Hip Hop: The Mirror of Society in Cuba
Elier A. Alvarez
Reading Club & Street Dances: An Art of Remembrance by Larissa Clement Belhacel reminds me of tracks dedicated to rappers who left too early and how homage is a genre in itself. The writing opens our eyes to two very important figures in Hip Hop dance and their impact around the world; the initial sentence by Larissa - Let’s imagine hip-hop as a family tree, with many roots and branches. What happens when one of the family members dies along with a part of their story? - left me with several questions. This is my dialogue with it, but from where I live, Cuba where I’ll analyse the development of breakdance across different generations.
There is no doubt that Hip Hop and rap broke the schematics of the music and entertainment industries. Hip Hop as an essence and way of life created an impact in how people consumed culture and it forced artists to search inside themselves to feel and it gave voice to the reality that surrounded them. In Cuba, for us, there was an element of luck because many B-Girls and B-Boys were attracted to the culture by social media and the Internet. They both enable current generation dancers to find points of reference of the great movement that emerged in the 80's - an era that has almost completely disappeared.
In Cuba, the records of breakdance are sparse, but it starts with the small communities that followed Afro-American music for the musical links between Afro-American musicians and Afro-Cuban musicians. This information comes to us thanks to the personal investigations of people like Pablo D. Herrera Veitia who tells me that at the end of the 1970's - when our breakdance story begins - there were several clubs in Havana, Barrio Azul and Santa Amalia (south of the capital) including The Sticks, The Soul, The Funk and The R&B where they were very selective when it came to putting people on their roster. It was those places that laid the foundations for what became Bonches (parties) and La Moña (movement of B-Girls and B-Boys) in Havana whilst at the same time there was something similar happening in Guantánamo and Santiago de Cuba too.
In the late 70's and early 80's - from the impact of the TV show Soul Train - a process of familiarity began where people were exposed to this dance style and it began to be dispersed all over the island. They saw Soul Train thanks to the Ultra High Frequencies (UHF) coming over from the US to Havana and Guantanamo´s Naval Base at the east of the island. Notwithstanding this cultural dispersion, it’s almost impossible that B-Girls and B-Boys would have developed from any of the three zones that divided the island - East, Centre and West - without this programme or Miguelito "La Peste" who was the architect of this whole Hip Hop movement from the 80's and who continues today.
My name is Miguel Ángel Abreu Larrondo. I´m a dancer and choreographer who has dedicated himself to dancing from my childhood. I didn't have that thing about playing baseball, riding chivichana or going to the park; mine was this tremendous thing of dance and music, because my dad was a guitarist and tres player, my mom liked to sing and all my brothers danced in the 60s. I started in 1979...I was inspired by Soul Train, which came out on Channel 12 on Fridays at midnight. In 84 or 85 the dances of Soul Train started declining and breakdance began to arrive in Cuba. The word got out - not because people saw it - but because of people who travelled and came here. Parents who travelled abroad told us: you are dedicated to dancing, but out there exists a dance where people move like snakes and their arms do it like a Maja. We heard about it, but we were doing another dance demonstration. We gave it the same name as the show - Soul Train. At that time everyone had the same style of dancing, because they copied it from the programme, but that's where I come in to make a difference. I wanted to find the difference and the originality, because everyone else was doing it the same.
That first generation of Cuban Hip Hop which emerged in the 80's had to deal with the ideological misunderstanding, colonisation and racism that handcuffed and made a brutal impact on the development of Cuban society; with the burden of creating the base and foundations for today we begin to understand the process of living a Hip Hop life.
Miguelito refers to the fact that he only watched Soul Train - which focused on dancing - he had no opportunity to understand what was happening in the wider US society or Hip Hop; however Soul Train reflected the many realities that later became the central elements of Hip Hop culture including street fashion, street language and more. All of this is important because when I observe Hip Hop it eventually becomes an exact reflection of the society in which it develops.
The National Council of Culture was established two years after the end of the war waged by the Rebel Army in 1961, this centralised the development of culture at a national level and the NCC developed a cultural policy in a country where with each day that passed, our freedom and democracy disappeared alongside increased censorship and the colonisation of the mind.
In 1976 - with the task of directing, controlling and executing culture and cultural policy as well as guaranteeing the defence, preservation and enrichment of the our cultural heritage - the Ministry of Culture of Cuba was created. This small group of people (that nobody voted for) had the power to make decisions about what could be shown and what was excluded within art and culture. Our starting point of culture - more than creating a spiritual dynamic for the people - was an elite who handled art, culture and centralised the media with the result being four years later breakdance was censored from the very beginning.
Breakdance received very little support from institutions that were endorsed by the Government and so it had little chance to grow, the values that emerged from Hip Hop were ignored and marginalised by the formal cultural institutions who were privileged with this power.
The First Stage: The End of the 80's
This is how history locates the first generation of Cuban Hip Hop - via the breakdancers; with the help of Miguelito I want to share the beginnings of a culture that was born in the street. In these beginnings we find Michel Fernandez and Mendoza - the latter is a very important figure among the dancers guild and fundamental as a hard-working educator – who we’ll talk about later with their impact on Raudel, a figure who brings to us knowledge from history and the present.
After Miguelito there were many adolescents and young people like him who had an inclination for this way of dancing and living and many people begin to change the course of their lives. The geographical starting point was in Lawton, south of the capital, where the communities were marginalised and excluded but who enjoyed Afro-American music. Given the levels of political tolerance in the neighbourhood - as it is far from the city centre - the impact of Hip Hop eventually reached Central Havana and Old Havana, neighbourhoods where rumba and other traditional folk rhythms were the most common. Those same areas encountered much higher levels of racism, social exclusion and political marginalisation - much higher than Lawton - because of the constant police repression and low political tolerance of Afro-Cuban and Afro-American rhythms.
The idea of unity helped a lot of people in this period because it offered a space for healing and a pacification of the streets. It left a mark on their lives despite the lack of institutional support and the oppressive atmosphere and media propaganda that lingered around the dancers; the energy and love that Hip Hop generated allowed people to dream of a better future. When we examine the beginnings of this movement, we find that this zone - south of the capital - is where the parties were going down and they extended from the houses to the streets. They were filled with people and this was where B Girls and B Boys met to show off their dancing skills; it enabled them - without really knowing it - to become visible in public. In a country where until then everything was centralised, institutional and completely censored.
Here’s an excerpt from an interview with Miguelito which documents the social achievements of this movement:
Q) Miguel, I’ve read that in the US breakdance emerged as an alternative for young people who want to leave behind a life of crime. What happens in Cuba in relation to that?
There were many criminals in Cuba that were picked up by it; they stopped doing many negative things and got away from a bad life. People came to see me and asked me to teach them to dance. I asked them: “Are you sure that this is what you want to do with the life you lead? This takes dedication. This is not the life of guapería (hustle), shooting a shot and stealing.”
Q) Have there been alcoholics who quit drinking?
Many, in industrial quantities. Some had to be removed because they might not resist the training. I told them ironically: “In here you can´t come in drunk and keep doing your thing, you will not be able to resist this.” But they told me: “No, I want this, I’ll sacrifice the drink in pursuit of being able to dance like this.” And they did. There were parents with children who said: “You have to be in school” but they were skipping school and I told them: “I’ll teach you, but you can't drop out of school. Because if your mom or dad comes here, they will scold me and I'm going to have problems with that.” Parents were looking for a mould, wanting their children to be like another person. For that reason we weren’t allowed to dance in certain places, many people would come and say: “No, because that dance, it’s from North American, ideological diversionism, bla bla bla.” But then the same mothers and fathers defended: “Yes, but that dance took my son out of a bad life, they were watered and now they are street dancers.”
Q) It's good that you mention other dimensions of breakdance, because what appears in other articles and what many retired dancers share is about the fines imposed on them, how it was forbidden to dance, some even died from a broken neck via an error in a technical step...
All of that is true. But it’s also true that many relatives said that it was breakdancing that reformed their children. Nothing is black and white.
The competitive impetus developed between breakdancers in the short period of time when it spread throughout the capital; collectives (crews) of B Boys were created who represented each their neighbourhoods in the challenges (battles). These collectives were made up of people willing to dance in the challenges in public and although there weren’t that many they were always very good. Getting into the parties at age 15 and seeing the culture expand it was easy to find the dancers challenging each other in places like Almendares Park and Coopelia Ice Cream Park in the El Vedado neighbourhood and the Police Park in Lawton. However, the catalyst of this universe were the parties that were held on January 1st at Miguelito's house. He was a leader, initiator and a great dancer. He had reached the top in the street and had prestige from the community in all regions across the country; in addition to being the organiser of the main party which gave balance to the entire movement, most people involved in the movement wanted to dance like him and for the few who dared to challenge him, this was something he had to overcome.
Those early stages of Hip Hop were a wonderful time and the culture experienced extraordinary growth, often without any intention of social activism, it was just for the love of dancing. However, in a country of such high intolerance (according to the information I have) in 1989 the state found a way to isolate Miguelito “La Peste” from the movement he created. I do not have authorisation from Miguelito to say exactly what happened at that time, but the unknowledge and the social universe that surrounded him - everything almost disappeared completely from this great movement.
The Second Stage: 1990-1995
According to Michel “El Chiki” Fernández - a dancer from the old school - in the early 90's with the absence of Miguel, challenges were mainly concentrated on Summer Sundays in the Police Park and in the portals of the Ciro Frías Sports Complex. These challenges were made at the Bonches and collectives began to see each other more frequently. By ceasing to exist within the guiding framework that Miguelito had created challenges became personal, their ego was caught in the movement and dancers wanted to put a mark on their names, which went against the unity which had been built up previously. Unity gave way to another important element which Miguelito had previously held from the shadows - Hip Hop as a way of life.
Between 1992-1994 many events happened in a central place in the capital - La Piragua, Malecón. Things continued to happen without a leader, rivalries strengthened, people began to stand out and the names of some in the community who got it - but without becoming leaders...in this case, one who guided this who took a leading role with Hip Hop music was DJ Randel (Rest in Peace my brother) with the information he accessed via family contacts in the US alongside his own taste for African-American rhythms.
Although this was a point in time that much drew attention and I thank all those people who vibrated under the codes of this way of life, the objective reality of the society was in a very bad condition and it was being used to prevent the most humble and disadvantaged people of the capital living their life. It was impossible to organise and make the connections between the different musical communities and rhythms because of the systematic work that the government did to undermine Hip Hop under the umbrella of “public opinion.” Until that moment the DJ (who was in charge of mixing the music) was recognised as a musicologist for their knowledge and they began to make rap visible across different points of the capital and some of the female and male initiators of this element were also linked to breakdance.
An important footnote for Cuban dancers was the arrival of New Jack Swing and the new style of dance - Pee Wee. Thanks to the investigations of Michel, we know that Pee Wee came from the Joeski Love song Pee Wee Dance and this injected new creative forms and developed new movements for breakdancers.
Socially the 90s were very stormy; inflation caused by the fall of the socialism was followed by the economic "splendour" experienced in the shadow of the USSR. It was the most brutal thing to live on the island. Politically there was an option - blame the US economic embargo and wait for the solidarity of the planet to react against the financial sanctions placed on us - but while Cuba opened up to the world (which brought with it an increase of cultural exchange and information) it maintained the same centralisation, control and enforced censorship in society.
Hip Hop continued despite some of the problems that are still present in Cuban society: the lack of mobility of dancers around the country, the lack of outside information, the lack of representation, our inability to define the reality that surrounded us and the oppression/repression from an opportunistic minority that holds power and keeps the population divided. All this happened thanks to the media which informed the workers of the country (and those across the globe) the absolute opposite of what was happening. Poverty increased from East to West and the country was an economical jail for its inhabitants.
However, despite all this manipulation, in 1994 a popular demonstration broke out on the Havana´s Malecón and almost instantly came an increase in oppression, repression and censorship over the population and the socialisation of North American music in public spaces.
Whilst the social reality of the island was changing, the reality of the music industry (which further limited the promotion of African-American music in the media) left only commercial music spaces for tourists that were extremely expensive to enter. This was how Disco was positioned, then Drum & Bass and finally the entire genre of Electronic Music; these styles supplanted Afro-American music in the taste of young people and as part of this, it felt like the educational system actively erased the historical and musical memory of the people - almost to this day. In this process and across study programmes at all levels, we’ve lost the avant-garde voices of the first 50 years of the last century and the vanguards of this century - they do not appear within the memory of Cuban men and women.
Engaging with these spaces could sustain a family at home - without thinking about going to have fun - but at the same time the foreign tourists and businessmen fed (and continue to feed) the coffers of the elite and the Government through foreign currency whilst for the impoverished villagers (with the inflation of that decade) it was impossible for them to access international currencies.
The Second Quinquennium of the 90's
In late 90's Havana Afro-American musical rhythms began to be incorporated into the body of many Cubans; although it had ceased to be popular there were many of his followers scattered throughout the capital who were delivering the legacy of DJ Randell. In 1996 DJ Adalberto became visible and made the leap from organising parties in his neighbourhood in Centro Habana to establishing himself in Club La Pampa del Vedado in the centre of the city.
With a fabulous strategy based on the recording quality of his music, this sound attracted the attention of the public and updated the panorama of Cuban society through Street Entrepreneurship. DJ Adalberto made his name in the Cuban Hip Hop community and even today, great artists like the Orishas rap group still mention him in their songs. He won this respect by incorporating innovative promotion strategies for new rappers who emerged inside the community; in some cases during their music/instrumental sections in the clubs, he allowed them to sing live whilst in others he name checked them on the mic so people would recognise who they were listening to.
For many years, DJ Adalberto, DJ Randel, DJ Migue and DJ Piz kept what little there was left of old school Cuban Hip Hop by throwing parties at homes and in the clubs whilst giving space on stage for the great force that was Cuban rap. There’s a lot to talk within rap (I myself have published more than 40 articles on Cuban rap) but I’m here to dialogue with Larissa's text and this only offers a starting point into Cuban Hip Hop culture and family trees.
The youth of the late 90's were the vanguard of Cuban rap, taking it to the next level, through their bars they described everything that had happened to the dancers from previous decades and what happened in society with the increasing levels of racism, oppression and repression. But the dancers lost their spaces and consequently society lost interest in breakdancing.
2000 > Present Day
Earlier I mentioned two dancers: Mendoza and Raudel. The first, tanned in the old school was a trainer par excellence. Over the years he’s had many students and one of them was the second I mentioned, so let's hear his history from Raudel.
Raudel started dancing in 1999 when breakdance was a shadow and totally invisible in Cuba. At that time he was young and danced on other musical rhythms - as I explained earlier about the decline of breakdance in the mid/late 90's - but seeing this way of dancing caught his attention. In his personal life and his story within breakdance when he approached the people closest to him to learn this style dance, they refused to teach him...so he set out to be the best breakdancer in Cuba.
After a few years (2002) he started training with Mendoza and he told me at the age of 15 part of the training process with Mendoza meant that a day a week was sharing knowledge and anecdotes from the old school mentioning the names of the dancers of that time. This information marked Raudel a lot and stimulated his desire to know more about those people; he has spent his time investigating and recovering all that historical memory - which had been left in the past for almost ten years - using Internet searches and social networks and he’s managed to unite a large number of old school dancers from all over the country. As a dancer he feels the weight of that legacy and has an unconditional respect for previous generations.
For today it’s Mendoza's teaching method together with Raudel's tenacity which has allowed us to recover a lot of information and begin to analyse everything that has happened over the last four decades - especially with the dancers of the old school, so they can have their rightful place within the universe of Cuban Hip Hop. It’s impossible to close this text and not to mention the impact of Potaje Urbano. An event that perfectly understands what Hip Hop implies as a way of life and it’s helped preserve the Cuban Hip Hop family tree. The festival allows those involved to share their restlessness and express their needs and that’s why I put it on a pedestal when it comes to Cuban Hip Hop. This had never happened before in Cuban society.
If we look closely at Hip Hop as a way of life and its 10 elements, there is one element which exceeds in visibility compared to the other nine. Hip Hop is alive in society - but especially in the urban areas - however, it is only a fragment of a way of life. When Larissa drew my attention to the differences between what was achieved by the community and what was recognised by society within Hip Hop dance - it proposed a binary option, a take it or leave it without necessarily examining the other variables around Hip Hop and the common echoes in society.
From our position of mass control and censorship, misunderstandings and/or unknowledge of the diversity that exists in our society can happen more easily. It makes it difficult to observe things objectively (and create a range of actions to balance them) and creates challenges for a society to celebrate the great dancers that have emerged from it.
By using Hip Hop as a tool, it can become a mirror of the society that it refers to and in this case a binary way of approaching any subject. The same thing has happened with the stories of breakdance in Cuba – it was only possible to write this because of the spiritual bond of Hip Hop (our collective consciousness) which becomes visible when we need to rescue our historical memory - like when Mendoza educated Raudel. Through this we can begin to understand the process lived by the current dancers and feed this to the Internet because there is a lack of information about what happened years ago in Cuba. We are all links in the same chain. We can use what Hip Hop is because it invites us to, we can compose the culture through ourselves and others and in this specific case I used it as a bridge to dialogue with the text written by Larissa and tell the story of breakdance in Cuba.
Commissioned for Ink Cypher, May 2022
A response to Club & Street Dances: An Art of Remembrance by Larissa Clement Belhacel
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Elier A. Alvarez
A Cuban Hiphopper born in July 1979 in Lawton´s hood, La Habana, Cuba. His early life began with breakdance but from 2002 he switched elements to grow as a rapper and dedicated his life to development of Cuban Hip Hop as a poet, organiser and promoter of events, investigator, journalist, film maker and activist.
In 2002 he founded Cuban Hip Hop Active and he is a part of the Hip Hop Association Advancement and Education, La Chosen Fam (Chapter 33 de la Zulu Nation "Chosen Zulu") and Management of Diaz Family Elite in Cuba.
Elier A. Alvarez