“Háblame”: Cuban Rap and the Root of Change

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Sometime in 2012, in an underground studio in or near Havana, a group of young rappers dubbing themselves Tribu Mokoya recorded “Háblame”, a remarkable musical essay on the ills of contemporary Cuba. “Talk to me,” pleads the song, about the tragedy of Cuba’s past, about government corruption and hypocrisy, about poverty and suffering, about hope for a better future. In just over ten minutes it seems to address every famous historic marker, every government talking point, every grievance brought forth by the marginalized and those let down by the Revolution. In its masterful mix of sadness and anger and reasonable political sense it feels authoritative, definitive. It will surely be one of the anthems of celebration once the era of the Castro brothers finally comes to an end. “Háblame” brings together some of the most talented, most courageous voices of Cuba’s rap contestatario. It feels like a genuine collaboration between the performers: the Cuban rappers Escuadrón Patriota, Hermanos de Causa, Silvito el Libre, Charly Mucha Rima, and Aldo el Aldeano, along with the Venezuelan Macabro XII. The arrangement gives each one a chance to shine, and each brings his own concerns and personality to his segment. At the same time the song retains a consistent tone throughout, a tone of righteous anger, demanding accountability from their government and, though not in so many words, an end to the Revolution.

The first and last lines belong to Raudel “Escuadrón Patriota” Collazo. His voice is ominous as he opens the song: “We haven’t yet seen the light at the end of the tunnel.” It’s clamoring and full of passion as he closes it, calling as if from a great distance: “Resist! Resist!” A child psychologist by profession, Escuadrón Patriota burst into the musical scene in 2011 with the song “Decadencia”, in which he outlines the ways of dictatorship and repression and how they have transformed the mindsets of ordinary Cubans. He chides his compatriots for accepting their lot without complaint, for spying on each other to keep the government authorities at bay, for ignoring what is right in front of their eyes. In “La Raíz del Cambio”, a sequel to “Decadencia” and an even more daring political manifesto, he accepts the role of front man for the dissidents: “The young and the old, the black and the white: We are the root of change!” In “Háblame” he talks to the leaders who created this reality. At first his language is that of metaphor – his country, he says, is “in a thick fog” – but by the end it becomes personal. He recounts how his mother sat in a hospital for days waiting for treatment, how he had to scream to make himself heard. From the looks of it he won’t stop screaming any time soon.

In the second section Soandry “Hermanos de Causa” del Río launches into the meat of the song, an exhaustive list of the sins of the government and their consequences for the people of Cuba, especially the young. Hermanos de Causa has a deeper voice and his voice flows where Escuadrón Patriota’s rattles. The words make you want to dive into a book on the political history of the island. Even with such a helper you’ll struggle to keep up with the flood of allusions – about what happened “that Thursday” or about “that plane” that was lost, about “the drugs on the runway,” about “Frank” and “Quibe.” Hermanos de Causa is respected among Cuban rappers for his leading role in the music festivals knows as Puños Arriba (“Raised Fists”). He has challenged the government multiple times to open up to many forms of music and a variety of political views. This has led him to be publically attacked and threatened by the authorities. His songs emphasize the hypocrisy of the official government line. In “Negro Cubano”, for example, he asks how the government can criticize the United States for its treatment of minorities when black people in Cuba suffer from the same kinds of discrimination.

Next comes the Venezuelan rapper Matías “Macabro XII” Hernández, who has made his name with more commercial and less explicitly political lyrics than his Cuban counterparts. While he has often criticized his country’s Bolivarian government (which has been Cuba’s closest ally since 1998), he often says that he also doesn’t support the political opposition. In his song “El Hijo de Alda” he says he doesn’t belong to either side, only to the Venezuelan people, and repeats the same sentiment in one of his biggest hits, “El Rapear de Mi Patria”. Being the only foreigner among the group he brings an international context to “Háblame”. He mentions Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez (who was dying of cancer when the song was written), al-Qaeda and Palestine, as well as old standbys like Vietnam and Nagasaki. Bizarrely, his biggest target is British queen Elizabeth II and her sordid family history. It’s not exactly clear how this relates to Cuba and the Castros, but thankfully it passes quickly.

The pivotal middle segment of the song belongs to Silvio “Silvito el Libre” Rodríguez. Fame came much more easily to Silvito than to his colleagues, and he has a bigger megaphone as well, given his musical pedigree. He is the son of Silvio Rodríguez, the foremost exponent of Cuban trova and a supporter of the Castro regime for many decades. The press has made much of the political differences between father and son, though both men have stated often that they love and respect each other and have a close family relationship. In “Háblame” Silvito uses his trademark rapid-fire delivery (reminiscent a little bit of Eminem) to drive the point home about “the misery that the people don’t deserve.” Perhaps because he grew up among the left-wing intellectuals of his father’s generation, he is more interested in the history and the ideology: he makes reference to the great Cuban thinker José Martí and deplores the Castros’ “communism fused with your interests.”

Carlos “Charly Mucha Rima” Bravo and Aldo “el Aldeano” Rodríguez, both well established artists with a history of clashes with authorities, round out the crew. Each has a unique delivery, with its own flow and vocal tics. Charly tends to slur his words and crumple the verses together while Aldo’s voice pipes up when he’s emphasizing a point. After each has said his piece, they join the other performers in a lengthy segment in which the six headliners exchange the spotlight between verses while continuing their barrage of accusations and criticisms. Interestingly, they make a point of defending Barack Obama from accusations by the Castros, making him the only politician mentioned who does not elicit disgust.

It’s a testament to the changes that have already taken place in Cuba that “Háblame” was recorded at all and that its performers have not been jailed by the government. Macabro XII flies freely in and out of the island while Silvito and Aldo have performed in the United States. This is not to say that their brand of protests rap has been accepted into the Cuban tightly monitored mainstream. Since art production in Cuba depends on government funding, it isn’t difficult to push undesirable genres and performers aside. Despite the obstacles, Tribu Mokoya have made their voices heard around the world. Some day, for better or worse, they will be mentioned among the forces that helped bring about the future for their land and its people.

 

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