Cuba: Gender, Sexuality, and Women Rappers

Rapper MC Magia

Excerpted  from the new book Cuba Represent!: Cuban Arts, State Power, and the Making  of New Revolutionary Cultures, by Sujatha Fernandes (pp. 109 – 117)  

When I first visited Cuba in 1998,  women’s presence in hip-hop was still negligible. At concerts I would come  across male rappers with their gold medallions, Fubu gear, and mindless lyrics  about women, cars, and guns, the latter two hardly a reality for most young  Cuban men. Over the years, there have been important changes in gender politics  within Cuba, particularly in rap music, and women within the genre feel empowered to speak of issues  such as sexuality, feminism, as well as gender roles and stereotyping.  

In interviews with Pacini  Hernandez and Garofalo, Cuban women rappers mentioned American female groups and  rappers such as TLC, En Vogue, Salt n’ Pepa, Monie Love, and Da Brat as  important influences.[1] Prominent African-American feminist artists like Erykah  Badu have performed in Cuba at rap festivals and concerts, and have been  important in providing a role model for young aspiring women rappers. Visits and  performances by grass roots feminist rappers such as Mala Rodríguez from Spain,  Vanessa Díaz and La Bruja from New York, and Malena from Argentina have also  been crucial in developing perspectives and exchanging ideas.    

Women rappers have been part  of the Cuban hip-hop movement from the beginning. Although there were no women  performers at the first hip-hop festival in 1995, at the second festival in 1996  there was a performance by the first all-women’s rap group, Instinto. Another  rapper, Magia, was part of the male-female duo Obsesión, which originated during  this early period and has come to be one of the most prominent rap groups in  Cuba. Magia has played an important role in raising the profile of women within  the movement of rap, and she defines herself as a feminist: "All of those who  promote and give impulse to the representative work done by women and who try in  one way or another to see that this work is valued and recognized, we are  feminists… women’s presence to me is fundamental, with their work to be shown,  with their things to say, with their pain and happiness, with their knowledge,  their softness, with the prejudices that they suffer for being women, with their  limitations, with their weakness and their strength."[2] 

Other women such as DJ Yary  also see themselves a part of this tradition: "With all my work, I seek to  strengthen the role of Cuban women within hip-hop. It is thought that within  this movement men are more important, but young women have shown what we can do  to enrich it."[3] The first all-women’s music concert was organized by Obsesión  in 2002 in a popular venue for rap music known as the Madriguera. The concert  included not just rappers, but photography and art exhibitions, guitarists,  poetry, and dance. This was repeated twice in 2002 and 2003, and then in  December 2003 the Youth League organized an all-women’s hip-hop concert as part  of the rap festival. The sold-out concert, titled "Presencia Probada," or Proven  Presence, signaled the strength of women rappers within  hip-hop.

In the first years of the  twenty-first century, there were about thirteen women rappers and rap groups in  Cuba, a small but prominent number, especially since several of these women are  among the relatively limited number of artists that have produced discs through  both official and unofficial channels. Given the small number of discs produced  by the state recording agency EGREM and the lack of airplay for Cuban rap on  state-controlled radio stations, many musicians have begun to produce their own  disks with foreign funding and help from friends, and this has produced a  growing underground network of distribution and circulation. Magia MC as part of  Obsesión has released two discs, one with the Cuban agency EGREM, and another as  an independent label. The other woman rapper working within a mixed rap group is  Telmary Díaz, from the group Free Hole Negro, who have produced discs both  inside and outside of Cuba. La Fresca, a relatively more commercial rapper than  the others, recently came out with her first disc.[4] The trio of women rappers  who identify as lesbians, Las Krudas, have produced their own disc, and they  frequently perform in popular and official tourist venues such as the  Sunday-morning rumba at Callejon de Jamel. Other women rappers also sing  independently or in all-female groups and consist of Oye Habana (previously  known as Exploción Femenina), Esencia, Yula, I & I (pronounced Ayanay), I  Two Yi, Atomicas, Mariana, Soy, and Las Positivas in Santiago de Cuba. Women  have participated in other areas of hip-hop culture such as graffiti and  djaying. Two women disc jockeys, DJ Yary and DJ Leydis put out a cd in 2004,  entitled Platos Rotos (Broken Plates), where they have produced tracks by major  Cuban rap groups such as Anónimo Consejo and Hermanos de Causa. DJ Yary and DJ  Leydis have participated in DJ battles, the Havana hip-hop festival, and  concerts with major Cuban rap groups. Not all of these women address feminist  themes, and as a tendency within hip-hop they are unstable, but they  nevertheless represent a growing, positive force for change. 

The networking of feminist  rappers with older Cuban feminist activists has helped bolster their voices  within hip-hop and create more of a presence for their concerns within society.  On International Women’s Day, March 8, 2003, activist Sonnia Moro and the women  rappers organized a forum entitled, "Machismo in the lyrics of rap songs."  Following this, another activist Norma Guillard organized forums on, "The  importance of educative messages in rap lyrics" and "Rap and Image: a proposal  for reflection." During one of the rap festival colloquiums in 2004, Guillard  presented a paper on the work of Las Krudas, entitled, "Las Krudas: Gender,  Identity and Social Communication in Hip-Hop." The feminist activists have also  offered their writing and poetry to the rappers to incorporate into their songs.  For instance, a poem of Georgina Herrera, "Guerrillas of Today," was given to  Las Krudas to make into a rap song. In her interactions with the women rappers,  Guillard notes that they are much more open to feminist ideas than an earlier  generation: "I have observed that young women don’t confront the same subjective  conflicts as us, they recognize themselves as feminists without problems, they  didn’t live through the same era we did. We recognize that among the rappers  there are feminists, that is to say, with a more radical focus, more  autonomous."[5] Because of the inroads made by earlier feminists,[6] it has been  easier for this new generation to claim a space. The older feminists regularly  invite the women rappers to their forums, they offer them materials to read and  understand more about feminism, and they have spoken about women’s rap in forums  inside and outside of Cuba. 

Women rappers, given their  experiences in racially-defined transnational networks of hip-hop, identify with  the ideas and principles of black feminism as it emerged from third-wave  feminism in the U.S. These ideas, as defined in the Black Feminist statement by  the Combahee River Collective, consist of a recognition that race, class and sex  oppression are intertwined; women must struggle with black men against racism  and with black men about sexism; black women face psychological obstacles and  minimal access to resources and they must pursue a revolutionary politicsThese  themes occur frequently in the texts of women rappers. Indeed, Cuban women’s rap  fits closely into what some black feminists in the US have referred to as  "hip-hop feminism".[7] Just like the music of American rappers such as  Salt-N-Pepa, Queen Latifah, and MC Lyte helped inspire the feminist  consciousness of a generation of black feminists who listened to hip-hop,[8]  feminist rappers in Cuba are also producing new kinds of political awareness  among young women affiliated to the growing movement of Cuban hip-hop.  

Cuban women rappers attempt to  talk about practices such as jineterismo without vilifying the women who  practice it. In a song written by Magia MC in 2002, entitled Le llaman puta  (They call me Whore), Magia talks about the desperate conditions that give rise  to prostitution, and the sad lives of the many women forced into prostitution.  The song opens with the sounds of a caxixi, or woven basket rattle over the deep  tones of a vibratone. The entry of a traditional drum ensemble including the  bata, the bombo andino, a mellow low-pitched drum, and the campana, a heavy  cowbell, evoke the rhythmic pulse of hip-hop. The song’s chorus, begins with the  phrase "They call me puta," deliberately employing the derogatory slang used for  female sex workers in order to invoke the humiliation and degradation associated  with this occupation. 

In contrast to both the  objectification of women’s bodies and a confining revolutionary moralism, women  rappers seek to define their own notions of sexuality and desire. Rap music has  been seen by many American scholars as a reassertion of black masculinity,[9]  but as Tricia Rose notes, this definition not only equates manhood and male  heterosexuality, but it "renders sustained and substantial female pleasure and  participation in hip hop invisible or impossible."[10] In Cuba, female rappers  seek to carve out an autonomous space within the broader hip-hop movement, in  which they narrate female desire and the materiality of the female body on their  own terms. In the song Te Equivocas (You are Mistaken) on her 2000 album Un  Monton de Cosas (A Mountain of Things), Magia derides an ex-lover who has  mistreated her and she asserts her rights to her body and her sexuality. Magia  tells her ex-lover that he is no longer welcome in her life, she is not the weak  and dependent girl that he thinks she is: "You are wrong to tell me I would die  to kiss your mouth." Magia attacks the machismo and egoism of her ex-lover:  "With egoism made machismo, you yourself fell into an immense abyss of false  manhood." Magia demonstrates that the myths created by her ex-lover about his  virility and manhood are false. He is not worth even one-thousandth of all she  has gone through for him and he has denied her happiness. She tells him that she  will no longer be used by him: "I have finished being your toy." This kind of  assertion of female agency has a history in black popular culture, which dates  back to American blues women and Cuban rumba. As Imani Perry argues, the music  of black female artists "functions in strong contrast to the ‘sex innuendo’ and  objectification of the female body that is generally seen in popular music."[11]  Women rap artists continue this legacy of negotiating sexuality and power with  their lovers and asserting their presence as sexual beings, not objects.  

A notable feature of Cuban  hip-hop has been the participation of women openly identified as lesbians. Given  homophobia in Cuban society, as well as the absence of queer issues from the  mass media, the presence of lesbian rap group Las Krudas represents an important  opening. Las Krudas, consisting of Olivia Prendes (Pelusa MC), Odaymara Cuesta  (Pasa Kruda), and Odalys Cuesta (Wanda), make open references to their bodies  and sexuality in the songs recorded on their 2003 demo CUBENSI. In a song  entitled 120 Horas Rojas (120 Red Hours), Las Krudas talk about the monthly  experience of menstruation as a symbol for women’s enslavement to their biology  in a male dominated society:

Painful drops of vital liquid  color our
most intimate parts,
weakening our bodies
weakening our  minds
weakening our voices 

Gotas dolorosas de líquido  vital sangre
colorean nuestras más íntimas soledades,
debilitando  nuestros cuerpos
debilitando nuestras mentes
debilitando nuestras  voces

Menstruation and the female  bodily functions are the reason why women are perceived as physically and  intellectually weaker than men. Las Krudas address men, when they point out  that, "You don’t want to listen? Thanks to this red source you could come to  know this world." Las Krudas speak openly and directly, "with a single seed I  develop you in my vagina cradle." For the rappers, the very processes that are  hidden, used to devalue women’s participation and silence them, is what brings  life into the world. 

Black women exist at the  intersection of race, gender, and class hierarchies; as Las Krudas rap in 120  Horas Rojas, they are "marginalized by the marginalized, at the bottom, in all  senses." While male rappers speak about historical problems of slavery and  marginality, black women must face forms of enslavement and marginalization from  males themselves. In another song from their album, Eres Bella (You are  Beautiful), Las Krudas point to machismo as an "identical system of slavery" for  women. Just as male rappers point to the exclusion of rap from major media  programming, venues and state institutions, Las Krudas challenge male rappers  for their exclusion of women: "I have talent and I ask, how long will we be the  minority onstage?" Black and mulatta women have been made invisible,  objectified, and silenced in the historical record, and popular culture is no  exception. In Amiquimiñongo, Las Krudas argue that since the time of slavery  black women and men have been stereotyped as "a beautiful race," "so strong,"  and "so healthy," but they point out that black women have never been given a  voice: "When I open my mouth, ‘poof!’ raw truths escape from it, they don’t talk  of this, they want to shut me up." Las Krudas and other women rappers restore  subjectivity to black women, as actors with voice and agency. 

Women rappers demand inclusion  into the hip-hop movement and society more generally. As Las Krudas claim:  "There is no true revolution without women." Female rappers are "ebony  guerrillas" who are fighting for a place in the struggle alongside black men.  The all-female rap group Oye Habana, consisting of Yordanska, Noiris, and  Elizabeth, celebrate female power and black womanhood. In their song Negra  (Black), Oye Habana celebrate black female beauty, in contrast to dominant  representations of beauty:

Black woman with my thick  lips,
there is nothing that surprises me.
Black woman with my nose and  my
big legs, black woman…
Who says that for my dark color
I should  hang my head?
This is how I am, black woman! 

Negra con mi bemba,
no  hay que me sorprenda.
Negra con mi ñata y mi
Grande pata,  negra…
¿Quien dijo que por mi color oscuro
debo bajar mi cabeza?
¡Asi  soy yo, negra!

Negative and racist  descriptions of black-identified features are fairly common in Cuba; it is not  unusual to hear complaints about "pelo malo" (bad hair) or "mejorando la raza"  (improving the race) by having children with lighter skinned people. The rappers  from Oye Habana reject these stereotypes; they assert the beauty of Afro  features and the power and presence of black women. For the women rappers,  questions of self-esteem are related to a pride in who they are as black women.  In her spoken-word piece, ¿A Donde Vamos a Parar? (Where are we going to go?),  DJ Yary claims, "My example of a woman to follow: It’s me! And my favorite  artist: It’s me!" 

Cuban women rappers such as  Instinto, Magia, Las Krudas, and Explosión Feminina have been able to develop  styles and attitudes that reflect their distinctness as women. Perry describes  how some American women rappers such as Yo Yo, Harmony, Isis, and Queen Mother  Rage seek to carve out a space of empowerment within hip-hop by adopting  explicitly Afrocentric styles, wearing braided or natural hairstyles, African  headwear, nose rings, and self-naming.[12] Cuban women rappers also use style to  project a political message, and indicate their individuality, presence, and  identity as black women. Magia and the rappers from Las Krudas usually wear head  wraps, African clothing and natural hairstyles, or baggy shirts and pants. In  the song Mujeres (Women), rapper Mariana declares her desire to be taken  seriously as a performer and protagonist, alongside men. She  declares:

I call myself, "Protagonist!" 
but in the field and not in bed.
As many prefer to go from rapper to 
rapper to earn fame.
I, Mariana, show the world that the Cuban
woman  doesn’t only know how to move
her body,
but when they speak of hip-hop  we are
best, the most real,
even if we’re discriminated by machistic 

Yo me nombro,  "¡Protagonista!,"
pero en la pista y no en la cama.
Como muchos prefieren  ir de rapero
en rapero para comer fama.
Yo, Mariana, hago demostrar al  mundo
que la mujer cubana no sólo sabe mover
sus caderas,
sino cuando  se habla de hip-hop somos las
primeras, las realistas,
aunque seamos  discriminadas por conceptos

In contrast to the  eroticization of black and mulatta women within a new tourist economy as  sexually available, good lovers, and sensual dancers, Mariana reclaims for women  the capacity of thinking, rhyming, and producing "real hip-hop." Mariana rejects  the available role models for young women of cooks ("Nilsa Villapol with her  recipes") and models ("Naomi Campbell in her magazine"); rather she chooses to  be a hip-hop artist because of the agency it gives her.

Despite the important inroads  made by feminist rappers into hip-hop, and their use of the form in order to put  forth a feminist agenda, women still face obstacles participating in a largely  male-dominated genre. As Margaux Joffe noted in 2005, of the nine rap groups  officially represented in the Cuban Rap Agency, only one group had a woman,  Magia MC from Obsesión.[13] Most Cuban rap producers are men. Joffe cites Magia  as saying that female artists are grateful for the recognition they receive in  the annual festival, but she saw the organization of a special section for women  within a male-dominated festival as "patronizing," and that "women should not be  pitied or put on a pedestal."[14] Part of the problem facing women rappers is  that they are part of a broader movement of hip-hop that is closely tied to  state institutions and includes a largely male leadership who still make most of  the decisions.[15] Yet their attempts to engage with sexism and machismo  represent an important step for women rappers; the issues are being discussed  and they are part of an ongoing dialogue and debate. Rap music has provided a  space for dialogue between older and younger feminists, as well as between black  men and women in the hip-hop movement. 

Sujatha Fernandes is  Assistant Professor of Sociology at Queens College, City University of New  York.

More About the  Book: Cuba Represent!: Cuban Arts, State Power, and the  Making of New Revolutionary Cultures, by  Sujatha  Fernandes (Duke University Press, October 2006). Photograph by Jay Davis


[1] Deborah Pacini Hernandez,  and Reebee Garofalo. 1999. "Hip Hop in Havana: Rap, Race and National Identity  in Contemporary Cuba." Journal of Popular Music Studies 11 & 12:  23.
[2] Interview with Magia,  April 2005.
[3] Interview with DJ Yary,  April 2005.
[4] Joaquín Borges-Triana,  "Raperas Cubanas – Una Fuerza Natural," Juventud Rebelde, 5 Agosto, 2004, 
[5] Interview with Norma  Guillard, April 2005.
[6] Sujatha Fernandes. 2005.  "Transnationalism and Feminist Activism in Cuba: The Case of Magín." Politics  and Gender 1(3):1 – 22.
[7] Perry. 1995. "It’s My  Thang and I’ll Swing it the Way That I Feel!: Sexuality and Black Women  Rappers." In Gender, Race, and Class in Media: A Text-Reader. Gail Dines and  Jean Humez, eds., 524 – 530. California and London: Sage Press; Imani Perry.  2002. "Who(se) Am I? The Identity and Image of Women in Hip-Hop." In Gender,  Race, and Class in Media: A Text-Reader, 2nd Edition. Gail Dines and Jean Humez,  eds., 136 – 148. California and London: Sage Press;
Gwendolyn Pough. 2002. "Love  Feminism but Where’s My Hip Hop? Shaping a Black Feminist Identity." In Daisy  Hernández and Bushra Rehman, eds., 85 – 95. Colonize This! young women of color  on today’s feminism. Seal Press, New York.
Gwendolyn Pough. 2003. "Do the  Ladies Run This…?: Some Thoughts on Hip-Hop Feminism." In Catching a Wave:  reclaiming feminism for the 21st century. Rory Dicker and  Alison
[8] Pough, "Do the Ladies Run  This…?, 235.
[9] Houston Baker. 1991.  "Hybridity, the Rap Race, and Pedagogy for the 1990s." In Technoculture. Andrew  Ross and Constance Penley, eds., 197 – 209. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota  Press; Henry L. Gates Jr. 1988. The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African  American Literary Criticism. New York: Oxford University  Press.
[10] Tricia Rose. 1994. Black  Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America. Hanover and London:  Wesleyan University Press, 151.
[11] Perry, "It’s My Thang and  I’ll Swing it the Way That I Feel!, 526.
[12] Ibid.,  528.
[13] Margaux Joffe. 2005.  "Reshaping the Revolution through Rhyme: A Literary Analysis of Cuban Hip-Hop in  the ‘Special Period.’" Working Paper #3, Andrew W. Mellon Undergraduate Paper  Series in Latin American and Caribbean Studies, Duke University Center for Latin  American and Caribbean Studies, 22.
[14] Op.  Cit.
[15] Update: recently Magia  was made director of the Cuban rap agency.