Politically-minded and lyrically-brazen rapper El B is nestled in a chestnut leather chair inside Las Vegas' Whiskey Down, waiting patiently as I make my way from around the corner. A calm demeanor exudes as I sit across from him, and we begin to discuss the current state of his career while living in Miami as a Cuban exile. Ahead of the Latin GRAMMYs taking place at the T-Mobile Arena, where he'll be nominated in the category of Best Urban Music Album for Luz, El B predicts he won't be taking home an award traditionally given to those swimming in the mainstream, yet he recognizes the significance behind being considered for such an honor. "People are paying attention," he says, "and I think that now my message is going to be heard a little bit louder."
A few years back, before finding asylum in a mecca of refugees, El B–born Bian Oscar Rodriguez Galá–was linked to a U.S. funded campaign aimed at forcing social change in his native Cuba. After debunking the allegations and parting from Los Aldeanos, he began to set his solo career in motion in the South Florida region, quickly gaining local fame for his socially-charged catalogue, which not only challenges the commonly perceived notion of Spanish-language hip-hop, but the ethos of millennial rap in general (read: prepackaged, humdrum trap).
Inside the dimly-lit lounge, we go on to discuss a gamut of topics, from Black Lives Matter to the obstacles he faces as a foreign MC to underground rap in Cuba—something El B assures me is unparalleled, considering where hip-hop is today. Cuban nationalist and revolutionary leader Fidel Castro will have died at 90 weeks later, something El B reacts to passionately: "My people, I'm not someone who celebrates anyone's disgraces, much less their death. But [Fidel Castro] was a son of a b***h. I know his death doesn't mean that anything will immediately change in Cuba, and even less do I think his death is any sort of punishment for him, because I do believe he's paid for all his wrongdoings in life. But let's see what transpires now… let's see what mafioso takes the reigns after this. Long live a free Cuba."
VIBE Viva: Congratulations on your Latin Grammy nomination. Describe your reaction when you heard the news?
El B: I don’t even know what I felt. I got really happy and also very surprised, because in these types of awards, the nominations are always more for commercial music that fits the parameters of the market. So, for the Academy of Latin music to be paying attention to artists like myself, it’s very important to me—more so as a personal gain, because it’s opening the doors for more artists like myself. People are paying attention, and I think that now the message is going to be heard a little bit louder.
What would winning mean to you?
For me, it’s going to mean opening a door for people like me—for the artist that has a message for the people. I have worked very hard, and I have faith in my talent. But I think the support I’ve gotten from people who have heard my music since day one, and those who have just learned about me, have been two important things that have helped me get to where I am now. It’s been very important because I’ve been making music in Cuba, and making it in Cuba hasn’t been easy. And in some respects, it’s even dangerous.
How has your life changed since moving to Miami, both, as an artist and in general?
As a human being, it changed a lot, because logically speaking, the United States isn’t like Cuba. It’s really different, and I’ve had some hardships getting adjusted to living in this country. I’ve been through all of the things that immigrants go through. The creative process, on the other hand, has been good because now I have some external creative influences that I didn’t have before, like access to information and social media. I’ve also been able to communicate with people who listen to my music outside of Cuba, and that has enriched my work.
What are some of the challenges that come with being a foreign rapper?
Being in this country, I feel like the greatest challenge is the language. For Americans, it’s difficult to recognize rap in another language. If you ask an American if they listen to rap, they’ll say yes, but for them rap doesn’t exist in Spanish or in any other language. When you talk to an American about Latin rap or hip-hop, the first thing they think about is reggaeton.
But I understand them because reggaeton is a rhythm that is purely Latin, and rap in Spanish is pure American rap done in another language. I feel like little by little we'll be gaining some space, so we’re working hard.
Speaking of American rappers, tell me how the collaboration with Talib Kweli came about?
I already had the song and my verse written. And I had spoken to the producer and all of that. But we hadn’t connected with anyone yet who could make a good collaboration for the song. Through Danny who works with me, he had certain ties with some of Talib’s managers and he made the connection.
I sent [Talib Kweli] the translation of the song, so he could see what it means. And he liked it. For me it was an honor, because if you know about hip-hop in Cuba you know Talib Kweli. He has been a big influence for many rappers in Cuba. So it’s been an honor.
How is hip-hop culture like in Cuba in comparison to the States? I imagine it’s a lot more political than what it is here today. It’s largely a business here.
In Cuba, it’s never been a business. Rappers in Cuba don’t make money. So, when you go to Cuba and see a rapper, he’s doing it because he loves rap music. I don’t want to disrespect anyone, but always when I go to any country in Latino America or Spain, I always tell people that if they want to know what it’s really like to make underground rap, they have to go to Cuba. Because [in Cuba] people make rap without anything. In any part of Cuba, people are making music and releasing it out into the streets with nothing. And those people are underground, without any type of social media or YouTube—the music is just out on the street.
I was in one of the protests when the Trayvon Martin incident happened. I was there and I couldn’t explain what I was feeling. —El B
Are there any American artists you dream of working with?
I won’t be able to accomplish that dream, because my dream was to make something with Tupac or Big Pun. I still remember listening to Big Pun for the first time; I couldn’t believe his flow.
How did you listen to Big Pun in Cuba? Which is to say, what kind of access did you have?
When I first started listening to rap, it was through a house that was around the corner from my home. Those people always had that kind of music playing.
I was born in 1984, and during that time it was weird for people to listen to [rap] music. There was a prejudice against listening to anything that was American. So, when I heard those people listening to that kind of music… I would stay outside just to listen to their stuff.
When I was growing up, eventually I met people who also listened to rap on a regular. We used to listen to it on cassettes, and we would exchange them. And that is how everything started. I’ve always listened to American music. The first time I heard rap in Spanish was from Vico C, the voice of Puerto Rico, and that changed my life because it was in my language and I’ve never heard that before.
Who are you listening to right now?
Wu-Tang, when I go to the gym. I really like Kendrick Lamar, too. This other guy who is also new, whose music I really love because of how he mixes it, is Chance the Rapper.
Roc Nation Latin now has a whole roster of new acts. If Romeo Santos tells you today that he wants to offer you a contract, would you sign? Why or why not?
Well up to now, I’ve managed my career independently and I’ve done it this way because it’s given me the freedom to create and be myself. To my understanding–I don’t know if I’m wrong about this–there are a lot of restrictions creatively in all senses when you sign with a big company. So, if there was an association deal, I think I would do it. However, while things in the music industry remain the same, I don’t think I would. I prefer to be independent.
Three of the most recent popular songs on the charts right now are from independent hip-hop artists—one of them being Chance The Rapper. What do you think that signifies?
Before when there wasn’t social media, if someone was famous, it was because they came out on television or because they came out on the radio. Social media is giving people opportunities to [promote/market] their own art. Everyone can reach the people. Everyone has a Facebook or Instagram profile. Everyone has a YouTube channel. Everyone looks for music on YouTube. I think that what is happening now is that independent artists are being preferred by the people. Now, people are truly showing what they like and it isn’t something being manipulated.
Sometimes things work [for an artist] because of repetition, so even if you don’t like an artist or a song, it’s played so many times… I think we are listening to the true voice of the artist, and the preference of the people. People don’t care if you come out on television anymore, because they can see you on YouTube. [People don't care] whether they are playing you on the radio, because they can just get on Spotify and listen to your music.
A lot of my work in and out of the office aims to focus on exploring negritude throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, namely the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and Cuba…
Are you aware of the movement here called Black Lives Matter?
Considering that you're Cuban and from a nation with its own racial politics, what are your thoughts on a movement of people in the United States who have to consistently remind its government that 'my life matters'?
In every part of the world there are racial prejudices—since human beings began to colonize territories that didn’t belong to them. And in [the United States], I’ve seen that the racism is cruel. And there is real segregation. I’ve been in Miami, and it’s one of those cities where people from all over the world come to. But I’ve seen people get scared because a person of color is passing them by. Also, that whole thing of asking someone, 'Where do you live?' and someone having to say, ‘I live in a black neighborhood', that's crazy.
I’ve seen black Latinos say, ‘Oh, those neighborhoods are black.” And it’s like, ‘Dude—so what are you then? You’re Dominican or Cuban, but you’re black as well.’
I was in one of the protests when the Trayvon Martin incident happened. I was there and I couldn’t explain what I was feeling, because there was so much pain. It was in South Central, and I made a song about it with a rapper out in Los Angeles named Medusa. The video is on YouTube with images of the protest… We have to do it—the work. I’ve seen many people that criticize Black Lives Matter, saying that all lives matter, but statistically [cops] are killing more people of color. So, what are you saying?
As an artist, is there anything you want to bring to Cuba or revolutionize there? What is something that you want to change?
My music has always been the radical thing, and I’m doing it because I’ve always felt my country needs a change. The same family has been in control of my country for 60 years, and it’s not a free country. Cubans are not free.
How do you think that the relationship between North America and Cuba are going to change? Are you opposed to those possible changes?
What I think is that besides any relationship Cuba may have with any other country in the world, Cuba first needs to be free. Because what happened with the opening of the relationship between Cuba and The United States was a governmental benefit, and hopefully something changes, yes. But until now, it hasn’t been beneficial for the people. And that translates into the amount of Cubans that come to this country everyday on a boat. If things were OK, and things in Cuba were changing, people wouldn’t be leaving. Now, there are more people leaving Cuba than in the '90s when the biggest crisis happened. Things are speaking for themselves. It’s not my critique, or anyone else's.
Have you been back since moving to Miami?
I haven’t been able to go, because I don’t have a passport. It expired. I’ve been waiting since February for the Cuban embassy to mail me my new passport.
What do you want your legacy to be?
The only thing I want is for my son to be happy. That is my fundamental goal in life. And for my friends and family to be happy. But of course, also that my art benefits the people. There are people who listen to music for pure entertainment, and there are those that can find a message that fits them at the right time. There are people that have said that my music changed their lives. For me, that's something huge, and that is why I can’t stop making the music that I make, or talk about the themes I talk about, because it’s a huge responsibility for me. Having a microphone in my hand, and having people not just listen to the music, but also understand it and have it resonate with them—that's what I want to leave behind.