The Cultural Embargo

cuban hip hop

Originating in the poverty-stricken black and Latino population of the Bronx, NY in the 1970s, American hip-hop set the groundwork for the formation of Cuban hip-hop.  AfroCuban hip-hop groups, such as Anonimo Consejo, RCA, and Obsesión are based in a mainly Black, urban movement of the 1980s. These groups are similar in terms of style and content to early American political hip-hop, including Public Enemy and NWA. AfroCuban hip-hop is culturally critical and socially conscious, focusing on police harassment, racial profiling, and prostitution.

The US economic embargo in Cuba has surely restricted Cubans’ freedom, human rights, and liberty. New York Times contributor Sujatha Fernandes states, “…out of isolation, Cuban art forms like rap have developed a particular richness and vitality.” Without the influence of outside trends, Cuban’s are forced to look inward for inspiration. Due to the embargo, when hip-hop hit the island, certain tools commonly used – like samplers and mixers – were unavailable. Instead, Cubans

…drew on a rich heritage of traditional local music… with instruments like the melodic Batá drums…used in Afro-Cuban Santería religion…Cuban rappers made up for the lack of digital technology by developing the human beat box…

Despite this, AfroCuban hip-hop is rich in social commentary, often exposing defects in Cuban society.

Alexey Rodríguez Mola and Magia Lopez of Cuban Hip-Hop Duo, Obsesión

Alexey Rodríguez Mola and Magia Lopez of Cuban Hip-Hop Duo, Obsesión

Alexey Rodríguez Mola and Magia Lopez make up the Cuban hip-hop duo Obsesión. Obsesión’s music revolves around issues of love infused with social and political messages. Mola and Lopez share “…a hip-hop dream that had little to do with waving their hands in the air like they just don’t care.” Because of the nearly 50-year embargo, Cubans have not had the influence of commercialized, mainstream, American hip-hop, fueled by money and women. Hip-hop was originally an import from the US to Cuba. Once trade restrictions were in place, access to the musical influences like MTV and the radio became more difficult.

Cuban hip-hop artists such as Obsesión have practiced their technique of deceiving the censors, through use of allusion, metaphor, and ambiguity in their music. Lopez adamantly defended a song on their 2002 album “…that was about prostitutes in barrios like Central Havana by saying that it was about capitalist countries.” Ironically, Lopez had never traveled to a capitalist country at the time. The song in question gained an additional level of complexity and appeal “…because of the artist’s need to dissemble.”

Obsesión is well-known for their musical success, as well as their down to earth humility. Mola and Lopez are passionately involved in La Fabri-k, a multidisciplinary organization that encompasses varying forms of art and works to foster “up-and-coming rappers, encouraging them to interact with painters, sculptors, poets and dancers.” La Fabri-k has produced a compilation CD revolving around violence in modern society, including police brutality, domestic and family violence. They have also produced a documentary film,  which highlights AfroCuban hip-hop talent. For more ways to get involved in cross-cultural hip-hop music and exchange, check out WorldUp, a non-profit organization working to foster diversity and social change through hip-hop, education, and technology.

by Lauren Silver

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7 Comments

  1. Love this article and the resources. In a world that’s so diverse it’s important to understand life in different cultures. It must be interesting to listen to hip-hop with little western influence. An authentic feel. I’ll have to check them out. Thanks for sharing.

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  2. Danielle T

     /  December 5, 2012

    As it is in Cuba, it is in the USA: Hip Hop is a form art. Music may be one of the few ways Afro Cubans are able to express themselves as it is a peaceful way of protesting. Music is commonly used to get people to relate to a situation or spread the word about an issue. I find it so interesting to learn about other cultures and countries; as an American it is hard to believe, or easier to believe, that such censorship exists. Thank you for your post.

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  3. Natasha

     /  December 6, 2012

    Afro Cuban and other Afro Latino groups around the world, have difficulty expressing their multi-faceted identities because of the mixed messages they receive from the Black and Latino communities, as they straddle the line between the two. Music is a perfect way to express themselves and give them a voice. I think it’s important to allow everyone the chance to show the world who they are, and the arts is a perfect way to do so.

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  4. Jessica

     /  December 7, 2012

    Really interesting perspective about hip hop in Cuba! Thanks for sharing such an engrossing, well-written post!

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  5. Jessica

     /  December 9, 2012

    It is so interesting to learn about the varyious effects the trade embargo has had on Cuban Culture. Music can be such a powerful expression of experiences both on an individual and community level. I will definitely be checking out the documentary mentioned here. Thanks for sharing about this!

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  6. Rebecca McCarthy

     /  December 11, 2012

    I thought the mention of the political use of metaphor for art to be interesting. I often look for metaphor in literature, but less with songs, though songs use a lot of metaphor too.

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  7. Julia B

     /  December 15, 2012

    It is interesting to think about ways the embargo has affected Cuba, especially in areas such as music. It sounds like Afro Cuban hip hop is more interesting to listen to than a lot of the commercialized, kind of narcissistic stuff that makes top 40 over here. It sounds like Obsesión is doing some really cool things, I’ll have to check them out too.

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