There are a lot of assumptions one can make when learning about Danay Suarez, Cuba’s premiere rapper, and most if not all of them would be wrong. Instead of whatever ideas you might have about Cuba, female rappers, or even hip-hop itself, you are faced with laidback rhymes about humanity and the search for spiritual peace. Instead of serving a word attack, Danay is more about a soothing balm of verbal flow.
Her soul-inflicted music effortlessly goes from singing to rapping and back to singing again in a manner she herself compares to jazz singers and instrumentalists; and to mess even further with your brain, Danay has worked in other genres including reggaeton, jazz itself, and even opera. Beyond everything lies a charismatic wordsmith interested in people and the world, which is what makes her music so interesting.
We spoke on the phone with Suarez days before her show in NYC. Her point of view, from music to gender politics within rap and Cuba’s recent foreign affair news, is one worth knowing.
You played New York this week. What can people who haven’t seen you perform expect?
I’m playing my oldest material so you’ll find my current sound over the old songs you already know. I recorded those songs with a DJ production mindset, so it’s very interesting how they sound now with keyboards, guitar, bass, drums, and choir. This show I’m presenting is more like a jazz café thing, It’s an opportunity for a more intimate listening experience. My arrangements are always changing because I’m always searching for new stuff within the same thing.
The songs keep evolving, then.
They keep changing color. One of the advantages of [going] to each one of my shows is that you’ll never hear the same arrangement of the songs twice.
“It’s very difficult for me to define what I’m doing, because the inspiration for what I do is very genuine, very personal.”
That’s the jazz influence at work, right?
When I refer to “jazz” I mean a genre in which you are allowed to improvise, to have freedom of expression where anything goes. Also, my form of singing is very rhythmic and percussive; the way I compose and deliver the lyrics is very similar to a bass or drum solo.
I had my first chances in music through hip-hop, which has more text than melody, but later I had the opportunity of being solo soprano singer on one of the biggest operas from Cuba for three years. It’s onstage where I express myself, like a cook expresses himself in the kitchen or a seamstress expresses herself sewing. It’s very difficult for me to define what I’m doing, because the inspiration for what I do is very genuine, very personal. I never stop to ask myself anything until moments like this [referring to the interview] when you need to define what you are doing.
What are the challenges you have faced adapting your old repertoire to a full band?
The computer is an instrument that allows you to do the impossible. You can cut a sample that work’s with a beat, but [sometimes] when you transform it into acoustic music, it won’t work because you discover it would require three other musicians playing the same instrument to make it sound like it originally did. The music I have been working on lately is more minimalistic so it can work with a full live band.
You’ve been playing a lot outside of your country. How has that experience been for you?
Before I started playing outside of Cuba, the page views of my songs—I don’t know who uploaded them because at the time I didn’t even know what the Internet was—were quite a lot. On one of my first trips I Googled my name and saw the comments on my songs, I was surprised and pleased. That’s when I realized my music existed outside a folder at home, it was on the playlist of many people, especially in Latin America. My first trips were to Europe where I played my songs for many audiences who didn’t even speak my language.
“If it’s a demagogue affair where these two presidents are only caring about the interests of a few, it could be painful.”
It’s very important to go outside of the country because it gives you the opportunity to write with more wisdom, culturally speaking; it’s especially important to me since I write about spiritual situations. Seeing things with my own eyes has given me a lot of inspiration and a bigger cultural background, even though I’m still very young and I still have a lot to learn.
Since it’s been making the rounds, I need to ask your opinion about the news of the U.S./Cuba affair.
If it’s based in honesty towards the people, then I think it’s good, because maybe now professionals in my country might have a better future doing what they do, and won’t feel the need to leave home to find that. If it’s a demagogue affair where these two presidents are only caring about the interests of a few, it could be painful. Politics are very unpredictable and manipulative. From a personal point of view, I think it’s good that the presidency of Cuba won’t have an excuse to blame everything that’s wrong here on the US government.
At the same time, it would be wrong if this means that Cuba will become a capitalist society where people start living just to make rent and to buy a bunch of material goods that in the end they won’t be able to enjoy, where you don’t even have enough time to look at the clouds or the mountains, or you can’t talk to your neighbor, or that we’ll have extreme poverty. At least, even with all the bad things happening in Cuba, there’s no weapons trafficking and guns are not sold in the open, and yes, there’s drugs like everywhere else, but we don’t have big cartels here. You can walk without danger, nobody dies of hunger because the people themselves always have time to share with their neighbor, to keep human relationships like they are. Time will tell which changes are favorable and which aren’t. I advise that everyone should dedicate themselves to be better human beings and live the best they can.
This is the first time I’m commenting on this because, when news like this comes out, it’s like pouring sugar somewhere and all the ants rush there.
I recently wrote about female emcees and reflected a bit on why we don’t hear of new names more often. I would really love your opinion about this.
Each person’s capacity is not defined by gender, man or woman. Whoever thinks that because she’s a woman or he’s a man they are weaker or stronger, they are only limiting their own natural capabilities. I never struggled to be known, I only knew to be who I am and do what I do. [When I started] I didn’t have my own computer, or even the chance to leave my country; I only had friends and manifested good feelings. Every time I hear someone say “[hip-hop] is a male only genre” or “they don’t allow us to perform” or “they never pay attention to us,” to me, that’s justifying something that doesn’t make sense. I have never had to assume a position that wasn’t mine, I have never had to wear pants, adopt a gangsta posture, use bad words, or be aggressive to get respected. People should have self-esteem and believe in what they do and not worry about anything else.
“If you want to do something, you go and do it. The blame game is such a waste of time.”
I never had a man not give me permission to do what I wanted, I allowed myself where to go or what to do as long as my strength allowed me. Necessity always yields the means. When you find yourself at your worst, you find the most inspiration because you no longer care what anybody else thinks. It’s when you find your own strength without looking anywhere else for it.
Before I dedicated myself fully to music, I worked many jobs. I worked at a hospital, whether it was doing cleaning job or painting a mural, it didn’t matter. I was never paid when I played music in Cuba, I never had a salary for doing what I did. Everything was about love, desire, and willpower. I was making hip-hop and there are no spaces for hip-hop in Cuba because the lyrics are very much censured by the government…and it happens in many other places, I just watched a documentary on Peruvian hip-hop which is not accepted in the country’s media. You can’t blame the media or the government or anybody; if you want to do something, you go and do it. The blame game is such a waste of time.
Finally, you mentioned you’re working on a new album. What can you tell us about it?
They are the thoughts I have at the moment. I’m 29 years old and the thoughts from my early songs were from when I was 19 [laughs]. I don’t want to talk much about it right now but I know it’s going to be another record I will be very proud of and I will listen to it many times. A friend of mine told me once that you should be your own biggest fan, and it’s not about ego but it’s true; during rough patches in my life, I cheer myself up with my own songs [laughs]. When you have a whole record where you feel happy with what you have done, the years pass and you still feel alright with your own criteria, then you have something very powerful by your side. This record will be like that.
People are going to be really surprised with the collaborations that will be featured on the album, the artists I worked with are incredible, good leaders of their movements, in reggae, world music, etc; and they go from one extreme to the other, from one geography to the other.