HAVANA TIMES, August 25 (IPS) — Women are still a small minority on Cuba’s hip hop scene. “If the situation is hard for us nationwide, imagine what it’s like in the eastern region, where this genre has very little recognition,” says Yaneidys Tamayo, leader of the group Las Positivas.
Tamayo, Irina Rodríguez and Orielis Mayet, who have the only all-woman rap group in Cuba, swim against the tide in Santiago de Cuba, a province at the eastern tip of the island marked by musical preferences that range from reggaeton to rumba and are directed at a public that is more interested in dancing than in hearing the messages these women want to send from the stage.
Their goal is to cultivate a genre that some people consider violent and masculine. “We don’t have any institutional support in Santiago, either,” Tamayo told IPS during a break in the 7th international hip hop symposium, which from Aug. 17 to 21 brought local artists and theorists together in Havana with colleagues from Canada, Colombia, the United States, France and Haiti.
For the last six months, nevertheless, Las Positivas have had a venue for their shows, at least one Sunday a month. “It was a big effort for us to achieve this. It’s given us stability, because the response from the public has been good, and based on that, we can carry out actions of community participation,” explained Ana Lidia Rivera, the group’s producer.
“That is why we call ourselves Las Positivas (The Positive Ones), because we are sure that good things can be done with rap,” Rodríguez commented.
As they chat with IPS, these women look like the everyday workers and students that they are. But they light up on stage as they dance energetically from one side to the other, sing, recite and sprinkle their performance with touches of humor.
Even though they have existed as a group for 14 years, they are still amateurs. “We think that when we become professionals, a lot of doors will open for us,” said Mayet, for whom hip hop is a reaffirmation of her identity, among other positive things it has meant for her. “Yes, because I was able to develop the real me. That is why I am going to fight for what we do,” she said.
Mayet agreed with the other women in the group that “it’s not about singing just for the sake of singing,” but about sending out positive messages, about change and “a little bit of thinking.” Las Positivas’s lyrics are related to the roots that keep them together, when they sing to “mother Africa”, about gender equality (“if you get some, baby, then I get some too”), and against racism and other forms of prejudice.
In a conversation with IPS, Magia López, director of the Cuban Rap Agency and a singer with the (coed) group Obsesión, said the 20 or so professional rap groups in the country include two from Santiago de Cuba. She also confirmed that women are a minority in this genre that includes just a few soloists, along with Las Positivas.
López is the second woman to take on the challenge of directing the Rap Agency, a project she describes as still under construction. “It was created eight years ago, and it has been very important for the movement, but it is still a project, to see whether or not it works in the capital, and it has a lot of tasks ahead,” she commented.
“The agency is taking a new look at a number of things, including its identity, the image it wants to project, what groups it should represent, and what its most important venues are,” she added.
“Another pending issue is having a permanent venue specifically for rap,” she noted. For now, the agency has 11 groups under its wing in Havana, its principal area of operations.
Unlike rock music, which has a well-equipped locale for its shows, hip hop is still awaiting financing to properly set up a venue assigned to the agency in Havana.
“There is a beautiful architectural plan with the spaces we want, but we need the resources to make it happen,” she explained.
In that respect, she noted that it is hard to market rap at this time, even more so given a lack of permanent venues that are financially within the reach of its followers.
“We are talking about a cultural scene that has suffered a lot of setbacks,” added López. Despite all of that, she admitted, the agency has helped to bring visibility to some of the rap movement’s projects, and to connect them.
In her opinion, the immediate way forward involves the artists themselves, who must analyze the spaces in which they move, find the most appropriate mechanisms, and generate projects to achieve a level of stability that vouches for them. “We have to take into account the process of (economic and social) reorganization that our country is going through,” she commented.
With the sponsorship of the Cuban Institute of Music, the Rap Agency has been organizing the Hip Hop Symposium since 2009, based on the original idea of the “La fabric K” collective, the Cuban Hip Hop Factory, which ran five previous versions of the event. One of the main functions of these annual events is to provide a tool for the work of artists and cultural promoters.
“We have participated in several of these gatherings, which allow us to share experiences with other groups and analyze what it is we want to do,” said Rivera, producer of Las Positivas.
This year, the symposium was dedicated to peace, to highlight the contribution of culture to the fight against military intervention, violence, social injustice, pollution and discrimination. It also dedicated a space to the issue of race this year, declared by the U.N. as the International Year for People of African Descent.
The symposium agenda included workshops on body language, break dance, gender and life experience, where artists and activists shared their experiences in work and in community projects using the art of hip hop as a contribution to the process of educating young people and improving the quality of life in their communities.
Hip hop began spreading in Cuba essentially during the economic crisis of the 1990s, especially in the poor suburbs of cities like Havana and Santiago de Cuba, where young people in neighborhoods that are mostly black and to a certain extent marginalized adopted U.S. rap music to express their own concerns and ideas.