Havana hip hops to its own rhythm

HAVANA – In Cuba, young people call it “El Rap.” Just like in American cities, Cuban rappers sing about the concerns of their generation.

They are the urban poets giving voice to Cuba’s streets, daring to explore issues like racism, machismo and parental intolerance in a country that prefers to keep its shortcomings under wraps.

These young trailblazers also transform the music itself, with its New York roots, into something uniquely Cuban by blending American-style rap with the pulse of salsa, cha cha cha and bolero.

Havana is bursting with hip hop, and Eddyk is emerging as one of the movement’s leaders.

“Our music fuses hip hop with traditional Cuban rhythms and the band sounds going back to the ’30s,” said rapper Eduardo “Eddy” Mora, who founded the group two years ago. “We draw on the music of greats like Beny Moré and Joséito Fernandez – music every Cuban kid was weaned on.” Moré, a leader of Cuba’s big band mambo and bolero sounds, is considered one of the island’s greatest vocalists, while Fernandez wrote the music for the Cuban classic “Guajira Guantanamera.”

Like all rappers, Eddyk inspires young people to take a critical look at Cuban society “as a way of trying to mend what needs fixing.” That truth, he said, constitutes the very integrity of their music.

“We don’t sing about violence, guns or drugs because those problems don’t afflict Cuba. But we do rap about problems like machismo and racism. Sometimes seriously; other times with a sense of humor.”

In one rap, Eddy admits he tries to bed every woman that crosses his path. But, he laments the one who got away: “I took her to bed and she threw me on my head.”

Eddyk’s observations about Cuban society are mild compared to Causa 2, a group that takes its name from the island’s penal code. At Sunday night’s closing concert at the Habana Hip Hop 2002 Festival, Causa 2 performed “Black Tears,” a disquieting denunciation of how black Cubans are depicted in the state-owned media. “Whites and mulattos on the cover of tourism magazines, and TV the same. ... In Cuba, where there are lots of Blacks, look at the contradiction. Blacks are nowhere to be seen – except playing sports and acting the role of the slave.”

That message was received with less vigor than a similar one on opening night, when the audience wildly applauded a rapper who blasted police harassment of Black youth.

In the years since hip hop first arrived on Cuban shores, the music has slowly moved out of the shadows of Cuban urban culture and into the mainstream. Rappers attest to how the government in the 1980s subtly censored hip hop by quietly banning it on government airwaves. But as the movement grew across the island, rappers found acceptance and even eventual sponsorship from Hermanos Saiz, the cultural branch of Cuba’s Young Communist Union. Many of Havana’s more than 250 rap groups and the island’s 600 artists are loosely affiliated with Hermanos Saiz, the driving force behind the annual rap festival.

Cuban rappers believe that Cuban kids are drawn to both the rhythms and lyrics of their brand of hip hop. “Life is not easy,” said Ana Mira Zamora, 24, a chemist and single mother. “The rappers don’t try and hide this. They talk the truth.”

“The goal here is to put out a constructive and responsive message to make our society better,” said Pablo Herrera, a producer who manages some 20 local rap groups. Hip Hop in the United States, he argued, “has been corrupted into a money-making machine ... that separates young people from their roots, their traditions, the authenticity of their culture.”

Herrera also says the Cuban music aims to find a niche in society that gives expression to the younger generation and ways to improve life within socialist Cuba.

“The role of young people has always been to renew and bring new blood into the mix. ... Time is unstoppable and it’s important we give credit to young people because we have to believe in them and trust them,” Herrera said.

– Mary Murray (Mary Murray is a correspondent for NBC News. This article is from CubaNews@yahoogroups.com)