Havana, Cuba Rap Festival Opens

Regina Cano

Rodolfo Rensoli

HAVANA TIMES, Feb 24 — A new edition of the Alamar rap festival (Feb. 24-26) was what prompted this interview with Rodolfo Rensoli. He and Grupo Uno were the principal promoters of the festivals between 1995 and 2000 that first revealed the existence of a “rap” movement (usually referred to as “hip hop” here on the island) in Havana and perhaps in all of Cuba.

HT: What brought about this new festival?

Rodolfo Rensoli: It’s being organized by three warriors who have boldly fought to put it together.

Over the past 12 years, people always held onto the idea of re-initiating it, so much so that there were other attempts, such as “La Capital de la Mona” [“Mona” is another name for hip hop in Cuba], which was also held in Alamar. This took place for only three years, thanks to the not so consistent efforts of local cultural leaders.

The main thing, though, is that the festival is returning and is being catalyzed by people who didn’t create the original festival, such as the municipal producer who inspired the “Evento en Verano” (the Summer Event), which was an idea of Grupo Uno, the producer of the first festivals.

The festival was held in August, and for it to continue, the Institution de Cultura is providing seed funding, which we’ll pay back. That earlier festival received coverage in Vibe Magazine (which was sponsored by Quincy Jones) and other publications back when people were unaware of the movement here.

Among the rappers who are collaborating today, there’s a lot of enthusiasm for returning to the Summer Event.

People in the Ministry of Culture approved a budget for a pre-festival (on December 24) and for this one, though it’s a very tight budget. They have given it a loan and seem to be taking it rather seriously.

When we declare “This is the epoch of Kende!” it’s because everything has a time or a logic for occurring. Recently they gave us the chance to do that, and although some stakeholders don’t live in Cuba and they can’t get here in time, here we are!

The festival also aims to be a bridge for cultural exchange.

HT: Who are “Kende con K”?

RR: Its actions continue falling directly on those involved: We make up the group “Kende con K.” It includes Orlando Betancourt, the producer who I just mentioned; Yuri Garcia, the head of the promoters; and myself, I attend to the various personalities. We’re also artists.

For the first time, people on the payroll of the Municipal Department of Culture are in a group that is driving this effort. It’s funny because previously they didn’t have an attitude that was absolutely consistent with rap back when Alamar contained more than two hundred groups in its heyday; that was when this same department formally recognized only three groups at the most. These are workers with access to the local cultural policy, which is a high privilege.

Balesy Rivero is returning. He’s the most outstanding artistic director in the history of the rap festivals.

Other collaborators with K con Kende include, a graffitist and a break-dancer, Ramoncito, the designer of the logo, and many other people who are lending substantial support.

“Kende” is a word borrowed from the Karabali, Bricamo or Apapa language. There are languages spoken in Cuba by a religious fraternity with an African background: the Abakua. In colonial times it helped protect the slaves.

That word means “crazy.” In Cuba, artists are often labeled as crazy; therefore, it’s like a game of ironic acceptance by a group of artists.

We’re going to do things that are impossible for many people, things like the Proyecto Alternativo Institucionalizado and new approaches by various artistic trends. We’re engaged in and creating self-organization within the new legal context.

The first action of this effort is to rescue the rap festival.

HT: How is the festival going to be run?

Yuri García Sampedro with Rensoli.

RR: There will be a symposium at the Fayad Jamis Gallery beginning in the morning on February 24. It will be dedicated to the 200th anniversary of the Aponte Uprising (a revolt by blacks, free blacks and some slaves, during colonial times) and the centennial of the Slaughter of the Independents of Color (a political party of militant black Cubans during the Republic). We plan to raise contentious issues in discussions about racial identity and racism.

In addition it will deal with the re-emergence of African oral traditions in rap and how rap influences the culture industry and vice versa, its link with politics. There will be various topics about rap and hip hop today.

This will present a serious challenge for Cuban promoters of hip hop, which is to try to balance various trends: breakdancing, rap, DJs and graffiti. Plus we’re now adding VJs.

Festivals have catalyzed the development of rap to the detriment of those other forms. Somehow all the trends have sustained themselves, but it’s necessary to gradually bring them into balance.

We’re proposing something modest but impressive for the return of the event and for its followers.

In the Alamar Amphitheater, on the nights of February 24 and 25 will be the shows. We want to bring back the mass participation of people. This is the historic site of the rap festival. It has been repaired — on a tight budget — after having been abandoned for a long time.

On February 26 we’ll have the closing, which will remain as a regular and systematic event in Alamar, since activities will continue to be held on the grounds of the local Casa de la Cultura (the Alamar cultural center) on the last Sunday of every month, but more interactively.

HT: How has it all been organized?

RR: The selection mechanism has been through auditions.

Our intention is to represent all of the diverse styles of rap.

Valesy Rivero

Special invitations have been made to groups that have made contributions to the history of rap in Cuba.

Those who are taking part still think that conditions haven’t been created to encourage competitiveness. They think we need to stimulate other forms, showing groups and individuals before larger audiences, rescuing, educating and encouraging unity.

The competitiveness was one of the factors that encouraged the development of breakdancing as well as the many challenges that existed throughout the city in the late 80’s and later. Excellence on the part of the prize winners in the first festivals created standards for the development of rap.

Young rappers who are grouped around the “Los Chicharos no se Ablandan (The peas don’t soften) sessions wanted and expected the festival. They never had one. The history of the festivals is crucial in the training of virtually all rappers.

When the Asociacion Hermanos Saiz (the official youth cultural organization) stopped supporting the festival and the movement — began shifting its emphasis toward reggaeton — there emerged those regular jams in Alamar. Through these paraded highly visible people and groups: Los Aldeanos, Silvito El Libre, Soandri, Anonimo Consejo, Obsesion and others, with innovations in the rap community being presented there.

We are asking for support and we’re also presenting the project to several authorities. The cultural initiative “Por el Este Sale el Sol” (The sun rises in the east), of the “Nicolas Guillen Foundation,” is covering the basic logistics of the entire event.

We’re putting some of the promotion on the Internet.

HT: What are the dreams of all of you?

RR: We want to diversify the dynamics of the ongoing activities. We have the logistics in place to achieve this by August. We want to flood all of the communities that make up East Havana. That was the interest of GrupoUno. In our opinion, time had stopped there, so we wanted to return the activity to a place in the Reparto Guiteras area, where the festival was founded.

That represents a heavy workload, and I can tell you today that I already feel tired.

HT: How is the environment for rap festivals in Cuba?

Orlandito Betencourt Nuñez

RR: There used to be festivals around the country, in the provincial capitals. They represented the most important regions for rap in Cuba.

One of them is still surviving in Pinar del Rio. There was one in Guantanamo; it was even promoted by the Granma newspaper. There’s one coming soon in Matanzas Province, they’ve invited us. I contacted rappers in Santiago de Cuba who are interested in this upcoming event.

Fortunately there have been a few venues for rappers who don’t appear in professional catalogues.

The symposiums held by the Cuban Rap Agency (under the Ministry of Culture), have been places for groups without many opportunities and these have brought in artists to the capital from the provinces.

HT: And reggaeton?

RR: We’re refusing to include reggaeton in the festival. We run the risk of contaminating it. I say this knowing that reggaeton descended from rap, and many of its creators were remarkable rappers in these same festivals.

Everyone wants their product to be consumed; we just don’t want it to be exclusively that one.

There is a profuse diffusion of reggaeton and a deviation of discourse toward a radically extreme trend that’s opposite to the positions held by rappers. We’re not interested in that for the time being. It would be like us pouring water in a basket.

We’re interested in a receiver that accepts, not one that consumes – we want a critical receiver.

We want to reaffirm a solid stance in rap, a space for creative interaction that once existed, including production and ties with people in education.

HT: Is there anything else that you would like to add?

RR: In a country that is institutionalized and “academicized” like Cuba, rap needs its own structure, its own community. The Cuban Agency of Rap has created an expectation of belonging to it, but it has resulted in a lack of intra-vision and the improvement of the movement.

Community projects remain at the core of circumstances giving rise to hip hop — the underground — which is not exactly the most criminal activity, but it is the one that’s closest to the community.

There doesn’t exist a protective authority that stands up for the concerns of youth which also involve the mechanisms of commercial production and propose healthy socialization: a publisher, courses, and ongoing workshops.

These include studies on racial identity, gender and the accumulated concerns of those youth, who have assumed hip-hop as a culture that can guide them in life.

These are young people for whom religion, current academic training, cultural institutions and even “alternative Cuban projects” don’t serve them in a context of modernity or for the re-reading of social patterns to establish themselves as cultural entities in the full sense of the expression.

They need guidance. That authority is missing. They come from a very disadvantaged sector of society in terms of cultural self-awareness.

Renso with Orlandito.

The Art Instructors Program and community-based Casas de Cultura have just a bare inkling of this. Where there is a dialogue with some hip-hoper and the system, in the long run it ends up truncated.

The arts academies are outdated in terms of the essence and techniques of alternative settings.

There are Bboys highly valued in the world – like other dancers. In Cuba there aren’t even independent professionals or DJs. They’re all vulnerable and unprotected, and they have no link between what they produce and music history.

Those of spoken word poetry are in the same situation. They don’t fully understand the universe in which they’re moving. Rhyming verse in Cuba has remained in Hispanic visions, with categories of adult rhymes and children’s rhymes. Spoken word poetry hardly gets any coverage or airtime.

The neo-cultural formations coming from our African ancestry receive little appreciation.

Rappers don’t have sufficient or stable promoters.

Rock was penalized back in those ideologically tense times, but then it made its way. Behind it was a paradigmatic phenomenon like the Beatles.

African American music had better luck in its initial irruption, though it was also limited by its being sung in English. Reggae had a similar fate. None of them had a wide circle of disseminators that made them visible in our society.

HT:  Well, people! We hope “Kende con K” is successful with this festival. Understanding that there’s a comprehensive publication upcoming about the rap festival being held in Alamar, I bid a warm farewell to Rodolfo Rensoli.