Hip Hop & the Cuban Revolution, Part 2

During the Golden Age of Hip Hop in the United States, from the 1980s to the early 1990s, the music was stealth. It is not that it flew under the radar. How could it, when it resonated around the country in oppressed communities? However, because of pure racism it was not seen as an art form but as a fleeting expression of the righteous anger of the oppressed.

It was a logical evolution in a time of the decline of the great social movements of the 1960s and 1970s. It was also the beginning of deindustrialization, the reintroduction of the death penalty, the booming growth of the prison-industrial complex and Reaganomics.

Hip Hop was at its most creative, its most enlightening, its most explosive and to the U.S. ruling class, its most dangerous point.

In Cuba, that period was one of great anxiety, but the revolution triumphed in spite of the hardships and Hip Hop has since helped reinvigorate youth on the island.

It was Harry Belafonte who first had a conversation with Fidel Castro and Minister of Culture Abel Prieto about the many Hip Hop artists in which he explained the culture to Commander Fidel.

Belafonte said of the meeting, “I wasn’t surprised that there were Cuban rappers, because I don’t care where you go in the world … rappers seem to be everywhere. But I was surprised at how many there were and how uninformed the hierarchy in Cuban cultural circles was of the whole culture of hip-hop music.

“After meeting with the hip-hop artists in Havana about seven or eight years ago, I met with Abel Prieto at a luncheon that Fidel Castro had, and we got to talking about hip-hop culture. When I went back to Havana a couple of years later, the people in the hip-hop community came to see me and we hung out for a bit. They thanked me profusely and I said, ‘Why?’ and they said, ‘Because, your little conversation with Fidel and the Minister of Culture on hip-hop led to there being a special division within the ministry and we’ve got our own studio.’”

Since then, Fidel has called rap the “vanguard of the revolution.”

Culture is protected in Cuba. In the U.S., Hip Hop, like all things under capitalism, has become a commodity. However, more than just that, both the attacks on Hip Hop and the co-optation of the culture are part of the racism endemic to the system.

Hip Hop is seen as a threat to the U.S. ruling elite and as a threat to white supremacy. The Hip Hop generation of today is a multi-national generation of youth who have seen through the lies of the system and understand much more deeply than their forebears the attempts to divide the multi-national working class, though not in those words.

Hip Hop is like the coded language of the slave in the fields; the blues of an era where the objective reality of U.S. capital is one of crisis and more wars. It is the “CNN of the Ghetto,” as Chuck D says. It also is the barometer of the people’s willingness to openly struggle, as was evident in the music before the great Los Angeles rebellion, when the Black masses in South Central L.A., tired of the repressive conditions, rose up.

Cuba, however, sees the now global phenomenon and the power it holds. Like with the early Hip Hop musicians in the U.S., the culture arrived at a time when artists had to improvise. In the U.S. turntables became instruments; beat boxing, making music with one’s mouth, drove impromptu ciphers—freestyle circles. In Cuba, early artists used typewriters to bang out beats.

The difference, though, is how this culture flourished in two diametrically opposed social systems, one run by a small exploitative class, the other by a workers’ government with the task to provide for all of society and solve the problems of an ever-changing world.

One is an anarchic system, the other is a planned economy.

The approach to culture is rooted in each system’s approach to humanity. The capitalist system has out-used its usefulness. It came into the world dripping in blood from head to toe, and as is evident in the rise of the U.S. military juggernaut, will go out of this world covered in blood.

While Fidel says, “Within the revolution, everything,” the U.S. rulers see little value in a thing that does not produce profit or cannot be used for subterfuge.

In 2002, Cuba opened the Cuban Rap Agency and from the agency came the magazine La Fabri-K and a record label.

Capitalist media outlets such as the New York Times, CNN and a few artists in the U.S.—like Pitbull of the song “Culo” and “independent” film producers—try to use the culture against the Cuban revolution.

One need only look at the source of the criticism. Pitbull also wrote a song called, “Ya Se Acabó,” joining in the clamor with other right-wing Miami Cubans and U.S. politicians when Castro had to undergo surgery and then stepped down because of his illness.

Pitbull is part of the ignominiously named “Guerilla Radio: The Hip Hop Struggle Under Castro,” a documentary made by filmmakers associated with CNN and Mountain View Group Ltd. According to its web site, Mountain View has “created award-winning corporate communications campaigns, educational programs, TV commercials and sales tools for over 200 clients, including Fortune 500 companies.”

One of the filmmakers who worked for CNN, Tom Nybo, was “embedded” with the occupation forces in Iraq. A report from the School of Journalism at the University of Montana said that before Nybo went to Iraq in 2003, “he received two weeks of military training–one organized by CNN and the other by the Pentagon.”

In Cuba, culture flourishes and the Cuban Rap Agency will see that it is not used by outside forces to try to destabilize the revolution, but rather is used to deepen the consciousness of youth on the island in the service of deepening the revolution.

As Belafonte said, “What I think was important is how open the leadership was to this thing called hip-hop, whereas in the United States we do so much to demonize the culture, and we don’t even have a Ministry of Culture in this country. But here we have Cuba, with a new form of music that came from another place, from the United States of America, and they were open to giving it assistance, to help develop hip-hop music in Cuba.”

The author is a leader of FIST in Denver, CO who participated on the trip to Cuba this summer.

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