Dissenting rappers spark lyrical battle for Cuban hearts and minds

It is one of the most sacred slogans of communist Cuba, deployed by Fidel Castro during the 1959 revolution and repeated countless times since: “Homeland or death” – Homeland or death.

So when a group of Cuban rappers, some living abroad, launched a lyrical challenge to the sacred phrase, subverting it to “Patria y Vida” – Homeland and Life – and calling the time of revolution to a choir of “It’s over,” the Havana government mobilized to defeat the insurgents, including with its own musical response.

Rap doesn’t pull any punches. The video opens with an image of 19th-century Cuban hero José Martí being burned to reveal George Washington, another revolutionary. “No more lies, my people demand freedom, no more doctrines,” run the words.

“Homeland and life” is a phrase of light, a phrase of rebirth, ”Yotuel Romero, one of the rappers, told the Financial Times from Spain, where he spends part of his time.“ Cubans who live abroad and those on the island have found hope in these words, hope for a prosperous Cuba … where we can live with our rights respected. “

“The song certainly made a lot of noise,” said Ricardo Herrera, director of the Washington-based Cuba Study Group, which promotes American-Cuban dialogue. “It’s a very powerful song with lyrics that resonated with a lot of Cubans, especially off the island.”

Most of the musicians involved – Alexander Delgado and Randy Malcom of reggaeton group Gente de Zona, singer-songwriter Descemer Bueno, as well as Yotuel – are Cuban exiles who, until recently, regularly visited Havana.

Two dissident rappers living on the island, El Funky and Maykel Osorbo, members of the artistic collective San Isidro, are also present. In November, San Isidro and his supporters gathered outside the Cuban Ministry of Culture to lead a rare public protest on the island after the imprisonment of one of its members.

The rap fury comes at a sensitive time for Cuba’s Communist government, which is struggling with severe food shortages and long lines for basic supplies. Pandemic restrictions and a tightening of the US embargo under the Trump administration have devastated tourism, a major source of dollars, and hampered the flow of remittances from abroad.

Cuban official media were quick to label the rappers as traitors and mercenaries loving the United States. President Miguel Díaz-Canel joined in the attacks, tweeting: “#FatherlandorDeath screamed thousands of people last night. . . They tried to erase our slogan but Cuba sent it viral #CubaViva ”.

Havana residents line up to buy food. The Cuban Communist government is grappling with severe shortages and long lines for basic supplies © Yamil Lage / AFP via Getty Images

This week, the authorities unveiled a musical counter-explosion: the rather awkwardly titled “Patria o Muerte por la Vida” – The Homeland or Death for Life – featuring five officially sanctioned performers, led by the songwriter Raúl Torres, singing a vigorous salsa rebuttal to the rappers against the backdrop of a Cuban flag.

“You can make money licking the arrogance of empire,” the lyrics say, referring to the United States. “You can make money singing about you against poverty from a satin couch.”

So far, YouTube users appear to be siding with the rappers, who have seen nearly 3 million views as of March 5, compared to 670,000 for the regime-sanctioned line.

Politicians abroad also weighed in. Dita Charanzová, a Czech conservative in the European Parliament, organized an internet seminar to support rappers.

“Being Czech, the Cubans’ fight for democracy reminds me a lot of our fight. . . against the communist regime, ”she said. “Music and art played a fundamental role in the resistance.”

The increasingly bitter music war reflects the movement of a new generation of Cuban Americans supporting Trump in Miami, like Alex Otaola, a social media influencer and internet TV host. He sought to ban from Miami Cuban or Cuban-American cultural figures interested in improving relations between the two countries, preferring an uncompromising boycott policy.

“Latin music is becoming more and more popular and Miami is at the center,” said a Western Cuban music promoter who asked not to be named. “At the same time, there is this new atmosphere and even more hostile to any reconciliation there with Cuba which is very difficult to escape,” he said.

It’s unclear whether the musical battle will resonate with ordinary Cubans, most of whom are preoccupied with a daily struggle for food and basic necessities.

Several people who spoke to the FT over the phone said they were aware of the problem due to the government’s response, but added that most people stayed at home to avoid the coronavirus and that little was said about it. in the queues for food.

Yurislaidis Lopez, a 32-year-old man living in Marianao, a working-class suburb outside Havana, was not moved by the video and its anti-authority message. “I don’t know what they are doing to others, but in my neighborhood the police are protecting us,” she said.

“What everyone talks about where I live is that for the first time in years the man on the bicycle with a box of piglets on his back hasn’t arrived. We are raising them for the new year. “

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