CIENFUEGOS, Cuba In a country better known for salsa, rumba and the Buena Vista Social Club, the beats of hip-hop are inspiring a generation of disillusioned young people who see their world torn apart by social ills such as street hustling and racism.
“I’m not scared of the world around me,” go the words to a song by the group Concepto Cuba, “but I hate it just the same.”
“Everybody wants to sing about love, about happy things,” says university student Carlos Infante, who weathered a two-hour delay caused by a power failure at a recent concert in this southern coastal industrial city’s community center. But rappers “are very brave.”
“They talk about topics in our society that nobody wants to talk about,” he says.
Naturally, there are limits: Few rappers would shout “Down with Fidel” or demand free speech in a society that still jails people for actions deemed counterrevolutionary. Economic hardship and moral appeals are fair game; dissing the government is not.
Cuban authorities initially shut down rap shows, unaccustomed to its aggressive, gesturing style and messages. Police once stopped members of Anonimo Consejo after a show, concerned about the meaning and intent of their songs.
“At first, the government didn’t know what to make of it,” says Ariel Fernandez, who hosts a hip-hop radio show in Havana. “Then they saw its power. They realized that without it, the revolution can’t succeed. This is the language.”
Luis Fernandez, spokesman for the Cuban Interests Section in Washington, said his government embraces all styles of musical expression.
“We have had [rap] festivals,” he said. “There is no problem with hip-hop or any other kind of music.”
While official acceptance is promising, says Marc Perry, a doctoral student examining Cuban hip-hop and race issues through the University of Texas, some could read it as a move to keep potential opposition under the state’s thumb.
Either way, “this movement earned a space,” he says. “It was able to grow on its own to a point where it could no longer be ignored.”
“It’s not like the U.S., where you can say anything,” says Jorge Rodriguez, 32, who spends evenings trying to earn under-the-table money by safeguarding cars for nightclub patrons.
As Fidel Castro’s Cuba undergoes a socioeconomic identity crisis, having borrowed from capitalism to save its socialist foundations, a secondary economy based on U.S. dollars, which endow far greater buying power than pesos, has etched class lines through the country’s largely egalitarian society.
Cities stream with unlicensed taxi drivers, youngsters hawking stolen rum or cigars, and dolled-up women offering nightly companionship. “Everyone just wants to use you to get money,” Concepto Cuba’s Carlos Diaz says. “After that, you’re worth nothing.”
Little is sure about the future except potentially drastic change. Time is whittling away at the U.S. embargo on trade with Cuba, and few of the island’s 11 million residents, a raft ride away from the Florida coast, have a clue about how life will proceed after their 75-year-old leader dies.
Faced with political and moral uncertainty, young Cubans are all over hip-hop, a mosaic of music, dance and fashion that has eclipsed its poor New York roots to become a global phenomenon.
In Cuba, they call it “el rap,” and without turntables, samples or mentorship, they’re instilling it with distinctly Cuban flavor Afro-Cuban spiritual references and the lush instrumentation of salsa.
“Our work is practically self-taught,” says rapper Alexander Guerra, among the droopily stylish crowd awaiting hip-hop night at Havana’s Cabaret Las Vegas one evening. “But we have it in the blood. We have it in the heart.”
Few, however, have it in the wallet: With hip-hop still a minimal presence in the government-controlled music industry, most rappers are limited to cheap cassette recordings. Even Havana’s Pablo Herrera, Cuba’s premier hip-hop producer, operates out of a second-floor apartment in a dusty neighborhood with potholed streets.
This fall brought the U.S. release of a Herrera-produced compilation of Cuban hip-hop featuring some of the country’s more successful groups, including Obsesion (Obsession), Anonimo Consejo (Anonymous Advice) and Grandes Ligas (Big Leagues). Most are from the Havana area, home to the majority of the island’s estimated 500 “raperos” and site of its largest hip-hop festival, now in its seventh year.
Rap hit Cuban shores 20 years ago. But it was seldom listened to or imitated until the 1990s, when the fall of the Soviet Union, Cuba’s main trading partner, crippled the economy and forced a period of contraction.
Minus the heavy jackets and skullcaps favored by U.S. rappers, Cuban youths fashioned hip-hop to their own realities. A 1996 Amenaza song about racism, Mr. Herrera says, “marked a moment of transition.”
“People said, ‘We need to talk about issues that have to do with us.’”
Groups began tackling police harassment, discrimination and street hustling.
“In my solitude, there is safety, and a way to pass the day,” continues the Concepto Cuba song, “Afuera Acechan Los Demonios,” or “Demons Lurk Outside,” a reference to the social maladies that have affected Cuba’s palpable sense of community. “Let them think me crazy. Evil is all around me.”
Aware of the blowing winds and eager to enjoy young adulthood, university students such as Niurka Villa, 26, are building their computer and English-speaking skills to earn tourist dollars.
Among Afro-Cubans, there is less optimism. Already underrepresented in government, many say their access to dollar-paying jobs is restricted, and few black Cubans benefit from annual remittances sent from relatives abroad.
Anonimo Consejo’s “Guapo Como Mandela” (“Tough Like Mandela”) promotes Afro-Cuban pride in a society that hoped to wipe out racism. “To say that in Cuba and embrace South Africa is powerful,” says New York actor Danny Hoch, who helped bring a delegation of Cuban rappers to hip-hop’s birthplace last fall.