Rap in Cuba: Ten Steps Towards Progress

By Mauricio Mendoza

The picture is from the Pa Abajo event, organized by the official Cuban Rap Agency, free with an audience of no more than sixty.

HAVANA TIMES – What was once a united movement with a large following has now become a small, almost non-existent group. What happened to the golden age of rap that so many people talk about and hold dear in their hearts? 

It’s also true that the Ministry of Culture and the country’s domestic policies have played their part in bringing Cuban Rap to the state of crisis it currently finds itself in. Nevertheless, I ask that we detach ourselves from outside factors and take a look on the inside first. The following are a series of points that might be great steps forward if they are resolved:

First step

The first thing that a person needs to have the gift to be able to communicate, to invite reflection and be a voice for the struggle, is an intellectual base and training. Taking a global view, there is a great lack of general culture among MCs and this can be seen in their songs, which digress a lot of the time and don’t communicate anything concrete.

Cuban rappers live the artist lifestyle, but they don’t put in the essential study time, work and sacrifice that a percussionist or actor does. Depending on the art form, the artist needs to know as many subjects as possible, so they can nourish themselves with ideas and create their own art.

Rappers are trailing behind, as there are very few who know about literature, film, visual arts, philosophy and a countless number of other things that somebody who delves in these intellectual places needs, to be up-to-date with what’s going on in the world today. While there are quite a few who have real talent, they lack the tools needed to communicate and reach a large audience. 

If the pools of knowledge they drink from are small (and to top it all off, many of them drink from the same pool), in the end, there is a great homogeneity because of a lack of vision and self-training. Most of them follow the same standard (generally that of other Cuban or Latin American rappers), therefore, they don’t create anything original or native. 

Second step

Rappers are like actors. All of their work needs to be synchrony for their work to be truly believable. Actors train themselves physically: voice, diction, body language, acting, etc. Your ordinary MC thinks their inherent talent is enough, and some of them even recognize these shortcomings. Rappers don’t need to spend five years studying at ISA (University of Arts of Cuba), but some theater classes wouldn’t do any harm.

Third step

How can you be a musician, without knowing anything about music? MCs need to know at least something about music theory, which could be really helpful to give them a better finishing touch to their work and even perform it like they really want to. Plus, knowing as many musical genres they can out there and becoming versatile as a result is only a good thing. Relationships and exchanges with other music and artistic areas could also be of great help.

Fourth step

Dedicating yourself to the arts is hard anywhere in the world and this world is driven by money; that’s reality, whether we like it or not. It takes time, expertise and means to produce something good.

Rappers need to understand that in order to get a great track out of a recording studio, they need the right technology and a producer who knows what they’re doing, which means paying and investing in what they create which can feed them in the future. There are many albums with good songs, but the audio leaves a lot to be desired. In this world of so much artistic competition, quality needs to be at the top of the game.

Fifth step

Appearance is key when it comes to connecting with people. With society’s advances, it’s important to keep a handle of visual codes.

You have to make an effort to create good audiovisual material, photo galleries and give your music an aesthetic. People need to know and identify with the person transmitting their art.

Sixth step

Once the above steps have been completed. Marketing and promotion are important elements. What good is it to have good work sitting around on a computer?

Social media and the Internet are the means for getting your work out there. Internet access is complicated in Cuba, but there is some access, which didn’t exist 10 years ago.

Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, WhatsApp and other platforms are ways for every artist to get their songs out there and to gain followers, both in and outside Cuba. Using these platforms well can bring very positive outcomes.

Seventh step

Today, most rap events are pitiful because of the lack of organization that goes into them. Many organizers lack the methodology and expertise needed to organize an event. In some places, the microphone is passed on to artists who don’t have the caliber to give a good show.

New talents need to be given an opportunity to be seen, but they need to earn this time in the spotlight, so we need someone who judges artists, without censoring them, so that the audience watching comes back with more viewers.

Eighth step

Everybody knows that Cuban institutions help when it suits them. In short, they aren’t the alternative to get ahead of the game. However, there are very effective ways to get a project off the ground.

Crowdfunding app is a way to get some funding for a project. Other artistic areas have done it in Cuba and it’s proven to be fruitful. It’s just a matter of putting in a lot of work and professionalism.

Ninth step

Lots of things are needed to make something artistic successful, and one person can’t do all of this alone as well as create. Working groups need to be formed. The artist needs to at least have a person (producer) who is responsible for taking care of social media, marketing, looking for performance venues, etc.

Tenth step

The most important thing to get something off the ground though, is energy and sacrifice. Working is the solution. A creator needs to always be creating and looking for ideas to create. Some people have more talent, others have less, some are lucky, some people are even talented and lucky, but the ones who really manage to get somewhere, are the ones who make a great effort and work hard.