Recently the rapper Jay-Z released a track called “Open Letter” to answer the critics of him and his partner Beyoncé’s one-week excursion to Cuba for their fifth wedding anniversary. The track is a spare 2-and-a-half minute retort produced by Swizz Beats and Timbaland. It’s a laid-back, head-nodding type of production, reminiscent of the mid-to-late 1990s, much denser than one might imagine but clean and not too busy except for some of the nonsensical ad-libs, which do add some extra texture, despite its length.
Jay-Z is in his prime form. In some ways that track brings one of his more well-known songs, “The Takeover,” to mind, not that it is as harsh as that diss record, but he has the swagger and confidence of that earlier song.
But this is not a mere review of the song but more so of the content and an attempt to put the trip and the criticism of it into a proper political context.
The lyrics don’t have much political content and give no clue as to why the couple went to Cuba and what they did there. Jay-Z spends a lot of time asserting his power and wealth. He also warns critics to let him be. He then mentions his relationship with the Brooklyn Nets, which he used to be a part-owner of.
Origins of attack
The firestorm of criticism started with two right-wing politicians in Florida, part of the self-exiled Cuban elite who have long hated the Cuban revolution and plotted against it. Republican U.S. Reps. Ileanna Ros-Lehtinen and Mario Diaz-Balart sent a letter to the director of the office of Foreign Assets and Control to ascertain the purpose for Jay Z and Beyoncé’s trip.
In the letter they refer to the Cuban government as a “murderous” regime and that they both represent a community that has been personally affected by the atrocities of the Cuban revolution.
Balart’s father was a member of the government headed by repressive U.S.-supported dictator, Fulgencio Batista. Lehtinen’s father has long supported the blockade against Cuba.
Both politicians currently support the unjust blockade and U.S. policies and actions that have been responsible for hardships faced by the Cuban people while speaking of phantom injustices on the island inflicted by the revolutionary government.
Ros Lehtinen advocated for the release of Orlando Bosch and against his deportation from Venezuela under then President Carlos Andrés Pérez after Bosch was arrested in 1988 for his involvement in the 1976 bombing of Cubana Airlines 455. Seventy-three people died, including members of the Cuban fencing team.
Jay Z’s answer didn’t address any of that nor did it address the blockade or travel restrictions. It did mention his close relationship with President Barack Obama but not anything about a license to travel. Both Jay-Z and Beyoncé did apply for a license from the Treasury Department, which was granted, but how aware they are of Cuba’s decades-long relations problem with the U.S. is not clear.
A positive result of the trip and the backlash is that a whole, new generation will begin to question the absurdity of people being denied the right to travel to Cuba and the even more ridiculous punitive measures taken against someone who does so without a license. The penalties can be a fine of up to $250,000 or a sentence of up to 10 years in a federal penitentiary.
Both Jay-Z and Beyoncé are very popular in the entertainment industry and their albums have sold tens of millions of copies. In fact, within 24 hours of Jay-Z releasing “Open Letter,” it had been listened to 500,000 times.
Regardless of the track’s lack of political content, that he is defending his and Beyoncé’s right to go on the trip has struck a chord with many young people. The most relevant bars of the song, “Politicians never did shit for me/Except lie to me, distort history,” speak to the rising sentiment that the Occupy Wall Street movement helped to popularize, that the so-called democracy in the U.S. is for the wealthy ruling elite.
The travel restrictions should be lifted along with the blockade. Jay-Z and Beyoncé’s trip should not be scrutinized by the right wing. It is their right to travel there.
Cuba’s right to build new society
However, we live in a world that has definite relations of oppression, where there is a predominant social system that is based on exploitation and robbing people of the value of their labor. It is a capitalist system from which wars, oppression and repression spring forth and that uses racism, sexism and homophobia as weapons, and it is a system which breeds extreme, soul crushing poverty.
And Cuba is a country that long ago liberated itself from the clutches of the U.S., not only by overthrowing dictator Fulgencio Batista and expropriating the comprador rulers on the island, but by throwing out the United Fruit Company and other U.S. interests.
John F. Kennedy, who ordered the Bay of Pigs invasion, even said regarding Batista and the U.S., “I believe that there is no country in the world including any and all the countries under colonial domination, where economic colonization, humiliation and exploitation were worse than in Cuba, in part owing to my country’s policies during the Batista regime. I approved the proclamation which Fidel Castro made in the Sierra Maestra, when he justifiably called for justice and especially yearned to rid Cuba of corruption. I will even go further: to some extent it is as though Batista was the incarnation of a number of sins on the part of the United States. Now we shall have to pay for those sins. In the matter of the Batista regime, I am in agreement with the first Cuban revolutionaries. That is perfectly clear.” (http://tinyurl.com/bsa6rwt) This quote was taken from an Oct. 24, 1963, interview that Kennedy did with Jean Daniel, two years after the Bay of Pigs invasion.
Cuba has long been a bastion and a symbol of dignity for the masses around the world who long for freedom. Despite being 90 miles from the most powerful military and economic power the world has ever known; despite the many attempts to kill its leadership; despite the terrorist attacks like the bombing of Cubana 455; despite the CIA blowing up of La Coubre, a ship docked in Havana harbor, which caused the deaths of 100 people; despite the release of dengue fever on the island and other plagues; despite the subversive plots of many kinds; the blockade of the island; and many other hardships, the Cuban revolution has remained resolute.
Despite losing more than 80 percent of its foreign trade when the Soviet Union collapsed; and despite passing through the long winter called the “Special Period,” not one school or hospital was closed. It was during this period that Cuba opened the Latin American School for Medicine, which has trained thousands of doctors from oppressed countries for free, even students from oppressed communities within the U.S.
It is within all of this context that progressives and revolutionaries must also examine Jay-Z and Beyoncé’s trip. Hopefully the couple were able to see Cuba beyond U.S. propaganda. Perhaps they learned of the history of U.S. relations towards the island and the gains of the revolution, that life expectancy far exceeds that of Black people in the U.S. and that the infant mortality rate is lower and that before the revolution Cuba was a playground for gangsters and the rich.
Cuba does have magnificent beaches, pristine cyan waters, and a rich history and cultures. There are many sights in Havana and across the island, so without a doubt the couple and their family members were able to partake in the richness the island has to offer.
The question remains, though, as to the purpose. A wealthy, high profile couple could travel almost anywhere without the hassle of having to procure a license.
Role of mass culture
Jay-Z and Beyoncé have great social relevance, including political relevance. Jay-Z rose from Marcy Public Housing in the Bedford-Stuyvesant part of Brooklyn. He had to survive and fight because of the poverty of his family and as a member of an oppressed nationality. He’s been a fixture in hip-hop since the early 90s, starting with an early collaborator, Jaz-O. He is a legend in hip-hop music for his distinct voice and a delivery that appears to meld to the productions he raps over. While he has consciously grown — embracing lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer rights and apologizing for his earlier misogyny on songs like “Girls, Girls, Girls” and “Big Pimpin” — his focus has always been towards other things rather than social movement.
Though he once wore a Che Guevara shirt on MTV Unplugged and wrote and included Che Guevara in one lyric, he has not really mentioned Cuba.
A person can only speculate, but history provides lessons and the U.S. is still scheming, still hostile to Cuba’s attempt to build socialism on the island.
The only licenses the Treasury Department grants for trips to Cuba are People to People Exchanges. These are cultural/educational trips where the visitors are to meet and share with Cuban people about the U.S. and learn about Cuba. On the surface this seems harmless and fruitful.
The people to people exchanges are highly valued by pro-Cuba activists in the U.S. and by Cubans as well, because it is a way for them to counter the vicious propaganda against them. The contradiction, however, is that some in the U.S. view them as a way to undermine the Cuban revolution.
These types of exchanges existed during the Cold War with the Soviet Union and against China. The U.S. used these exchanges to get ballet dancers in the Soviet Union to defect. U.S. agents follow Cuban entertainers, athletes, doctors and teachers around the world trying to get them to defect. Recently, Cuban ballet dancers from the renowned Cuban National Ballet defected. A number of high profile Cuban boxers defected a number of years ago, including two of the most decorated Cuban amateurs, Guillermo Rigondeaux and Yuriorkis Gamboa.
In August 2010, the Brookings Institute stated that the people to people exchanges are “a strategic tool to advance U.S. policy objectives to support the emergence of a Cuban nation in which the Cuban people determine their political and economic future.” ( http://tinyurl.com/cce2r84) What that really means is a Cuba that is not independent and more like the Dominican Republic or Haiti or like pre-revolutionary Cuba.
A glance at Honduras following the coup against President Manuel Zelaya or at Libya today shows exactly what the U.S. has in store for Cuba.
What really could U.S. culture offer Cuba anyway? Hip-hop music is the pulse of oppressed people in the U.S. and has been embraced around the world. It is rooted in the Bronx, N.Y., where the early expressions of the culture, graffiti art, b-boying and b-girling, rapping and dejaying put an end to the gang wars happening there between the Black Spades and other street organizations.
It grew across the country and during the golden era reflected the still deep political consciousness in Black and Latino/a communities.
It remains so, at least with underground hip-hop music and for every well-known musician there are two underground performers, many of whom have great relevance to the actual conditions of poor and oppressed people here.
Mainstream hip-hop, however, which is promoted by Viacom-owned Black Entertainment TV and Clear Channel, reflects many of the backward values of bourgeois society. These musicians are not the greatest purveyors of it but are conditioned and packaged. The labels get the final say and decide what is popular. This is U.S. culture.
It is a culture that breeds mass shooters not only because of violence in the media but because of the consistent violence that maintains U.S. political, economic and military hegemony. The U.S. was built on violence, genocide, slavery, rape and currently wages wars and the occupations of two countries while using drones to bomb countries in Africa and the Middle East.
Imperialist culture is debased and decadent so what could this country possibly offer in lessons of righteousness and freedom to the Cuban people?
It is right to defend Jay-Z and Beyoncé from right-wing attack. It is right also to be suspicious and defend the Cuban revolution from all plots and put this trip into its proper context.