A ‘Maroon’ in Cuba’s Hip Hop

Yusimi Rodriguez 

Lourdes Suárez. Photo: Yusimí Rodríguez

HAVANA TIMES, August 29 — Last week I attended the “Workshop on Gender” that took place within the framework of the Seventh Symposium on Hip Hop, dedicated on this occasion to peace.  It was held from August 17–21 at the Plaza Cultural Center in Havana.

There I met Lourdes Suarez, the “maroon” (Spanish: cimmaron, the word for “fugitive slave” used throughout Latin America) who along with her comrade Yasser “El Gallo” Miranda, makes up the Espejo Project.

Lourdes Suarez: I prefer to call it a project and not a group, because I believe that a group is something more closed, and our project is more comprehensive.  We have three artistic entities.  We have an Afro-Cuban musical group, and we do a kind of a hip-hop theater.  We link rap with the spoken word in what is oral stage narration, or theater.  In this is constituted the hip-hop theater that we’re doing.

Many people say we’re the only ones in Cuba doing it, though when another group appears I’ll be more than happy.  This project was created eleven years ago.  It began with us doing oral narration, theater, poetry and playing trova music.   At that time we were made up of two trova musicians, two actors and a percussionist.  The group continued going through changes until arriving at the format that I just mentioned.  We also work with guest artists, they might be dancers or visual artists, and within that possibly tattooers.

HT:  How did you get into hip-hop culture? 

LS:  With a great deal resistance, like what happens with everything we’re not familiar with.  Stereotypes greatly affect hip-hop culture, as well as all the truth it holds.  I come from trova and the theater – two individual temples, as I call them.  When I began to work in the Madriguera, the headquarters of the Asociación Hermanos Saiz in Havana, I had to attend the festivals and sessions of rap; this was about fifteen years ago.  I came closer to that culture reluctantly, at first it was just my job, even though I didn’t like.

The first rapper who I ever got to know was Irac, with the group Doble Filo; he was a friend of my brother.  I saw a contradiction between what he was doing and him as a person.   Now I wonder why.  I still hadn’t listened to the verses, only that strange sound and the image, which I didn’t like.  But I began to get interested in the lyrics because people in the circle of people I hung out with talked about them.  I also began going to the concerts, investigating, looking for CDs…

This was how I started getting into rap.  Later I saw the dancers and I began going to rap festivals.  But one of the things that had just opened my mind was the theoretical sessions in the festivals; that’s when I heard Maria Teresa Linares, one of the most important researchers and musicologists of our culture.

I marveled seeing her, at her age, sitting down in front of a rap audience and defending rap, looking for its similarities with Cuban music, talking about the Santiagoan conga, rumba, speaking about the fraternal Afro-Cuban Abakua order, the theater.  All of that caught my attention because she’s an older woman and white.  I began to discover that I also had interests related to hip-hop.

Once I had to drive to a cultural presentation with Alexei, “El Tipo Este” and a member of the rap duo “Obsesion,” which was already mythical within Cuban hip-hop.  At the beginning I felt that we didn’t have anything in common, but gradually I discovered what a true human being he is.  I started meeting lots of other rappers one on one and I realized that I’d been mistaken.

HT: But how did you decide to start singing? 

LS: The fact is that I really don’t sing; rather, I make a brazen attempt.   It was the need to communicate and to perform that made me start doing it.  I decided to do the recited parts of the songs…  Recently, in a performance, I found myself doing free style.  I said things that I needed to say because they were about upholding the position of women.  The rhymes just came out of me, they flowed.  I surprised myself.

Espejo on the Cuerda Viva TV program. Photo: courtesy of Lourdes.

I don’t believe that I’ll be able to do it again, though people told me that I did it well.  I won’t do it again unless I feel that pressure inside.  I like to work under pressure.  But in reality it’s El Gallo Miranda who’s the rapper voice of the project.  I don’t rap, I communicate.  Rapping has a cadence, a flow, a way to saying things, of making poetry – and all of that is something I respect very much.

What I do most in the project is the poetry of Nicolas Guillen, because I feel that he was a rapper.  When I came off the stage the rappers told me: “You really did that ‘Spoken Word’ great.”  I still didn’t know what it was.  When investigating into it I realized that it was about doing your poetry or that of someone else’s on a rhythmic base of sound, and live.  I was doing it with the guitar, drums, or along with the instrumentalist who was with us at that time.  It was something that had already been invented, but I was discovering those possibilities within myself.

At the beginning I doubled the voice of Magia, a member of the duo “Obsesion,” and we laughed because she told me that I did it better than she did.  Then I noticed that if I could catch her time, I could try to rap.  But that came by itself, gradually; I didn’t impose it on myself.  Today I want to do it and I try to, but I still don’t believe that I can go up on a stage with background music and “let it flow” like any real rapper can.  I rap a few fragments of songs for the project, because in this way I help with the chorus.

I believe that I go up in front of audiences with intention, with the look, the corporal expression, and the silences.  Every person has their role within the project and their way of defending their artistic point of view.  We unite rap and poetry with Yoruba songs that are sung by the drummers and the choir.

HT: The other day in the Gender Workshop, it was discussed how one of the stereotypes within hip-hop is that many people consider it black music.  You in fact called attention to the fact that Maria Teresa Linares, a white person, defends this culture.  How do you feel within hip-hop being a white woman, not as young as the great majority of the hip hopers in Cuba, and with an image that doesn’t fit with the stereotypes? 

LS: The first thing is that I’m not white, but mestizo, although people of my color aren’t usually considered to be.  In fact, my ID card says I’m white.  My father was mulatto and my mother was brought here directly from Spain.  I consider myself a mulatto, and this mixture is one of the things I defend.  I lean more towards my black side, because it was the more disadvantaged throughout history…

In terms of the stereotype, I see myself like I think.  I take what I have and what I like.  Sometimes in the street, people will ask me if I’m a friqui (punkster), rocker or alternative, and I have to ask them what each of those things are.  I don’t define myself as any of them.  I always wear these ornaments because I’ve liked to wear ornaments and charms since I was a little girl.

When I taught theater classes, I had a group of children that always gave me bracelets, necklaces and earrings.  I would put them on according to the clothes I wore.  One day a girl asked me, very sadly, if I hadn’t liked her gift because she didn’t see me wearing it.  I had to remember what she had given me.  Then I took it and I told her to put it where she wanted on me.  She felt happy.  From then on, when they give me something, I tell the person to put it on me wherever they like, and I wear everything at the same time.

As for my age, I’m one of those people who think that human beings don’t have any age.  I was an adult when I was very young.  I ended up pregnant at fourteen and I danced at my “sweet fifteen” party with an enormous belly.  My family accepted it very well, which was very nice.  I had my two other children ten years later.  I experienced my adolescence and early youth between diapers.  I believe that I owe myself to always be young, or at least to feel it.

I’m forty five and the first tattoo I got was when I was thirty, for many a little late.  I don’t have problems with being into hip-hop at my age, because the hip hopers who are young today will be old tomorrow.  Those youths who have tattoos today are going to get older with their tattoos.

Lourdes with her husband and Espejo project comrade. Yasser, El Gallo Miranda.

The tattoo is one of the things I defend in my work.  I try to stand up for everything that’s not understood.  It’s in my presentations, and I’ve got tattooed in public.  I show that what people say about tattoos is a lie – all those notions having to do with marginality, that the only people who get them are criminals and low-life, that they’re unhygienic…

I say that it’s art.  Even those that are done in prison, ones applied without all the necessary resources, have their value and meaning.  But it’s also true that today’s youth don’t know what tattooing is.  They’ll see something they like and then run out and get tattooed, without thinking of the risk they’re running.  They have to realize that it’s a wound, but they don’t know where the ink comes from or that it’s gotten rid of through the kidneys and that it damages the body.  It’s necessary to be very conscious of what’s done.

HT: You too ran those risks? 

LS: Yes, like I told you it’s necessary to be very conscious of those things.  Always use vegetable-based ink.  But I especially worked energetically to help the ink to leave my body so that it would cause the least amount of damage.  After I got this tattoo of Che, which is the best one, I was completely healthy in less than a week.   Also, working strenuously made them not hurt.

HT: You gave a workshop on body language at the hip-hop symposium.  How long have you been doing that and what’s the objective? 

LS: This year I gave the third one.  But I haven’t done these in a consecutive manner.  It depends on the needs of the symposium and the rappers who request it.  These were also three different workshops, because they’re almost always the same rappers who take the workshop, though new people are always joining.

The first one was on ways of moving on stage, dominating the stage, which is something the rapper needs.  The second was about the security the rapper must have on stage.  This year the symposium is dedicated to peace, in a very convulsed time.  People are unconsciously very aggressive.

Then, based on the method of Stanislavsky, which is where the actor works on themself, we looked at having control and mastery over the psyche to be a better person.  We worked on concentration, colors and energy, the search for what we are and what we want to be, on good emotions and actions.

HT: I always find the projection of rappers on the stage quite aggressive.  

LS: That’s the problem.  The symposium has been working for a while on rappers realizing that it’s not necessary to be aggressive.  Hip-hop culture was born in a place and a time when it was necessary to be aggressive.  But right now Cuban hip-hop is completely different and there’s no reason to be aggressive – to say some truths.  But I can tell you that after the first two or three symposiums, the rappers’ projections on the stage were different.  They’ve also polished the offensive expressions that they use on stage.

HT: Does your project come under the Cuban Rap Agency? 

LS: No.  We were in the CARICATOS Agency as an oral stage narration project, but in the last auditions it was determined that we performed more music than oral narration.

HT: Have you made any CDs? 

LS: We’re finishing the first disk of the project, Africa Suda (Africa sweats).  There are already songs going back and forth here, and they’ve been accepted.

HT: What songs are you interested in doing within hip hop? 

LS: I’m very interested in defending diversity.  I have a monologue in which I portray a lesbian, and to do that I had put in a lot of research.  My lesbian friends contributed a great deal of information and knowledge about things that people suffer.  It’s a work that brought me into a good bit of conflict at the National Center for Sexual Education (CENESEX), where they had invited me to participate in a workshop.

Espejo in concert. Photo: Cortesy of Lourdes.

I performed my monologue, and one of the lesbians — who I could tell had suffered a lot in her youth — was afraid that because of the work people were going to once again label homosexuals as counter-revolutionaries, as occurred during the “el Quinquenio Gris” (the Gray Five Year Period, in the 1970s) with its  “parameterization.”  Those were times when some of them were even thrown in jail.  It was because of a fragment in which I said the corners of my city are populated by crazy women and men, by men and women who sell themselves cheap…  things like that.

She became upset by those images, but those are things I see daily.  I don’t know if wages in Cuba are minimal or average, but they’re not high, and prices are high for average people in society.  Plus we have this duel monetary system.  People just don’t have enough.

I was privileged. I was a radio announcer and I earned 750 pesos a month to do a four-hour radio program early in the morning.  When the crisis hit, the needs of the country required the radio station reduce its number of broadcasting hours from twenty-four to eighteen, and the early morning program disappeared.  Now I make 87 pesos a month (about $3.50 USD).  It’s the only wage I receive because everything I do with hip hop is completely voluntary.

I also have a community project, also voluntary, that consists of going to neighborhoods where there aren’t libraries or there’re far away.  I get donations of books from institutions like publishing houses, libraries and bookstores.  Friends also donate books to the project.  In this way we create libraries in these places, everything through the hip-hop culture that they don’t know about.  We share the whole day together with the residents of the place, learning their history, if their predecessors had been cimarrones (escaped slaves), emigrants from other countries… In this way we enrich our knowledge.

So far we’ve created more than thirty five libraries over the two years of the project’s existence.  We also organize film debates around the topics of racism, homophobia, the prevention of sexually transmitted diseases and HIV.  When the Espejo Project did presentations for pay, we used the money to fund the activities of the community project – for transportation, giving concerts, etc.

Right now we don’t belong to any company and we don’t have a way to get paid for our work.  What we do is coordinate with culture institutions on these needs for transportation, audio systems, etc.  If I don’t have a source of money, I can’t fund anything…  I don’t know how to sell croquettes or anything else, so what I do is give classes, train actors and work for the public.  I’m a radio announcer and now you can see what happened.  I barely have enough; 87 pesos in Cuba is nothing.

HT: What does your husband do, in addition to being a member of the Espejo Project? 

LS: He was managing of culture program in the Guanajay municipality, but now, to have more time for the project, he’s the deputy director or culture programmer in that municipality, as well as the vice president of the Asociacion Hermanos Saiz (AHS) in Artemisa…  Everything is very difficult for us, but we try to work so that people don’t pay attention to that, but instead on what we do.

What’s important is that we’re doing what we like.  I like going into the neighborhoods, working in the community, doing workshops with children, seeing them become better human beings.  I believe that we’re making the world better, and we’ll succeed.  I don’t know how long it will take us, but it will happen.  That’s why I give thanks to the universe, that which governs everything, for having given me the opportunity to find culture hip-hop and to defend it with tooth and nail.


One thought on “A ‘Maroon’ in Cuba’s Hip Hop

  • So how come Los Aldeanos were not present at this event? Are they too HOT to handle?

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