Young Musicians Find Their Voice in Modern Cuba
Updated: Jan 7, 2020
There’s a lot of talk of Cuba and its reputation as a time capsule state. Classic cars, crumbling mansions, Communism, these are relics of a black and white era. And truly, to travel there from the United States feels like going back in time: you can only use cash, everyone smokes indoors, and your smart phone turns into a pocket watch with a flashlight. Even flying in, the scene is Jurassic. Through the plane window it’s all palm trees and tobacco farms and rusted industrial factories. Like a mosquito sealed in amber, Cuba’s state of stasis has preserved forgotten treasures like salt of the earth musicians and how people used to behave before smart phones. Among the antiquities is the bare-knuckle community-driven attitude that once defined hip-hop. Natur-Arte is a Cuban music festival dedicated to this ideal. In Havana, in a park after dark, the foundations of hip-hop are alive and well.
Director Sahily Borrero started Natur-Arte in 2011 as a photography workshop for children and teenagers. She taught them about the relationship between nature and art and how they influence one another…but in the back of her mind she knew the project could be something bigger. Cut to 2018 and the second annual Natur-Arte has grown into a three-day festival featuring DJ exhibitions, break-dance competitions, and graffiti workshops concluded each night by a hip-hop show lined with local and international artists. It’s an eclectic but extremely entertaining mix of performances that are literally made for each other.
The melding of these different hip-hop mediums, truly the four corners of the genre, is not a focus group tested recipe for capital gain or a council of organizers responding to shifts in pop culture; it’s a community finally getting an avenue to do what they want. And what they want is the hip-hop revolution they missed out on. At Natur-Arte, local DJs spin homemade mixes as MCs belt original raps. Fumes from spray cans mix with smoke from Cuban Cohibas. Pauses in the performance prompt break dance battles in the crowd and ciphers of amateurs spring up all over as young beatboxers and lyricists practice with their friends. The scene is so 1970s Bronx it hurts. During the third show, you could even get a haircut.
The festival ground is a tiled courtyard behind a squat one-story community center brimming with plants and palm trees. The stage is pressed against the forest and faces a crowd of chatting, smoking Cubans. Earlier, the festival featured a day of documentary screenings and activist panels but now it kicks off with a night dedicated to women’s performances.
It was a badass introduction. Actress Dania Suri put on a powerful one-woman Santerian opera, Laura (like Cher) sang “My Funny Valentine,” and before she was even off stage, Da1|1n emerged from the community center high on stilts spitting passionate bars about police corruption. The next two nights rotated rappers of all styles. They all brought a contagious energy, but Havana native Escobar, along with his cohort El Opuesto, delivered especially engaging sets. The dynamic duo “Rey y la novia electronik” delivered a flashy performance, trading off rapid-fire raps throughout. Yellow Cloud, two American rappers by the name of Nicky Wood and Treezus, brought with them all original music that was lyrically cutting and then suddenly soulful. The Spanish-speaking crowd didn’t hesitate to get down and the night culminated with Yellow Cloud collaborating a set with Escobar and local rapper Felipe Suri.
From the first night to the last the festival felt like a rare gathering of Havana’s true hip-hop heads. One minute you’d see a uniquely fly individual bopping in the front row, then ten minutes later they’re on stage moving the crowd. The entire vibe was communal; the mike wasn’t controlled but passed around like a bottle of rum. After the music stopped, nobody wanted to leave. The crowd stayed, break-dancing and freestyling amongst themselves.
To those of us that came up in a time after hip-hop’s commercialization, this sort of community-supported concert is something rarely seen outside of documentaries about Afrikka Bambataa and DJ Kool Herc. It’s new for most young Cubans too.
As rap breached the American mainstream and artists like Vico C brought Spanish fans to the genre, hip-hop’s popularity exploded in Cuba in the mid-90s. A group named Grupo Uno pieced together Havana’s first hip-hop festival, a sort-of-competition between the provinces, and the fire was fanned even further. But, being Cuba, the story wouldn’t be complete without government oversight. Eager to support a growing art form but wary of its American origins, Castro established the Agencia Cubana de Rap. This, arguably, halted hip-hop on the island. Now, a single government agency was in charge of what to promote and more often than not that meant favoring crowd-friendly reggaeton over controversial socially conscious rap. It’s debatable whether the Agency purposely squashed the scene or was simply mismanaged, but effectively, they forced concerts to disperse at an early hour, kept major festivals off TV and radio, and pushed alternative artists to remote locations or banned them from performing entirely. Artists that signed with the Agency gave up creative control; those that wanted freedom to experiment left the country. Hip-hop historian Isnay Rodriguez (better known in Cuba as DJ Jigüe) says this caused a brain drain: “I would say 90 percent—or maybe more—of the key players from that era left the country. No one was left to pass the message to younger generations.”
The Internet has changed all that. Today, it’s easier than ever for Cubans to get their hands on whatever influences they want. Gone are the MacGyver 80’s when residents would stick homemade antennas on their roofs and balconies to capture Miami radio stations such as WEDR 99 Jams and WHQT Hot 105. Thanks to numerous Wi-Fi parks and massive file sharing networks, songs that would have taken weeks to spread across the island now reach a dedicated fan’s ears just a few days after its release. They’re fans of Gucci Mane. They rock Lil Yachty beaded braids. They know every word of B*tch Don’t Kill My Vibe. It’s as true there as it is here.
Natur-Arte represents a return to hip-hop’s roots in Cuba. Speaking on the festival’s purpose, Director Sahily Borrero said, “This project is for young adults, especially rappers, to enjoy and build their own space while simultaneously learning from other cultures. A place where artists can show their abilities and learn from others to grow and develop their art, but above all, a place they can all call home.” A singer on stilts rapping about corruption would have had no place in the old Cuba. American artists would have been regulated, not celebrated. In making a home for hip-hop artists, Natur-Arte also carved out a home for the genre itself.