I Went To A Hip-Hop Party In Cuba. What I Learned About Race Was Eye-Opening
By Fire Angelou
I could feel the music knocking the dust off the steps. Dana led us up three stories of narrow and dark staircases to his house that was about thirty minutes from Havana. His blue and white shrine for Yoruba orisha and the creator of human bodies, Obatala, was neatly organized beside an antique bookshelf. His mother, a dark-brown Cuban woman, smiles the way mothers smile when there are too many people in the house, but she loves her son too much to tell his friends to leave. The rooftop welcomes seven girls from Baltimore with warm Havana air and the fresh oxygen of ten potted plants on the floor. Alan has a DJ stand draped in the tri-colored Cuban flag and is bending over to scratch American Hip Hop tracks. “Step into our world,” sweetly sings a woman through the speakers before the beat drops and KRS One enters. The three Cuban men lean against the wall and nod their heads.
“Do you understand what he is saying?” I ask Dana later in Spanish as KRS One enters the second verse in “Sound of Da Police.”
“Si y no,” he says. He places his hand over his heart and says, “I feel.”
America feels so far, and so near.
The view from the rooftop at the hip hop party.
Before long, drinks fill our hands and music fills our bodies. English and Spanish are mixed in conversations like black beans and white rice. More people arrive and lighthearted conversations warm up into political conversations.
“I love how Black Americans are,” a young Cuban man says to me. “You guys seem to be really united.”
“United? Why do you think that?”
“Well, the movements you have there together.” He cites The Civil Rights Movement, Black Lives Matter and mentions Malcolm X.
“Well, there are various trains of thoughts for Black people. Our identity in America is complicated. Cubans seem to have singular identity. They identify with Cuba. I barely want to say I am American.”
“Yeah, we are Cuban. But, we are Black.”
“When I talked to people in Havana, they say that racism doesn’t exist in Cuba,”
“Were they light-skinned?”
Silence smooths over us. He has skin of smoky quartz and a nappy fro. We talk for a while and I give him a copy of my bilingual book. He smiles and his cheeks deepen with dimples. I smile back. There is no joy like seeing a Black man smile.
Later in the night, I meet a man named “Ghetto Planet.” He has brown eyes, a fade with a rat tail, and speaks four languages. He presses his hand against my shoulder and looks me directly in my eyes as he says, “I’ve traveled some as an artist, but that is hard for most Cubans,” I nod. “Not unless you’re a part of the agency.”
“The Cuban Rap Agency. The government will take the most political artists and offer them exposure and ways to travel. The Black people speaking out. They’ll pay them and eventually their message changes.”
“What? There are hip-hop artists owned by the country?”
“Mira, mira (look, look)… hip-hop is powerful. Especially how it exists in Cuba. It benefits the government if they control it. They can control the minds of the people.”
I look at him with wide eyes as Rakim booms through the speakers.
Ghetto Planet performing at the hip hop party.
Cuban people have pride. They celebrate their rich culture of revolution, fresh fruit and seasoned cuisines, soul-touching dances from rumba to salsa, and the deep influence of Yoruba cultural traditions. African heritage is seen in the constant playing of the bata drums and Santeria houses where orishas derived from Nigeria, Africa, have been synchronized with Catholic Saints. To be Black in Cuba is to have African heritage celebrated, but not always have Blackness celebrated.
Often, being Black in Cuba can be totally erased from a national identity. One day, during my 2-week stay in Cuba, we had a driver take us from Havana to the countryside of Matanzas located on the northern shore of the island. The driver played smooth jams on the hour long ride. He turned the music down when we started to talk about race.
“Racism doesn’t exist in Cuba,” the driver stately plainly.
I look at him. He is a light-skinned Cuban man. His hair, cut to the center, is thin, straight and greasy.
“That’s not what I heard.,”
“Mira!” He exclaims, lowering his black sunglasses. “From who?”
“We are all Cuban. There is no difference.”
“How come there are no dark-skinned Cubans that own cabs?”
“You think I’m rich?”
“No, I know that driving a cab is one of the highest paid professions in Cuba and that barely any Black Cubans own a cab.”
He denies that racism exists for the next twenty minutes. He reminds me of a lot of White Americans. When we arrive at a rest stop, he asks his driving partner that is driving the rest of my group, if he thinks racism exists in Cuba. The other driver laughs and says no. My driver appears slightly reassured, but his eyes still have a gleaming curiosity.
“Many people will outright deny that racism exists in Cuba,” says University of Havana scholar, Esteban Morales Domínguez, during his lecture with our group one day in June. “For some people in Cuba, race doesn’t exist unless it does.” he continues. His book “Race in Cuba” is one of the first scholarly works that addresses the issue. While the revolution is highly revered in Cuba through a plethora of murals, Dominguez states in his book, “if you don’t deal with “skin color” as what it is, a historical value of social differentiation among Cubans, you could forget that blacks, whites and mestizos did not start from the same place in taking advantage of the opportunities that the revolution provided.”
A sign in Havana, Cuba.
For Black Americans, the Cuban national pride is often jarring, to find people in the world sincerely delighted in their land. “No, Cuba is not perfect,” many Cubans will say, but their criticism never stops them from claiming Cuba. “American” never rolled off my tongue even though it came through my language, clothes, and actions. I never exchanged tales of love for my national identity. I could never say, “I am American” without a “but”. I always talked about America as a domestic partner that I was too abused by to leave or fully love.
In the tourism industry, the most visible faces are light-skinned people. Also, in the tourism industry, only CUC is used. Currently, Cuba has a double currency system, CUC and CUP. As one Cuban said, “CUC is the real money.” He grabs a CUP (peso) out of his pocket and hands it to me. It is flimsy and reminds me of money in board games. “CUP is shit.”
The tourism game is the come up. I’ve seen European tourists give 20 CUC for a fly-by sketch that equates to about 480 CUP. ($1 = 1 CUC = 24 CUP) Some people in Cuba only make 15 CUC a month. I met an acclaimed professor at a university that made 30 CUC per month. The confused Americans that equate CUC to American dollars can think a meal for 10 CUC is not expensive, but a Cuban monthly salary is on their dinner table. Black Cubans are seemingly left out of the tourism and transportation industry where most economical advancement lies.
The day I brought my two Cuban friends to my hostel, they said that no Cubans were allowed. The night before, an Italian tourist stumbled in with a light-skinned Cuban woman for an affair and no one seemed to notice their creeks up to his bedroom. My friends were two dark-skinned men. I tried to reason with the hostel staff, a young Cuban man, in all the languages I knew. He did not break. Dana and Alan left the hostel after a short tense conversation with the hostel staff.
“Hey, I’m sorry about that,” I say approaching them as they sit on against the wall on San Lazaro Street in Havana. “I didn’t know they had that policy.”
“Si,” Dana snuffs. “It’s because we Black.”
I look at him. Skin like brown sugar, hair curled into spiraled locks, and a tattoo of Africa tattooed in black-ink across his chest. His mouth full of another colonizer’s tongue. His green, orange and yellow dashiki wet with his Saturday Havana sweat. He puts on his dark sunglasses and cooly says, “Let’s walk.”
Ghetto Planet, Alan and Dana at dinner.
We walk to a popular strip, The Malecon, and the five- mile seawall is packed and everyone has their phones out for the wifi-zone. The saltwater shores hit the rocks and then our noses.
I say to Dana, “Thanks for having that party at your house the other night. I had a great time.”
“Thank you for coming and performing,” he smiles.
I flashback to when I performed a spoken-word poem after a few performances from popular Cuban hip hop artists at the party.
“We may not be in the same place, but we are from the same place,” I say after my poem. “Black people, I love you –”
“We love you too!” the group yells back. The energy is raw, ancestral, and vibrating. Tears nearly fill my eyes.
“We may not speak the same language, but I understand you. We have survived and we continue to survive. Stay strong and Black, always.”
Our last night on the Malecón.
“Mira?” Dana says, noticing my day dreaming. “You ready?”
At that moment, I feel like I remember it all. All the ways we were taken away from our homelands, forced into new lands and languages, but not into new bodies. And, no, for some of us, we don’t want lighter-skinned bodies with straight hair. We want our bodies: thick hair, big lips and wide noses. We want to be Black, and Cuban or American, no matter where we are in the world. We want to remember.
“Yeah, I’m ready,” I say, logging out of my wifi and grabbing my purse.
Dana walks ahead of me. Perhaps, I could walk faster and get in front of him, but there is something about the Assata Shakur quote on the back of his shirt that makes me want to cry, smile, dance, and rebel. Maybe they are all one in the same. Maybe being Black is not just about skin, but about the choice to be aware of who we truly are.
As we cross the street, Alan plays a hip-hop song on his phone and it wakes me up inside. We walk through Havana like our Black skin is so strong it could slice the city in half. We walk past the cops and in English, I say mildly above a whisper, “fuck the police.”
Dana looks at me, knowing.
“You understand what I said?”
He chuckles a bit. “Yeah, for Black people, fuck the police is a universal sentiment.”
Fire Angelou (b. 1993) is a Black American writer and spoken word artist from Baltimore, MD. She is a columnist at international web magazine, AFROPUNK. Through her fearless and widely personal narratives, she explores race, gender, class, and the survival of the African Diaspora. She has performed from southern California to New York City, across the mid-west and internationally in Cuba. She has competed in multiple international poetry slam competitions and uses writing to tell herself, and the world, the truth. She likes her plantains dark and sweet