Nehanda Isoke Abiodun, née Cheri Laverne Dalton, was just 10 years old when she joined the picket lines. Columbia University in the '60s was taking over her neighborhood park to build a gym for alumni and students. “Those of us who lived in the community had no access to the gym,” she said. “I wasn’t going to have a place to play anymore, so I protested with organizers unbeknown to my own parents.”
Abiodun's childhood civic exploration sowed the seeds of political activism. She would later make the leap from circumstantial youth protester to bonafide activist and community organizer. In college, she made a conscious decision and commitment to dedicate the rest of her life to revolutionary change. After graduating from the same Columbia University whose earlier institutional expansion marked the beginning of gentrification in her then African-American and Latino Harlem community, Abiodun began working for the Lincoln Detox Center in the South Bronx.
There she helped treat drug addicts with holistic rehabilitation by employing acupuncture, drug addiction education from a socialist context, and community service. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) shut it down circa 1978, calling the center – founded by members of the Black Panther Party, Republic of New Afrika and Young Lords – “breeding grounds for terrorism.”
But whether or not I did help Assata escape, I will say that I am proud of being accused of it. —Nehanda Abiodun
As part of VIBE’s cultural exchange with Havana’s hip-hop community, it so happens to be my last day in Cuba when I am serendipitously afforded the opportunity to sit down with Abiodun, who’s been living in exile for the better part of her life. On a rooftop in Central Havana where Guampara Music creator DJ Jigüe can be found, Abiodun walks around leisurely with her personal security guard, a tank of a man who goes by the name of Guillermo. I spotted her once or twice throughout my travels around the capital, during the annual hip-hop symposium, meeting her only briefly at one of the concerts. I knew who she was by virtue of urban legend and revolutionary folklore. Not to mention, those around me made it a point early on to single out the “Godmother of Cuban hip-hop.”
She finds me upstairs wrapping up an interview, walks right up to me, and suggests she and I speak.
“In 1993, women from my organization, the Women’s Task Force, came here to meet with the Federation of Cuban Women. They were the ones who gave me my middle name Isoke, meaning precious gift from God,” she explains, as she settles down in front of me, exchanging her usual smoke for box rum.
Nehanda is shy of 70 today, with gray rings around her once-piercing brown eyes, and soft creases down her face and around her spindly body. This December she will have spent 30 years living in Cuba as a U.S. fugitive, on a slew of charges that includes aiding in the liberation of former Black Panther activist and political prisoner, Assata Shakur.
“Around 1980, we opened up the Black Acupuncture Association of North America, which was basically for the New Afrikan community that was available to me, and they had health complications that were relative to poor communities,” Nehanda recalls. “One of the founders of the Black Acupuncture Association of North America was Mutulu Shakur, one of the last people to visit Assata prior to her liberation in 1979.”
Nehanda at one point ranked top three on the FBI’s Most Wanted list; she is still wanted today. Of all the allegations, I ask only about her reported involvement in helping set free Assata, a former member of the Black Liberation Army.
“My relationship with Assata only began when I came here,” she replies when I ask how they met and if she, in fact, had a hand in Assata's escape from prison. “I knew about Assata and I supported Assata. I was part of the FBI’s Most Wanted list because they believed I aided her in her liberation. I’m not saying that I was there. But whether or not I did help Assata escape, I will say that I am proud of being accused of it. She is my sister and I love her.”
Nehanda has spent a majority of her time on the island playing an integral part in connecting Havana to the hip-hop movement of the United States. Through the Black August Hip-Hop Project, a concert series that organized the ongoing exchange with rappers in Cuba, Nehanda, and the Black August Collective helped raise funds and awareness for political prisoners in the U.S. and around the world.
“My association with hip-hop Cubano is not only with the collective, but also because in 2001 there was a student here that was doing a thesis on how Cuba has been supportive of revolutionary movements (especially in the United States), and she asked me to be her mentor.”
She continues: “Because I grew up with the philosophy of Malcolm X (my father was one of his bodyguards), she organized a group of individuals that started with six and grew to 30. Every weekend, I had young people in my living room waiting to hear about the history of a movement that occurred in the ‘60s and ‘70s.”
According to DJ Jigüe, she’s doubly responsible for introducing diasporic teachings and inspiring Cuban rappers to own and love their blackness.
“That maturity expanded with Nehanda, who is one of the people that helped grow the sound of Cuban rap. Not just with hip-hop as a culture, but with the fundamentals that helped create hip-hop in the first place, which extends to our relationship and influence with the Black Panthers,” he states, concerning the manifestation of rap in Cuba. “Her overall influence pointed to our relationship with the African continent. Our Afro-descendent identity was and is a huge point of conversation.”
He adds: “I firmly believe that her influence is what inspired many of the rappers to explore and assume their identities. Not just as Cubans, but as black Cubans; Cubans of African descent.”
About 40 minutes have gone by and Nehanda is now visibly exhausted, but still eager to continue our conversation. She goes on to tell me about her family back in New York: “My daughter was here in October. I haven’t seen my son in a couple of years. And my granddaughters—one I don’t know, but the other is the oldest and we speak on the phone.”
In Cuba, Nehanda has no family, save for her boyfriend and maybe some friends she’s made along the way. For all intents and purposes, Nehanda’s life on the island is one of seclusion. On her worst days, she’s bedridden and swaddled in sheets, longing for her most-loved ones and for life stateside. On her best days, she’s reminded of all those who lost their lives so that she can have one, and is ever grateful for all that Cuba has shown her.
“This island has taught me not to be selfish. I’ve learned to savor and to appreciate everything, to appreciate relationships between people in a non-selfish way. You’re my friend because you can do this for me—no! We have a relationship because of basic human principles. I appreciate Cuba because historically, since the revolution, it has supported not just individuals from my movement, but liberation movements around the world.”
On her thoughts regarding the Cuban government, she has this to say: “It’s not the government that says yes or no, it is a community; popular decision among the people. I have learned more about socialism since being here, which is to say I have learned to be less selfish. I learned to apply [socialism] given the limitations of what we have in the United States.”
The sun is soon setting, and we are moments away from tonight’s main event: a showcase of Cuba’s new-school rappers on the very rooftop we are occupying now. Before we part, I have one last question:
What keeps you going?
“My faith in the revolution. My principle. The commitment I made to be a revolutionary. I always understood when I made a step in that commitment to liberation that there would be certain circumstances. And my commitment is dedicated to the fact that I love people. Because being a revolutionary doesn’t come from a position of hate, it comes from a position of love. I love you and I don’t even know you,” Nehanda nearly whispers, reaching for my face before planting a soft kiss on my forehead. “I love and have fought for the freedom and dignity of people. That’s what keeps me going.”