Cuban Artists Are Employing Hip-Hop To Dismantle Racism
When the Cuban revolution happened in 1959, the government hoped that the ousting of Fulgencio Batista, U.S. imperialism, and the implementation of socialist practices would gradually bring an end to anti-blackness on the island. While such ideology is incredibly idealistic, the Aponte Commission has “acknowledged the reality of police racial profiling, a tourist industry that disproportionately hires whites, and a national entertainment media in which Afro-Cubans are underrepresented.”
Hip-hop artists today are seeking to challenge the island’s anti-blackness through DIY workshops outside of official Cuban curriculum, in an eye-opening study in the The Atlantic.
Journalist Eric Gleiberman says that “efforts to combat racism in Cuba—which is widely believed to be majority nonwhite—through education have emerged quietly over the last several years,” but that “the bold efforts are coming from below. A few semi-independent universities in Havana, and regional centers like Matanzas, Santiago de Cuba, and Camagüey, are taking the initiative, along with grassroots educators and activists involved in a hip-hop movement spearheaded by Obsesión.”
Education in Cuba is presented as relaxed and open to dialogue surrounding social concerns, despite American projects of Cuban classrooms as being repressive due to their status as a socialist country.
“The evolution and social dynamics of Cuba’s fledgling anti-racism education work echo similar work in the U.S. over recent decades. Without any national curricular guidance, U.S. educators, like their Cuban counterparts, have created anti-racism teaching at the ground level of districts and individual schools. Collaboration across the Straits of Florida could be powerful because Cuba’s contrasting racial paradigm offers an opportunity for the U.S. to examine its racial realities through a different lens. Currently, many U.S. students know virtually nothing about race in Cuba, although Cubans hear about the U.S.’s more high-profile news, including fatal police profiling and the Black Lives Matter response.”
Due to the U.S. embargo against Cuba (initialized in 1960), teachers are unable to access materials by black novelists and journalists that explore the realities of race, and thus have limited ways to parallel the experiences of Afro-Cuban students to those of black people in America. “As the debate on lifting the Cuban embargo continues into the next presidential term, Congress might recognize that the embargo affects more than commerce,” writes Gleiberman. “Schools can’t exchange materials: Cuba cannot buy any of the U.S.’s anti-racism curricular materials or African American and Latino literature.”
Underground hip-hop artists in Cuba link racial oppression in the country to the history of Spanish colonialism, U.S. imperialism, and the spread of global capitalism. “Beyond the classroom walls, several hip-hop groups and grassroots activists have openly developed an anti-racism curriculum, signaling the government’s willingness to permit public discussion of racial issues. Some hip-hop groups are even registered with a national Cuban Rap Agency.”
Gleiberman also noticed how the infusion of hip-hop curriculum in Cuba is especially important for Afro-Cuban women involved in community organizations, particularly the group Red Barrial Afrodescendiente (Afrodescendent Barrio Network), consisting of “Havana women who hold meetings to discuss racial realities and provide hands-on workshops for families.” He observed the group’s leader, Hildelisa Leal Díaz, who said “the meetings give women a language to describe a racism they had never consciously named. In the Black Doll project, named for a José Martí short story, mothers and their children make paper-maché figures that are sometimes Afrocentric, such as the Yoruba Santería deity Yemaya.”
The Cuban couple Obsesión, Lopez and her husband Alexey Rodriguez Mola, conduct workshops with grade-school children, using fables and visual art to assist in anti-racist education. Outside of teaching, the two have also delved into the topics of racial profiling in “Víctimas”, the beauty of natural hair in “Los Pelos,” and infused feminism into “La Llaman Puta”(They Call Her Whore), where Lopez “suggests how historically rooted racial-economic disparities, institutional racial discrimination, and individual prejudice combine to marginalize black women.”
Alejandre de la Fuente, a professor of Latin American history and African American studies sees the powerful potential of work being done by collective DIY workshops led by hip-hop artists. “Groups exemplified by Obsesión can reach beyond the classroom to the street, and in particular, to young people.”