For almost 20 years Magia Lopez Cabrera (Magia MC) and Alexei Rodriguez Mola (El tipo este; That guy) – known as Obsesión – have been a driving force behind the hip-hop movement in Cuba; their lives personally and professionally intertwined. Both were dancers when they met – break (Alexei) and folkloric (Magia) – as well as sculptors. And both have been prime movers in other key projects here: Magia as head of the Cuban Rap Agency and Alexey in the late 90´s, multi-media arts project, La Fabri-K.
Many things have changed. The scene is less vibrant (though interesting things are going on in the provinces, they say), the annual Rap Festival has disappeared- as has much of the international interest which was very visible in the early, more heady years of the island’s hip- hop movement. But speak to Alexei and Magia today and you would never know, such is their ongoing passion for their own work, and such for their commitment to working in the poorer and more disadvantaged communities they live in.
They have been lucky. They’ve been able to travel – various work visits to the US – happily sharing the Apollo stage with The Roots. They’ve met Harry Belafonte and name him, Mos Def Roberto Fonseca, Cuban intellectual Dr. Tomasito Robaina and ex-Black Panther Nehanda Abiodun as particular and very important influences. Alexei touchingly also mentions a young girl they met in Washington who told them how her life had changed after hearing their music; that she still goes around with the lyrics in her packet.
Obsesion´s vision is clear. Their songs have an Afro-Cuban consciousness and they consistently explore issues of poverty, race, gender, along with everyday hardships. This is also reflected in their community work, mainly done with children. Magia and Alexei are presently looking for premises where they can develop this dedicated and important work but will need help.
So, meanwhile, anybody out there who is coming and can leave a corner in their suitcase… please bring pens, paper, kid´s number/shape books, wooden or strong plastic toys or clothes. These things are scare, crucial and – believe me – will make all the difference.
Magia: I don’t know why. It really surged in popularity, with lots of fans and generating strong cultural exchanges. It wasn’t only important for Cuba but also for many countries in Latin America and for people in the United States. In addition, the festival spun off a series of projects that generated activities all year round.
If you were looking articles on Cuban rap at that time, you wouldn’t find much in the national press, but in the international press you would, and mainly about what occurred in the festival. This fostered respect for Cuban rap around the world. It was a whole generation, with groups like Anonimo Consejo, Primera Base, and Instinto (which was the first female rap group here).
The CD Disco Negro
Magia: We’ve always dealt with the issue of race. When preparing the album Negro and selecting the songs, we saw that we had several on that issue. We didn’t want to leave them for other disks, so Alexei decided to make one that was entirely on the racial issue. On it are the songs “Me Afroconozco,” “Mi belleza,” “Victima.” Sometimes they don’t mention color directly, but it’s present. “Victima” reflects what happens daily with police in the streets, it’s always black people who are harassed…
On our last trip to Canada, we played at a place called the Club de Espeldrum (“the Afro Club”) where we recreated the styles of the ‘70s. We used the Afro pick as a symbol. When we were on stage we wore them in our hair. A Canadian artist, Shakir, created a design with one on a tee-shirt saying “The CD Negro by Obsesion.” So, we decided that it would be the image for the CD as well.
HT: One of your trademarks that catch people’s attention is your hair. Do you always feel comfortable with your hair in a natural style? Have you always had this level of racial consciousness?
Magia: I’m not any different from any black woman. When I was a little girl I wrapped my hair in a towel and dreamed that it was long and that it moved. My sister and I had long hair but my grandmother made it into tight buns braids. When we were eleven years we started straightening our hair to make it easier to comb, and because that’s what people did. Before we had used a hot comb on our hair; I also wore fake braids for a while. When I met Alexei and started getting into hip hop, I was already wearing my hair in a big natural, but it was for fashion reasons. I had no race consciousness in those days.
Cover of the CD “El Disco Negro” by Obsesion. Photo: Yusimi Rodriguez
Back in technical school I got into arguments with my teachers and the principal because they used racist expressions, but I only started to develop a race consciousness through hip hop culture, in a different context, especially after a workshop given by Tomas Robaina, sometime between late 2001 and early 2002. He talked about the 1912 Race War in Cuba, the black leader Evaristo Estenoz, the black massacre. It was a shock. I remember Alexei and me going away feeling angry.
HT: Hadn’t they taught you those things in junior high school or technical school?
Magia: No, we were being smacked in the face with this information for the first time, and it was tough. As adults, running head-on into this side of history was important for our development, for our pride. It was the basis for further investigation and the discovery of answers. We began to identify that underhanded racism that we experience here. We also discovered how we ourselves were racist because we used the same phrases; we had the same ideas about what was the “best” or the “most beautiful.” When you don’t know the historical roots, you can’t find the explanation for why most of the people in prisons here are black, or why those suffering the worst conditions with regard to issues like housing “have to be black” – as the expression goes.
HT: The issue of racism is the one most recurrent in rap. Do you think all rappers deal with it at a conscious level or has it become just a topic that’s in style or a chance to win the public’s attention?
Magia: I don’t think that everyone has the same level of consciousness. There are people who approach it in a superficial way or out of need for the audience to identify with them. This doesn’t happen only with the issue of race, you can also see it in themes relating to women, violence and so on. To discuss specific issues, we have to look also at ourselves. When we start to become aware that people change from listening to our words, we realize the seriousness that we have to have. We’re missing the criticism that we used to have so that artists can be assessed at the time they compose a song, with the critics providing their opinions. Now people are “free” to do a homophobic show or a racist show and nothing happens.
HT: You said that thanks to the workshop with Tomas you became aware of the underhanded racism we experience. What do you attribute this racism to after 52 years of revolution?
Magia: What I’m saying is not an attack. Cuba is a country that has always been on a war footing. I think that what the government has attempted to do most is defend the country’s independence. I was watching what happened in Libya and it scared me. To me, the country’s defense has always been first, and the issue of racism has lagged behind… If on one side of the balance is the issue of racism and on the other is a possible intervention…it’s a dilemma, because I have to be free to defend other causes. When the revolution triumphed, they made the mistake of saying that we were all equal, but it wasn’t like that. Now it’s being acknowledged that racism exists and that it must be combated, just like homophobia… Cuba is not in a glass display case. It was very naive to think there was no racism. Today many things are being reassessed and the issue of racism is a priority.
HT: Do you feel that this is a priority for the government?
Magia: Yes, but it’s not only a matter for the government. I think it has more to do with the grass roots, the local structures and people within them. I could be a racist official and make certain decisions in my position. That doesn’t mean the government is doing it. You have to work in the minds of people, which is exceedingly difficult because it goes beyond what a government can regulate, beyond laws… Take television for example. There are directors and writers, including black writers. So, what happens with the scripts and the issue of race? It could be that it’s not a priority for the government, but what about with artists, with directors?
El Disco Negro de Obsesion isn’t commercial. We could have made a record for dancing and sold it in all the stores. We knew it wouldn’t be easy and that perhaps it wouldn’t win an award at Cubadisco. The subject bores a lot of people, and it’s painful for others. Therefore it requires some commitment.
I also believe there’s work to do with youth and children in the schools. Maybe that’s something the government can influence. In schools, through history classes, children can begin to learn about our black leaders, about how we’re different in color, in our origins. Children should be aware of class differences so answers can be found as they grow up, for example, why one child is driven to school in their father’s car and given a dollar for lunch while another kid has to walk to school with a bread and butter sandwich and some Kool-Aid. It’s easier to learn things in that early stage. If you learn at age 18 you’ll be traumatized.
HT: What do you think of last April’s congress of the Communist Party of Cuba, where it was announced that after more than 35 years since the creation of the organization, an effort would be made to increase the number of people of African descent on the Party’s Politburo?
Magia: Great! The recognition that there’s racism in Cuba is a big step. Then too, to recognize that there are people of African descent, or of whatever descent, is not only a fact of being Cuban, but of origin. And the fact of re-assessing the composition in the politburo is also a step forward, but it doesn’t solve the problem; you can have a number of people of African descent without an awareness of the problem. I think Cuba is one of the countries with the potential to be in the vanguard on these issues.
Monument on G St. in Havana to former Cuban President Jose Miguel Gomez. Photo: wikipedia.org
HT: On the issue G Street here in Havana, there’s a huge monument in honor of former Cuban President Jose Miguel Gomez. In one of your songs, the chorus sings “tumbenlo” (knock it down). What would be gained by tearing down that monument?
Magia: It would end the glorification of this guy who approved the killing of so many innocent people, especially black people. The monument reinforces the image of racism. The song aims to sow a voice in the back of people’s minds asking them who this man actually was, and I think it succeeds at doing just that. People don’t have all the information, so this song makes them inquire. The song “Tumbenlo” is symbolic.
HT: Recently, you demystified the idea that women came to hip hop late, and you gave the example set by the group Instinto. How has female hip hop here evolved to date, and what do you think is still missing?
Magia: Female hip hop has not been stable for several reasons. At no stage have women had the resources or power in their hands, they’ve been subordinated to the decisions of men, including their will to appropriate resources. That’s what we say in the song “Se busca una mujer hip hop” (Looking for a Hip Hop Woman). And it’s not just in the rapping, it can also be found in the sound, and making music with machines… Men are in all spheres, women aren’t. However, though there are only a few, there are women producing records, for example Irasema Laferte; and women who write, like Sandra Alvarez, who heads the magazine Movimiento and writes about culture; plus there’s Ained (“Nana”) Cala Martinez, who was a DJ and photographer.
HT: What do you think is lacking in the Cuban hip hop movement in general?
Magia: Training, facilities, cultural exchanges. These days the only chance for sharing is the symposium. But beyond that there’s a lack of will to train to continue developing.
The Cuban Rap Agency
HT: Wikipedia defines the Cuban Rap Agency as “an organization subsidized by the Cuban government aimed at aiding Cuban hip hop artists in attaining radio exposure and recording contracts.” Is this true?
Magia:No. The Agency emerged almost as an experiment, without awareness of how it was going to function. It was known that it would include few groups and would promote them. But there was no idea about ??how this culture functioned, how it was to be marketed. Even today restructuring is going on as to how the agency should operate in the area of rap music. It also took different paths because it’s a self-financing entity, and when you talk about self-financing you have to look for resources to be economically viable.
The Duo Obsesion in concert. Photo: Ained Martínez Calá (Nana)
HT: So it’s not funded by the government?
Magia: At the moment it is, but the idea is for it to be self-financing, though it hasn’t achieved this. The government allocates resources so that it doesn’t disappear. We’re still finding the mechanisms to coordinate our production within the context of Cuba, which is very difficult given everything that surrounds us, culturally speaking. Rap in Cuba has been through a lot, such as its subjugation by reggaeton. I’m not saying one is better or worse, but when reggarton began, people started confusing it with rap, so rap began losing the position it had attained.
When you were going to a place to market rap, they’d tell you that it wasn’t what they were looking for; they wanted reggaeton since it made people dance and filled up the clubs. In addition to the loss of festival, and then clubs, rap had to face this confusion with reggaeton, which also existed within the Rap Agency. It got to the point that there were more groups of reggaeton than rap within the organization, and this caused a lot of disappointment. Today the Rap Agency is still in a restructuring process; it has eleven rap groups only of rap that need to know that there are institutions to c