Rappin' on Castro's Payroll 

Up-and-coming Cuban rappers valiantly battle cultural repression (and their moms).

Imagine a blend of Buena Vista Social Club, Rockers, Wild Style, Style Wars, and 8 Mile -- but with its own wholly unique flavor. Cuban Hip Hop All Stars, a new DVD release on Raptivism, comes off as precisely that. A semidocumentary that's more fact than fiction, the ninety-minute flick, directed by Joshua Bee Alafia, tells an endearingly poignant story about an underground subculture and the highly interesting characters who live in it.

The film reprises many of the same locations -- and even uses some of the same people -- as in Alafia's award-winning Cubamor (which screened locally at the 2003 SF Black Film Festival and the Hip Hop Film Festival), But while that flick was a love story about a stranger's infatuation with a foreign land, its culture, and its people, Cuban Hip Hop (which premiered Sunday night at the 2004 SFBFF) focuses on young rappers in Havana's burgeoning hip-hop scene -- quite an eye-opening perspective.

I'll show you the steps to culture with new songs and excellent notions, raps a smiling Havana MC, illustrating both the differences and similarities between Cuban and American rap. On one hand, there's a pure innocence in that statement -- it suggests an untainted appreciation of the artform, reminiscent of the sentiment prevalent during hip-hop's precorporate period, when it remained a strictly underground culture. Obviously, rap in America isn't just about that culture any longer; these days, it's more about how many units are sold and whether your project's put on hold, to paraphrase dead prez.

But hip-hop culture is bigger than America these days -- it has taken on a global significance even during its steady dilution in its country of origin. Still, it's quite revealing to find that Cuban MCs not only live and breathe hip-hop, but have adapted it so easily into their own indigenous rhythmic and oral tradiciones.

As Alafia relates over the phone from New York, Cuban rappers are the products of a "griot culture," which explains the parallels to American hip-hop. He points out that the syncopated beats of Cuban salsa and son -- grounded in 6/8 meter -- flow naturally into hip-hop cadences. Moreover, the strong African influence in both Cuban and black American music puts heavy emphasis on percussion and drums. And, as the director and part-time ethnomusicologist notes, Cuban rumba often has a highly poetic storytelling aspect, which lends itself easily to rap.

Cuban Hip Hop intersperses interviews, freestyle sessions, and performance segments with vignettes (scripted, though based on real-life situations) that shed light on what these artists' everyday lives are like. In one scene, a rapper is told on-camera by his girlfriend that she's pregnant. His (lame, but typical) response is to deny it, then meet his homies in the street to compose a spontaneous rhyme about why she's tripping. Elsewhere, another MC soliloquizes to the camera about his dreams and ambitions in the music business. His fanciful notions are rudely interrupted by his mother, who wonders loudly why he won't get a real job, then continues to lament her son's career choices even after he walks out of their modest house in a huff.

It's clear that hip-hop means a lot to these kids -- in some instances, it's all they have. Alafia explains that the realities of living in a socialist society insure "there's no rapping about Bentleys": Most rap artists in Cuba, even reasonably successful ones, don't own cars at all. Yet even if they don't fantasize in their rhymes about things they can't afford, they still yearn for a better life than the one they have now.

Although most of the artists depicted in the movie are poor and come from ghetto-like environments, surprisingly, there isn't an overabundance of crime or gangsta posturing in the Havana hip-hop scene. As Alafia explains, "You do life in jail for a handgun in Cuba." So rather than rebel violently against Castro's rule, Cuban MCs are "committed to using hip-hop as a means of social change," Alafia continues. "What we consider backpack hip-hop and conscious rap is the shit over there," he adds, noting that artists such as Blackstar, Common, and dead prez have all performed at Havana's annual Black August festival.

But although Cuban Hip Hop makes clear that the Cuban scene isn't lacking for talent, that talent does lack sufficient outlets: Plenty of Cuban labels put out salsa music, but a label dedicated to rap hasn't materialized yet. Furthermore, while Orishas -- Cuban hip-hoppers who scored a 2003 Latin Grammy for their Emigrante album -- have gained international recognition, they had to move from Havana to Paris (home of their label) to do it.

Nevertheless, doors are finally opening for the embargoed island's hungry hip-hoppers. Alafia notes that in 2000, none other than Harry Belafonte took an interest in Cuban rap, using his celebrity to personally lobby Fidel on behalf of the native hip-hop community. Although Castro, being a dictator and all, initially had reservations about sanctioning or encouraging that kind of free speech, after Belafonte's insistence, "he realized it's more dangerous to try to suppress it," Alafia explains.

As a result, in the past few years, Cuban artists who meet the criteria of full-time rappers have benefited from a government-sponsored cultural arts program. Yes, in Cuba, you can get paid a monthly salary by the government to rap -- just don't expect to be blingin' anytime soon. "It's a wage job," Alafia says, adding that artists must meet a monthly performance quota to qualify.

Alafia gives big props to Raptivism for distributing Cuban Hip Hop, which can only increase awareness of hip-hop culture existing outside the fifty states. The NY-based label -- also home to the East Bay's Zion-I -- exists "on the vanguard of trying to get conscious hip-hop out," he says. Unlike other US companies marketing hip-hop culture and rap music mainly for economic reasons, he praises Raptivism for "doing it purely out of love."

For example, most hip-hop docs are generally hyped for their entertainment value and nothing else. But Raptivism had Alafia making appearances at elementary schools. He says the kids responded so well to what they were seeing that the teacher halted the scheduled lesson and declared, "We're gonna concentrate on hip-hop and Cuba right now." Cuban Hip Hop All Stars will compel you to do the same.

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