Cuban Rappers: What Change?

Friday, April 10, 2015
From USA Today:

Cuban rappers cricize government in rhyme at Summit

Cuban rapper Skuadron Patriota paced the stage and dedicated his next song to his mom – and moms everywhere who have lost sons to street fights or perilous raft trips from his island country – then launched into his signature spitfire tune, Madre.

"Tolerance zero, freedom of expression zero ... State control to the extreme."

Cuba's historic entry to the Summit of the Americas here has also drawn many of the communist island's critics, including a rare Cuban hip hop protest concert Thursday night. The event took place in a theater just off the Panama Canal and gathered known rappers from the island such as Skuadron, Sivito El Libre and David D Omni.

Omni, who calls himself an "artevista" or art-activist, said he was harassed at the airport upon his arrival by Panamanian customs agents, who warned him not to make trouble or he'd be deported back to Cuba, a complaint echoed by other Cuban dissidents in town for the summit.

Still, he said was excited to share a stage with other Cuban rappers whose lyrics denounce the Castro regime – an event that would be near impossible to pull off in their home country. He said Cuban rappers are unique because they're less concerned with the material trappings that U.S. rappers tend to glamorize and instead focus on social issues and everyday life.

"Cuban hip hop is different," Omni said. "You know you're not going to make money. You rap because you have something to say."

Over the past decade, Cuban hip hop has been one of the main forms of expressing dissent on the island. But it hasn't been without its controversy. A report by the Associated Press last year alleged that the U.S. Agency for International Development attempted to recruit hip hop artists to foster unrest among the country's youth, a charge the artists denied.

The hip hop artists have continued to put out music, often shared through amateur videos on YouTube and many denouncing the Cuban government. Few other artists, singers or political dissidents have been criticizing the Castro government as explicitly and forcefully as Cuban rappers, said Adolfo Leyva, a history professor at Florida State University's Panama campus and an organizer of Thursday's event.

"These people are the ones pushing the envelope," he said.

At the concert, the rappers took the stage in front of a wall flashing images of the Cuban flag, Cuban highways or Havana neighborhoods. Several of them called for the release of artist Danilo Maldonado, known as "El Sexto," who was jailed by Cuban authorities in December for attempting to release two hogs in a public square scrawled with the names "Fidel" and "Raul" – Cuba's iconic leaders.

Gorkí Aguila, front man for Cuban punk band Porno Para Ricardo and an outspoken government critic, played a solo set, including a song mocking Cuban President Raúl Castro, in town for the summit. "I'm here because … well, any chance I have to denounce the Castro government, I'll take it," Aguila said on stage to cheers from the crowd.

One of the headliners of the event was rapper Silvito El Libre, who's father, Silvio Rodriguez, is a renown Cuban musician and favorite of the Cuban government. As his son's rap concert got under way, Rodriguez led his own concert across town, sponsored by Cuban authorities.

Lounging outside the theater before the show, Silvito said he doesn't like to talk about this father. But he said he hopes improved relations with the USA lead to real changes on the island, something that's been elusive for years.

"I think the Cuban government should hand over control to the new generation, to new ideas," he said. "So far, we haven't seen much change."