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Cuban Rappers Risk It All to Defy the Status Quo

By: Elisa Vásquez - @elisavasquez88 - Apr 13, 2015, 8:25 am
Los artistas del hip hop se presentó este jueves en Panamá para llevar un mensaje alternativo sobre la expresión del pueblo cubano. (PanAm Post)
Silvito el libre and David Escalona (far left) and Macabro XII and Soandres del Río (far right) made their voices heard at the Summit of the Americas in Panama. (PanAm Post)

EspañolWe’re here to risk the little we have for freedom. That’s how Cuban hip-hop artist David Escalona defined his visit to Panama, along with a group of six rappers from the island, ahead of the seventh Summit of the Americas.

Back in Cuba, they scrape a living, holding secret shows in friends’ houses and almost hidden corners of the country. The venues may be small, but the message is big: through their music, they speak out against what they describe as a repressive government. All of them have faced censorship and government persecution.

“When you do hip-hop in Cuba, you already know you won’t be able make a living from it. If someone does hip-hop in Cuba, it’s because that person has something to say,” Escalona explains.

Escalona is also known as David D’Omni, a name that comes from his cultural group, Omnizonafranca. He’s the unofficial head of a collective of “artivists” — activists who use art to express Cuba’s yearning for the most basic but forbidden human values: freedom of thought and expression.

The eight musicians participated in multiple forums on Thursday and Friday parallel to the Summit of the Heads of State, where they told press and activists how they’ve managed to keep composing and distributing their work, evading the watchful eyes and ears of government censors.

The group explained how for many Cubans, hip-hop has filled the space left vacant by the traditional folkloric music that became corrupted by the Castro regime and turned into nueva trova — a process they describe as akin to the “cultural hijacking of the state.”

Escalona, Soandry del Río, and Silvito El Libre (son of famed Nueva trova artist Silvio Rodríguez) were joined by Venezuela’s Macabro XII in conversation with the PanAm Post, shortly before they gave a concert to Panama’s City of Knowledge, an academic and technology hub, on Thursday, April 9.

Across town at the University of Panama, Silvito’s troubadour father was pleasing crowds at the parallel Summit of the Peoples with his fusion of folk music and revolutionary politics.

What does freedom of artistic expression mean for you, and how does it become effective?

Silvito El Libre: For me, to be free is to have no owner, not only regarding the government, but in everything. To be able to do what I, or other people, consider as art.

It’s about respecting each others’ poetry, and making things the way the artist believes they should be.

So you consider yourselves free just because you think freely? Or do you need permission and spaces to do so?

Raudel Collazo, de Escuadron Patriota, dijo en escena: " "No apoyamos la explotación del hombre por el hombre, pero tampoco del hombre por el Estado". (PanAm Post)
Raudel Collazo of Escuadrón Patriota tells the crowd “We don’t support the exploitation of man by man, but neither that of man by the state.” (PanAm Post)

Soandry: I think I’m free as far as I want to be. There are other things that generate freedom, like money, that sometimes we shy away from mentioning. Money’s useful when it comes to helping others to do things, and to have power.

As for me, I feel I’m not 100 percent free because liberation is a lifelong struggle. There’s always something to free yourself from in a mental sense.

D’Omni: I believe that freedom should be part of your being: one must be free first, and everything else comes after that. Being free has consequences. To feel free has consequences. But that’s like a river, you might come across a rock, but you carry on past it.

What we come across are natural obstacles, that we ought to view these, to a point, in a relaxed way. Given that we live in a society, sometimes these natural obstacles can be censorship. Especially when we have a totalitarian government that controls the radio, the television, the economy. In that case, what’s left for the river is to evaporate and rain elsewhere. That’s what we’ve done.

Macabre XII: I think that in terms of freedom, the human is a synonym for prisoner, and the world is a synonym of prison. In that’s the case, we have to look for what we’re slaves to, and I’m only a slave of my heart.

What do you make of the urban group Calle 13, who also touch on social issues, but are sympathetic to the governments of Cuba and Venezuela?

Gorki Aguila, cantante opositor al Gobierno de los Castro, invitó a la audiencia, y en especial a los cubanos visitantes en Panamá, a subirse a la tarima y cantar sus canciones. (PanAm Post).
Anti-Castro signer Gorki Aguila invites the crowd of Panamanians and Cuban exiles onto the stage. (PanAm Post)

Soandry: Well, Calle 13 have been ground breaking within the huge Puerto Rican market that’s reggaeton. It seems to me that they’ve been useful in going against the flow, and even challenging certain features of the music that practically everyone in their country loves. In musical terms, they’ve known how to do it successfully.

Now, on the personal front, I don’t know what each one of them thinks. They did a concert at [Havana’s] anti-imperialist platform. But many people have come to Cuba with the wrong idea of the country.

They’ve got involved with groups that have their own interests, and they’ve worked for the Cuban government when they wanted to support the Cuban people. But because I haven’t yet had a direct conversation with any of them, I can’t assume that they have a fixed position, because many people have fallen [for it], and the Cuban system has been very effective at skewing artists’ perspectives, in moving them with the Cuba that they want them to see.

D’Omni: Honestly, as I don’t know them personally, I’m sure they’re great people, but I don’t think they know Cuba.

How do you think hip-hop can help bring about the changes you want to see in Cuba?

First by freeing the hearts of young people, of those who listen to hip-hop. Putting values, families, unity, bravery, and maintaining a conscious message, in our lyrics. There’s a moment for everything in life. There’s a moment to dance, to smile, to celebrate.

But there’s a certain imbalance to do with the music that’s distributed in our societies [Venezuela and Cuba], and I think that we’re striking a balance in what it is to bring a conscious message, without self-censorship.

Translated by Rebeca MorlaEdited by Laurie Blair.

Elisa Vásquez Elisa Vásquez

Elisa Vásquez is a Venezuelan journalist with experience covering social and community topics. Her specialty is human rights education and international solidarity. She reports from Panama City. Follow her on Twitter @elisavasquez88.