Cuban Rap Agency pushes smart subcultural rap to the margins

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The process of causing change in a given modern-day society is often complex and lengthy. If the desire to cause change, to challenge societal norms, lies with subcultural groups existing outside of those norms, the process becomes particularly daunting, and it requires perfectly timed, often coincidental cooperation from other subcultural groups. It is in questioning and possibly subverting cultural norms, beliefs, and meanings that outside groups are able to change the social order and increase the potential of a community to work towards its ideal state. But what happens when groups that originally served to represent the underrepresented, to question authority and fight for cultural change, abandon their ideals and minimize the ability of any group to cause change?

That is exactly what is happening in Cuba today. Cuban rap and hip-hop music, which grew out of a need for self-expression outside of the repression imposed by the communist state under Castro, is being edged out of the cultural scene by newly popularized forms of hip-hop and reggaeton music. It is reggaeton in particular — the musical genre that celebrates the trivial lifestyle of bars, dancing, and objectifying women (and is obnoxiously difficult to listen to) — that is storming the cultural scene in Cuba and edging out rap. In the poor areas surrounding Havana, reggaeton and its banal, poorly articulated, sexually explicit lyrics are becoming ever more popular, demanding prime radio playing time and overpowering Cuba’s most traditionally powerful musical force, rap. How can a subculture ever succeed in manifesting change, in communicating its message to the public, if another subculture is suppressing it?

Rap is important to the inhabitants of the small island — particularly the poorest, the Afro-Cubans living in and around Havana. Since it was first heard and adapted from rap stations in Miami in the late 1970s and early 1980s, rap has served as an alternative to violence and state repression, offering an outlet for those subjugated and trapped in the most unfortunate circumstances in the communist state. Rap does not offer the same kind of cultural capital in Cuba as it does in the United States: Afro-Cuban rap “criticizes inequality, discrimination and oppression, produces collective ways of learning about social conditions ... and transforms social relations,” according to Arlene Tickner, a Colombian university professor, as reported in a March 19 article from the Inter Press Service News Agency.

Several groups are clinging to the use of rap to share their experiences of repression and social subjugation with their Cuban peers. Rap artist Aldo Rodriguez of the group Los Aldeanos, for example, told, “I’ve pointed out the things that seem wrong to me, and the people like it.” According to the April 11 article, Los Aldeanos’s lyrics “condemn racism, police harassment, prostitution, and inequality — criticism often heard in Cuba’s streets, but controlled by the state in the media.” The right to self-expression we have in the United States is not the same in Cuba’s communist state, and it is through this musical subculture that problems can be identified and addressed by the masses.

Enter the Cuban Rap Agency. (Just the sound of it is uncomfortable.) Founded in 2002 by the government under the guise of supporting rap groups by getting them radio time and recording contracts, this oh-so-down-with-it state-run agency was established to limit the very self-expression so necessary to underrepresented Cuban subcultures. They just quietly operate under the mantra that they will only support groups willing to forgo any ability to cause change or question the dominant cultural structures, and adopt messages approved by the state.

So now, a handful of rap groups are selling out to the agency to gain mass publicity at the expense of their independent, strong-willed counterparts. But we can’t really blame them; the aforementioned articles have outlined the difficulty in gaining public access for any musical group, especially with the frivolous, thumping beats of reggaeton getting in the way.

The Cuban youth culture, particularly the Afro-Cuban youth culture, needs music as an outlet for self-expression under the repressive communist state controlling an overwhelming majority of facets of their lives. They need a means of combating repression, of exploiting the underprivileged, poor, unsafe living and working conditions around Havana. What can be done to let the rappers’ messages for safety and cultural independence break through the haze of mindless reggaeton rhythms and the interfering Cuban Rap Agency? While supposedly designed to support rising artists, the Cuban Rap Agency is no more than a means of further subjugating the already silenced.