“We stand in opposition to the hetero-patriarchal, Euro-centric, macho and domineering World System that works against us. We have to shake off that oppressive information every day.” – Pelusa Kruda
By Regina Cano
HAVANA TIMES – “Las Krudas” – warriors that never stop repeating” RESPECT! LOVE!” – share with us their experience as powerful Hip Hop musicians, poets and combatants for respect for women, black people, vegans and queers. See part one of this interview.
“Tropazancos”, “Cubensi”, “Gigantería”…How did these groups emerge?
Pasa: We would watch performers on stilts on television, in the street and at art school, but they were always foreigners. Later we saw Lester of the band “Frijol Negro” up on stilts with the group “Puntal Alto” and also in concerts of X Alfonso and we thought: “Wow! Look at that!”
Then I once again ran into Yoel Fear, a queer activist from the group “Gales”. He taught us to get around on them. We practiced in the park at the intersection of H and 21, near a childcare center, and we would put on little shows for the kids there.
Then at a Street Theater Festival we saw a performance on stilts by Sahily Sánchez, Miguel and Daniel, who played different roles using props made from recycled materials including a horse, crowns and swords. For us this was: “Yes, that’s it!”
Pelusa: As part of the “Cubensi” project we shared the streets on stilts with Sahily from “Tropazancos” and with Roberto Salas in “Somos la Tierra” (“We’re the Earth”). All three groups came together to present a piece at the Isabel del Busto Festival: “Dance in city landscapes” by “Ciudad en Movimiento” [City in Movement.].
We felt there the collective force that could be generated in those streets closed to traffic and parks full of children, and realized that this could also become a source of income for the Stilts Performers Community at a time when venues for our work were just about nil, or very low paying due to the crisis of the 90s.
So that’s how we founded “Gigantería” by uniting with “Juguetería Gigante”. But we later began to have some conflicts around issues of gender and race.
Pasa: Pelusa and I attended some discussions in the home of Nehanda Abiodun in Havana, an Afro-American who was fighting for civil rights.
Her influence, and that of Assata Shakur who told of her experiences in the Black Panthers, the strongest liberation movement that’s ever existed, served to awaken my consciousness as a black woman. We understood things that we had assumed never happened here. As we said at the time: “the racism here is so ingrained, seems so natural that we thought it wasn’t that bad – in the United states they kill black people, but here no.” But racism is racism anyplace that it occurs.
At that time we were working with “Gigantería” and we were feeling good, as the hippies used to say. But one day, one of the games sparked a fundamental change.
In the game, the public had to say the opposite of what the actor said: so I say “hello,” and you say “go away”; if I say “good”, you say “bad”; and if it’s “white” you say “black.” OK, cool! The audience was participating enthusiastically, but there came a moment in which the combination was: “Hola blanco bueno” [hello good white], and the public was supposed to respond: “Go away, bad black!” We began to see those details and subtleties in our language; how we ourselves internalized racism and self-hatred.
For us, it was so obvious, like “Look! You know what?” But their response was “No! Not so.” So we decided to do our own “thing,” because in that way I could change and also maybe change other people.
So we left the group, and later Wanda and two or three others joined us as “Tropazancos Cubensi” [Cuban Stilts Troupe]. As we developed, others came into the project from the streets, from the Cultural Centers or little theater groups. We were a very diverse group – regular people, descendants of Africans, gays, bisexuals, transsexual – but these very differences united us.
It was a pro-woman, friendly, super Afro-Cuban group, really strong and representative. It was beautiful, I felt very alive, rehearsing all week and on the weekends putting on gigantic shows with almost no resources.
Self-financing and self-employment in Cuba?
Pasa: We created our own economy. With the contributions from the tourists, we constructed masks, costumes and giant puppets. We transformed the precarious economic situation that existed and still exists in the country into Art. The rest was free and fabulous from the heart, because it really was.
We did a lot of community theater. We went to the “Romerías de Mayo” [May Pilgrimages], for all the arts, the Caribbean festival in Santiago, and others. Hip Hop added another layer, so we would do Street Theater in the morning and rap at night. It was a great combination: being underground artists, women, lesbians, vegans, self-actualizing, whatever we felt like doing. We didn’t belong to any Company or Agency.
The money from street theater also went towards our rap group, for recordings, background and songwriting. When we had three songs together, we declared “We’re going to make a record!” and we painted our name on with tempera paint. It was really crazy. I think we injected a little bit of our self-starting energy into rap. “You have to burn disks, promote your art, participate in exchanges, and why? Well, for money, money, money. You have to push and push.”
The fact of being lesbians was powerful, because we weren’t the girlfriends of male rappers. When we had to bargain it was: “There’s no middle man here, boy! It’s just you with me and me with you.”
Pelusa: One of the best things we learned was to be self-starting and independent. In addition to the money that served as income for the members and investment for our productions, there was also a fund to cover individual eventualities.
Pasa: We called it the buried treasure.
Pelusa: Maintaining not only equality and the circularity of all the procedures, but also some reserves for loans, aid for times of sickness, accidents, etc.
And now, how sustainable are you?
Pasa: I’m proud to say that our music is now pretty well known and we can make a living from our CDs. I’m grateful for the talent that Mother Nature gave me, and for the blessing that all my Orishas gave, to be a channel of good qualities.
Pelusa: In addition, we’re graphic artists and fashion designers – we do serigraphy and printed designs on cloth. We have our arsenal of clothing at the public’s disposition, most of it sustainable, recycled or produced by communities that do fair trade textile work. We need fair exchange, and we look for collectives that make their own clothing, offer attractive products, and are anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist, pro-autonomy and self-sustainable.
It’s hard to barter food for art, and we’ve always proposed a system of individual exchange between autonomous agents.
Tell us about women and Cuban Hip Hop
Pasa: When we began, there weren’t many women. There were a few groups: “Instinct”, “Sandy”, “Magic”, “Monica”, and later “Femenine Explosion”, “Yula”, and “Janet”. Many of these women subsequently had children or married rappers. Some later left them, but they never returned to Hip Hop and that sort of thing.
Pelusa: The movement was absolutely Macho. The women had that practical feminism we talked about, reflecting the general tone of Cuban women. They had no awareness of gender, feminist activism or lesbian or queer discourse. Many of them sang of “Daddy,” and defended heterosexual life.
Pasa: We left Cuba in 2006, but even now in 2014 there’s only one Agency that represents and commercializes Rap. During all this time, there’s been no change in the artists in it. There are some past “Puños Arriba” winners (“Fists up”, a competitive event), and this year the 15 prize winners were all men from the same two or three groups. It’s just too much!
This same thing exists in other countries, I know, but there are other opportunities open in these places. There are events for women only, where you feel like you’ve been given some fresh air to breathe.
Here in Cuba, the Hip Hop culture is more and more oppressive. The women are fighting hard, but at the same time they’re mothers, and they have to put food on the table and rustle up some money. If the Cuban Agency and the official spaces for rap were smart, they’d include women’s talents. The women produce good work and it’s more revolutionary.
We’ve made great efforts to listen to women doing Hip Hop. Just now we had several gatherings – in Guanabacoa, on Oct. 10th St., at the Saturn Club – where they participated. We held a conference in the Juan Marinello Research Center and we’ve seen them develop.
In these two months, we haven’t been to many Events or a concert, but there’ve been some there in the Agency, occupying that space of theirs, in my view, because supposedly they get paid to do so. In Cuba you have to be in a Company or in “something” to be recognized as a professional.
The actual line of the cultural authorities is the same as it was in 1998: “The situation is bad”, “I’m the one who..” And I’ll say too that when we began there was more familiarity with the history of black people in Cuba and a tendency to mix Rap music with our roots, with Batá, with other genders. It was more cohesive.
At the same time, even though we didn’t feel fully represented – because it wasn’t a feeling of: “Ahhh, This is my home” – we did feel close. There was an atmosphere of sharing and there was a lot to fight for. Now there’s a new movement. Many of those who were in the vanguard have left the country.
Pelusa: The “Agency.. offers superfluous arguments for not including women who auditioned last year. Belonging to this group isn’t a solution for these women, but if you’re not in some cultural institution, it’s difficult to build any kind of momentum.
We don’t have any private spaces for playing music [here in Cuba], much less for Rap. You have to submit to a suffocating level of bureaucracy. And if for all Cuban residents – including members of the Agency – it’s difficult to find a space to make your music, it’s even more so for us who are practically like visitors each year. We did appear on television with Ana María Rabaza on the program “Cuerda Viva” [Live Chord].
Pasa: Thanks, “Cuerda Viva”!
Pelusa: Thanks Ana María! We were also on the radio show “A Propósito” [By the Way] with Eduardo Djata Djeli, but it’s been a pain getting into the institutional spaces.
It would offer a breath of fresh air if they could create fresh mechanisms for displaying the art of rappers. For example, opening the Clubs to all artists and allowing them a portion of the earnings taken in at the door. Giving opportunities to professionals and non-professionals to find out if what they do is accepted by the public, because although almost none of the women are in the Institutions, they do enjoy popular approval.
I could name some for you: “La Reina”, “La Real”, “La Fina”, “La Jabá Atrevida”, “La Nena”, “Luz de Cuba”, “Afibola Sifunola”. “La Cimarrona”, all artists of the Spoken Word, of Urban Music, of Hip Hop, spinners of Stories, part of this musical-theatrical-urban-feminine movement. They should have an opportunity within the Commercial System of Cuban Art.
Explain those terms you use: Womanists, Herstory, and Compañeres
Pasa: Ever since we became aware of who we are, we began to struggle against the use of the term “caballero” [man, gentleman]. All of us women, and saying “Hey! Gentlemen..” So we said, “Why gentlemen, if there aren’t any guys here?” And they answered: “But baby, that’s our way of saying ‘everybody’”. And we’d respond: “Well, I don’t feel included.”
We tried to impress on them that just because an expression or attitude has been internalized and formalized doesn’t mean it’s good. We began with Rap to fight for our pride as women and to demand space for it. “Anónimo Consejo” (“Anonymous advice” a male duo) was one of the first who more or less began to understand and to speak of men and women, expanding the conversation.
Pasa: We began with “Vanguardia Mujerista” to recognize ourselves and to say instead of “his-tory” – in English the story of him – we’re going to do “her-story”.
Pelusa: We learned this expression from Debby Jones a Jamaican-Canadian artist who gave an incredible boost to our political and philosophical development. She showed us that this herstory does exist, taking the perspective of our Caribbean women and so-called third worlders who haven’t been included in that history of men.
Pasa: The Costa Rican Queen Nzinga was also a good influence.
Pelusa: In the 90s we discovered veganism by ourselves, and we later learned that it already existed. In the same way, we invented the term womanist. [Later] we instinctively began to use neutral gender endings. In Cuba we invented things that other women were already doing in the world. I see this as part of those cycles of life that unite an entire network of beautiful people who are performing liberating actions in the world.
Pasa: Now we’re in a “womanist” process of language, working to use “todes” for all instead of the feminine “todas” or masculine “todos”. In this way we can empower ourselves from the basis of language itself. This is important since we’re artists of oral language.
Pelusa: We seem to obtain certain information from the air we breathe, from the seven lightning bolts that converge on this magic island, from friends, sisters and brothers, from our experience and corporal vitality. And we prefer this term “womanism” because we never felt very closely identified with “feminism” which is tied to that Institution which at some point denied us access as being too populist, marginalized and lesbian.
Pelusa: Look, we worked on projects with Cuban musicians who wanted with all their might for us to declare: “Rappers United!” At that time our transgenderism wasn’t so advanced, and we just wanted a fair and equitable treatment where they would mention Raperas [female rappers] as well as Raperos [male rappers]. So we were mainly detractors of sexist projects.
Contrary to this, other people later influenced our view and we became more radical.
Pasa: Wherever there is sexism, homophobia, male chauvinism or one-directional power there are going to be detractors, because our work is the opposite.
As the years pass and the world changes, “the detractors” are going to be less and less. Our art has grown greatly. In Cuba I’ve seen openly Queer men in the street: effeminate, soft. Cuban Hip Hop put up its resistance. We were something like: “What?!!”: new, different, very strong, but they began to become accustomed, either understanding or tolerating us. Our initial reactions were ”Wahhhhh!” and we cried a lot. Then we became more serious. Every look of incomprehension made us stronger.
Pelusa: Together with detractions and self-hatred, curiosity and identification with what we were doing also came in the doorway. Many of them have felt the need to free themselves, and even when it pushes their limits and social canons, there’s still a space for love and respect. They see in us the heroines that got there with all the energy, force and joy of living that we have.
We’re also responsible for the fact that our communities and families increasingly respect our art. As we focus our work, love and mission ever more on the education of those who need it most, in this measure, we are doing our work the right way.
To be continued….