“Hip Hop Habana from the Reel” In The Minneapolis Liberator. vol 4.4. Mpls. MN.
“Hip Hop Habana from the Reel” In The Minneapolis Liberator. vol 4.4. Mpls. MN.
By Melisa Rivière, 2005
‘Los Pelos’ Music Video Shoot Day One:
Cuba is a beautiful country of ironies. The small island in the Caribbean started the Twentieth Century as an American protectorate, and today, it is the only nation in the world with whom the U.S. State Department refuses to have diplomatic relations. The island spent decades under the mandate of puppet presidents devoted to private enterprises, yet today since Fidel Castro is the only remaining nation left where there is no room for capitalist individualism. It went from having one of the widest divides from rich to poor to having an egalitarian classless society. From being a primarily agrarian population with a majority of uneducated peasantry to being one of the most sophisticated nations with the smallest illiteracy rate on Earth. And it went from being a playground of sun, sin and sex for American tourists to a paradise that United States citizens cannot legally visit.
I produce music videos for Cuban rappers in solidarity with the hip hop movement. This video production started much the same as all the other ones; buying a new boom box to replace the previous ones which have been sold, stolen, given away or simply didn’t resist the time span between my trips. Locating and purchasing batteries is the next challenge. Batteries could be a metaphor for most other household products. They can be purchased either in dollars or pesos and are sold primarily in open packaged singles, which gives them a curiously short life span. The peso runs about twenty-six to the dollar. The average monthly income is about one thousand pesos, equivalent to US$40. The only place I find batteries at US$3 each is at the Habana Libre (Free Habana) previously the Habana Hilton in pre-revolutionary Cuba. Only the shops in the tourist hotels have everything Cuba can offer and anything a foreigner might need.
The dual economy caters to a separation of not only monetary units but also of social relationships that inevitably rely on economic exchanges. The fall of the Soviet Union, Cuba’s primary trading partner since the inception of the revolution, created an economic contraction called the ‘special period’ in the early 1990’s. Cuba turned to the economic security offered by tourism and remittances. Both of which entail an influx of dollars that today begin to etch class lines amongst an ideologically egalitarian society. Ironically, tourism caters to Europeans not Cubans, and remittances come mostly from families in Miami whose underlying intentions are to invest in getting their relatives out of the country.
Yelandy Blaya, Obsesión’s musical producer met up with me early in the day to begin our journey out of Havana to Regla, the neighboring town across the bay. The quickest way there is by ferry. Although speedy it has many complications. Security on the ferry is very tight due to the many attempts to hijack it towards international waters. Not even open bottles of water are permitted on board in case they may hold any combustible that could extend the ferry’s traveling distance. This isn’t in vain, since most Cuban’s do not want to leave the island yet they are frightened by hijackers who do.
As expected neither the boom box, nor the camera passed the ferry’s security personnel. We opted for the long bus ride to Regla but after waiting for too many loaded busses to pass by at beyond optimum capacity without stopping, Yelandy hailed a car. Not one of the chrome dipped 1957 Chevy relics Cuba is famous for, but rather a small red four door Russian Lada from the mid eighties. An elder woman and a mother with a small child waiting at the bus stop jumped in the car with us, a little tight, but spacious by Cuban standards.
We arrive across the bay from Havana to Magia López and Alexey Rodríguez’s house. They are Obsesión, a married couple who make up one of the leading rap groups in Cuba. Obsesión has a huge repertoire of songs to select from for their video. Not only is their trajectory almost a decade old they have also gained local, national and international recognition. They are the co-founders of La Fabri K (The Factory), a project that began as a dual rap group entourage with Doble Filo and today has developed into a community project to ferment hip hop throughout Cuba via conferences, multi-media projects and youth outreach. Nonetheless this will be their first music video. We chose the song ‘Los Pelos,’ which means ‘The Hairs.’
The topic is not out of the ordinary for Cuban rap. Take for example groups such as Anónimo Consejo who rap about the Afro diasporic struggle, family dilemmas, relationships between races, and emigration. Or take Las Krudas who speak to issues of homosexuality and feminism and Doble Filo with a collection of songs about wages in a dollar driven economy. Even Obsesión’s previous recordings about prostitution, everyday necessities in their neighborhoods, and the ideals of the revolution are standards for Cuban rap themes. A song about highlighting the beauty of black hair is nowhere out of place.
There is a hold up. ‘Los Pelos’ isn’t recorded yet, and I am not convinced that we have time to mix and master the song as well as shoot the video.
‘Los Pelos’ Music Video Shoot Day Two:
Today we filmed hair braiding. Most Cuban women tend to use a hair relaxer to straighten their hair and most men wear their hair in braids. It is somewhat new, and to the dismay of the older generation, that the youth are beginning to wear their hair out. We decide to take shots of hair being braided in order to later reverse the recording and present it in the video as the releasing of the confined hair.
Once we finished the shoot we stopped at the local pizza house. Pizza is the standard street food you can purchase in pesos. It is cooked in private homes and sold out of the windows. These unique spots cater mostly to Cubans only because most foreigners can’t distinguish a window with a potential pizza menu from any other home.
As we eat Yelandy, Magia, Alexey and myself talk about the four elements of hip hop (rap, break dance, turntablism and graffiti art) within Cuba’s revolution. Hip hop, which developed in New York City in the 1970’s is younger than the U.S. embargo on Cuba. Therefore, it is truly a manifestation from within the revolution without a direct link to its birthplace. The rap music here represents a critique of Cuban society concurrent to faith in the revolutionary ideals. Its messages look to the future transitions the revolution must endure while balancing out the rapprochement and rejection from the US. As we lick up our grease coated fingers, we wrap up our conversation and come to realize the implications of Alexey wearing his ‘Bush: International Terrorist’ t-shirt. Being as how it may cause limitations for airplay on international television, except for close ups of braiding hair, all the scenes from today are useless.
‘Los Pelos’ Music Video Shoot Day Three:
We had to cancel filming today because I couldn’t charge the camera batteries since electricity has not come in for the last two days. Regardless, we met to plan on how to best use the few days we have left. There is a part of the song where Magia states: “Y veo al caminar un mar de tiendas que no venden muñecas negras, pero esa es otra historia que contar.” (As I walk down the streets I notice a sea of stores that don’t sell black dolls, but that’s another story). We want to visually express these lyrics since they are so important in communicating the song as it confronts the Cuban reality of race. The only black dolls in the stores are the traditional afro-folkloric ones that are either playing conga drums, dressed as religious figures of Santeria or carrying fruit baskets.
Afro-Cubanismo offers a mixed racial identity for the Cuban nation. Miscegenation is still seen as a whitening process and race remains merely an underlying theme in contemporary social politics. Cuba’s allegiance with the liberation struggles of Africa, particularly Angola and the Congo, have enforced African identity within and amongst the younger generation of the revolution. And if there is any living non-Cuban figure on the island viewed as a hero it is Nelson Mandela. Yet the underlying themes of an egalitarian society have taken their toll on the lack of images, politics and recognition of race relations. As opposed to the American one-drop theory, in Cuba there are varying degrees of race referred to as negro, mestizo, mulato, trigueño, or jabao depending on one’s scale of blackness. Yet little attention has been given to the issue within mainstream images, particularly on television, which is where we aim to get our video played.
We don’t want to compromise the possible airplay of the video. Instead we have opted to make a scene where as Magia says her lines she throws a black doll at the camera in a manner of expressing ‘I have mine, do you have yours?’ We spent the evening making phone calls trying to locate a black doll for our ‘implicit’ shot.
When I got home there was electricity and water. It has been a while since we had water. Usually it comes in for six hours every three days, but the last day it was our turn for water it simply didn’t come in and when it skips a day its uncertain as to when it might. I plugged in the camera to charge the battery and spent the last couple hours filling tanks and buckets. After a few days one has to choose very carefully how to use the remaining water.
‘Los Pelos’ Music Video Shoot Day Four
We set out to film along Calle Obispo, the main shopping thoroughfare. Yes, shops, tons of them, selling brands from Adidas to Sony most of them in US dollars in the last nation left hoisting the communist flag. Again lending itself to the irony of a dual economy. All the toyshops had dolls, but they were all white, blond, and none were sold in pesos. I am beginning to get worried that all we have is scrap shots, the song hasn’t been recorded yet and there is no black doll to be found.
‘Los Pelos’ Music Video Shoot Day Five
Today was a great day for filming; the weather was perfect and the sunshine made the streets look as colorful on film as they really are. So often filmmakers accentuate the grainy film effects or pastel lighting to make Cuba look like a relic of the past. This video needs to be different, to come through in brighter color than normal. It needs to show that contemporary Cuba is very alive, bright and colorful.
The batteries for the boom box went out right at the beginning of today’s shoot. Immediately the neighborhood residents came out to help us offering their extension cords. And as we filmed the scenes of Magia and Alexey walking down the dirt paths we alternated the plug for the boom box from house to house.
Something about this part of Regla reminded me of the many days spent filming the Anónimo Consejo video for ‘La Ley 5566’ a half dozen miles east of Havana in Alamar. Where Ernest Hemingway was inspired to write The Old Man and the Sea is where the equivalent of the Cuban South Bronx begins. This metropolitan Soviet style district is considered the cradle of Cuban hip hop. Alamar is a housing project made up of hundreds of six-story cement buildings in square rows containing thousands of over crowded apartments. But mind you with a supposed well over hundred thousand inhabitants, it is by no means small. It is located on the closest ninety-mile point from Miami. Its beachside location combined with its proximity to the Florida Keys allows residents to intercept pirate radio and television waves which in the past brought Soul Train, the SugarHill Gang, LL Cool J and Public Enemy to Cuban youths. Fans would emulate what they saw and heard adopting first the dance, then later the rhyme and eventually incorporating it as their own over Cuban rhythms.
It was in Alamar where the first Habana Hip Hop festival was held in 1995. Three years later the Minister of Culture officially declared rap an authentic expression of Cuban identity and began funding the rap festival. By 1999 the Cuban Agency for Rap, a state run office was designated solely to promote rap on the island. Today the Agency offers a record label and a magazine publication called ‘Movimiento’ (Movement). Many hip hop performers from the US have participated in the Habana Hip Hop festivals such as Talib Kweli, Common, Mos Def and Dead Prez. Today the festival, made up of colloquiums and concerts, is held in conjunction with the Asociación Hermanos Saíz, an entertainment branch of the Young Communists Union.
We ended the video shoot with a little gathering at Obsesión’s house. I am beginning to feel more confident with the footage stock but we still we haven’t recorded the song. Tomorrow we won’t be spent working on the video either because instead I will be filming the hip hop wedding of the year: La Mala Rodríguez from Spain, and Mahoma from one of Cuba’s hottest rap groups, Explosión Suprema. Hopefully if we take a day off we can make some moves to find that black doll.
‘Los Pelos’ Music Video Shoot Day Six:
We complemented our footage today in Cayo Hueso, what is known as the heart of residential Havana both in terms of geographic location and Afro-Cuban religion. Thanks to the day off for the hip hop wedding Obsesión finally recorded the song. However they changed the old chorus with new lyrics, which renders much of the chorus footage we have from before obsolete. We shot the new chorus amongst the streets and balconies of what I find to be the most enchanting part of Havana. Cayo Hueso is a small labyrinth of streets and alleyways that resonate the percussions of ceremonies at a distance. It seems like the perfect place to film the closing scenes. We never located the doll we so desperately wanted for the video. Sadly I leave tomorrow and we have to end the shoot with a little disillusion towards our own expectations. But I am content with at least having in my hands a recorded version of the song.
‘Los Pelos’ Music Video Shoot Day Seven:
I stopped by Magia’s mother’s house today to say goodbye. As we sat and chatted just before I was to depart for the airport, in the same living room where we had done so much video brainstorming, all of the sudden, we all glanced together at a box of water colors. As if enlightened, we grabbed an old cracked, pale white, blond doll and I began to shoot the final scenes that would become the essence of the video and most reflective of the Cuban reality which only hip hop could express: Magia painting the white doll black.