Hip-Hop: Straight Outta Havana

Source: New York Times

ONSTAGE is Instinto, a female trio extraordinaire. It’s my first time seeing them perform in Havana. The divas are wearing shimmering strapless dresses with high heels. As a salsa beat kicks in, they shake and turn, rapping lyrically, then singing in three-part harmony.


This is Cuban rap, where the streets meet highbrow art. It is an American-derived subculture that has flourished on the island despite — and in some ways, because of — the United States’ half-century-long embargo against Cuba.


President Obama has relaxed travel restrictions to Cuba and has begun granting visas for visiting Cuban artists. This month, the Grammy-winning singer Pablo Milanés will tour the United States for the first time since 1979. And on Monday the National Assembly agreed to lift some restrictions on the economy. Many are celebrating these changes as the beginning of the end of the embargo and an opening of Cuban society. But it’s worth remembering that, besides the hardships, there can be benefits to living in a bubble. Islands are hot spots of biodiversity. And out of isolation, Cuban art forms like rap have developed a particular richness and vitality.


Rap was originally an import. In the early ’90s, young Cubans built antennas from wire coat hangers and dangled their radios out of their windows to catch 2 Live Crew and Naughty by Nature on Miami’s 99 Jamz. Aspiring Cuban M.C.’s rapping at house parties and in small local venues crassly mimicked their American counterparts.


“Just like you, just like you, nigger, we wanna be a nigger like you,” Primera Base rapped offensively about their hero, Malcolm X. The group was known to sport thick imitation gold chains and fake diamonds — even though “bling” was a remote concept given Cuba’s endemic scarcities.


But Cuban rap soon took on a life of its own. Unlike other hip-hop fans around the world, young Cubans had little access to the latest trends in American rap, so they had to look inward for inspiration. With only two state-run TV channels, they couldn’t tune in to the globally televised Yo! MTV Raps to see pioneers like Public Enemy or N.W.A., and Havana wasn’t on the touring circuit for De La Soul.

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