HAVANA TIMES, March 15 — It’s a confirmed fact that what someone doesn’t want us to see and hear is precisely what we want to see and hear; moreover, we’ll inevitably find a way to do it.
On Thursday, February 25, as part of a showing of the works of new film directors, the documentary “Revolution” directed by Maykel Pedrero and focusing on the rap group Los Aldeanos premiered simultaneously in two theaters. You might be as astonished as I was to hear this, considering that Los Aldeanos are censored.
If I added that the two theaters were full to capacity and that many people were unable to enter due to lack of room, perhaps you’d think that all these people were fans of this group, or at least of rap music.
If I told you in addition that three days later this very group would give a concert in San Nicolas, two hours from the capital, together with the group Patriotic Squadron; that long before 2:00 p.m. the park at the corner of H and 21 in the Vedado neighborhood, from which the one and only bus was going to leave for the site, was full of people; that the vehicle left at 3 p.m. with people packed inside like pressed meat, happy to have found even the tiniest space to stand in rather than be left outside like many others who were unable to get into the bus; and that among the group left out was I, you’d think that I adore The Aldeanos. But up until that moment I had only heard one of their songs: “Long Live Free Cuba.”
Many of the people who had the good luck of seeing the documentary and who greatly enjoyed it, don’t like rap, in fact can’t even stand to listen to it for more than half an hour. Many of the people who pass CDs of Los Aldeanos from hand to hand, or from flash memory to flash memory – because these recordings aren’t produced by the State’s EGREM or by Colibri Studios or any of the other official studios in the country, nor are they sold in the stores – don’t even know what Hip Hop culture is. But you have to hear Los Aldeanos.
The songs of Los Aldeanos reflect our reality in a very raw and direct way. In their lyrics, you’ll find the things that everybody knows and no one says, those things that we only talk about in a safe place: in our homes, with the doors closed to our neighbors, or among trusted friends, especially if they don’t belong to the Party. Even so, we speak of these things with fear.
We do so despite the knowledge that we’re not saying anything that’s not certain. In some of these songs there’s more real truth than in our official press. There is our dissent, our powerlessness. Listening to Los Aldeanos provides an escape valve. And almost all of us need this escape valve, whether or not we like rap music.
Nonetheless, although Los Aldeanos are the most visible group, especially at the international level, they’re not the only rap group in our country. Nor are they the only ones who are strongly critical of our reality, nor the only ones who receive no or nearly no publicity on the radio or the television, nor the only ones who have to produce their recordings in studios like Royal 70, belonging to Papa Humbertico. It’s a given that not even those who belong to the Cuban Rap Agency have had a record produced by the national recording companies. Telling the truth has its price.
In another documentary “Hip Hop Breathes” of Raspadura Productions, made by a team of directors which includes Aldo (one of Los Aldeanos), a female functionary from the [State-run] Musical Recording Studios (EGREM), opens by clarifying that EGREM is a State and a Revolutionary institution. She then affirms: “Here people work and charge in national currency. But if they come to record, the hour costs 60 CUCs. Where did they get the money from? From drugs, or by killing someone?”
I wonder if singers from other music genres who go to the Studios to record are questioned in the same way. Later on, the functionary is more explicit in saying that they don’t want any suggestion of ideas that affect the principles of our leaders, of the Commander in Chief or of the life we’re living, but that groups can protest about other things.
In other words, freedom of artistic expression is also rationed. There’s an established quota, a line that can’t be crossed and for a long time Cuban Hip hop has been on the other side of this line. Some could reproach the constant aggression, the implicit violence, the unnecessary bad language (I join them); music specialists could also criticize a certain poverty of rhythm.
I could well believe that they are speaking of Reggaeton music. But this, in contrast to rap, is on the radio and television at all hours. And you don’t need bad words to leave Rap far behind in terms of vulgarity. But it hasn’t occurred to anyone to censor Reggaeton, or if it has occurred to someone they were ignored.
Reggaeton is even present in children’s parties. Adults find it amusing to watch their sons and daughters dance to this rhythm, with movements that beyond just alluding to sex are explicitly sexual. Women shake their bodies while listening to songs that treat them as sexual objects, hunks of flesh to be enjoyed. But that’s fine, as long as the songs don’t get into the realities of the country and above all of our leaders.
But why the boom in Los Aldeanos, who stand out so strikingly within the current Cuban Hip Hop movement? Some consider it a phenomenon that goes well beyond the cultural and that has nothing to do with their artistic quality. Nevertheless, in the documentary “Revolution” recognized Cuban artists such as Pablo Milanés and X Alfonso declare themselves to be admirers of their work.
One thing certain is that the Cuban rappers have demonstrated, through the independent production of their records, that it’s possible to break off from the State institutions and make music, even building a name for themselves outside of these channels. Los Aldeanos have gone well beyond that, demonstrating that it’s possible to become known and to commercialize their music on an international level, beyond the margins of the State institutions.
In fact, Melisa Riviere, a US citizen well connected to the Cuban underground Hip Hop movement for some years and who was also interviewed in the documentary “Hip Hop Breathes,” questions in “Revolution” whether Los Aldeanos can still be considered underground.
There’s no doubt that the censorship that aimed to silence them has ended by playing an important role in their careers; to the point where I have come to wonder these days what would become of Los Aldeanos without censorship. It would be difficult to speculate.
We’ve seen the first result with the projection of the documentary in two theaters at once, something that surprised many, including myself. Some people think it was a strategic action on the part of the censors; others that they had no other choice but to project the documentary, because to do the opposite would have been worse.
Perhaps if the public had the opportunity of listening to all the songs of Los Aldeanos on the radio and on television, or to buy their CDs in the stores – and not only theirs but those of all the underground Cuban Hip Hop – they would be more demanding about the lyrics.
Once the fascination for the forbidden was lost, perhaps they would detect certain contradictions in what the groups are saying. It could be that they really need more insight and maturity in their criticism. Higher expectations on the part of the public could only have a positive effect on Cuban Hip Hop.
But that’s only one of the things that could happen. As I said before, it would be difficult to speculate about what would happen to The Villagers without censorship. Just as it would be too optimistic to expect such censorship to disappear, although I’d like to be wrong about that.
At any rate, “Revolution”, the documentary about Los Aldeanos, received three awards at the showing of works by new film directors: Best Editing, Best Direction and Best Documentary. I don’t know if the movie theaters in the country will show it again, but just in case, it’s already circulating in the street, from flash memory to flash memory and from CD to CD.