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Buena Vista in the Club: Rap, Reggaetón, and Revolution in Havana

Buena Vista in the Club: Rap, Reggaetón, and Revolution in Havana

by Geoffrey Baker

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In Buena Vista in the Club, Geoffrey Baker traces the trajectory of the Havana hip hop scene from the late 1980s to the present and analyzes its partial eclipse by reggaetón. While Cuban officials initially rejected rap as “the music of the enemy,” leading figures in the hip hop scene soon convinced certain cultural institutions to accept


In Buena Vista in the Club, Geoffrey Baker traces the trajectory of the Havana hip hop scene from the late 1980s to the present and analyzes its partial eclipse by reggaetón. While Cuban officials initially rejected rap as “the music of the enemy,” leading figures in the hip hop scene soon convinced certain cultural institutions to accept and then promote rap as part of Cuba’s national culture. Culminating in the creation of the state-run Cuban Rap Agency, this process of “nationalization” drew on the shared ideological roots of hip hop and the Cuban nation and the historical connections between Cubans and African Americans. At the same time, young Havana rappers used hip hop, the music of urban inequality par excellence, to critique the rapid changes occurring in Havana since the early 1990s, when the Soviet Union fell, its subsidy of Cuba ceased, and a tourism-based economy emerged. Baker considers the explosion of reggaetón in the early 2000s as a reflection of the “new materialism” that accompanied the influx of foreign consumer goods and cultural priorities into “sociocapitalist” Havana. Exploring the transnational dimensions of Cuba’s urban music, he examines how foreigners supported and documented Havana’s growing hip hop scene starting in the late 1990s and represented it in print and on film and CD. He argues that the discursive framing of Cuban rap played a crucial part in its success.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“A careful, incisive examination of the cultural politics and history of hip-hop in Havana—including its contentious relationship to reggaeton’s insurgent populism, blatant commercialism, and avoidance of explicit politics—Buena Vista in the Club gives readers a lucid tour of the complex spatial and ideological ground occupied by rap in Cuba. Foregrounding the interplay between state institutions, local artists, and foreign intellectuals, Geoffrey Baker provides a necessary and nuanced account of the myriad negotiations involved in ‘nationalizing’ hip-hop in a place with such a fraught but close relationship to the United States. This book offers a crucial historiographical contribution to studies of hip-hop’s global resonance and local meanings.”—Wayne Marshall, co-editor of Reggaeton

“This masterful portrait of the rap and reggaetón scenes in modern Cuba surpasses existing work in its level of insight, depth, and contemporaneity. Geoffrey Baker offers a thoroughly original street-level ethnography of the local rap scene and illuminates the often contradictory workings of the various bureaucratic institutions involved in popular music. He also develops a significant critique of foreign portrayals of contemporary Cuban music culture and of the local/global dynamics of ‘imitating’ foreign rap (or another genre) as opposed to ‘nationalizing’ it with sprinkles of local musical flavor.”—Peter Manuel, author of Caribbean Currents: Caribbean Music from Rumba to Reggae

NACLA Report on the Americas
“In Buena Vista in the Club, University of London Music Professor Geoffrey Baker examines the rise and fall of Cuban hip-hop.... This retrospective looks at the evolution of the Cuban hip-hop industry and how it has affected Cuban society, politics, and Havana’s relationship with the New York music industry.”
International Journal of Cuban Studies - Jeanette Bello Mota
“The text is both extremely readable, for its accessible language, and academically rigorous, for the bibliographic references…. [T]he book is a thorough study of the politics of style in hip hop and reggaetón in Cuba. Baker demonstrates a deep knowledge of the discourses surrounding the representation of the Cuban rap scene produced by academia and the media.”
Popular Music - Colter Harper
Buena Vista is Baker’s second book on music in Latin America and is a valuable contribution to Duke University Press’s Refiguring American Music series. This series, edited by Ronald Radano and Josh Kun, questions and confronts the dominant narratives framing the study of American music. In meeting the broad aims of the series, Baker throws a wide net that encompasses hip hop and reggaetón, as well as frameworks of race, politics, economies, globalisation and urban studies. It speaks greatly of Baker that this book maintains a sense of immediacy and detail as these broad strands are woven together. Baker’s contribution will undoubtedly lead to further debate on Cuban hip hop. . . .”
Choice - L. Hendricks
“[A] lively, personal examination of Havana’s street music, dance, and politics. . . . In tracing the history of rap and reggaetón, Baker makes a major contribution to the understanding of Cuban popular music and the global commercial success of rap music. Highly recommended.”
Labour/Le Travail - Jerome Camal
Buena Vista in the Club is an essential addition to the growing scholarship on global hip hop. Baker adds to this scholarship in two significant ways. First, unlike his predecessors, he refuses to isolate the study of rap from reggaetón, preferring instead to analyze the interplay between the two genres. Second, he takes reflexivity to a new level by revealing the ways in which the works of foreign journalists and scholars have shaped the representation of Cuban rap and facilitated its success.”
The Latin Americanist - Naomi Pueo Wood
Buena Vista in the Club is an excellent contribution to the fields of Cuban cultural studies, hip hop studies, and world music studies. Baker opens up new areas for further inquiry into the role of the foreign scholar, bodily discourse within popular forms, and close readings of Cuba’s principal hip hop group today, Los Aldeanos.”

Product Details

Duke University Press Books
Publication date:
Refiguring American Music
Product dimensions:
6.10(w) x 8.80(h) x 1.10(d)

Read an Excerpt


Rap, Reggaetón, and Revolution in Havana
By Geoffrey Baker

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2011 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-4959-4

Chapter One


Nationalizing Rap in Cuba

Hip hop is the inverse of capitalism, Hip hop is the reverse of colonialism. —GREG TATE

Ideas are our weapons.—BILLBOARD IN HAVANA

In "the village," waging my own Battle of Ideas. —EL ALDEANO (the villager), "Noches perdidas"

In August 2004, shortly before the opening date of the Tenth Havana Hip Hop Festival, I spoke to Alpidio Alonso, president of the Asociació Hermanos Saíz (AHS), the cultural wing of the Union of Young Communists and the organization behind the festival. Alonso recounted the association's efforts to promote rap and enthused about the dialogue between rappers and their audiences, the "authenticity of their discourse," and the international importance of their concerns. Rap originated in the United States, he said, as a form of resistance to the dominant culture, conveying a revolutionary social message. Similarly, at an earlier press conference he had described the aim of the festival as "to project a revolutionary message from Cuba, a commitment to the cause of the downtrodden in the world." Rap in Cuba, he told me, embodied a struggle to change the world through ideas and music, and since the island was a global figurehead in the sphere of critical debate, "it's very symbolic that this event takes place in Cuba, with rappers who come mainly from Latin America, from countries that are subject to this imperialist pseudo-cultural invasion."

As Alonso, a middle-aged bureaucrat from provincial Cuba, sat in his office talking up hip hop, an urban youth cultural form, I was struck by his use of language. His comments shed light on the question of how a musical form imported from Cuba's ideological archenemy, and usually characterized as either a celebration of individualism and materialism or protest music, was not only assimilated into national culture but, within a few years, came to be actively promoted by the Cuban Revolution. The state not only organized and financed the annual hip hop festival from 1997 to 2005, but it also supports two institutions which promote rap, the ahs and the Agencia Cubana de Rap (ACR). My intention here is to examine how and why the state has become so quickly and deeply involved with rap music, to an apparently unique degree among governments. The time that elapsed between rap's first "official" appearance (the 1995 festival) and the creation of the ACR was just seven years; rock musicians, who had been fighting for cultural space since the 1960s, did not receive their own agency until 2007, even though key officials like Minister of Culture Abel Prieto and Vice Minister of Culture Fernando Rojas—formerly president of the AHS—are if anything more sympathetic to rock than rap. I will focus in particular on the discursive strategies of leading figures in the hip hop scene and officials like Alonso. The terrain of language will be central to my discussion; it is here that crucial steps were taken and key distinctions between rap and other musical forms lie.

The importance of examining discourses about music for understanding how musical styles are incorporated into constructions of national culture and identity is underlined by Peter Wade (2000, 238) in his study of Colombian popular music: "the success of Coste? [coastal] music lay in great part in its multivocality, which meant it could be talked about productively by different people in many different ways.... When I say productively, I mean that the music could be harnessed effectively to the constitution of identity." In Cuba, I was frequently struck by the productive ways that people talked about rap, though it was the similarity between discourses that caught my attention. When I attended public events like the rap festival colloquium—a lengthy annual event which illustrated the importance of talking about rap in Cuba—I noticed a marked consistency in discussions of the relationship of hip hop to national culture and ideology. Leading officials, spokespeople, commentators, and artists had adopted a shared public position, and I was drawn to explore what lay behind this "party line" on Cuban rap.

I aim to investigate the place that hip hop has gained in Cuban national culture, to enquire into the institutionalization and nationalization of rap, and to analyze the discourse of rap cubano articulated by rappers and politicians alike. Views on the institutionalization of Cuban rap are widespread and diverse; discussions continue because the motivations behind state policies are impossible to prove conclusively. Nevertheless, the question that lies behind them—how and why the culture of the enemy quickly came to form a part of national culture—is a vital one, and the answers illuminate recent Cuban cultural policy.

Scholars of Cuban hip hop have addressed the relationship between rappers and the state. Alan West-Durán (2004, 8) writes of Cuban rap in terms of "a politicization and mobilization that is not tied to the state or party ideology, even if many Cubans share the ideals expressed by these two official institutions. Cuban rappers are functioning as a countervailing voice and the government knows this, which is why since 1999 it has 'recognized' and tried to co-opt their activities and concerts." This analysis fails to account for the ideological connections between hip hop and the revolution, and it is symptomatic of a widespread view of rap as a resistant musical form and a target for co-optation by state institutions.

Sujatha Fernandes (2006, 118–19) contends that "the Cuban state ... realizes that it can harness the energy of these rappers as a way of bolstering the image of Cuba as a mixed race nation with African roots" and that "the state has harnessed various sectors of the movement as a way of recapturing popular support in the special period." This interpretation is also problematic, not least because no evidence is provided to support it. At the time that the state began its involvement with rap in 1997, there were still widespread reservations about the validity of this "American music," so it is scarcely credible that any "attempt to reconstruct national unity" at a time when official anti-U.S. sentiment was high would have focused on such an ambiguous cultural symbol. Furthermore, given the Cuban government's "fear of a black nation," as Fernandes glosses it, it is unlikely that rap's nonconformist racial discourses, which challenged rather than bolstered the myth of racial democracy, held much appeal.

The idea that "the Cuban state realizes" anything, meanwhile, suggests a unity of purpose that has been distinctly lacking and glosses over the key question of precisely who was supposedly realizing, harnessing, and so on. The Cuban state cannot be regarded as a monolithic entity (Kapcia 2000; Askew 2002): it incorporates divergent ideological tendencies, and this lack of uniformity is reflected in its cultural policies, including those relating to rap. Fault lines in cultural politics have been exposed by the differing policies pursued simultaneously by the AHS and ACR, as well as contradictory resistance from the state-run media. Processes of cultural nationalization are carried out by human agents, not some kind of actorless hegemony, and much supposed appropriation or harnessing is carried out not by elite groups but by ordinary musicians and low- or medium-level intermediaries (Wade 2000, 11), resulting in nuances and inconsistencies. Magia López, a rapper, is currently director of the ACR, and leading hip hoppers have worked within the AHS, the ACR, radio and television, and the print media—in other words, within the state.

A binary rappers versus the state model thus needs to be questioned, and along with it the notions of control, co-optation, appropriation, and harnessing that tend to dominate discussions of state–hip hop relations. There are three fundamental problems with this dichotomy. First, it implies a false ideological distinction. Hip hop and the Cuban state do not just share extensive ideological terrain but are, in a deep sense, coming from the same ideological place, as this chapter will explore. Second, it employs a singular noun—"state"—rather than the plural noun used in Cuba—"institutions." The latter usage reveals that the state is experienced as differentiated and multifaceted; each government institution has its own modus operandi. Third, it ignores the role of cultural intermediaries who are neither government functionaries nor hip hoppers—or, in some cases, both government functionaries and hip hoppers—in rap's assimilation into national culture. Pace West-Durán, the rap scene has been tied to state ideology through these intermediaries, whose aim has been to promote rap, not co-opt it.

The Intermediaries

The process of rapprochement between rappers and state representatives was initiated by articulate leaders of the hip hop scene, who underlined the history of Cuban assimilation of foreign culture and parallels between conscious rap and Cuban national ideology to shape a discourse that appealed to government officials, Cuban rappers, and foreign observers alike. Their motivation was to avoid the problems that had plagued rock for decades, and to open the door to state support. While hip hop has had a number of spokespersons and allies, three figures are widely viewed as having played the most significant part in negotiating a space for rap within Cuban national culture: Rodolfo Rensoli, Pablo Herrera, and Ariel Fernández.

Rodolfo Rensoli, the founder of Grupo Uno, took the first steps in the institutionalization of rap when he began organizing the annual hip hop festival in 1995. Two years later, he approached Roberto Zurbano—a writer and scholar who was then vice-president of the AHS—and proposed that the AHS collaborate in organizing the event. Rensoli already had experience of promoting alternative music in East Havana, an interest he shared with the AHS's president, Fernando Rojas, who was trying to create a space for rock at this time. Rojas and Zurbano looked into the idea but got a cold response from the Instituto Cubano de la Música and other institutions, so they decided to take it on themselves; they saw the AHS's role as working with sectors seen as problematic by other institutions (Zurbano 2009, 144). As Zurbano (n.d.a, 7) recalls, he and Rojas began "working in parallel, questioning, in different fields, solidified concepts of nation, national culture and cultural politics"; they mediated between artists, the upper levels of state bureaucracy, concert producers, and the press—explaining, pleading, even insulting, "glimpsing a utopian horizon, believing in the construction of a new culture." There are three key points here: first, the leading figure in the nascent rap scene approached a state organization for help, rather than the other way around; second, this first institutional step depended on a shared predisposition toward alternative, foreign culture (rather than a desire to contain it); and third, Zurbano and Rojas had to struggle against the preconceptions of less forward-thinking branches of the state apparatus. From the outset, then, notions of state co-optation of rap—or unified policy—need rethinking.

Pablo Herrera (who now lives in the United Kingdom) is Cuba's most distinguished hip hop producer. As a poet and language teacher at the University of Havana, he first encountered Cuban rap via his student Joel Pando, director of the rap group Amenaza. Herrera went on to become Amenaza's manager and mentor; they parted ways when members of Amenaza departed for France and formed Orishas. Herrera devoted himself to making hip hop instrumentals and became Havana's rap producer of choice from 1999 to 2005. In the pivotal year of 1997, Herrera had called the AHS and suggested a meeting between rappers and visiting U.S. hip hop legend Fab 5 Freddy, illustrating the proactive role of intermediaries in the hip hop–state relationship (Zurbano 2009, 144). As a professional translator, Herrera was perfectly equipped for his role as a mediator within this transnational cultural sphere.

Ariel Fernández (now based in New York) is a DJ and journalist who became national hip hop promoter for the AHS. The pivotal figure in the hip hop scene of the early 2000s, he presented a weekly half-hour rap show, La Esquina del Rap, on Havana's Radio Metropolitana and created and hosted the national rap show Microfonazo in a slot provided by the ahs on Radio Progreso. He was also the founding editor of Movimiento magazine.

At La Madriguera, the headquarters of the Havana branch of the ahs, Fernández and his successors, Williams Figueredo and Jorge Enrique Rodríguez, bona fide members of the hip hop scene yet also state employees, contributed to hip hop's development from 2000 onward as rap promoters. Figueredo, who had a tendency to break into verse while I was interviewing him, would try to persuade the presenters of radio shows to announce forthcoming concerts, play a song, and perhaps interview a group. His open preference for critical, underground rap could be seen in the spaces he provided for some of the most challenging groups, like Explosión Suprema, Los Paisanos, Hermanos de Causa, and Los Aldeanos. As AHS rap promoter from 2002 to 2005 and subsequently a presenter on the radio show La Esquina de Rap, he has been a key point of contact between the state and the rap scene, working within both spheres simultaneously. His successor, Rodríguez, moved on from promoting rap concerts at La Madriguera to working at the AHS national headquarters. Most recently, Rodríguez has been a key figure in negotiating the rehabilitation of Los Aldeanos under the auspices of the AHS after the duo was blacklisted by performance venues in 2009. The liminal, intermediary role of such AHS promoters is revealed in the following comments that one of them made to Laura García Freyre: "We deal more with the artists and the underground audience ... sometimes we're the ones who discover talent in the street. I'm always involved in a series of independent, underground projects, in the street, apart from the institution of La Madriguera."

The ambiguous roles of La Madriguera and the AHS will be a recurrent theme in these pages (see Baker 2011 for further discussion). Through the ahs, the state has provided free concert space, lighting, audio, and limited publicity for rap groups. If the development of Cuban rap has outstripped that of other countries in the region, the state must be given some credit. Many rappers see the AHS's involvement at least partially in positive terms and look back on the AHS-organized rap festivals as golden moments in the history of Cuban hip hop. The AHS has also helped rappers with the paperwork and institutional approval required for independent projects, such as the open-air rap peñas at 19 y 10 in Vedado. Its organization and promotion of performances by the outcast duo Los Aldeanos in 2010 is emblematic of its support for the hip hop scene at key moments. This support has been uneven, often full of contradictions and conflicts as personnel has changed, yet just as often, it has been a vital constituent part of the scene's greatest successes. The state–hip hop relationship cannot be understood without proper consideration of the role of the AHS, which might be regarded as an "intermediary institution," that is, part of the state, yet employing leading hip hop figures and being responsible for mediating between the hip hop scene and other government branches—at times creating spaces where none were to be found.

Several of these intermediaries have also taken an intellectual interest in hip hop. Fernández's (2000) article "Rap cubano: ¿oes? urbana? O la nueva trova de los noventa" (Cuban rap: urban poetry? Or the nueva trova of the nineties) was a landmark attempt to promote hip hop among intellectual and government circles as a significant cultural phenomenon that could not be ignored by the state, while Herrera and Zurbano have contributed to academic debates on Cuban rap (e.g., Herrera and Selier 2003; Zurbano 2009). Herrera and Fernández, who played fundamental roles in mediating between the expectations of the state, rappers, and foreign observers, are both highly articulate and confident figures who forged links with senior figures in the AHS and the Ministry of Culture, worked with the ACR, and used their knowledge of Cuban cultural politics and global hip hop to shape a discourse which upheld both the aims of the Cuban Revolution and core values of underground hip hop. Crucially, they tried to legitimize rap cubano in the eyes of state institutions. Such proactive intermediaries have aimed to increase the space for Cuban hip hop by making it intelligible to cultural officials, and they have been prepared to argue hard when necessary; many outside Cuba—and even inside—are unaware just how fierce debates over culture may become behind closed institutional doors. A focus on these figures and processes reveals the limited relevance of the idea of state co-optation, and if there was any harnessing taking place, it was primarily by these intermediaries, who brought hip hop and the state together and fed Alonso the lines about hip hop and revolution that he recited in August 2004.


Excerpted from BUENA VISTA IN THE CLUB by Geoffrey Baker Copyright © 2011 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Geoffrey Baker is Senior Lecturer in the Department of Music at Royal Holloway, University of London. He is the author of Imposing Harmony: Music and Society in Colonial Cuzco, also published by Duke University Press.

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