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Cuba possesses one of the prominent and exciting music scenes in the world, and it is a truly impressive feat that such a small island has been able to influence world music to such an extent. For centuries, the Caribbean island has been a musical melting pot, out of which new rhythms and melodies have blossomed and permeated musical culture worldwide. This is largely due to the fact that Cuba has had for a long time a rich mix of different ethnicities. Spain colonised the island at the beginning of the 16th century, and after over-exploiting native Cubans for two centuries, they started to import African slaves to farm sugar cane and tobacco, whose descendants live in Cuba today.
When one thinks of Cuban music, the first words that come to mind are likely to be along the lines of ‘Habanera’ and ‘Mambo’, but now Cuban music is moving on. Hip Hop evolved in New York City in the late 70s and over the next three decades it established itself as a genre and as a new subculture. Originally Hip Hop was confined to the USA but soon its influence spread. Just as Hip Hop was a medium through which to channel frustration about racial discrimination in the States, so it became in Cuba. Cuban rappers also use their music to draw attention to issues such as mass tourism and AIDS.
Unsurprisingly, the adoption and appropriation of an American artform was not initially popular with the socialist government, especially because rap has always synonymous with protest. Hip Hop is not dance music, it is music to chew on. The state was fundamentally unhappy with the image of young black men getting up on stage and attacking the socio-political situation in the country. This all changed when a man named Harry Belafonte introduced none other than Fidel Castro to the genre. Soon afterwards, the then Minister of Culture Abel Prieto proclaimed Hip Hop “an authentic expression of cubanidad”, an apparent victory for young artists. In reality it was a tactical move to bring Hip Hop under state control. Artists favoured by the government obtained success, while others were pushed into obscurity. Even recently, Hip Hop artists have been thrown in jail for the offence of going slightly too far in their denunciation of police brutality.
Hip Hop everywhere has often been a centre for unbridled objectification of women, and it has been difficult for women to break through and find their own voice. Now Cuba probably has the highest percentage of female artists in its respective industry. Groups like Instinto, Anónimo Consejo and Explosion Femenina have all achieved some mainstream success, and the lesbian group Krudas Cubensi have earned recognition for their open discussion of homosexuality.
Nonetheless, while the nation is not as tightly controlled as it was years ago, it is not a land of the free. Freedom of expression in art is still a distant concept, and television and radio are still under state supervision. Accepted artists are given money for new turntables and prime concert locations, but push your social commentary too far and you’ll end up with nothing.
· Orishas – A Lo Cubano (2000)
· Anónimo Consejo – Los Nuevos Inquilinos (2011)
· Danay Suarez – Palabras Manuales (2017)