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Hip Hop & the Cuban Revolution

WW commentary, part 1

Published Sep 23, 2007 9:29 PM

Hip Hop culture is again being attacked by the major news outlets, which of late began with Don Imus, when his virulent racism was spotlighted after his hateful remarks against a college basketball team made up mostly of Black women. However, some capitalist news outlets appear to have embraced Hip Hop in revolutionary Cuba.

It’s not that this should be a confusing turn, not for those who’ve been in solidarity with the Cuban revolution. Nor should it be for people struggling against racism and oppression in the U.S.

When FIST, a revolutionary youth group, visited Cuba this July, the youth had an opportunity to meet with the head of the Cuban Rap Agency and several Cuban rap artists. The artists explained what the music means to them, how they first came in contact with Hip Hop culture, and how it is viewed by the revolution.

A New York Times article written last December entitled, “Cuba’s Rap Vanguard Reaches Beyond the Party Line,” attempts to assert that youth in Cuba are at odds with the revolutionary leadership and that these tensions are evident in the burgeoning Hip Hop culture there.

The writer claims that “many” of the five million people under the age of 30 question the system. It is not to suggest that Cubans are not critical. Perhaps the greatest criticism comes from Fidel, but criticism itself is not a bad thing. In an ever changing world there are always new questions and problems and healthy criticisms are part of deepening socialism, especially with the contradictions of a global capitalist market.

While many of the emerging leaders on the island were not alive during the revolutionary armed struggle, they came of age during one of the most difficult and challenging periods of the Cuban revolution. That period is known on the island as the Special Period, and the Cuban economy is just recovering from the effects.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba lost its largest trading partner. Eighty percent of Cuban trade was with the Soviet Union and the socialist camp in Eastern Europe.

While perhaps some can look at the counterrevolutionary reforms of Perestroika under Gorbachev as a warning sign, it was not expected that trade would stop immediately, but it did.

The U.S. and many in the imperialist West expected that the Cuban revolution would fail, but history and the resolve of the Cuban people were the best weapons to ensure that this did not happen.

The Cuban people experienced a significant reduction in caloric intake. Food had to be rationed. Temporary market reforms were put in place. Cuba promoted tourism on the island as its primary way of securing hard currency with which to trade on the international market.

Only a person who lived through it can truly attest to the difficulties, but regardless of the hardship, not one hospital or school closed. But neither did antagonism from the U.S. government cease.

It was during this period that Cubans began to really get exposed to Hip Hop culture. While rap music started being broadcast from Southern Florida in the late 1980s, it was in the 1990s—during the Special Period—when this culture and music began to take hold with youth on the island.

If one were to listen to this music from the late 1980s and early 1990s, known as the “Golden Age of Hip Hop,” what is clear is that the music was the pulse of oppressed Black and [email protected] youth, that the rhythms and the lyrics expressed the frustration and anger of youth living under the reactionary Reagan regime.

If the musical explosion that emanated from the South Bronx in the late 1970s was a manifestation of “a dream deferred,” then the evolution of the music to what it became in the late 1980s and early 1990s can best be described as the chain reaction in urban centers across the U.S.

Though Cuban youth may not have fully understood each and every word, the angry sentiment towards oppression is easily translated.

The collapse of the Soviet Union was felt hardest by underdeveloped nations. The Soviet Union, even with its many internal contradictions, was the buffer that held U.S. imperialism at bay and was supportive of liberation movements around the world.

The fact that Cuba was undergoing such a crisis as the Special Period, and that Hip Hop culture, rap music and its energy and break dancing, caught on during this time symbolizes the difficulty of the times and the draw of the culture.

The writer is a leader of FIST—Fight Imperialism, Stand Together—youth group and was a member of its delegation that traveled to Cuba in July.