By Armando Chaguaceda
Popular Cuban music has served as the columnist of daily life on the island – a transmitter of a critical-reflective will – despite its being the confined to “recreational” ends in the state-run media.
In the 1990s, Cuban salsa singers recognized the massive collapse of the nation’s economy. Its consequences were a conservative modernization (a surge of racism as well as machismo) and an irreversible social transformation, poorly explained with the consoling image of the “inverted pyramid.”
Lacking the radicalism of film and stage directors, but with substantial resources accumulated from popular culture, in 1994 Los Van Van director Juan Formell announced the search for “a partner in his business.” Charanga Habanera appeared offering “papirriquis con guaniquiquis” (rich boys with cash), and promising our fellow citizens what they could have, or – paraphrasing Guillén – “what they had to have.” Though misunderstood, we were alerted of such “witches without feelings” by José Luis “El Tosco” Cortes; though less lyrical, he was more graphical than folksinger Silvio Rodriquez and his “Flowers on Fifth Avenue.”
Parallel to this, by the mid-90s the hip-hop explosion had divided into two camps with porous boundaries.
On one hand we were hit by a wave of groups from eastern Cuba oriented to the market and possessing only “low intensity” social consciousness. These bands were sponsored and directed by foreign record labels and state agencies.
Yet out in front of these was a network of socially critical cultural collectives that were committed to creative autonomy and the defense of a community ethos; they were confronting the processes (occasionally allied) of the commercialization and governmentalization of art.
In Art Nothing Is Born or Dies By Decree
Currently, the eruption of reggaeton is generating controversy between its detractors and apologists. This form rests on the fact that in the realm of art nothing is born or dies by decree, and that music – like a virus – possesses a remarkable capacity for mutation and transmutation.
Nevertheless, I have to confess that the recent video “Creo” (I believe) by Baby Lores, which possesses as its fundamental gift the ability to arouse passion, exceeded all my expectations. The work has a setting that is surprising and (suspiciously) similar to other recent videos of socially critical rap: it unfolds in a poor neighborhood with the profuse presence of national symbols, rhythms and militant expressions, as well as the use of iconography from the Cuban Revolution. The outcome is a product that is catchy, slick, and has the potential to hook certain segments of the youth, but…..
The work set off a number of red warning lights.
To look into this more, I approached some of my young neighbors (experts and practitioners of reggaeton) in the no-frills neighborhoods of Regla and Alamar. Their almost unanimous opinion of the video was negative. They dismissed it not for its message or significance, but because they considered it a “scam.”
They were all taken aback by the instant ideological shift (and exhaustive TV and radio play) of an artist whose career has been based on light pop tunes and tough guy disputes (frequently bland) with his rivals of the same status in the market. The video and its author were not rejected for their politics, but for their politicking.
I prefer to take another direction: one founded on the interpretation of the evidence and not on intentions.
In the video in question, the image and idea of Fidel Castro as the historic leader of the Cuban Revolution is “privatized” by Baby Lores, converted into a tattoo, into a sort of cult object or amulet capitalized on by the singer.
It’s clear that anyone is free to “privatize” whatever they want (though nothing is more personal than the body), provided that this privatization only affects them as an individual, and that the collective appropriation of symbols and ideas must never stamp out strictly individual leisure.
However, there appeared differences between the “epidermal Fidelism” of Baby and the collective appropriation of Che (in their duel existence as images and ideas). Other artists, sometimes critical of various facets of Cuban society, explicitly and cohesively adopt and project socialist ideological values: solidarity among the poor, a critical commitment to the legacy of the Revolution, the rejection of systemic commercialization (and not only that of capitalism embodied in the US marketplace).
Baby Lore’s Lyrics Reek of Sulfur
Contrastingly, Baby Lore’s lyrics fail to make the arguments to support the images being sold to us in the video; and when these are shown…. they reek of sulfur. Swaddled in his “rich and famous lifestyle,” the singer says, “This is going to get hot.” He adds, “The truth can’t be rehearsed,” giving the appearance of reducing the revolutionary path to a matter of mechanical consent, while the adoration of virile force brims over in the video.
Even out of ignorance, his statement “When I hear culture, I draw my gun” could not sound closer to Nazi hierarchies. He makes it clear as to how he differs in his peculiar revolutionary model: “If you don’t like it here, get the hell out.” To make matters worse, an empowered Baby feels it within his right to blurt out, “Condemn me and you’ll see, history will absolve me.”
This video can be juxtaposed to recent promising works that take candid looks at our social problems. I’m thinking of “Soy lo que ves” (I am what you see)” by the duet Buena Fé, directed by the same Rufo Caballero who now enigmatically lavishes praise on “Creo.”
Although the Buena Fé video can be accused of a certain degree of didacticism (with the angelical image of lead singer Israel Roja teaching classes on the history of Cuba), the work articulates its images and lyrics with calls for critical and committed reflection (“a balance of falling and continuing,” “the sense of living, creating things, more than sitting around cursing”).
It rejects simplistic iconography (we can recall an attentive eye tattooed on the poet’s arm and the simultaneous re-discovery of Che and Chaplin). It is a committed pledge to continue “deciphering stars after they appear, raising hope in people’s consciences.” These are an array of wealth found missing from the “raging tract” of the Cuban reggaeton artist.
Gazing into the horizon, I’m struck by a few questions. What do commercialized marginalization and the decaffeinated nationalism of “Creo” have to do with a liberating cultural effort?
What is the meaning of primetime broadcast of this video when creators (from Frank Delgado to Los Aldeanos) who are committed to their neighborhoods, their identity and the libratory legacy of our form of socialism of national liberation don’t enjoy equal privileges?
Is this “product” compatible with a revolution that aspires to be the daughter of culture and ideas, persistently expanding (despite mercantile rationalism) by organizing national book fairs and municipal universities? Or is it organic with the amalgam of so-called mass culture (“the people want to clear their heads”) or ideological dogmatism (“you can’t give weapons to the enemy”) preferred by more than a few Cuban officials?
Returning to the subject, I’m not suggesting we boycott Baby Lores, and much less that we deny him his right to interpret socialist Cuba as he pleases. I think that everyone should have a place and time to disseminate their work. I also believe that aesthetic, ethical and political debate between different artistic currents and works contributes to the development of the most authentic, general and integral culture of our people. Likewise, I feel that – as demonstrated by the experience of the duet Buena Fé – one can create popular music and gradually grow in maturity and astuteness.
However, I believe that we are in defining moments of our nation and culture. These are times in which exclusion or acceptance can foreshadow commercial or authoritarian trends; those directed against a culture and a socialist, participative, democratic, sustainable society.
Jose Marti taught us that in politics what is real is invisible, and that from “the blows of life” we learn that – midway between paranoia and naivety – we will be able to glimpse the contours, tragedies and promises of what will come.