A recent piece in the New York Times Sunday Review was about hip hop in Havana. It was called “Straight Outta Havana”, taking the name cue from NWA’s notorious classic cd Straight Outta Compton. Cuban hip hop combines lyric rapping accompanied by the 3/2 clave beat and 3 and 4 part harmonies. Because most U.S. radio stations don’t penetrate Cuba, and because Cubans don’t have wide internet access, most inspiration for lyrics and themes comes from inside Cuba. And thanks to the excellent educations most Cubans get—this going back to the lectores tradition in cigar factories where employees got the latest from newspapers, serial novels, etc.—Cuban rappers are able to write smart and expressive lyrics. And outsmart the censors.
This reminds me of Brazil under the dictatorship and South Africa under apartheid. Musicians had to write lyrics in fables or other disguises to get past the censors. In one famous Brazilian song, “Noite” or “night”, Ivan Lins sang about darkness and night time, but the song was really about what the dictatorship was doing to Brazil. The censors, not known for subtle poetic thinking, missed the connection. In South Africa, songwriters had to pass white censors to get their songs played on the radio.
In most dictatorships music is censored or sometimes just forbidden. Stalin forbade jazz. Hitler hated jazz, calling it a primitive jungle music. Iran has banned women’s voices from the radio, either talk or singers. Maraca, a great Cuban flute player (and I mean great), had to study only classical music because jazz was forbidden.
But the Cuban rappers will persevere and let their voices be heard. Here’s a link to the NYT piece: