El rap es guerra: Rap as Warfare in Castro’s Cuba

by Stefanie Fernandez

“You really need to listen to more Spanish music,” she told me as we were walking down the street back to our summer apartment. I didn’t bother to tell her that in Miami-Cuban culture, Pitbull was not the norm, nor that Romeo Santos and bachata, are not as popular in South Florida or Cuba as they are in (the white half of) Queens. I felt my skin crawl with the volatile mix of subtle recognition and doubt that always accompanies microaggressions. But what do we do when these outward acts of microaggression invade the territory of our iPods, or worse, our national musical identity? While we happily bump Pitbull or Marc Anthony or Daddy Yankee or Shakira here in the states, white saviorism is infecting the musical culture of Cuba with unsettling consequences.

The United States has traditionally consumed and co-opted popular Cuban music—from reggaeton to Latin jazz to salsa—when it’s about love, or dancing, or partying. But when the discourse shifts from the uncontroversial to the political, the voices of radical change are too often silenced— in Cuba for lack of the right, and in the States, for lack of caring. It’s no secret that the Castro regime has historically and systematically oppressed freedom of speech and anti-government art since the Cuban Revolution of 1959, landing millions of Cuban men and women, including the author’s own great uncle, in jail for sentences as long as and longer than ten years for the most minor of offenses—all for the expression of an opinion on paper, on screen, or in music.

Late in 2014, the Associated Press released a quiet report that for over two years the dubiously-named United States Agency for International Development has been infiltrating Cuba’s rap and hip-hop scene to “break the information blockade” and spark revolutionary change from the ground up. The operation was disastrous at worst and amateurish at best, involving the creation of international NGO initiatives to implement a “Youth TV project”, a DVD distribution system to circumvent Cuba’s censors, and a “Cuban twitter social network, among other cultural projects to inspire Cuban youth to promote radical change through hip-hop.” The projects, buried under layers of documents involving overseas banking, cover stories, and the whole bit, were funded by USAID grants to plan workshops on the island under the guise of “communication” and “media” workshops and to incentivize young artists to create socially-minded, anti-Castro art. The project documents retrieved from its contractor, Washington D.C.’s Creative Associates International, indicate millions of government dollars backing the initiative.

The problem is not that Cuba lacks any foundation for nouveau-revolutionary art; the island in fact has, since the 80s and 90s and simultaneous to the work of Tupac and Biggie, given birth to one of the most innovative grassroots rap and hip-hop scenes in the world. Aldo and Bian Rodriguez of Los Aldeanos, one of the most prominent groups of the Cuban hip-hop renaissance affected by the USAID project, both bear tattoos on their forearms of the phrase “el rap es guerra”—“rap is war.” The problem is with the United States’ assumption that the rhetoric of revolutionary change is filtered through the distinctly American lens of if you’re not against it, you’re for it. Meanwhile, the population of an island scrambles for extra rations of cheese and meat on the black market, contraband wi-fi connections, and access to cell phones. The narrative of survival—physical and artistic—is one that has been foreign to United States foreign policy as long as the Revolution has stood in place, and longer.

In the Los Aldeanos’ song, “Viva Cuba Libre!” (“Long Live Free Cuba!”), Aldo and Bian deliver a scathing, not at all subtle critique on Fidelista socialism, citing household hunger, healthcare inequality, and the hypocrisy of traditional socialist rhetoric as examples of the kind of lives Cubans live while the government advertises its false brand of anti-capitalist, population-driven success to the world. Aldo raps on the song’s second verse: “El pueblo marcha ciego, credibilidad no logras / Dile al capitán que este barco hace tiempo que zozobra”, transforming their words into weapons of social change:

The people march blindly, you have no credibility

Tell the captain that this ship’s been sinking rapidly

Sentiments such as these have existed in the music of Los Aldeanos and other Cuban rap groups—such as predecessors Orishas— since the genesis of the Cuban rap scene. But just as Orishas had to relocate to Paris in 1998 at the height of their popularity under threat of government arrest, Los Aldeanos found themselves in a similar situation, this time at the hands of the USAID, whose unwittingly high-profile involvement with the group resulted in Aldo’s detainment for illegal possession of a computer just weeks after a 2009 concert planned by the agency with Juanes as a headliner. While this concert and others like it were purported to have “no political agenda,” and while the acts themselves certainly were unaware of the management behind the scenes, one representative of the agency was quoted as saying that the USAID was heightening publicity efforts “to focus  [Los Aldeanos] a little more on their role as agents of social mobilization,” according to the Associated Press. Since then, Aldo and Bian Rodriguez moved from Cuba to South Florida because the Cuban government made it impossible to create their art. Since the release of the project documents, USAID has not commented further on the operation.

When the United States transcends the barrier between good intentions and the unwitting manipulation of vulnerable artists, American intervention becomes a catalyst for artistic repression. By replacing grassroots lyrical efforts with government-implemented “programs” shrouded in secrecy and bureaucracy, the efforts of USAID have done more to harm the people of Cuba than their government. As the United States and Cuba enter a new era of “normalized” relations, it’s important to remember that in the barrios of Old Havana, nothing has changed. As we raise our flag over the American embassy, hundreds of Cuban dissidents are being jailed. There remains an embargo on thought, art, and the humanity of the artist as citizen, and it is being perpetuated on both sides.

Aldo and Bian Rodriguez, who keep love, family, and the reality of human suffering at the hands of institutional oppressors at the heart of their music, represent a generation of Cuban youth who have been slighted by not one, but two governments. One day, bodies and words will not be forcibly exiled from Cuba, and television and radio programs will broadcast the uncensored voices of everyday Cubans like them. Like us.

Yo crecí con sus mentiras y sé que existe algo mejor

Combinado con el dolor, cambio será indetenible

Paz y amor para mi pueblo,

¡Viva cuba libre!

I grew up with your lies and I know that something better exists

Combined with pain, change will be undetainable

Peace and love for my people,

Long live free Cuba!

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