Music: Hip-Hopping In Havana

On a postcard-perfect spring evening, with Caribbean breezes rustling the palm trees under a full moon, dozens of foreign tourists take their seats at linen-covered tables beside the pool at Havana's Hotel Nacional. Each has shelled out $60--about six times a Cuban worker's average monthly wage--for dinner alfresco and a recital starring the king of the homegrown musical genre known as son, Compay Segundo. Dressed in a black suit and trademark felt hat, the 95-year-old superstar is helped onto the stage to join his eight-man band. Taking up his guitar, he strums classic tunes like "Esa Negra Linda" and lends his mellifluous bass harmony to a chubby lead singer young enough to be his great-grandson. "Echa!" he shouts at the end of each song.

Like the stately, five-star Hotel Nacional, Segundo is something of a national monument. As the smiling icon of the Buena Vista Social Club, he represents the Cuba that Fidel Castro's Ministry of Tourism wants to market to the outside world. And his crisply paced 75-minute set delivers the goods with a panache that is irresistible, especially after a few mojito cocktails.

A brisk seven-minute walk away, the seedy Las Vegas Cabaret offers up a slightly more subversive version of Cuban culture. In a neon-lit, smoke-filled back room, a young and almost exclusively black crowd of hip-hop performers and fans gathers on Friday afternoons for four hours of deafening rap rhythms. In a totalitarian regime where no independent judges, schools or television stations exist, some of the lyrics pointedly address taboo issues like police brutality and social inequality. "In the eyes of the police I'm nothing but a criminal," shouts the frontman of a group called Explosion Suprema. "Stop me on the street for no reason/Just to screw me over." The protest lyrics and the low-rent clientele at the Las Vegas Cabaret--which is not mentioned in any of the government tour guides--have almost nothing in common with the feel-good entertainment on display at Havana's top hotel. "This is the real Cuba," barks Junior Clan, a 24-year-old pioneer of the movement.

Hip-hop is relatively new to Cuba and owes its existence in part to an accident of geography. In the late 1990s, youths living in the squalid east Havana neighborhood of Alamar discovered rap via Miami radio stations. The angry message of U.S. rapmeisters like Tupac Shakur and Dr. Dre resonated with the black kids of Alamar, who regularly suffer discrimination despite the state's claims to have stamped out bigotry long ago. Three-man groups soon surfaced with names like Los Reyes de la Calle ("The Kings of the Street") and 100 Percent Original and gained a loyal following.

At first the abrasive, in-your-face musical import from the United States posed a quandary for Castro's cultural commissars. This is, after all, the same paranoid nomenklatura that once banned the Beatles from the government-run airwaves on the ground that "I Want to Hold Your Hand" might be a shrewdly concealed weapon of bourgeois imperialism. With time, however, the regime overcame its wariness and pronounced hip-hop to be what the cabinet minister in charge of arts and letters called "an authentic expression of Cuban culture." That seal of approval came after police raided a number of rap concerts that produced angry confrontations with neighborhood youths. The regime apparently recognized that hip-hop had become an unstoppable cultural movement and decided to channel it rather than reject it altogether.

The rise of hip-hop coincides with the emergence of other previously unheard voices. Cuba's once ignored internal opposition has expanded its ranks in recent years, and a motley coalition of political parties, human-rights activists, religious leaders and other dissidents has teamed up to collect more than 10,000 signatures of Cubans who want a plebiscite on 43 years of communist rule. Known as Project Varela, the initiative has no prayer of gaining approval by the rubber-stamp National Assembly, as required under the Constitution. But new movements are stirring beneath the surface of the totalitarian state, and these days any world leader committed to the promotion of democracy and human rights is practically obligated to meet with Cuba's top opposition leaders.

So far that category does not include any hip-hop artists or fans, who are among the country's tamer social critics. Many Cubans immersed in the hip-hop scene consider themselves loyal communists who are merely offering constructive criticism of the system through their art. "To be revolutionary in the context of the Cuban revolution requires one to be critical of the problems that surround us," says Ariel Fernandez, a 25-year-old hip-hop promoter affiliated with the state-sponsored Hermanos Saiz youth association. "We're trying to help the revolution in the sense of analyzing everything that is negative and searching for solutions to those problems." No rapper has openly dissed Fidel to date--and is unlikely to do so any time soon.

On some level, Castro's regime still wields control--even over rebellious music. To foreign visitors, this paradox soon becomes clear. Hip-hop performers dress and act authentically, from their jerky hand gestures and glowering snarls to their wraparound sunglasses, below-the-knees shorts and tight-fitting head scarves. But at the Las Vegas Cabaret there is something faintly phony and complacent about the whole scene. Around 8 p.m. the mainly white staff shuts off the loudspeakers and switches on the overhead lights, signaling an abrupt end to the dancing and drinking--though the sultry Havana night is still very young. Without a word of resistance, rappers and fans alike dutifully file out. The party is over, at least until next week.

Furthermore, some rappers--or at least their unofficial regulators--are trying to squelch their exposure in the Western media. Though Ariel Fernandez invited me to meet some local hip-hop groups at a recreation center in central Havana last week, when I showed up with a photographer he balked, refusing to allow their pictures to be taken. He told us and a Spanish TV documentary crew that the "artists" were fed up with foreign journalists who wrote stories and taped footage of their performances without offering any kind of remuneration.

Of course, it didn't help that a U.S. newspaper had recently published a story on Cuban hip-hop that struck Fernandez and presumably his bosses as "very counterrevolutionary" in content and tone. After all, this is still Castro's Cuba--and its benighted visions and convoluted logic will no doubt reign long after today's hip-hop artists are as old as Compay Segundo.