HAVANA TIMES – US singer and songwriter Norah Jones said she was very excited to announce that she’ll be performing two concerts in Cuba in February 2024. The Cuban Foreign Ministry immediately shared the singer’s excitement.
It’s no trivial matter. Norah Jones isn’t a stranger. Over the course of her career, she has won nine Grammys and sold over 50 million albums. Billboard considers her one of the ten best jazz artists in the noughties and one of the top 60 musicians in the world over the same period. Norah Jones is a world-class artist, whose presence in Cuba will turn hundreds of spotlights onto Havana. The Cuban Government has a great skill for using these spotlights to paint a picture of the country to the world that only exists on the government’s news program.
That said, the Foreign Ministry’s joy isn’t unfounded.
Even though the Communist Party might use Norah Jones’ trip for propaganda purposes, it’s important to recognize the singer’s right to visit the country, and anyone else who wishes to visit can do so because it’s their right to come and enjoy it. However, at the same time, it’s also worth pointing out that Cubans criticizing the artist don’t necessarily hate her, nor do they have any less right to flag the dangers associated with her visit.
Norah Jones isn’t going to Havana just to perform a couple of concerts. An activity plan has been drawn out that includes her teaching classes to students at the University of Arts of Cuba (ISA), for example. Norah can’t enter the ISA (much less teach a class) without the Cuban Government’s sign off. Does anyone doubt the Cuban regime won’t use this opportunity to show the world the quality of its artistic education and the lengths it goes to to keep schools running despite the “blockade” that Norah Jones has decided to break?
It’s very likely nobody has any doubts.
Is the message they might fabricate with propaganda about Norah Jones’ visit a reason to oppose her visit? No. Neither Norah Jones or anyone else should be stopped from visiting and sharing their knowledge with students at a school in Cuba. But Norah Jones does have a responsibility to prevent her visit from being used to export and amplify the image of a country that doesn’t exist. The country Norah will visit isn’t the country the Government will show her. The country that Norah will visit is one where education is receiving less and less resources, where classroom walls are caving in on top of children’s heads, and where mothers have no idea what food they can send their children to school with.
On top of all of these arguments, Cuba is a country governed by a bureaucracy that doesn’t get on with dissidence. A bureaucracy that expelled Professor Anamely Ramos from the institute where Norah Jones will teach a class. A teacher who also is being denied the right to return to the country where she was born and the country Norah says she is excited to visit.
Norah doesn’t have to forego her visit to ISA, but it’s also not too much to ask for her to know that the Government that has expressed its own excitement at her visit, has sanctioned and then expelled Abel Lezcay from ISA, a music student who took to the streets on July 11, 2021, to exercise the right that the singer defends in some of her more famous songs: the right to protest. It’s not too much for her to know that the Government is keeping anti-establishment artists in jail, such as Luis Manuel Otero and Maykel Castillo (who has also won a Grammy like Jones).
Norah Jones doesn’t have to forego her visit to Cuba or ISA at the risk Cuba’s propaganda apparatus will use her visit to serve the Communist Party’s own interests. But Norah Jones should have enough responsibility – if she’s interested – to prevent her image and actions from being used as propoganda stunts.
How can Norah stop her image being used for political reasons? There’s no simple answer. Perhaps the simplest solution is what many Cubans have offered on social media: don’t travel to Cuba, don’t be subjected to the influence of an apparatus you can’t control. The other has to do with informing herself and avoiding interactions and exposing herself to a propaganda apparatus that will bleed the presence of a world-class artist in Cuba to death.
This is why it’s important to make Norah aware of the real situation in Cuba. This is why it’s important that hundreds of Cubans have decided to take to social media. What other way can Norah make an informed decision?
Nevertheless, there’s an argument amidst the debate regarding Norah Jones’ visit that has been used to defend the singer’s right to visit the island and attempts to depoliticize the discussion. The argument is that Norah Jones is coming to interact with the Cuban people, to sing to the people who love her music.
Norah Jones can say what she wants and Cubans supporting her tour can too. But it’s clear that Norah Jones isn’t coming to Cuba to interact with the Cuban people. Norah isn’t coming to Cuba to perform a public concert like Air Supply or the Rolling Stones did. Norah is coming to Cuba to perform two concerts which, according to the website created to promote the tour, will be “private” and take place in a small theater.
Two concerts that form part of a holiday package designed for middle-class US citizens. A holiday package that has nothing to do with an average Cuban’s purchasing power. Norah isn’t just going to hug the Cubans who like her music, Norah is going to Cuba to take with her all of the US citizens who want to pay a four-day holiday package in a luxury hotel (Grand Aston) that includes the ticket to her two concerts.
It’s still not been announced whether tickets will be sold to Cubans for Norah’s concert at the Marti Theater. But the reality is that up until now, there’s only been the indication that those with tickets guaranteed are people who can pay a holiday package that is as expensive as US $3,500 – $8,600.
In any case, I hope that tickets will be sold to Cubans who are avid to listen to Norah. However, it’s very likely there will only be a limited number. Capacity will depend on the number of seats in the Marti Theater that remain available after the holiday package deal ends. A number that won’t be too high, meanwhile the theater’s capacity is no more than 750 people.
Norah is going to Cuba to make money for herself and for those who manage her and will benefit from her trip. It’s not a cultural matter, it’s all about finances and political benefits.
I recognize and respect Norah Jone’s right to go anywhere she pleases to sing whatever she likes. I know her music and I know that she is sensitive to political and social rights. The chorus of her song “Flipside” goes: “I can’t stand when you tell me to get back/ If we’re all free, then why does it seem we can’t just be?”
The verses summarize many Cubans’ feelings who find themselves forced to remind Norah that people can’t “simply” be free in the place she’s decided to go.