If you’re not sick of hearing the song “Chan Chan” when you arrive in Cuba, you almost certainly will be by the time you leave.
Walk into any establishment that does, has, or might ever potentially receive a tourist, and you’re pretty much guaranteed to hear some version of the 1987 Compay Segundo tune, made world famous a decade later when it appeared on the Buena Vista Social Club’s self-titled album. It plays at the airport snack bar. It plays in the lounge at the Hotel Nacional, the fraying resort once owned in part by gangster Meyer Lansky. It plays at the coffee shop attached to Cuba’s film institute. I heard it played by the band at the paella restaurant in Old Havana. Twice. And that was the first day.
It’s far from current and hardly representative of the island’s overall musical output, but it’s “revolutionary” in the peculiarly Cuban sense that it’s not really revolutionary at all. As fantastically creative as Cubans can be, the system doesn’t particularly appreciate personal expression that doesn’t conform.
Last month, two Cuban rappers found themselves on the wrong side of the revolution after performing a concert in Panama City during the Summit of the Americas. It was sponsored by the Cuban Soul Foundation, a Miami nonprofit, and the Asociación Pro Arte Libre, an independent group of artists, writers, and musicians inside Cuba whose work is used as a form of peaceful protest. Combined, these two things are what the Castros despise most: Miami and criticism.
On April 27, shortly after they returned home to Havana, Soandry del Rio, an emcee with Hermanos de Causa, and Raudel Collazo, an emcee with Escuadrón Patriota, were expelled from the Agencia Cubana de Rap, the government entity that oversees (translation: regulates) hip-hop on the island. They were told the reason for their dismissal was “failure to report income to the company,” meaning the Rap Agency.
Ariel Fernandez. Photo by Noelle Theard, courtesy of (1)ne Drop.
The Cuban Rap Agency was created “almost overnight,” explains Ariel Fernandez, who hosted Cuba’s first-ever hip-hop radio show as the national hip-hop promoter for a Cuban youth cultural organization called Asociación Hermanos Saíz. A division of a division of a divIision of the Cuban Ministry of Culture, the Rap Agency is housed within a government office building at the corner of Calle F and Calle 15 in Havana’s Vedado neighborhood. Imagine an entity within the Department of Commerce put in charge of the American hip-hop industry.
“When they said, ‘We have this offer for you,’ I was really concerned,” Fernandez told me in New York City, where he now lives. “For a minute, it looked like they were embracing us, but they were really trying to infiltrate us. When the Cuban Rap Agency has to make a decision, whose interests are they going to protect? The government’s? Or hip-hop’s?”
Ariel Fernandez aka DJ Asho hosting his weekly show “Microfonazo” at Radio Pogreso, Havana 2004. Here, interviewing rap groups Doble Filo and Obsesion. Photo courtesy of Ariel Fernandez-Diaz
Hip-hop first started filtering into Cuba in the early 1990s, via radio transmissions from Miami. The Cuban government was initially suspicious of hip-hop, calling it “too Americanizing.” The early shows were broken up by authorities who were completely confused by what they were seeing, says Jauretsi Saizarbitoria, who filmed countless hours of early Cuban hip-hop for her 2006 documentary, East of Havana.
“The whole point of rap is to discuss the problems you see around you,” she told me. “I mean, Chuck D called rap music ‘CNN for black people.’ But all the Cuban government saw was a bunch of black guys walking back and forth on a stage, screaming. And they didn’t know what it was.”
Though Fidel Castro would surely disagree, post-revolution Cuban society has been far from “colorblind.” The Cuban state, by all accounts, was never particularly eager to champion black art forms, including Afro-Cuban music. When the Cuban government embarked on a campaign in the early 1990s to “correct the errors” of the revolution, it included a public attempt to demonstrate the government’s support of black culture. When Harry Belafonte visited Cuba in 1999 for the Havana Film Festival, he met with local rap groups, which complained of feeling frustrated and voiceless.
Edgaro Productor n Jefe of Cuban rap group DOBLE FILO. Photo: Leandro Feal
“I hadn’t known that Cuba had rappers,” Belafonte wrote in his 2011 memoir, My Song. “After all, rap is in your face, by definition. How could they be true to rap’s spirit in Castro’s Cuba? They couldn’t perform in Havana’s clubs, they acknowledged; to the country’s elite, they didn’t even exist.”
The Cuban artists told Belafonte they believed their music was just as legitimate an expression of Cuban-ness as the more traditional salsa or son genres, and a summit of sorts between rappers and government officials was quickly arranged.
“One of the people there was Fidel, one of the other people there was my partner Yrak [Saenz],” Edgaro Gonzalez of popular Havana rap duo—and charter Rap Agency members—Doble Filo told me. “He explained to Fidel that we needed an empresa specifically for rap.”