On ‘AfroRazones,’ Cuban hip-hop artists show their black lives matter.

The story behind the compilation mix-tape that is part-activist statement, part-archive of blackness, and part-really good hip-hop.

“¡Negra sin miedo, negra sin pero, negra que bueno, negra sin freno!”

These are the words of RostiK, one of the five Cuban “raperas” featured on AfroRazones, a recently released compilation mixtape of Cuban hip-hop.

It’s one of many powerful statements and potential rallying cries to be found on the mixtape, whose mission statement describes it as an archive and expression of blackness in Cuba and the world today. This is its official purpose. But it’s also almost like a Buena Vista Social Club but for Cuban hip-hop, in that is a collaborative album of Cuban artists with immense talent. At the same time, it’s also an attempt to democratize a global music industry where only artists with good internet access and promoting skills have a real chance at blowing up. And all the meanwhile it’s a wake-up call for the hip-hop listening world that heaps praise and listens and dollars on mumble-rappers while accidentally ignoring some great Cuban spitters, singers and beat-makers just because they only know that Cuba makes cigars, rum, Salsa music and communism.

Finally, it also happens to be a great album.

Album cover for ‘AfroRazones,’ courtesy of Guampara Music

The point is that this project wears many hats, each of them bombastic, colorful and important, and wears every single one well, which also renders any brief introduction wholly insufficient. It’s part-political act, part-a dash at recognition for fifteen deserving artists, and 100%-quality music, regardless of whether you can understand the Spanish lyrics or not.

Still, despite the album’s inherent quality and important purpose, the contributing artists to AfroRazones and the team behind it face several uphill battles, each one bigger than the last, on the path of achieving all of their lofty goals.

This was and still is the experience of Luna Olavarría Gallegos, the executive producer of the project. We first met briefly at a hotel in Old Havana, and chatted more in-depth about AfroRazones across the Internet.

Olavarría Gallegos is a writer, archivist and curator studying at The New School, who often explores the intersections of race and art in each of her areas. She says she was first struck by the idea for AfroRazones while she was doing research on Black and LGBTQ movements in Cuba in the first half of 2016. Diligently researching, she began to think in about other ways to archive and express black experiences, which is where the idea of recording a mixtape with black Cuban hip-hop artists began to come into play.

That’s what hip-hop is — a contemporary archive of black experiences, she says.

“My initial goal was just to have space for artists to express themselves, a platform for artists to be able to talk about blackness in Cuba, and also to be able to provide studio time for artists,” Olvarría Gallegos said.

Olavarría Gallegos also believes it’s important to archive different types of blackness across the world. People in the United States, she says, create many of the dialogues on blackness in the world, which can sometimes lead to “blackness” as a whole being correlated to “African-American-ness.” She acknowledges the importance of these American dialogues, but she also emphasizes that what one group perceives as blackness, can be much different than the perception of another group.

Also at the center of her vision was an insistence that female and queer artists be represented as well.

“It was an evolving list, and something that was really important to me was adding queer artists, and I really, really wanted women on there,” Olvarría Gallegos said. “I didn’t [do it] to reach a quota, but because women are so fucking good, and I think that [it] shows on our mixtape.”

This idea, then, for a compilation mixtape that archives contemporary black Cuban experiences is the form that AfroRazones started as, the bean from which it sprouted. It was not until Olvarría Gallegos took her nascent idea, with her preliminary list of artists and excess research grant money in tow, to DJ Jigüe and his collective Guampara Music in the spring of 2016 that it began to sprout into something more.

For those unfamiliar, DJ Jigüe, real name: Isnay Rodriguez, has been proclaimed in various profiles as Cuba’s answer to J Dilla, Cuba’s hip-hop historian and to be a genuinely nice guy. He lives in Habana with his wife and kids, and agreed to do an interview in his own home studio even though his wife was at the time two-ish days away from giving birth to another child (now in the world happy and healthy!).

He says he was at first intrigued by Olvarría Gallego’s idea, and also a firm believer in its purpose — he too believes many black Cubans, including himself and almost all of the artists included in the project, still bear the brunt of many forms of cultural racism that exist in Cuba today.

But like any DJ, Jigüe wanted to add some of his own flourishes to the project, to remix her idea into something that could make a big impact on the lives of Cuban hip-hop artists as well as reflect the vitality of Cuban hip-hop’s current scene.

When I asked Jigüe if he believes the Cuban hip-hop scene had reached a point of stagnancy — estancamiento — he disagreed. Stagnancy, he says, implies there is nothing going on. He emphasized that there is and always has been something going on with Cuban hip-hop since its invention in the 90’s. What’s happened in recent years, is that Cuban hip-hop is not enjoying the same amount of popularity that it has in the past. Especially with the stateside departure of Los Aldeanos in 2011, one of Cuba’s most popular groups, Cuban hip-hop has largely moved back to the underground from where it once originated.

“A ton of rap artists, though, are making music. They are distributing their music through underground methods, such as with USBs,” DJ Jigüe said. “But they don’t have the same popularity that they’ve had before, such as when there were three or four clubs where you could listen to [live] rap,” Jigue said.

Suffice to say, these underground dwellings in which Cuban hip-hop artists find themselves and their music has not provided the ideal spot for their careers to bloom. This is why Jigüe also wanted AfroRazones to become not only an archive of Cuban blackness and a recording opportunity, but also an album that could showcase the most recent generation of Cuban hip-hop, elevate those artists’ careers and also perhaps provide some inspiration for the generations of Cuban hip-hop artists to come.

DJ Jigüe (right) with some of the AfroRazones team. Photo courtesy of Eli Jacobs-Fantuzzi

With this new purpose in mind, and the older one firmly rooted, this perhaps unlikely duo of an American student and a Cuban DJ, worked on refining her original list in May and June of 2016. Using her objectives and DJ Jigüe’s established connections throughout Cuban rap they worked the list to its final version — one that also includes in the mix R&B singers, spoken word poets, and five Cuban beat-makers.

The artists they ended up picking range all over the age spectrum, but are mostly relatively young, and also vary greatly in terms of style.

A member of the few old guards on the album is Brebaje Man, who spits a people’s history of Cuban rap in shamanic fashion on “El Libro Santo del Guetho.” And there’s younger newcomers like Black Pretty of the group Renovación Urbana who delivers a jolt of youthful, black pride on “Negra y que.”

The commonalities amongst the vocal artists, aside from all of them being black, are that they all have the right mix being of lyrical and of having good rhythm and flow, says Jigüe. In addition to wanting the album to be conscious, he also wanted each track to have strong listener appeal — meaning catchy hooks, tweet-able lyrics and groovy beats.

They also share the struggle, as Jigüe described, of navigating a musical climate both in Cuba and the world, that is not particularly kind to Cuban rappers.

“To tell the truth, the last five years have felt like ten.”

These are the words of La Reyna, real name Reyna Hernández. Hernández is one half of Cuban “rapera” duo La Reyna and Real, and she is describing the five years that have passed since she and La Real, Yadira Pintado, decided to form a group after stints as solo artists — with the design that they could accomplish more as a self-supporting pair than one. Five years is a long time in the US rap scene, but in Cuba they are part of the newer generation, says Jigüe, as time moves a little slower for the island nation’s hip-hop.

They were selected early on in the album’s evolving artist-choosing process, and knew immediately they wanted to contribute. They both believed the project was very promising when they first heard about it, given the talent involved, and also that it had an important purpose.

Their track on the album “Si no te gusta ok” is one of its best because its smoothly sung hooks, as well as the pair’s chemistry as a duo, often interchanging parts and spitting lines together for extra emphasis.

By any standard, They have also accomplished a lot during their time as a group. They’ve released two full records, each to critical acclaim, and played at the world-renowned Fabrica de Arte Cubano — a premier music venue for Cubans and tourists alike. Still, despite what they have achieved and all their hard work, Pintado says they have relatively little to show for it.

In their own lives, each says, they still have to find that elusive balance between writing, practicing, promoting and distributing their music and finding ways to put food on the table. For many Cuban rappers, their art is more of an unshakeable passion rather than a viable career option. La Reyna is lucky in that she has a support network of sorts that allows her to spend more time on her craft, but La Real has to work her art around the different jobs she has had during her time as a rapper.

External factors also still often provide many annoying hurdles that pile up quickly. Cuban artists, like La Reyna and La Real, often encounter a shortage of audience both at home and internationally over the web. Due to still-existing stigmas about the genre and a general lack of popularity compared to genres like reggaéton and salsa, Cuban hip-hop artists often find themselves shorted of a local core audience, often a cornerstone for success for artists in the US.

The prospect of international success, along with the chance of becoming an overnight viral sensation, is slim. Internet is both expensive and slow in Cuba. Something as simple as uploading a song to Soundcloud can take hours, and also makes self-promotion particularly taxing and burdensome both on the self and the self’s wallet. This is, of course, if artists are even aware of the importance of music streaming services and social media to begin with.

The lack of Internet access along with the lack of technology in general, hits Cuban producers particularly especially hard. Raydel Obrador Evora, known as El Profugo or “Profu” in Cuban rap circles is a good example. One of the five producers on the album, he says laptops and other equipment required for producing does not come easy in Cuba. He, for example, when he started first producing, had only his brother’s computer and its tiny speakers.

Now he has worked himself up to a small home studio, where he spends every minute he can working on his music. El Profugo says that he more or less eats, drinks and sleeps hip-hop.

Without this passion that is almost an addiction, he says, it would be impossible for him to be a producer. It would be too difficult he as there are simply too many obstacles and difficulties to overcome. If he didn’t have that burning motivation, almost like an addiction, then it would be impossible for him to be a producer. He imagines many Cuban hip-hop artists, rapper or producer, feel the same way.

La Reyna y La Real posing for the album cover to their 2017 LP, ‘Miky y La Repa.’ Photo courtesy of Reyna Hernández

These difficulties, especially ones to do with Internet, are far from lost on DJ Jigüe, a Cuban artist that has been lucky enough to have the experience of traveling outside Cuba. Nor are they lost on, Olvarría Gallegos, who had been thinking about them since she first thought of the project and before.

To counteract this, the pair decided to hold workshops for all of the participants in AfroRazones near the album’s release in March, so they could be promoting their own materials on the project in real time. Accounts were made on Soundcloud, Facebook and Instagram, for the many artists that lacked them.

What surprised Olvarría Gallegos most, though, during these workshops, was how many of the artists overlooked, or simply were not aware, of the importance of branding and promoting when it comes to making money. She described how part of the workshops involved showing clips of international artists who have made it big, and whose absence of talent drew some laughs in the crowd but mostly surprised the Cuban artists.

It was a real wake-up call to them, she says, about how good branding can overcome one’s mediocre talent, or even overshadow the good talent of others.

This lack of Internet literacy amongst the artists stemming from a lack of access, for Olvarría Gallegos, reflects inequalities born from age-old systems — namely classism and racism — but currently are manifested in terms of who has good internet capabilities or who has any at all. She says that these questions — who has Internet and who does not, will determine who will be poor and who will be rich in this changing world.

Realizing all of this, and using Afrorazones to try and counter it, gave the album yet another dimension for Olvarría Gallegos. For her, the album now also represents a way to combat this Internet inequality, by helping democratize tools and services that are usually only accessible to or known by those with easy, cheap connections to the web.

It also represents, a new form of transnational solidarity as well, Olvarría Gallegos says, an especially important one given the changing relationships between the US and Cuba.

“I think it changed into a model for what transnational relationships should look like — where it’s democratic. I am the leader of this project, and I am queer, brown, femme and young — younger than anyone else that’s on it,” she says. “And it works because we listen to each other, and we respect each other and we acknowledge that we have really different views on what the world is and how important.”

Photo taken of one of the workshops in session. Coutesy of Eli Jacobs-Fantuzzi

If there is anything to take away from AfroRazones, then, is that it is testament to the forms, symbolic and physical, that music can represent. Equally a form of contemporary social resistance and empowerment as it is some solid hip-hop music, AfroRazones is ambitious in every conceivable sense of the word.

At the time of writing, I am sitting at a music video shoot for El Individuo’s track “Mi raza,” a day before the album’s April 28 release. The shoot, filmed in a house of a suburb of a suburb of Habana, has directors who and assistants who are all business, but for the artists has the feel more like a big family reunion.

There is teasing about new significant others, a heated discussion of Real Madrid’s fascism (a very Cuban take on sports debate), conversations about the state of rap both Cuban and international, as well as casual rum-sipping and cigarette or cigar smoking. Music is exchanged both through flash drives and literally, over instruments and through voices.

Despite all the album is trying to accomplish, the aura in the room is hardly stressed, and feels more like the day before Christmas.

I asked El Individuo, the star of the day, whether he was at all nervous about the day after.

He replied, “Nah, we know we have a great a record.”

You can stream or buy AfroRazones on Spotify, Apple Music/Itunes, or Tidal.