Malo Vista Social Club 

Two gritty Cuban hip-hop acts performing this weekend didn't get here without a fight.

San Francisco immigration attorney Bill Martinez spent last week sweating bullets. Blame it on the weather -- specifically, the political climate between the United States and Cuba. Unfortunately, that won't cool off anytime soon, but with a little help from the government, he won a small victory for cultural cross-pollination.

Martinez was awaiting entry approval for Cuban hip-hop groups Doble Filo and Obsesión. Scheduled to perform in Miami over Memorial Day weekend -- and at Berkeley's La Peña Cultural Center this Friday and Saturday -- the two acts finally made it through, but not without a massive amount of behind-the-scenes wrangling.

To give you an idea of how serious an issue it was, the rappers probably wouldn't have hit the mainland without the aid of New York Congressman Charles Rangel.

"The only way we can squeeze artists through the Department of Homeland Security and pierce their legal labyrinth these days is with congressional help," Martinez explains. "They can tap the insider coordinating all these approvals. It's been like that for about a year, with the implementation of the Enhanced Border Security Act."

One of a small handful of lawyers specializing in this type of visa procurement, Martinez finally got the green light for the rappers last week -- just 24 hours prior to their scheduled departure from Havana. The wild card: a May 20 Cuban Independence Day speech by President Bush.

Expected to announce rules limiting money sent to relatives from the United States, the elimination of direct flights, and a moratorium on people-to-people cultural and educational exchanges, Bush only denounced Cuban leader Fidel Castro's recent crackdown on dissidents.

Epic sighs of relief all around.

"Apparently, they decided to keep it low-profile and not take the splashy hard-line position," Martinez says. "Really, the only thing Bush has done is cut out people from the US going to Cuba, supposedly to deny them tourist dollars."

No doubt the melodrama won't end here: As one Bush administration official told Reuters, "We will determine what we do when it's convenient for us." But convenience is now on the side of culture, so there's even deeper meaning to this weekend, as Hip-Hop Sin Fronteras (Without Borders) welcomes Doble Filo and Obsesión as part of a two-day cross-cultural celebration.

The saga began in August 2002, when Bay Area spoken-word artist Paul Flores attended Cuba's eighth annual Havana Hip-Hop Festival. Representing La Peña, he joined a US cultural arts contingent, now named the International Hip-Hop Exchange, interested in starting a dialogue about hip-hop on the island nation.

The Exchange met with several Cuban MCs and also buttered up Abel Prieto, the Cuban minister of culture, expressing a desire to bring a few of these young raperos to the United States. Though it seemed like a long shot, this field trip is officially -- and finally -- on.

Cuban rap garnered notoriety two years ago when the group Orishas scored a top-selling album (A Lo Cubano). That success pointed to a thriving Cuban underground packed with young people with something to say.

"Cuban hip-hop is still about social justice issues and expressing discontent with economic or social situations," says Flores, now program director at Youth Speaks. "It's also very much about black roots and traditions. It isn't all bling-bling down there, if you know what I mean. Everybody thinks all there is in Cuba is salsa and jazz."

Arising from some of the most marginalized barrios in Havana, Doble Filo (Double Edge) and Obsesión "represent what youth in Cuba are doing today," Flores says. "I want to give people an idea of that. People have heard of bands like Orishas, but they're now living in Paris and removed from the day-to-day realities of Cuba. This stuff is the real shit about living in Alamar in the projects, and the racism they still face. Their criticism is blatant, harsh, and a perspective that hasn't been heard."

Armed with that perspective, Hip-Hop Sin Fronteras promises a rap summit with decidedly political overtones -- you can't help that when Cuba is involved. With a forty-plus-year US economic embargo still in place, the fest has a hell of a task in creating artistic rapport between artists and audience members who know almost nothing about each other.

Plenty of performers will show up to bridge the gap, however. Doble Filo and Obsesión will perform on both nights; "Sofrito" (a traditional Caribbean salad) is Friday's theme, curated by Brotha Los of Company of Prophets, the Oakland-based "five-dimensional" tag team that will perform along with the Loco Bloco percussion ensemble and DJ Treat U Nice.

Los is a twentysomething Afro-Chicano who has recorded and toured with Grammy-nominated Latin jazz pianist Omar Sosa. Though he has yet to visit the island himself, he hopes the raw, organic quality these Cubanos bring will help rap recover the essence that spawned it.

"In the last several years in the States, a lot of rap music has turned into mall music," Los says. "A lot of the lyrics that you hear from the corporate cats come out sounding like a shopping catalogue. For us, Company of Prophets, we recognize this started as a music of the people. It's being used in that way in Cuba. We get asked by rappers in Brazil, Ghana, and Japan, 'What's going on with hip-hop in the States?' They too are being force-fed by the Viacoms, Clear Channel, and the major five labels, which is only one idea of what hip-hop is."

"What we've interpreted," Flores explains, "is that Cuban hip-hop is at a stage of development similar to what we call the golden age of hip-hop that took place in the mid-1980s. Back then you had groups like Public Enemy, Eric B & Rakim, and more spiritual and politically oriented hip-hop that spoke about unity and political action. That's where these Cubanos are at right now. They still talk about partying, getting down, and how bad they are as rappers, but a lot of it is serious, about people dying trying to cross from Havana to Miami, and the class division that now exists in Cuba between those who have dollars and those that don't. Serious issues you wouldn't expect to hear in rhyme."

As for Saturday night, Da Shout, a 21-piece folkloric hip-hop music and dance ensemble, will appear along with the two marquee Cuban rappers, Bamuthi's one-person show "Word Becomes Flesh," Rico Pabon, and the Prophets of Rage.

Pabon, who also raps with the band O-Maya, is a hurricane of radicalism. Born in the South Bronx but now living in Richmond, he was instrumental in talking up these raperos after joining in a freestyle session with Obsesión -- a duo comprising MCs Alexy and Magia -- in a Brooklyn warehouse last year.

The duo boasts a definite melodic quality, but Magia is in a league all her own. As the pioneer female MC who paved the way for the female trio Instinto, she's describes the plight of young Cuban women with a tremendously dynamic performance style.

"This sister blows my mind!" Pabon said in a recent interview pumping up the Doble Fila/Obsesión three-city tour (it's also hitting NYC). "She rhymes so on point and is serious about her art. All these groups bring so much fire, but to me, seeing a female MC who is like a volcano of explosive, powerful words -- we got to give her props. We're trying to connect with them so that these walls can get broken down.

"We can't think that keeping out some Cuban rappers is a small thing," he added. "It's a serious thing. It's not about the one show, but about the connections they will make while they are here."

On that subject, the Cuban government is just as worried. Since the phenomenal success of Ry Cooder's Buena Vista Social Club, the Cuban music industry has morphed into a multimillion-dollar industry, but not without a price: Defections by touring musicians are now commonplace. But for now, the borders have crumbled slightly, if just for this weekend. And what people will experience is not eightysomething musicians singing nostalgically about a bygone golden age, but instead young rappers describing the realities of Cuban youth -- a life most US tourists will never get to see.

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