A Cuba Hip-Hop Shell Game

By Amrit 

Photo: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

HAVANA TIMES, August 27 —The seventh edition of “Rap Symposium” just concluded, with its activities having taken place at the Plaza Cultural Center and the Riviera Cinema.

The majority of people still don’t know it (and those who know keep quiet), but the symposium is the official consequence of what had been the highly acclaimed Alamar Rap Festival.

That event, originated and produced by Group One, had packed the Alamar amphitheater in 1996 and 2000, at least before the Asociacion Hermanos Saiz (AHS) officially intervened to “take over the responsibilities for it.”

Between that organization’s “structuring” of what had been a spontaneous fiesta — as well as the imposition of a sudden change in the date (which undoubtedly must have disoriented many of the event’s followers) — that AHS intervention resulted in the gradual breakup of the festival

I’ve seen this same “Three-card Monte” tactic employed with respect to TV when the authorities want to eliminate a program.  This is what happened with “24 por secundo,” a series about the cinema that was hosted by critic Enrique Colina.

Running a veritable shell game, they changed the schedule so many times that it was almost impossible to keep up with the program.  The situation reached the point that few people noticed when it was finally pulled off the air.

In this same way, the Alamar rap event — after having suffered a name change and a change of venue — was quietly and efficiently omitted from history.

The recent symposium (sponsored by the Agencia Cubana de Rap) presented workshops, conferences and concerts.  Due to personal complications, I could only attend the last concert, so I won’t speak about what was told to me – only what I myself saw.

The Riviera Cinema, located right on calle 23 (in the heart of the Vedado district) wasn’t completely filled, though there was an audio system cranked up outside blasting contagious rhythms of Cuban and foreign rap to attract the youth of the capital.

Inside, the lighting design on stage was at least decent, although not very original.  On the enormous screen an ad announcing the seventh edition of the symposium reappeared over and over again, becoming so monotonous that it was impossible to look at it more for than a few seconds.  I thought about how such little effort had been put into this attempt to enrich the show.

When the rap dancers came on, I’m not sure but I had the sensation that between the background music and the turntable, they had very little freedom to display their own dancing, something that seemed to limit the exhibition.

The first rapper proved to be a promising kick off.  He was a young guy from Santiago de Cuba who mixed rap lines with reggae rhythms, immediately stirring the audience’s complicity with his charisma.

Notwithstanding, the concert generally suffered from a lack of penetrating ideas and an overabundance of the boastful one-upmanship that tends to cheapen rap.

Nor did the duo Ruta 11, from the Alamar projects, contribute much conceptually.  There was only the attractiveness of their fusion of rap and R & B, along with lead singer Alejandro’s voice – unusual in the rap context and showing great potential.

We enjoyed two exceptions however.  First was David d’Omni, who in his songs invited us to challenge institutional and social barriers, not to conspire with political manipulation and to recognize that true significance lies not in the human body.

Then too there was “Brebaje Man” (Etian), also from Alamar, who presented his latest CD.  He captured the audience’s instantaneous agreement for his message that pointed to breaking with certain common notions (for example, he advocated a more pluralistic vision of the Revolutionary National Police).  He closed the show with authentic grace and power.

But the ending left me with a certain sadness.  I thought that despite this being the seventh year of the event, the technical resources employed were minimal and that what really gave life and force to the show were the artists and the public.  And it was indeed a grateful and fervent public that had made possible the Festival de rap, La Capital de la Moña, Puños Arriba…

So, eleven years since the expropriation of the festival — when they told Group One that the event exceeded its resources and therefore the official institution had to take it over — what have they done with it?   They’ve introduced control, and clearly a little more (they do indeed have all the resources for that), but only just enough so that it can’t be said that nothing’s done for hip hop in Cuba.