(Original title: Rap on the run)
Rob Sharp | NewStatesman.com
Wanted by the FBI for black activism in the States, Nehanda Abiodun fled to Havana, where she became the “godmother of Cuban hip-hop”
Outside a run-down apartment block in the eastern suburbs of Havana, a group of teenagers plays football in the street. They meet and greet each other like long-lost friends with hugs and slapped handshakes, and gesture to the top of a nearby building. If you follow their instructions to climb four flights of stairs, you can hear the sounds of local rhythms echoing down a corridor where a party is in full swing. Inside a tiny flat, a dozen people sit around a sitting room where the conversation and white rum flow freely.
The occasion is the 58th birthday party of the apartment’s owner, Nehanda Abiodun. She cuts a fine figure, a black woman who looks younger than her age, and she’s in celebration mode today, but her happiness belies the intensity of her life’s struggle. Abiodun, who was born Cheri Dalton, is wanted by the US Federal Bureau of Investigation in connection with a string of robberies, including a 1981 hold-up of an armoured car near Nyack, in upstate New York. An exile in Havana for the past 20 years, she is now known as the “godmother” of Cuban hip-hop and founder of a Havana chapter of Black August, a seminal group that promotes hip-hop culture at the grass roots. Since the chapter’s formation it has held charitable concerts in New York and Havana featuring high-profile artists such as Erykah Badu, Mos Def, Common and Dead Prez, and until 24 August its work will be one of the highlights of this year’s Havana Hip-Hop Meeting and Festival.
Abiodun’s life has been inextricably linked with protest, and the music of protest, since her youth. Born in 1950, graduating from Columbia University in 1972, she formed her extreme political beliefs - those of “New Afrikans”, political idealists who believed in the foundation of a black-only state within US borders - while working at an experimental drug detox programme in the South Bronx, New York. The programme operated under the banner of a militant black rights group that viewed the political radicalisation of its patients as essential.
“I came of age during the 1960s, a time of unrest, sit-ins, student strikes, mass protests and urban rebellions,” explains Abiodun as various friends, and their relatives, sit on her knee. “The music that was being composed at that time reflected what was happening across the nation. Songs like [James Brown’s] “I’m Black and I’m Proud”, [Marvin Gaye’s] “What’s Going On” and [McFadden and Whitehead’s] “Ain’t No Stopping Us Now” were tunes not only to dance to, but which had lyrics that made you think and want to be involved in positive social and political change.
“Hip-hop for me was a continuation of that tradition. At the beginning it was a very important contributor to community debate regarding the conditions that existed, and still persist, in US cities,” she says.
It is alleged by the US authorities that the group Abiodun was involved with went on to form the core of “the Family”, a politically motivated, New York-based underground crime organization….