The cultural boomerang that is hip-hop flies from the hands of America to the rest of the world and returns having collected new beats, melodies and other flavors from afar.
Seeking to explore the influence of Caribbean culture—specifically Cuban—on American rap music, the Miami Light Project launches the International Hip Hop Exchange/Miami—a weeklong confab of concerts, dances, plays, films and panels revolving around the genre.
IHX/Miami, which starts Thursday at the Eden Roc Renaissance Resort and Spa in Miami Beach, will eschew what Miami Light director Beth Boone calls commercial hip-hop for the real nitty gritty—the stuff that speaks to poverty, racism and AIDS, not babes and bling-bling.
‘‘The thing that’s phenomenal about hip-hop in Cuba is that [rappers are] relevant,’’ Boone says. “Rappers in Cuba speak their mind and they sing about pertinent social issues. They sing about racism, sexism, homophobia, AIDS, marginalization—issues that they deal with every day.’‘
Heavy stuff, to be sure, and just to keep it current Boone is bringing Cuban rappers Doble Filo (Double Edge) and Obsesion (Obsession) just as the gaping rift between Havana and Washington grows wider following by Fidel Castro’s crackdown on dissidents and the Bush administration’s expulsion of 14 Cuban diplomats for spying.
Says Boone, who began planning the exchange in 2001, “Those are the reasons this conference needs to happen now more than ever.’‘
Cuban musicians in Miami re-emerged as a simmering subplot to the city’s long-running love-hate relationship with Cuba two weeks ago, when city commissioners approved a symbolic proposal to withhold public money from the Latin Grammys if organizers invite Cuban artists to the awards show. The event takes place in the AmericanAirlines Arena in September.
Boone recognizes that ‘‘anything having to do with Cuba’’ in Miami is sure to ignite emotions, but she emphasizes that ‘‘this is a program about art, artists and culture. That is the focus,’’ she says. “People will try to turn it into something political and it’s not something political.
“It’s about a DJ from London, a hip-hop theater artist from Brooklyn . . . some rappers from Cuba, audiences from everywhere. It’s about us coming together and talking about hip-hop culture. What it means to us, why it’s important to us, how it’s relevant in this country, how it’s relevant in Cuba.’‘
Indeed, rap is big in Cuba. More than 250 rap groups exist in Havana, reported writer Annelise Wunderlich in a January 2002 story published on-line by [url=http://www.metroactive.com]http://www.metroactive.com[/url] Cuba’s minister of culture, Abel Prieto, officially
declared rap ‘‘an authentic expression of cubanidad’’ in 1999, Wunderlich wrote, and began funding an annual rap festival.
Still, few deny that a system of creative censorship exists on the communist island. Rap groups ‘‘can’t get too edgy or it will end their careers,’’ Wunderlich wrote. What’s more, she said, “any rap musician who hopes to be seen at a decent venue must get the [Cuban government’s] approval, and that can only happen if their music is seen to serve the revolution.’‘
But just like in America, some rappers get heard more than others in Cuba and the truly edgy ones are considered ‘‘underground,’’ Boone said. Cuban rappers don’t have to criticize Castro or the government to comment on racism, sexism and other social ills.
Besides, the rap picture is bigger than politics, Boone says. “It’s the representation of global youth culture and that cannot be ignored.’‘
Ever since Orishas, the first popular Cuban rap group, released A Lo Cubano in 2000, it seemed that overnight the rest of the world caught on to something special brewing on the island.
Cuban rappers were taking hip-hop and mixing it with heady son, traditional melodies and frenetic Afro-Cuban congas. It is a testament to the popularity of Cuban rappers that they’ve made fans of such American stars as The Roots and Mos Def—two of the most cerebral hip-hop groups around.
Clyde Valentin, the Brooklyn-based co-founder of the original International Hip Hop Exchange in New York, traveled to Cuba with Mos Def in 1998. They say the two were impressed with the Cubans’ musicality and commitment to keeping it real while showing some progressive philosophies that still evade the male-dominated and cash-oriented American hip-hop scene.
‘‘One of the reasons we’ve been inspired by the Cuban artists specifically,’’ Valentin says, “is that there’s a tremendous creativity with very limited resources and there’s just a respect for the roots of the culture . . . Because of the massive amount of commercialization that has occurred here, some of that perspective has been lost or pushed to the periphery.
‘‘These are all young folks who are able to analyze and dialogue and rhyme in sophisticated ways,’’ he continues, “and that’s just the average emcees. . . . You really get that sense from their content that they’re commenting on what’s going on around them, like an emcee would do. But at the same time, they’re commenting about everything around them in a global context. Also, the fact that there were coed groups in multitude was amazing.’‘
The Cuban rappers’ synthesis of social commentary, respect for culture and sheer entertainment skills combined for some moving performances, Valentin says.
‘‘You’re able to walk away from it like art,’’ he says. “It does something for you viscerally.’‘
Valentin, 31, is not so naive to think that Cuban musicians don’t want to get rich and famous like their colleagues in America. But the Cubans are good about honing their skills first. ‘‘Everybody wants to get paid,’’ he says. “But it doesn’t have to come at the sacrifice of what art is.’‘
Marinieves Alba, the Bronx-born co-founder of IHX in New York, also has been to Cuba’s annual rap festival and gives props to Cuban hip-hop for taking the genre as art, not just commodity.
‘‘It’s really a cultural movement and identifies itself as a cultural movement,’’ she says. “It’s consciously used as a tool to educate and consciously identifies with the roots of hip-hop as a cultural resistance.’’