Hip Hop as a New Social Movement in Cuba
Latin American Urban Politics
May 2, 2006
In general, the countries of the global South belong to the normative classification
of underdeveloped states. The condition of underdevelopment encompasses many areas
of society, including, but not limited to, particular social, economic, and political factors.
It is the job of politicians and development practitioners to address the rectification of
these unfortunate realities, but it is the job of the citizens themselves to adapt to, live
amidst, and cope with the conditions of underdevelopment. Daily life in the global
South, as contrasted to the developed North, is certainly not a comfortable one, and the
individual opportunities for change are limited. The societal and political infrastructure
for civil action does not always exist, and citizens are forced to find other means for
bettering their lives.
This paper will focus upon Cuba, where the mechanisms for change are even
more limited than in other areas of Latin America. Political parties, NGO’s, and even
community organizations are almost always not allowed unless sanctioned by the state;
the ability of the common person to affect change is severely restricted. Under nearly
fifty years of Castro’s control, the Cuban people have found other, more subtle, ways to
voice their concerns and to bring attention to a number of unaddressed issues.
One of the ways in which Cubans’ social concerns have been voiced is through
music. Known as one of the most musical societies in the world, it is fair to say that
music is truly a central aspect of everyday Cuban life. Even the highly regulatory
government, “has recognized Cuban popular music as a part of its national heritage.”1
The nueva trova (known elsewhere as nueva canción) of the 1970s, iconised by Pablo
Milanés and Silvio Rodríguez, is the most famous example of socially conscious Cuban
music, although it is not always characterized as “protest music”.
1 Manuel, 163.
Cuba is the only country in which new song is not protest music and
where it is recognized and institutionally supported as an art form…. The
nueva trova’s popularity is based on more than its artistic quality and
talent. The trovadores are seen by foreign audiences as live
representatives of the Revolution, and their songs are heard as documents
of the history, struggles, loves, problems, and dreams of that social
process. (Benmayor, 11)
In response, musicologists often argue that these groups, while they deny an overtly
political intent for their music, “…redefine the political in terms of the popular and its
daily practical struggle.” (Tumas-Serna, 144)
Nueva canción has since spread to other parts of Latin America, and in my
opinion, has lost some of its political potency. Just as the songs of Bob Dylan, Joan
Baez, and Pete Seeger, when taken out of the politically charged atmosphere of the 1960s
and 70s, are more commonly enjoyed as American classics than as powerful protests, so
does la nueva trova suffer in context.
First appearing in 1991, the Cuban hip-hop movement seems to be filling the
artistic gap left by the aging promoters of nueva trova. Cuban raperos first started
imitating North American hip-hop in the early 1990s, but the music and the artists
quickly evolved into some of the most contemporary and fresh voices of the Revolution.
Now being called the “rebellion within the revolution”2, the social significance of hip-
hop in Cuba is unique in its message, form, symbolism and context. Impacted by Marxist
thought, African heritage, anti-hegemonic discourse, and the triumphs and pitfalls of the
Revolution itself, the Cuban hip-hop movement is a truly singular phenomenon, the
effects of which are yet to be fully understood.
2 Umlauf, CNN.com
The hip-hop movement first began in the Bronx borough of New York City in the
early 1980s, and gradually became part of mainstream culture in the United States. The
culture of hip-hop incorporates many aspects such as DJing, graffiti, breakdancing, and
urban fashion, but it is primarily the music of hip-hop that will be discussed here. In
contrast to the highly melodic sweet harmonies of European music, hip-hop (rap) music
is primarily influenced by the traditional African emphasis on call and response, rhythm,
and polyrhythmic layering. Elements of rap music can be clearly traced to the musical
style of the griots of West Africa, Jamaican dub reggae, and the oral sounds of African-
American blues music. “The heavy bass and percussion, the repetition of certain
rhythmic elements, the rhythms and rhymes of the vocal line, of DJs grabbing the mike to
whip up a crowd are all traits within a dynamic and powerful transnational Caribbean and
Afrodiasporic dialogue.”3 Considering its roots, it is fitting that the hip-hop movement
has been embraced by mostly young African-Americans in U.S. society. But, it is the
double diaspora4 of musical traditions carried from African and the Caribbean, to the
United States, and back to Cuba that makes Cuban hip-hop a truly singular phenomenon.
A quick survey of the global spread of hip-hop indicates its intentional adoption
as the voice of marginalized young people around the world.5 Hip-hop has emerged and
is growing exponentially in the favelas of Brazil, among Basque youth, within American
Indian popular culture, as a form of activism among European Muslims, and among
Cuba’s urban youth.6 These marginalized groups, “use the elements and messages of
3 Durán, 6.
4 Durán, 6.
5 The Next <http://www.thenext.org.nz/the_resource/>
hip-hop to make sense of their own communities and where they fit into the dominant
culture…. [Through] a unique fusion of local music, language and cultural values,…[hip-
hop] signifies a movement away from maintaining ‘traditional cultures’, towards cultures
reinterpreting and reorganizing in order to make sense of an increasingly globalized
Rap is arguably one of the most basic forms of music. The single vocal line often
has very little melodic variation and is layered over a largely unvaried rhythmic pattern.
The creation and performance of hip-hop requires very little formal musical training, and
is most often adopted by those with little or no access to traditional (European based)
music. Looking at the development and proliferation of the hip-hop culture through a
Marxist lens (particularly applicable in the case of Cuba), its appeal to sub- or counter-
cultures around the world becomes perfectly clear. It is a form of, “music containing in
its rebelliousness a class consciousness that made it truly relevant to the working class
youths [in the United States during the 1970s]. Part of this new sound was a rejection of
the materialism evident in the ‘old sound’: the multi-tracked, orchestrated and processed
quality of …‘mainstream’ bands…seemed as inaccessible as Mount Olympus itself to the
youngster who purchased a ‘mere’ Fender guitar and amplifier...”8 The making of hip-
hop music can be done by anyone who can ‘flow’9 and has a friend to either clap a bass
beat or to act as a human beatbox. This minimalism is precisely why hip-hop has been
7 The Next. < http://www.thenext.org.nz/the_resource/using_resource.php>
8 Stoller, 36.
9 “Flow” is a term used to describe the rhythmic, and rhyming lyrics of a rapper.
embraced by both the Cuban socialist government and the disaffected youths struggling
to assert themselves in such a controlled society.
HIP-HOP’S CULTURAL ROOTS
Though hip-hop music came to Cuba from the United States, its musical traits and
styling are much more Caribbean and African than European or North American. The
general sound of rap music is often traced to the musical style of the griots of West
Africa. A griot is a musician and preserver of tribal culture and history who accompanies
the tribal rulers of West Africa. Because griots serve as cultural historians, their music is
not simply for entertainment value; it is also used to preserve and recount history. Like
much of African music, griot songs utilize a conversational vocal tone, detailed lyrics,
heavy repetition, call and response, and a strongly layered and polyrhythmic percussion
accompaniment. In contrast to the characteristic European style, rhythm and context are
much more important in African music than melodic or harmonic elements.
Rap music, though it developed on another continent and under very different
circumstances, retains many of the same musical traits. The genre was first brought to
the Bronx by Jamaican immigrants who played reggae and dub-reggae for the New York
club scene. As they began to adopt punk and disco music into their DJing techniques,
hip-hop was born. “Among the pioneers of U.S. rap are performers like Afrika
Bambaataa, Grandmaster Flash, and Kool DJ Herc, all from Caribbean backgrounds.
Equally significant was the influence of Puerto Rican disc jockeys who were active in
rap’s South Bronx emergence, as well as the extraordinary boricua presence in the
evolution of break dancing.”10
In an almost parallel music diaspora, Cuban musicians had been blending African,
Caribbean, and European (Spanish) musical elements for decades. When hip-hop finally
reached Cuba, the already amalgamated genre became even more infused with the
island’s unique musical style.
MUSIC IN CUBA
Cuba today is heavily influenced by African culture. In 1827, at the height of the
slave trade, African slaves accounted for more than 40 percent of the island’s
population.11 In contrast to the brutal and isolating conditions of slaves in the United
States, Cuban landowners allowed their slaves to retain their languages, religious
practices, and traditions. On holidays, ethnic slave organizations known as cabildos were
allowed to gather to hold traditional celebrations. This was promoted as a means to
alleviate the tensions between slaves and owners, and to maintain productivity.
As a result, many aspects of African (specifically Yoruba12) culture exist in Cuba
today. Certain African words, such as asere and chevere have become parts of Cuban
Spanish, and African religious groups such as the abakuá (or ñáñigos), regla de ocha,
and regla de palo monte are still active on the island. Arguably the most pervasive aspect
of African heritage in Cuba is the continued practice of santería. The religious beliefs
and deities brought by the Yoruba during slavery have so effectively incorporated
10 Durán, 6.
11 Pérez, 86.
12 In 1836, the moslem Fulani Jihad destroyed the Yoruba Oyo Empire. As a result, many Yorubas were
sold into slavery by their conquerors, and wound up in Cuba.
themselves into society that practicing santeros today far outnumber practicing Catholics
on the island. Each orisha, or saint presides over “the forces of nature and the endeavors
of humanity,”13 and has their own color, food, and drumbeat. These particular drum
patterns are used during religious ceremonies and are often heard in the form of a rumba.
Rumba is a form of Cuban dance music that relies upon intricately layered percussion and
polyrhythmic patterns played on batá drums, congas, bongos, cajones, claves, and a
number of other traditional percussive instruments. The incorporation of these
instruments and drum rhythms is what makes Cuban music so distinctive. In particular,
the clave pattern (as opposed to the traditional European 3/3 waltz or 4/4 dance beats)
separates almost all forms of Cuban dance and music apart from other global musical
For the purposes of this paper, a set of musical examples will be discussed, all of
which are included on the accompanying disc. Track 1 is a traditional West African
piece entitled Sala Kpa Kpa that comes from the Kpelle people of modern Liberia. A
number of similarities between this piece and contemporary Cuban hip-hop can be clearly
heard. There is a relatively basic repeated percussion rhythm that introduces the piece
which quickly evolves into a very intricately layered and polyrhythmic drum pattern.
This same idea can be clearly heard in the repeated staccato pattern that begins the
Orishas’ Habana (Track 2) as well as the percussive guitar introduction to Desaparecidos
13 Orishanet.org <http://www.orishanet.org/ocha.html>
Track 4 is a traditional Cuban santería piece performed by Grupo Ache Iya. This
tribute to Eleguá is a good example of the transculturation of music from the West
African tradition to Cuba. It is characterized by an aesthetically simple, yet intricate and
layered percussion bass beat. The vocal line can be distinguished by its clarity, repetition
and almost conversational tone. Tengo (Track 5) by Hermanos de Causa is a particularly
comparative Cuban hip-hop piece. Its accompanying instrumental beat is very clear, but
rather syncopated and composed of many layered percussive sounds. The lyrics are very
precise and clearly heard. Like the tribute to Eleguá, Tengo uses a call and response
technique, rhyme, and a repetitive “catchy” refrain. Similarly, the Eleguá Blessing (track
6) also employs the characteristic call and response form, and the use of this form in the
Orishas’ Desaparecidos only increases its aural appeal.
Perhaps the element that most musically distinguishes Cuban hip-hop from its
North American counterpart is its unique rhythmic pattern and instrumentation. Rap
music in the United States is almost always organized into a 4/4 time signature. The
musical beats and vocal lyrics are separated into sets of two or four and the rhythmic
emphasis can be heard as almost march-like. While this organization of musical beats is
also present in Cuba, the rhythm most often heard in typical Cuban music is that of the
clave. The clave beat is separated into groups of 3 and 2 (or 2-3) and is most often heard
in the musical genres guaguancó, rumba, and the older styles of rumba Colombia and
abaquá. The latter two often employ a version known as the 6/8 clave which derives
itself from the West African cowbell 12/8 timeline.14
14 Wikipedia. < http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clave_%28rhythm%29>
3-2 “son clave” rhythm
This clave beat can be clearly heard in the song Compositor Confundido (Track 6),
popularized by Ibrahim Ferrer and the Buena Vista Social Club. The piece opens with a
tres15 and clave introduction. The claves16 clearly set up the syncopated 2-3 clave beat
for the entire piece. Instinto’s Kirino con su tres (Track 7) is also organized by the clave
pattern, but uses the more traditional 3-2 beat.
Cuban popular music is also tied to the nation’s cultural heritage by its
instrumentation. This roots emphasis was first noted in the salsa explosion of the 1950s.
“The use of traditional instruments such as congas, maracas, güiros, bongos, the piano,
plus trumpets and trombones – which were emphasized to translate the sound of the
barrio – was retained as an ideological affirmation of the Caribbean heritage.”17 Cuban
raperos today often incorporate batas, congas, live drums, guitar bass, traditional
religious chants and imagery into their music. Additionally, some hip-hop groups use
aspects of familiar rumba, mambo, and other traditionally Afro-Cuban genres in their
own pieces. In contrast to the overtly sexual demeanor and dress of American female
artists, their Cuban counterparts will often dress in loose fitting African-style clothing
during performances in opposition to the female stereotype. Whether or not the lyrics of
15 The tres is a small guitar that is used in traditional Cuban music.
16 The claves are an instrument that consists of two hardwood sticks that are banged together to produce a
piercing rhythmic pattern usually used in Latin music.
17 Janson Pérez, 151.