State Power and the Making if Revolutionary Cultures" is a great place to start.
In the meantime, check out the following list of music videos from various Cuban hip-hop artists as technology has made access, in some cases, just a mouse click away.
Between Orishas helping push Cuban hip-hop into global awareness and the current popularity of Los Aldeanos is Obsesión. The pioneering husband-wife anchored rap group has kept the beat steady throughout the years with some of the genre's best work including 'Se Busca." For those wondering why El Tipo Este is holding a paint brush while rapping about graffiti - spray cans are hard to come by in Cuba.
Santa Ana has been fortunate to witness the feminist fury of Krudas Cubensi on more than one occasion. Having relocated to Austin, Texas years ago, the duo has been active playing shows in Guatemala, Colombia, El Salvador, Puerto Rico, and Mexico while working on a new album that will hopefully drop soon.
Duos are popular in Cuban rap. In fact, all of the groups listed here are twosomes! Afrocentric and socially conscious, Anónimo Consejo is not to be ignored especially for cuts like 'El Mundo No Se Para." Search YouTube for their poignant song 'Inmigrante' too!
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Los Aldeanos traveled from Cuba to perform a concert in Miami last year provoking controversies from all sides and every angle. Some in the virulently right-wing exile community wanted nothing to do with their visit, while others in the media where hungry for anti-Castro soundbites that they were never fed. As one of the most popular and publicly global faces of contemporary Cuban hip-hop, songs like "Miseria Humana" by group member El Aldeano illustrate their impact in all its forms.
Unlike the artists listed above, as far as I'm aware, Hermanos de Causa hasn't filmed any music videos - at least that have been uploaded to YouTube. As Fernandes highlights their classic reworking of poet Nicolás Guillén's "Tengo" in her article though, the song is a must-listen especially for its line, "I have liberty between parenthesis of iron."