Cuba Hip Hop Has Its Magic
HAVANA TIMES, Dec 22 — One of the emblematic groups of Cuban hip hop is the duo “Obsesion,” made up by Alexei Rodríguez (aka: El tipo este) and Magia Lopez, who is also the manager of the Cuban Rap Agency. This year they won an award in the Cuban “Lucas” music video clip competition and another one at the Cubadisco awards in the category of rap music for their new recording El Disco Negro.
This is the second year that they won in Cubadisco’s rap category. Up until 2010 there existed the “rap fusion” category, for which Obsesion’s album “Un monton de cosas” received a nomination.
Recently a large part of the rappers that belong to the Cuban Rap Agency sent a letter to Culture Minister Abel Prieto, in which they complained about the work of Magia López at the head of the agency and asked that she be removed.
This is an interview with Magia for Havana Times made before the sending of the letter. She talks about the CD Disco Negro and other topics including her work at the Cuban Rap Agency.
The arrival of hip hop
Magia: I met Alexei at a workshop on handicrafts. We would always talk about music and we went to the first public rap festival together in 1995. Then we got married in 1996 and he formed his group, practicing at home. When they performed in public I was in the audience would applaud a lot. Later he found himself alone, so he asked me to learn some lyrics so that he could hear them, and he realized that I sounded pretty good. One day he said to me, “We need to perform at the Regla High School,” and I wanted to die. But I said to myself, “Well, let me accompany him with his hobby” (at that time it wasn’t anything serious). That was my first time on stage.
HT: What do you remember about those festivals organized by Grupo Uno?
Magia: I recently commented to Renzoli (the founder of Grupo Uno and the Cuban Rap Festival) that thanks to those events, our training was different from that of rappers today. In order to participate, we had to present our lyrics and information on our backgrounds, prepare a whole series of things and then be evaluated by a committee. The competition was healthy and the work of each person or group was respected. Since it was so selective, we presented songs with more quality. These days there’s no selection process. There also used to be critics who would discuss the rap artists. These would be broadcast on the radio or would appear in the press, and there was a lot of foreign press.
HT: All of this was managed by Grupo 1?
Magia: It was all part of an operation. The festival generated a series of things that were indeed coordinated by Grupo 1.
HT: Why did the Rap Festival disappear?
Magia: I don’t know why. It really surged in popularity, with lots of fans and generating strong cultural exchanges. It wasn’t only important for Cuba but also for many countries in Latin America and for people in the United States. In addition, the festival spun off a series of projects that generated activities all year round.
If you were looking articles on Cuban rap at that time, you wouldn’t find much in the national press, but in the international press you would, and mainly about what occurred in the festival. This fostered respect for Cuban rap around the world. It was a whole generation, with groups like Anonimo Consejo, Primera Base, and Instinto (which was the first female rap group here).
The CD Disco Negro
Magia: We’ve always dealt with the issue of race. When preparing the album Negro and selecting the songs, we saw that we had several on that issue. We didn’t want to leave them for other disks, so Alexei decided to make one that was entirely on the racial issue. On it are the songs “Me Afroconozco,” “Mi belleza,” “Victima.” Sometimes they don’t mention color directly, but it’s present. “Victima” reflects what happens daily with police in the streets, it’s always black people who are harassed…
On our last trip to Canada, we played at a place called the Club de Espeldrum (“the Afro Club”) where we recreated the styles of the ‘70s. We used the Afro pick as a symbol. When we were on stage we wore them in our hair. A Canadian artist, Shakir, created a design with one on a tee-shirt saying “The CD Negro by Obsesion.” So, we decided that it would be the image for the CD as well.
HT: One of your trademarks that catch people’s attention is your hair. Do you always feel comfortable with your hair in a natural style? Have you always had this level of racial consciousness?
Magia: I’m not any different from any black woman. When I was a little girl I wrapped my hair in a towel and dreamed that it was long and that it moved. My sister and I had long hair but my grandmother made it into tight buns braids. When we were eleven years we started straightening our hair to make it easier to comb, and because that’s what people did. Before we had used a hot comb on our hair; I also wore fake braids for a while. When I met Alexei and started getting into hip hop, I was already wearing my hair in a big natural, but it was for fashion reasons. I had no race consciousness in those days.
Back in technical school I got into arguments with my teachers and the principal because they used racist expressions, but I only started to develop a race consciousness through hip hop culture, in a different context, especially after a workshop given by Tomas Robaina, sometime between late 2001 and early 2002. He talked about the 1912 Race War in Cuba, the black leader Evaristo Estenoz, the black massacre. It was a shock. I remember Alexei and me going away feeling angry.
HT: Hadn’t they taught you those things in junior high school or technical school?
Magia: No, we were being smacked in the face with this information for the first time, and it was tough. As adults, running head-on into this side of history was important for our development, for our pride. It was the basis for further investigation and the discovery of answers. We began to identify that underhanded racism that we experience here. We also discovered how we ourselves were racist because we used the same phrases; we had the same ideas about what was the “best” or the “most beautiful.” When you don’t know the historical roots, you can’t find the explanation for why most of the people in prisons here are black, or why those suffering the worst conditions with regard to issues like housing “have to be black” – as the expression goes.
HT: The issue of racism is the one most recurrent in rap. Do you think all rappers deal with it at a conscious level or has it become just a topic that’s in style or a chance to win the public’s attention?
Magia: I don’t think that everyone has the same level of consciousness. There are people who approach it in a superficial way or out of need for the audience to identify with them. This doesn’t happen only with the issue of race, you can also see it in themes relating to women, violence and so on. To discuss specific issues, we have to look also at ourselves. When we start to become aware that people change from listening to our words, we realize the seriousness that we have to have. We’re missing the criticism that we used to have so that artists can be assessed at the time they compose a song, with the critics providing their opinions. Now people are “free” to do a homophobic show or a racist show and nothing happens.
HT: You said that thanks to the workshop with Tomas you became aware of the underhanded racism we experience. What do you attribute this racism to after 52 years of revolution?
Magia: What I’m saying is not an attack. Cuba is a country that has always been on a war footing. I think that what the government has attempted to do most is defend the country’s independence. I was watching what happened in Libya and it scared me. To me, the country’s defense has always been first, and the issue of racism has lagged behind… If on one side of the balance is the issue of racism and on the other is a possible intervention…it’s a dilemma, because I have to be free to defend other causes. When the revolution triumphed, they made the mistake of saying that we were all equal, but it wasn’t like that. Now it’s being acknowledged that racism exists and that it must be combated, just like homophobia… Cuba is not in a glass display case. It was very naive to think there was no racism. Today many things are being reassessed and the issue of racism is a priority.
HT: Do you feel that this is a priority for the government?
Magia: Yes, but it’s not only a matter for the government. I think it has more to do with the grass roots, the local structures and people within them. I could be a racist official and make certain decisions in my position. That doesn’t mean the government is doing it. You have to work in the minds of people, which is exceedingly difficult because it goes beyond what a government can regulate, beyond laws… Take television for example. There are directors and writers, including black writers. So, what happens with the scripts and the issue of race? It could be that it’s not a priority for the government, but what about with artists, with directors?
El Disco Negro de Obsesion isn’t commercial. We could have made a record for dancing and sold it in all the stores. We knew it wouldn’t be easy and that perhaps it wouldn’t win an award at Cubadisco. The subject bores a lot of people, and it’s painful for others. Therefore it requires some commitment.
I also believe there’s work to do with youth and children in the schools. Maybe that’s something the government can influence. In schools, through history classes, children can begin to learn about our black leaders, about how we’re different in color, in our origins. Children should be aware of class differences so answers can be found as they grow up, for example, why one child is driven to school in their father’s car and given a dollar for lunch while another kid has to walk to school with a bread and butter sandwich and some Kool-Aid. It’s easier to learn things in that early stage. If you learn at age 18 you’ll be traumatized.
HT: What do you think of last April’s congress of the Communist Party of Cuba, where it was announced that after more than 35 years since the creation of the organization, an effort would be made to increase the number of people of African descent on the Party’s Politburo?
Magia: Great! The recognition that there’s racism in Cuba is a big step. Then too, to recognize that there are people of African descent, or of whatever descent, is not only a fact of being Cuban, but of origin. And the fact of re-assessing the composition in the politburo is also a step forward, but it doesn’t solve the problem; you can have a number of people of African descent without an awareness of the problem. I think Cuba is one of the countries with the potential to be in the vanguard on these issues.
HT: On the issue G Street here in Havana, there’s a huge monument in honor of former Cuban President Jose Miguel Gomez. In one of your songs, the chorus sings “tumbenlo” (knock it down). What would be gained by tearing down that monument?
Magia: It would end the glorification of this guy who approved the killing of so many innocent people, especially black people. The monument reinforces the image of racism. The song aims to sow a voice in the back of people’s minds asking them who this man actually was, and I think it succeeds at doing just that. People don’t have all the information, so this song makes them inquire. The song “Tumbenlo” is symbolic.
HT: Recently, you demystified the idea that women came to hip hop late, and you gave the example set by the group Instinto. How has female hip hop here evolved to date, and what do you think is still missing?
Magia: Female hip hop has not been stable for several reasons. At no stage have women had the resources or power in their hands, they’ve been subordinated to the decisions of men, including their will to appropriate resources. That’s what we say in the song “Se busca una mujer hip hop” (Looking for a Hip Hop Woman). And it’s not just in the rapping, it can also be found in the sound, and making music with machines… Men are in all spheres, women aren’t. However, though there are only a few, there are women producing records, for example Irasema Laferte; and women who write, like Sandra Alvarez, who heads the magazine Movimiento and writes about culture; plus there’s Ained (“Nana”) Cala Martinez, who was a DJ and photographer.
HT: What do you think is lacking in the Cuban hip hop movement in general?
Magia: Training, facilities, cultural exchanges. These days the only chance for sharing is the symposium. But beyond that there’s a lack of will to train to continue developing.
The Cuban Rap Agency
HT: Wikipedia defines the Cuban Rap Agency as “an organization subsidized by the Cuban government aimed at aiding Cuban hip hop artists in attaining radio exposure and recording contracts.” Is this true?
Magia:No. The Agency emerged almost as an experiment, without awareness of how it was going to function. It was known that it would include few groups and would promote them. But there was no idea about ??how this culture functioned, how it was to be marketed. Even today restructuring is going on as to how the agency should operate in the area of rap music. It also took different paths because it’s a self-financing entity, and when you talk about self-financing you have to look for resources to be economically viable.
HT: So it’s not funded by the government?
Magia: At the moment it is, but the idea is for it to be self-financing, though it hasn’t achieved this. The government allocates resources so that it doesn’t disappear. We’re still finding the mechanisms to coordinate our production within the context of Cuba, which is very difficult given everything that surrounds us, culturally speaking. Rap in Cuba has been through a lot, such as its subjugation by reggaeton. I’m not saying one is better or worse, but when reggarton began, people started confusing it with rap, so rap began losing the position it had attained.
When you were going to a place to market rap, they’d tell you that it wasn’t what they were looking for; they wanted reggaeton since it made people dance and filled up the clubs. In addition to the loss of festival, and then clubs, rap had to face this confusion with reggaeton, which also existed within the Rap Agency. It got to the point that there were more groups of reggaeton than rap within the organization, and this caused a lot of disappointment. Today the Rap Agency is still in a restructuring process; it has eleven rap groups only of rap that need to know that there are institutions to channel the projects of artists, but that we aren’t going to do their work for them.
HT: What requirements must a rapper meet to join the Rap Agency?
Magia: The amount of time one has spent doing rap is important, because it gives maturity, it gives a certain level of management. It’s a problem for the Rap Agency that many groups don’t have the necessary level of management experience, nor have they created the support staff, despite having the market – and it’s important to understand the market mechanisms. If you join a company it’s because you want to sell your work.
HT: So rappers like Los Aldeanos and Escuadron Patriota could belong to the Cuban Rap Agency?
Magia: If they have the right level of management, if they meet certain requirements. Also, it’s not Magia who determines this. A Technical Committee makes its assessment. But it cuts both ways. On the one hand, the group has to be interested in joining, and on the other they have to be of interest to the Rap Agency. The group must also have a regular place for performing.
HT: What does the Cuban Rap Agency provide to a rapper that joins it?
Magia: You can legally collect your salary and negotiate the price of your performances, it makes it legal to perform at commercial venues, you have an institution for travel support, we guarantee some resources (such as sound equipment), and (if there’s any available) we provide food for certain concerts. Those are some of the mechanisms available to the agency for promoting groups.
The Rap Agency has a grant for informal peñas. This is a policy of the Cuban Institute of Music so as not to overlook certain genres such as traditional music. When a group has an important social impact but it can’t rent a particular place because it doesn’t generate enough profit, the Rap Agency will pay the salary of the artist to perform at that site.
HT: Nevertheless, though the two of you are members of the Rap Agency, you had to produce your album Negro with your own resources, and I’ve seen that you’ve had to distribute it on your own.
Magia: True, but there exists a possibility that in the future the recording company Colibri will produce rap albums. I don’t think they’re closed to it, but there’s ground that has to be won. We have to show that rappers are able to work with a concept, that we can make quality discs. People have to know how to organize and prepare a project; we can’t always hope for some subsidy or support.
That’s what I’m doing with the Hip Hop Symposium. There’s no budget for it. It was coordinated in conjunction with the National Council of Casas de Cultura, which supported us in some things, along with some other institutions. It’s important to know the language of the institutions.”
HT: Does being the head of the agency create any conflicts with your work as a rapper?
Magia: The limitation is time. I spend a lot of time with the Rap Agency, which still has a lot to be done. Now it’s going to have its own office in downtown Havana.
Although only eleven groups are members of the Rap Agency, it has links with others, as you know. They’re scheduled in activities to see whether they mature or not. Some disintegrate along the way. There also exists the magazine Movimiento, which deals not only with Havana, but also with what’s going on in the rest of the provinces.
HT: A moment ago you mentioned the Hip Hop Symposium. Do you see that event as a replacement for the rap festivals?
Magia: The symposium grew out of Fabri-ka, which is a community project. When I became the director of the Rap Agency, the agency took on the symposium. The first one took place in 2005, at the same time as the Rap Festival, which at that time was organized by the Asociacion Hermanos Saiz (AHS). Since AHS emphasized performances, we wanted our event to put more weight on workshops and theoretical aspects. One of the things raised by that first symposium was the recovery of the Rap Festivals.
HT: At the Casa de las Americas, you mentioned that the Rap Agency was going to start visiting prisons.
Magia: This is a project begun by Fabri-ka. The Rap Agency has a program of performances in prisons, as does the Cuban Institute of Music.
HT: Obsesion was one of the groups scheduled to perform at the summer event on Jibacoa Beach to the east of Havana, which for many is an endorsement of the kidnapping of the Rotilla Festival by the authorities. How did you feel performing in that context?
Magia: As an artist, I never had the opportunity to perform at the Rotilla Festival. It’s not something with which I identified. This was a performance like any other on the beach. For us it wasn’t anything new, we have a performance every month not far away in Santa Cruz.
HT: What are your plans now for Obsesion?
Magia: We are preparing a new album: Largos Cortometrajes, though the title might change. Alexei prepared a solo album and I’m in the middle of something. Next year we want to do more performances, exploring areas where we haven’t gone yet – like jazz, for example. We’ve also been invited the Hip Hop Festival for Peace in Vancouver, Canada.
HT: Is there anything you would like to tell the public before this interview ends?
Magia: I want to thank everyone for their patience with Obsesion. We’ve only put out three albums (Un montón de cosas (with pianist Roberto Carcases), La Fabrica and El Disco Negro) but despite that people follow us. We ask that they continue doing so. We promise that next year we’ll do more performances and we’ll be more consistent in giving them.
Note: I ran into Magia López again in the presentation of the latest edition of the magazine Movimiento on December 15. Despite the complaint lodged against her by a number of rappers, Magia appeared unperturbed.
HT: The rappers complain basically of bad management on your part, communications problems with the groups and that you use your position as the director of the Agency to promote your personal group and projects. Would you like to say anything regarding that?
Magia: Yes, but I’ll do that in the time and context I think are appropriate.
One thought on “Cuba Hip Hop Has Its Magic”
Mi opinion personal sobre Obsesion, es que yo no me obsecionare con ellos, los veo de palo, y no creo que lleven bien lo de la historia de la agencia, los vi una vez en vivo, les pedi un tema, uno de los pocos populares y se negaron rotundamente a cantarlo.
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