Don’t Blame Reggaeton: Que Viva El Rap Cubano

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It was the mid nineties in Cuba, and rap was spreading like wildfire. To hear duo Doble Filo tell it, the scene was blowing up so much that if you rapped and had a girlfriend, people expected her to rap, too. In 1996, just a few years after the genre had been introduced to the island, “moñeros” (or raperos) were in the second year of their homegrown Cuban Rap Festival, which back then ran with little to no state supervision. Doble Filo had taken home the much-coveted Grand Prize, establishing their role as rap cubano pioneers and helping to cement the genre. Things were looking good for them. Their music wasn’t just making waves at home, it was also getting the attention of U.S. artists like Mos Def and Talib Kweli (among others), who began traveling to the island to connect with the Cuban scene. With all the buzz, they were sure it was only a matter of time before record deals with U.S. labels followed and fast-tracked them to global stardom. But no one came. And the music, which had ephemerally blossomed on to the world stage, receded back into the corners of embargo.

On a recent muggy Thursday night in New York City, I saw Doble Filo play SOBs courtesy of Cuban-American act Delexilio’s David Sandoval, who handpicked the group to join him on stage for this special show. Assembled was a crowd of around 60 people – a stark contrast to the crowds of 4,000 plus they once performed for in Cuba during rap cubano’s golden age. Doble Filo is comprised of Edgaro “El Productor en Jefe” Gonzalez and Yrak Saenz. As his title implies, Edgaro is the audiophilic visionary of the two, constructing and recording the group’s tracks with an auteur’s predilection. Their flow styles are distinct but complementary. Yrak’s is summoned from a deep well; it’s both tough and silky as though an R&B singer resided in his diaphragm. Edgaro pops, rrrolls and hisses rapid-fire, syncopated annunciations in a raspy voice. On stage, they bumped, rocked and jested, filling the empty space with their presence.

Alamar, Havana.

Edgaro and Yrak come from Alamar, a neighborhood east of Havana known for growing and fermenting the most well versed rap acts in Cuba. Dubbed The Cuban Bronx, the entire neighborhood consists of Soviet style buildings built in the 1970s, on a post-revolutionary upsweep of housing and development. It is the largest “urbanización” in Latin America. In other words, Alamar is a city of projects. The neighborhood became the conservatory of Cuban rap purely because of a happenstance architectural characteristic: the buildings are tall. So tall, that people could go up to the roof with makeshift antennas and tune in to the radio stations coming out of Florida. “People would go up there with a hat stand in one hand and a recorder on the other and record the shows that played on the radio,” Yrak says. Soon, these tapes were getting played at neighborhood block parties or “bonches.”

Though hip-hop culture first entered Cuba through breakdancing, rap quickly took hold in the early nineties as the country entered the Special Period, a time of low resources given the fall of the Soviet Union and the loss of aid to Cuba. “During the Special Period, people didn’t have shoes to dance in; you didn’t have batteries, you didn’t have any food. So that’s when the MC was born,” Edgaro explains. Cuban MCs first looked toward popular U.S. artists like Big Pun and Old Dirty Bastard, as well as Puerto Rican rapper Vico-C. “Everybody started copying somebody because it was this new thing,” says Edgar. “We were finding the words and verbs to sculpt our own flow.”

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News of the new music made its way to the U.S. and in 1998 The Black August Collective, consisting of Erykah Badu, The Roots, Mos Def, Blackstar, (among others), landed in Cuba and participated in the rap festival that year. But even though they knew the music, Cubans didn’t necessarily know who the artists were. “I remember once Montell Jordan came to a peña [a show],” recalls Edgaro, “And my neighbor, who had [U.S.] magazines, recognized him. So my neighbor goes up to the presenter, the owner of the peña, and says, ‘Montell Jordan is here!’ And so the owner gets on the mic and says, ‘Look. I want to take this opportunity to remind everyone that auditions for the show are Mondays at 9 a.m.’” When Montell Jordan was finally allowed on stage and sang the first line of his chart-topping hit “This is how we do it,” the crowds erupted. “It was incredible,” Yrak remembers.

From its genesis, rap cubano took on a journalistic quality, using personal narrative to discuss complexities of everyday life in Cuba that went beyond simple pro- or anti- communist rhetoric. Doble Filo’s lyrics are full of insightful observations and social messages that ask the listener to look within. Their album Despierta (2011) is a must listen for anyone, whether a hip-hop fan or not, based on the production alone. It features notable Cuban musicians like Julito Padron and Carlos Varela, as well as the Edgaro’s keen ear for rhythms, hooks and instrumentation.

The title track “Despierta” speaks to the actuality that inspired the album. Once U.S. musicians became aware of what was happening in Cuba, rap artists on the island thought U.S. labels would follow and rush to sign them and make them superstars. “You thought twice about recording something because you wanted to save it for when Rawkus (Records) came,” Edgaro says, “But what happened was that nobody came and our entire generation was left waiting.” Despite continued trips by Black August and Orishas’s international popularity side-spraying onto the Cuban hip-hop scene generally, the wait left a cloud of nitrous oxide in its wake. Despierta praises doing what you can with what you have and treasures corazón (heart or spirit) above any and all material things. If the lyrics sound earnest, that’s because they are– unabashedly. However, they are well balanced by Edgaro’s kicking beats, embellishments and overall sophisticated sound. Most importantly, Doble Filo has been able to stay within the margins of censorship by using double entendres and creative metaphors in their lyrics. “We create a lyrical labyrinth,” says Edgar, thus side-stepping the supervision of the Cuban Rap Agency (CRA), a state organization created in 2001 originally meant to legitimize the revolutionary ideals espoused by hip-hop, but that ultimately came to control the content.

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Though the creation of CRA formalized hip-hop’s role in Cuba’s musical heritage and established a payment system for artists, it also signaled changes for the genre. Mainly, these changes came in the form of internal strife. Although the CRA was run by the rappers themselves, the critical messages found in the lyrics of some artists “were sanctioned by some within the agency,” says Edgar. The agency seems to have been a double-edged sword for the music; because of the CRA, rap cubano has remained true to its social roots and has not veered into U.S. genres like gangsta rap. Still, this has been at a cost to some artists who, feeling the pressure of success, have pursued more commercially lucrative genres like timba and reggaeton. “There needs to be a balance between reflection, social issue and fun. Eight years ago there was levity in rap cubano that no longer exists, and I think that has alienated audiences a bit,” explains Edgar, “The rappers who switched to reggaeton already did a type of rap that was much more ‘party’ so it was a natural transition for them.”

Globalization has also had a heavy effect on rap cubano. With the end of the Special Period came what is called “Lo que vino después” (What came after): the opening of the country to tourism and a sidebar dollar economy. This has caused a larger disparity between rich and poor, and for youth culture to be exposed to and aspire to foreign fashions and consumerist ideals, some of which can be found in the lyrics of reggaeton songs. Currently, reggaeton is the most popular type of urban music on the island. Many have speculated on the reasons for this massive popularity- the music is danceable, it’s simply and cheaply made in home studios, and it’s easily distributed “de mano en mano” (hand to hand). Cuban audiences are legendarily outspoken and reggaeton concerts are known for the volatile atmosphere. During one, according to Yrak, a sound tech was stabbed for not playing reggaeton music while the audience waited for the main act to perform.

Stories like this, as well as the overtly sexualized lyrics that objectify women and flaunt the values of the enemy (like money and consumerism), led to the Cuban Music Ministry’s announcement in December of 2012 that “pseudo-artistic rhythms with aggressive lyrics, that are veritably explicit and obscene, and that distort the intrinsic sensuality of the Cuban woman” were officially banned. Though the ban applies to all music, it was aimed at reggaeton, which has only served to make it more popular. In censoring reggaeton, Cuba is not only adhering to the values of the revolution, but it’s also ensuring that audiences will keep an interest in other genres that have historically been part of the cultural patrimony, such as son, timba, trova, mambo and of course, rap cubano. “Right now in Cuba, everyone blames reggaeton for anything bad that happens,” says Edgar. The scapegoating of reggaeton music prompted Yrak to bring a track to Doble Filo called “No le Eches La Culpa Al Reggaeton” (Don’t Blame Reggaeton). “In Cuba, the blame is never properly allocated,” says Yrak, “We always blame it on something else.”

The chorus, spit live for the purpose of this interview, goes as follows:
Si ella quiere gasolina y no soporta hablar de amor, no le eches la culpa el reggaeton.
(If she wants gasoline and doesn’t want to talk of love, don’t blame reggaeton.)
Si la moral busca un culpable y no una solución, no le eches la culpa al reggaeton
(If morality looks for someone to blame and not a solution, don’t blame reggaeton.)
Si a Cuba se le ha muerto la ilusión, no le eches la culpa al reggaeton.
(If Cuba has lost its hope, don’t blame reggaeton.)

“Reggaeton is really a metaphor for society,” Yrak sums it up. So do we blame reggaeton or do we blame ourselves? To question why reggaeton and the lifestyle it lauds has resonated so much with young Cubans, would have larger more profound implications for the state and Cubans themselves. For Doble Filo, the emergence and success of reggaeton (or Cubatón) is nothing to fear or resent. Really what people should be wary of is the Fidel inside their heads. “In Cuba,” Edgar adds, “people are accustomed to having a Fidel for everything. There’s a Fidel at your job; there’s one outside your door. Someone who tells you what to do.” Yrak adds, “I want people to have the courage to express their thoughts,” because of and in spite of the limitations.

“Don’t Blame Reggaeton” will be featured in Doble Filo’s forthcoming album, Regreso del Futuro (Back to the Future). The album will also feature a remix of “Clandestino,” currently available via the band’s Soundcloud page, and Edgaro’s current work incorporating Cuban “filin” (or feeling) music samples into the groups compositions.