Decadence…the destruction, such frustration, oh what sadness.
Decadence…the need to shout our demands, with fear lying in wait.
Decadence…all of us, like robots, accepting the brain washing.
Decadence…for our children, our families and generations, let’s look for answers.
Decadence…they’ve stripped us of everything, except our resistance.
– From Decadencia
Interview by Yusimí Rodríguez
HAVANA TIMES, Feb. 16 — Decadencia was the first song I ever heard by Escuadron Patriota. This was at the end of 2009. What caught my attention was his courage and especially the absence obscene or violent language.
But that hasn’t prevented him from being strictly censored. Not only does his work have to circulate from USB flash drive to flash drive, as does most hip-hop in our country, but he has also been prevented from performing in concerts.
A good while went by before I met Raudel Collazo Pedroso, the sole member of Escuadron Patriota, while riding on the P2 bus in August 2010. That same night I had the chance to hear him live in the Madriguera, the headquarters of the Asociacion Hermanos Saiz (AHS) in the capital.
For months I tried to arrange an interview with him, but we were only able to talk over the phone for a few minutes. In those conversations I found out that Raudel is a 34-year-old psychology graduate who’s now working on his master’s; he also practices the Rastafarian philosophy. Finally, I made a long trip to his hometown of Guines, where I interviewed him for more than an hour and a half. From that I can assure that the months of waiting and the trip’s inconveniences were well worth it.
HT: Raudel, I’d like you to tell me about your childhood and your entry into the world of hip-hop. In the first song I heard you sing at that August concert at the AHS headquarters, you spoke of a child raised only by its mother, overcoming a million difficulties and shortages. Is that an autobiographical song?
Raudel Collazo Pedroso: Evidently. My mother…how can I explain it…was everything: mother, father, friend… She has a super strong temperament and she’s domineering, but I thank her immensely for at least 98 percent of my existence. This was more or less what I experienced in that first stage. Then came adolescence. I was in no way similar to the Raudel that I am today, nor did I think like I do now. I was somewhat adrift. My interests were those of any youth: parties, entertainment, having a drink, running around after girls. I thought there wasn’t anything else…that such things summarized life. Then, through other events, I begin to collide with another parallel reality that I didn’t know existed. I went through an important awakening of my consciousness, which is what led to my introduction to a world that had been unknown to me, and hip hop played an important role in that.
The first concert I ever went to was one with Grandes ligas, Junior Clan, EPG & B. By the end, I was left standing there absolutely hooked. I was also in a period of searching. There was little remaining of the interests I previously had. I had already heard some American music – but Cuban rap or the Cuban rap movement? I didn’t even know they existed.
When I got back home from that concert, I was someone else. I don’t know what happened, it was something mystical. Something told me: this is what I want to do, from here on out this will be my way to communicate with people. That’s when I began my struggle in the world of hip hop. That was in 2000 or 2001. I was twenty-four at that time.
Starting then, other types of random events started to take place in my life, especially my spiritual connection with the rasta philosophy… When my interests and needs changed, I began to have new questions about all kinds of things. In addition to questioning myself and having those doubts, I understood that hip-hop was what could give me the chance to transmit my thoughts to people about certain social and spiritual phenomena. Hip-hop was the tool for me to communicate with other people at that moment – and it still is.
When exactly did you begin to sing?
In 2003. That’s to say a while after I connected with this type of movement. But it was clear in my mind that in one way or another I had come into contact with something important for me.
But why hip-hop and not reggae, since you’re a rasta?
The problem is that I first came into contact with hip-hop and later came my interest with the rasta philosophy. When I that happened I was already involved in hip-hop. At first I was interested in it as a phenomenon of aesthetics, but later around a deeper question of knowledge. Still, everything began with hip-hop. Later, the rest took on a certain importance and wound up playing a more important role in my life – but that’s another story. I’m of the opinion that in the message — especially the urban message that we transmit — it’s not so important what vehicle you use, but the power of the word.
I listen to a lot of reggae; I’d dare say I listen to more reggae than rap. But when transmitting my message I do it with hip-hop, that’s what I’m more used to. I love the rhyme, the lyrics, I love the creation of rap, though I have a more spiritual philosophy that perhaps somehow responds to my reggae tendency, but I love hip-hop. Also, rasta and reggae is more symbolic. The most spiritual music in Rastafarian ceremonies isn’t reggae. Reggae is more commercial. I’ll continue using hip-hop to transmit my message, which is a little more social, more spiritual, but with hip-hop.
You talk about your interest in transmitting a spiritual message, and I’ve heard a lot about peace and tolerance in your songs; so why the name “Escuadron Patriota” (Patriotic Squadron)? It sounds so military. It makes me think of war.
Well, Escuadron Patriota was a group that existed when I started singing in 2003. There were three partners who were the founders of Escuadron. At that time I didn’t sing with them, though I was connected with rap. Suddenly it occurred to me to tell them: “Listen, I think I can write some things,” and the negotiations turned out that I would write some lyrics and they would sing them. I did this because ever since I got involved in rap I knew that I wanted to transmit a more committed and more responsible message, but I also understood that I couldn’t sing. There is where everything began.
Then came a moment when they told me: “Compadre, I think you can sing these lyrics too.” But I resisted, until one day I said: “Ok listen, I’ll try.” Then there were four of us in the group. I was the last one to join. A year or two went by and several things happened; one was a schism in the group. So it turned out that there were only two of us – that’s all, because the other two left. And later I was the only one left.
However, Escuadron Patriota was already known inside the world of hip-hop, so it would have been a little complicated to change the name. Plus I was more focused on what I wanted to transmit. I had planned to take care of it at some point, but later I told myself: “Hell – keep it the way it is.”
I think I mentioned to you that what catches my attention in what I’ve heard of your music is that you don’t use obscenities, which is something that strays from the norm in our hip-hop. Nor do you call for violence, on the contrary. You wrote: “We don’t want blood, or anyone to perish, so let’s raise our heads high” and “I never talked about putting a bomb in the Ministry of Justice.” Notwithstanding, you’re a strictly censored rapper. Why?
I believe that the problem of Escuadron being censored is that maybe my lyrics aren’t so epidermal or so superficial… I’ve become conscious of many things through the information that I’ve been able to get. I love the social and political literature, more than the classics, though I’ve read them too. I’ve shaped myself by reading Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Stokely Carmichael, Franz Fanon… These people contributed to me a great deal from the social point of view in terms of how to focus things. They were almost the foundation of my ideas and they taught me to elucidate phenomena more deeply, not to see only the consequences, but to go to the cause.
A revolution was made in Cuba in 1959, not the sole one, but that revolution was made and supposedly it guaranteed all rights to citizens. The Cuban people were eager for that. People never worried a lot about questioning or doubting anything; the people in power made the decisions and no one questioned them. Though there have always been times when people have dared to question, I don’t know why I think this current generation is more daring in terms of challenging the established order.
We’re also farther from the revolutionary process…
Exactly. We weren’t directly involved in the revolutionary process. We’ve been exposed to it, but not concretely. I wasn’t at the Bay of Pigs, nor was I around for the Mariel or the Camarioca boatlifts. I wasn’t there for the counter-insurgency battles in the Escambray; all that’s to say that these weren’t events that I experienced. I’m touched by them from a historical point of view…from what I learned in school. Those things were lived through by a different generation, while I’ve experienced something else, which is what I have to be concerned with. Understand? And since I’m experiencing different phenomena, a different energy, those are the ones I’m trying to confront, to figure out, to question.
I try to talk about those, but with a critical spirit. In none of my lyrics or my messages do I say that I have the solution. I simply talk about what I see and I try to do it with courage and without provocation. But I am in fact aware that there’s a problem in my society. I’m trying to make my small contribution so that problem is solved. It’s a problem that many people try to ignore, but I know that it is indeed here.
That’s the point where Escuadron comes in with its message. It tries to remind people that there’s a problem and that everything’s not so perfect. But apparently that’s a challenge, though I don’t see it as a challenge, but like something common, the right to exercise one’s opinion, to contradict, so that a minimum of development exists in society – and not only economically or politically, but also spiritually. There has to exist debate. Those ideas have to be there. I was born here, I live here and I’m entitled to express my ideas and for them to be heard.
I found out that they didn’t let you perform at the session led by rapper Seku, of the group Anonimo Consejo, at the famous club Casa de la Musica. Can you tell me what happened? Who prevented you from singing and what explanation did they give you?
The matter of the Casa de la Musica was that we had progressed to a point where — from the point of view of censorship — I was crossing the established limits. A number of things had already happened. Let’s remember that the message of Escuadron has in some way transcended not only the Cuban people or most of the Cuban people who listen to it.
Internationally there are a lot of people concerned about this type of message, at least from what I’ve been able to find out, since I don’t have access to the Internet or anything like that. There have been other types of situations and, properly speaking, it seems that my message, since it’s controversial for a lot of people, it serves them to do all types of things, some things I agree with and others I don’t… This creates a great deal of controversy and a highly tense and pressured situation. I believe that with the censorship at the Casa de la Musica, things have gotten to a point where I don’t know how the structure sees me, if they see me as a counter-revolutionary or as a guy who’s saying things that must be said…
How do you see yourself?
I see myself, like I just said, as a guy who knows that there’s a problem in his society and who’s trying to make his humble contribution to its solution. How? The only way I know: with the power of the word. And we have already gotten to the point where I don’t know what type of danger I might represent, or why there’s so much pressure against Escuadron. To them I represent nothing good. The other part is that you show up at these places and they tell you that you can’t go in, that you can’t sing, but no one shoulders the responsibility. On that occasion, the person who told me that I couldn’t sing was the producer of Anonimo Consejo. He informed me that security had told him that I couldn’t sing or enter the building. But when I went looking for explanations, no one gave them to me…understand?
Has that happened on other occasions?
Like that? …with such arbitrariness? That was the first time.
How has it been other times?
They organize a concert and I simply can’t go in, but they let me know beforehand. They make it known that they’re organizing the concert, and they tell people, “Listen, so-and-so can’t sing here.” But they let me know.
That’s to say, you can go but you can’t sing.
What’s understood is “you can’t sing,” and I decide whether I’ll go or not. But on that occasion at the Casa de la Musica the information was that I couldn’t sing but nor could I enter the place. The phrase they used was “not him or his people.” I didn’t understand that talk about my people. It sounded like they were talking about my circle or gang, but I don’t have a circle or a gang. But no one said anything directly to me.
You said that you don’t have the solution to the country’s problems, but you have a song titled “Somos la raiz del cambio” (We Are the Roots of Change), which as it turns out is the title of your next CD. I’d like you to explain, first, what should that change consist of; and second, what concrete ways can we be the root of that change.
Me, in my humble opinion and position, I’ve seen what Cuban society has become, and as a critic and an observer of society I think there are many things that need to be changed, not only in the government, but also in the personal and spiritual order. That’s the change I’m talking about. Yes, I think that many things have to change in the government, in the system, in the order of social justice.
I don’t think that free health care and education solves the problem of a country. There’s also individual freedom, and when I talk about this I’m referring to the individual freedom of each person to freely express their ideas, to raise them and defend them openly, even if they go against the established power… I can’t understand how we can build a nation with one sole opinion, which is also outdated I might add.
It’s necessary to think about everybody, because I’m convinced that my interests aren’t the same as those of someone in their late seventies, and I can’t conceive of that person deciding for me. I can’t accept it… I think about the question of opportunities, and when I speak to you of opportunities, I’m concerned a great deal about something that has infuriated me for a long time and that’s the question of racism in Cuba.
I was going to ask you about that, so I’m glad you brought the issue up. Do you feel that there’s racism in Cuba?
Yes, yes, yes, and the worst kind. Although I know it has roots that are sociocultural and connected to people’s mentalities…to the nature of the Cuban psyche…to all the history that we’ve had to cross to get to this point. It’s clear that this scourge was never eliminated from Cubans, and it’s clear that governmental power has not done much with regard to concrete actions.
Well, you know that for many people in the world we’re a model in terms of the racial question, and they would argue with you concerning the existence of racism in Cuba, especially when you say that it’s of the worst type. So, it’s necessary that you be a little more specific.
Well, the first thing I can tell you is that I’m absolutely willing to sit down and discuss this with any analyst or intellectual to demonstrate what I’m saying, because this isn’t a problem of intellectuality, verbal speech or aesthetics. It involves tangible facts. Let’s talk about representativeness: Where is the representation of blacks in the government?
There’s Esteban Lazo…
No, no, no. We’re talking about a society in which over 40 percent of the people are descendants of African peoples. How can you talk about Esteban Lazo [one of the five vice presidents], if there must be more than 600 people in power? You can count the number of blacks on one hand. In the mass media there’s no representation. I’m speaking of the media that influences and controls public opinion.
In the main economic positions, in the best paid jobs, those that everybody aspires to as a vision of success – where is the representation? I’m talking about the tourism sector – where’s the representativeness? But also, where is the black man’s representation in the main scientific entities, for example?
But couldn’t it be that black people haven’t aspired for those positions?
I don’t think that’s the point. It bothers me a lot when they tell me that black people aren’t interested in studying or anything else. It’s not true. And when you go into the historical facts you realize that the problem isn’t that black men don’t want to study and don’t want to make it. I think there’s a barrier that simply prevents that from happening. Verbal speech, the official line, says: “Everything is fine. What’s the problem?” But the reality of the matter says something else. All you have to do is walk around the block.
Have you personally experienced racial discrimination in Cuba?
Look, I’m going to share a story with you. I studied psychology in the municipal university system in my first courses. I graduated two years ago. When I went to sign up for that major I had short dreadlocks, not like now, but I had a beard and all. And suddenly, I didn’t know there were people from the examination board who didn’t understand; they looked at me, the beard and the dreadlocks as if to say I don’t understand anything. I don’t want to mention any names, but the matter is that this created a very tense situation there. I felt humiliated and I had a bad attitude because I felt the discrimination.
What was the situation that was created?
The problem is that I would have to involve a lot of people and I don’t believe that’s the objective. But there was a point in which I reacted one way because I felt the whole weight of discrimination. But I approach things more on the collective plane than at the personal level. I feel that discrimination is more collective in relation to people of African descent here.
I can tell you that I don’t consider myself a racist, but I am indeed a nationalist on that issue. I am a fanatical defender of my race, of my ideals, of my history, and if I die and I’m born again, I want to again be black… I believe that may people here have not been given the opportunity to know their history, and education plays a fundamental role in that. Education in a future Cuba has to expand more and cover important facts that are being erased and ignored. People are trying to minimize the historical role of such an important social group as African descendants in shaping the culture of this country and fundamentally in winning our nation’s independence.
At the end of your song “No más discriminacion” (No More Discrimination), on the CD “El Legado,” you mention a series of black figures who played an important role in the struggle for emancipation and for the civil rights of our race. It caught my attention that the last name on your list was Barack Obama. Do you think he deserves to be placed there along with Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, Malcolm X…, when in fact none of the promises he made in his electoral campaign have been fulfilled and he’s only a man of the American establishment?
When I included him on that list it was for a purely symbolic reason. He’s the first Black president of that country, and that was something that pleased me greatly. But also, if he hasn’t done what he promised, it’s because he hasn’t been able to, because in that country Babylon governs. He can’t struggle alone against an entire system, despite his good intentions and the reforms he wanted to make. They’ve haven’t let him do any more. I recorded that CD between the end of 2008 and the beginning of 2009, when he had just been elected president.
To be continued on Friday, Feb. 18th…