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Cuban Underground Hip Hop

Cuban Underground Hip Hop
Black Thoughts, Black Revolution, Black Modernity

Drawing on over a decade of interviews and research, this fascinating book examines a group of self-described antiracist, revolutionary Cuban youth who used hip hop to launch a social movement that spurred international debate and cleared the path for social change and decolonization.

Series: Latin American and Caribbean Arts and Culture publication initiative

December 2015
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368 pages | 6 x 9 | 43 b&w photos |

In the wake of the 1959 Cuban Revolution, a key state ideology developed: racism was a systemic cultural issue that ceased to exist after the Revolution, and any racism that did persist was a result of contained cases of individual prejudice perpetuated by US influence. Even after the state officially pronounced the end of racism within its borders, social inequalities tied to racism, sexism, and homophobia endured, and, during the economic liberalization of the 1990s, widespread economic disparities began to reemerge.

Cuban Underground Hip Hop focuses on a group of self-described antiracist, revolutionary youth who initiated a social movement (1996–2006) to educate and fight against these inequalities through the use of arts-based political activism intended to spur debate and enact social change. Their “revolution” was manifest in altering individual and collective consciousness by critiquing nearly all aspects of social and economic life tied to colonial legacies. Using over a decade of research and interviews with those directly involved, Tanya L. Saunders traces the history of the movement from its inception and the national and international debates that it spawned to the exodus of these activists/artists from Cuba and the creative vacuum they left behind. Shedding light on identity politics, race, sexuality, and gender in Cuba and the Americas, Cuban Underground Hip Hop is a valuable case study of a social movement that is a part of Cuba’s longer historical process of decolonization.


Honorable Mention for the Caribbean Studies Association's 2017 Barbara T. Christian Literary Award

  • Acknowledgments
  • 1. Introduction
  • 2. Historicizing Race, Cultural Politics, and Critical Music Cultures in Cuba
  • 3. La Revolución dentro de la Revolución/The Revolution within the Revolution: Hip Hop, Cuba, and Afro-Descendant Challenges to Coloniality
  • 4. Whiteness, Mulat@ness, Blackness: Racial Identities and Politics within the Cuban Underground Hip Hop Movement
  • 5. “Never Has Anyone Spoken to You Like This”: Examining the Lexicon of Cuban Underground Hip Hop Artivist Discourses
  • 6. “I’m a Feminist, But I Don’t Hate Men”: Emergent Black Feminist Discourses and Identity Politics within the Cuban Underground Hip Hop Movement
  • 7. Kruda Knowledge, Kruda Discourse: Las Krudas CUBENSI, Transnational Black Feminism, and the Queer of Color Critique
  • 8. Conclusion
  • Bibliography
  • Notes
  • Index

Columbus, Ohio

Saunders is an assistant professor in the Department of African American and African Studies at the Ohio State University.



Ariel Fernández, a Cuban hip hop producer, DJ, and foundational member of Cuba’s hip hop generation who is now based in New York, posted the following on his Facebook page on January 26, 2014:

Arsenio Rodríguez, Mongo Santamaría, La Lupe, Celia Cruz, Chano Pozo, Olga Gillot, Miguelito Valdez, Mario Bauza, Cachao, Pérez Prado were born, bred, and raised in Cuba. They were Cubans. Not Latinos. I repeat: not Latinos. Rumba, Son, Mambo, Cha Cha Cha, Guaguanco, Boleros, Pilón, Mozambique, Afro-Cuban are Cuban genres, not Latino. Without all those rhythms invented and created by Cubans in a country named Cuba and later brought to the U.S. would not exist what is called Salsa today and Latin Jazz. Period. One hundred percent fact checking. And I am only doing this because this Cuban identity and contribution is often dismissed, hidden, and manipulated in this country. So why am I a divisive person when I claim what my ancestors did? . . . Who gets offended? And why? Does the truth hurt? Who? We are Cubans and Caribbeans . . . Not Latinos. What is in the end . . . Latin?

Here Fernández challenges the politics of “Latin@ness” in the United States and the way in which it is used to erase the contributions of Cubans to the development of U.S. music culture and Caribbean music cultures. He also mentions the contributions of Cubans to music cultures that are known as Afro-diasporic musical traditions. Fernández points to the way in which these contributions are not bounded by the geopolitical borders of nations: when Cubans leave Cuba, they are still Cuban. What he argues here is that people carry those subjectivities with them and reproduce them within sound, no matter where they are. Fernández invokes the term “Afro-Cuban” as “Cuban,” referring to the African origins of Cuban culture, and argues that redefining Cubans as “Latino” erases part of what it means to be Cuban: their African cultural legacies. He does, however, self-identify as a Black man.

This book is the product of a semilongitudinal study that analyzes the artivism of the members of the first generation of the Cuban Underground Hip Hop Movement (CUHHM), “the old school” of Cuban hip hop (active from about 1995 to 2006). I started participating in the CUHHM as a concertgoer in 1998. That year was important, for by that point hip hop had become conscious of itself as a music genre, the CUHHM had started to conceptualize itself as a social movement, and Cuba’s younger generation of socially critical artists had begun to enter into the movement and develop their own discourses aimed at broad-based social change. I use 2006 as the marker for the end date of the early years because this was when the movement saw the last major exodus of many of the founding artists of the Cuban Underground Hip Hop Movement to other countries. During that time, it also became clear that the movement had taken root throughout the Island, with Santiago de Cuba and other cities establishing their own local hip hop movements. Many of the groups in these cities (such as Las Positivas in Santiago de Cuba) have also emerged as influential national acts. Meanwhile a younger generation of artists in Havana came of age and began to fill the void left by the earlier generations. The groups and artists who stayed in Cuba began to change artistically over time, initiating newer types of artistic projects. As discussed in chapter 8, contemporary underground Cuban hip hop is a different artistic and social project from the original Cuban Underground Hip Hop Movement examined here. The CUHHM went into decline in 2006 when artists started to leave the Island. Another major shift in the movement occurred in 2011 when Obsesión, foundational members of the CUHHM leadership, returned from a tour in Canada. They learned that Magia, a member of Obsesión, had been replaced as the head of the Cuban Agency of Rap, an institution founded in 2002 to represent the interests of hip hop artists.

The effects of this recent leadership change have yet to be fully understood. Between 1998 and 2006 I traveled to Cuba two to three times a year; I began regularly returning to Cuba in 2010. The trips ranged from two weeks to three months. My work in Cuba was done primarily in Havana and on several tours with hip hop artists throughout the Island. In 2006 the majority of the first generation of Cuban hip hop artists left Cuba. They went primarily to the United States, Canada, Mexico, Norway, Spain, England, and Finland. I stayed in contact with many of these artists and attended their shows and symposia in the United States and Canada. Additionally, I organized a conference on contemporary Cuban music and scholarship in 2008 at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, where global hip hop scholars, activists, and Cuban hip hop scholars presented their work.

I draw from ethnographic data collected in Havana between 1998 and 2006 and 2010 and 2013, including interviews with twenty hip hop artists in Cuba, five artists living outside of Cuba, and ten state officials affiliated with the movement between 2004 and 2013, for a total of thirty-five formal interviews. The interviews lasted an hour and a half to two hours. Participant observation was a central part of this project. I passed as Cuban when moving through public space in Cuba. This was very important in gathering data. For example, Cuban taxi rides offered a wealth of information. I would sit quietly in the taxis while the drivers talked about their lives, new government policies, and current events or just vented about things that happened in their everyday experiences. A few times people noticed that I was quiet and double checked to see if I was Cuban, at which point I would just sigh, roll my eyes, and stare out of the window. They would laugh and keep talking. I learned over time how to move through space and to “pass.” While I was with artists, the racism and forms of harassment that we experienced were impressive.

If it became known that I was a foreigner, everyone with me would have had a problem in numerous situations. Until approximately 2005 it was illegal for Cubans, specifically Black people, to interact with “tourists.” When we were stopped by the police, it was important to know when to be silent and how to move to a position so that the police would focus on the others present—who knew how to negotiate with the police—so that I would never have to speak. Several friends commented: “You know what, Tanya, we like you because you pay attention to what’s happening around you and you know when to be quiet.” All this is to say that what I write is informed not only by hip hop lyrics, interviews, and music videos but by my witnessing of some pretty complicated experiences. We always had an interesting conversation afterward. It is important to note that much of what I write is also informed by my experiences during my own everyday life in Cuba.

When I started research in Cuba, beginning in 1998, when I did preliminary fieldwork for my undergraduate senior thesis, I wanted to understand more about social marginalization there. I focused on race, gender, and sexuality. I wanted to learn whether the state had been successful in addressing prerevolutionary social inequality. Back in 1998 much of the academic literature on Cuba was still centered on the antiquated debate of whether or not Cuba was a totalitarian state or a socialist utopia. Dialogue about race let alone a critique was virtually absent. Carlos Moore and John Clytus were among the small number of scholars and writers to engage the question of race in contemporary Cuba. I knew that there had to be more to Cuba than what was represented in U.S. and Western European literature, media, and popular culture. As my experiences in Cuba confirmed this suspicion, I became frustrated with the absence of a nuanced, multilayered analysis of life in Cuba.

As I continued my work in Cuba at the graduate level, I started participating in the Cuban underground hip hop scene, at first simply as a place to socialize and listen to music after a day of research. Several scholars who had been mentors since I began going to Cuba as a twenty-year-old started to introduce me to Cuban peers who shared the same interests. As I moved forward in my work, I became frustrated. At the doctoral level, I was required to pursue formal research affiliations with institutions. Given that my work centered on sexuality, I decided to apply for an affiliation with research institutions such as the National Center for Sexual Education (CENESEX). I kept my informal affiliation with the Fernando Ortiz Foundation, but my research affiliation with it was not renewed in 2005. I became suspicious of the additional roadblocks that I faced in continuing my work. Several colleagues saw my disappointment the day I was told that my research affiliation would not be renewed. The University of Michigan demanded that I have a formal research affiliation in order to do my fieldwork, so in order to finish my doctoral work I complied.

The contradiction, as I understood full well, was that attempting to formalize anything with the Cuban state, especially in the area of sociology, was pretty much a death knell in terms of accomplishing research. As I left the building, one of the younger scholars, Abel Sierra Madero, followed me out the door. “Tanya,” he said, “You don’t need us. You know enough people here, so don’t focus on institutions, focus on people. You can accomplish your doctoral research alone. You have been coming here for years now.” Later that day, as I recounted the story to Cuban scholar and poet Víctor Fowler-Calzada, his only response was: “Culture. Focus on culture.”

I replied: “Yes, I know, in Cuba if you want to focus on ‘contentious issues’ you have to frame it as a historical project, before 1959, or as a cultural project. I get it. But how do I interview people about contemporary realities? Also, I don’t want to take the time to do an analysis of visual art, etc.”

He just repeated: “Culture. Focus on the cultural sphere. Just focus on the cultural sphere.”

After I went to sleep that night, frustrated and saddened about having to redesign the project completely, his advice clicked. I woke up in the middle of the night and thought: “Hip hop! The cultural sphere!” I realized that my friends and the circles in which I was roaming all centered around the hip hop movement. Everyone in the movement was talking about the issues that I was interested in, from the artists on the stage to the people who formed the movement’s public. I understood that by focusing on the group Las Krudas CUBENSI and female rappers and MCs such as Magia MC, La Yula, DJ Leydis, and others I could learn about feminism, gender, and sexuality in Cuba. All this time I had been attending underground lesbian parties, hip hop after-parties, concerts, conversations, symposia—I had a wealth of ethnographic data about everyday life in Cuba. Most importantly, I became aware that I had been talking to activists working for social change all along.

Nonetheless, after realizing that I already had access to a lively sphere of critique and debate on these issues, another question arose: “ Why was this happening in the cultural sphere?” In the literature on the Soviet Union, to which Cuban society, history, politics, and culture are unfairly equated, the answer was that culture was where all the disenfranchised political actors went to vent. Given my experiences in Cuba, however, and the way in which the work of artivists was hotly debated and discussed in state media, it was clear that something else was happening. That is how this project originated.

In August 2005, a week before Hurricane Katrina landed in New Orleans, I sat with cultural worker and artistic director Rodolfo Rensoli at his apartment in the Havana suburb of Alamar. Rensoli, a Rastafarian and key figure in Cuba’s alternative culture and arts scenes, talked about art, race, and the history of cultural politics in Cuba. During the interview, Rensoli linked cultural politics, racial equality, and social change in Cuba to a longer historical struggle against the legacies of colonialism. He mentioned a meeting that a friend of his (one of the few Black students to graduate from Cuba’s state-run arts institutions) organized with the minister of culture to talk about race and cultural production in Cuba. Rensoli described what happened in our interview in Havana in 2005:

Y convocó con el Ministro de Cultura, donde yo planteé que el único problema que hay en Cuba . . . que el único factor que entorpecía el desarrollo de la raza negra en Cuba es . . . era que todos los parámetros de legitimación son blancos, céntricos, euro-céntricos u occidentales. Que le cabía cualquier. Nosotros nos hemos creado un propio parámetro de medir la capacidad del individuo . . . nos estamos guiando por un discurso humanista de Francia de que sé yo que lugar, que siempre contiene al otro con una diferencia. Aquí no acabamos de asumir la nación mestiza como decimos en la cultura, no es así. Ahí en ese encuentro se dijo de alguna manera, Diego lo dijo, la actitud de la policía con el negro es vergonzosa. Se refiere al movimiento de rastafary. La justificación es que somos consumidores de marihuana . . . Pero ¿quién constata el valor de lo que producen los rasta como cultura? . . . hay un inmenso talento en la comunidad rastafary en Cuba . . . músicos de tremenda capacidad, pero somos tenidos como escoria. Igual pasa con el Rap.
O sea, entonces, la subordinación se ahí se expresa ahí o la intención de la continuidad de la subordinación colonial. Tienes que tener un discurso complaciente, tienes que tener una imagen que esté acorde con las concepciones de otro de lo que es una imagen agradable.

And he convened a meeting with the minister of Culture, where I proposed that the only problem in Cuba . . . that the only factor that hindered the development of the Black race in Cuba . . . was that all parameters of legitimation are white, centric, Eurocentric, or Western.That come from whichever one [Western European country]. We have created our own parameter to measure the ability of the individual in which we are guided by a French humanist discourse, really I don’t know from which place, which always contains the other with a difference. Here we have not stopped assuming that the nation is a mestiz@ nation, as we say in the culture; it’s not. There in that meeting, it was said somehow, Diego said it, the attitude of the police toward Blacks is shameful. He referred to the Rastafari movement. The rationale is that we are marijuana users. . . . But who notes the value of what Rastas produce as culture? . . . there is immense talent in the Rastafari community in Cuba . . . musicians of tremendous ability, but we are counted as slackers. The same goes with Rap.

So, then, the subordination there expresses itself or the intention of continuing colonial subordination. You have to have a discourse that is accommodating; you have to have an image that is consistent with the views of the other as to what is an agreeable image.

Rensoli and his cultural production group, Grupo Uno, are the founders of the Cuban Underground Hip Hop Festival; they are considered to be the producers who initiated the movement. In this quotation Rensoli reflects on what he sees as one of the biggest issues facing Black Cubans, particularly Black Cuban artists: the Eurocentrism of Cuban culture. This Eurocentrism is both a historical legacy and a continued manifestation of the colonial subordination of Cuba’s Afro-descendant population. It remains a central feature of discourse defining what and who count as Cuban. While internationally known dissidents are marginalized because of their direct challenge to the post-1959 state’s legitimacy to govern, nearly the entire Black population in Cuba has been historically, economically, and politically marginalized because of its cultural and aesthetic (including corporal) “differences.” Although questions surrounding economic and political equality reemerged in public discourse in Cuba during the 1990s, the role of Afro-descendant people in Cuba’s public sphere as contributors to the formation of Cuban culture and the nation has been downplayed, if not rendered invisible, throughout Cuban history.

According to Rensoli, continued colonial subordination has been hidden through the national discourse of mestizaje. This discourse posits that race does not exist in Cuba because everyone is racially and culturally mixed, yet it simultaneously depends on the cultural marginalization of that which is coded as African or Black. Through his discussion of the “other,” Rensoli critiques Western ontology and rejects it: in a country like Cuba, the only way for those who are defined as other to represent themselves in Western Eurocentric culture is to represent themselves as other in terms of the European, that is, as a different kind of being than a European. As Alexander Weheliye (2005), Rensoli, and numerous scholars and artists have argued, the cultural logic underlying hegemonic notions of Western modernity is premised upon the othering of Africans and Afro-descendants who have been and are formative in the emergence of the West or that which is Western.

The othering of Africans and Afro-descendants in the Americas is intertwined with the institutionalization of an African-centered forced labor system as a foundational element of colonial economic structures in the Americas. African peoples and their various cultural logics have been formative in the emergence of the West, yet the only intelligible way in which they are incorporated as part of the West is as the other. This process of othering accounts for the seemingly contradictory ways in which Black and Afro-descendant people who are clearly a part of the West are both included in and also excluded from the narrative of Western modernity (Gilroy 1993a; Nwankwo 2005; Weheliye 2005). Thus, in the case of Cuba, an African-descendant country guided by Eurocentric humanist discourse, there is a process of othering for Black and mulat@ Cubans,6 despite nationalist discourses arguing that Cuba is mixed and integrated. Rensoli contends that Cuba is culturally African and that it is in fact white Cubans’ anxious awareness of this that fuels their attempts to impose racial hierarchies that deny this cultural reality. For many of Cuba’s socially critical artists such as Rensoli, improving the political, economic, and social situation of Black Cubans and indeed of the country itself demands a culturally based challenge to the legacies of colonialism in Cuban culture. It requires exposing the ways in which anti-Black racism serves as the fulcrum of white supremacy (Nakagawa 2012). Such a challenge highlights the manner in which Eurocentrism and whiteness (as oppressive ideologies, subject positions, and ways of being in and interpreting the world) structure social inequality in the West (especially in the Americas), while at the same time exposing and acknowledging the contributions of Africans and their descendants in the formation of Cuban society and, as I argue in this book, the West.

This book examines the Cuban Underground Hip Hop Movement (CUHHM) from 1998 to 2006 as part of a transnational Afro-diasporic challenge to the coloniality of American culture (regionally speaking). In this text I focus on the emergence and activism of the CUHHM as a formative element in the emergence of localized Black identity politics in Cuba during the Special Period (1989 to the early 2000s), the years in which contemporary Black Cuban identity politics were in formation. By situating Cuba’s contemporary national Black identity debates, which were largely publicly spurred in the 1990s and early 2000s by the Cuban Underground Hip Hop Movement, in conversation with the circulation of hemispheric discourses concerning blackness, I show how localized Black identity politics, like the identity politics of Black U.S. Americans, Brazilians, and Puerto Ricans, have emerged in relation to and in conversation with Black identity politics throughout the Americas. By decentralizing essentialist notions of Black U.S. identity politics and centralizing Cuba as one node in the production of Black praxis within the Americas,7 I show how Black Cuban politics reverberate throughout the diaspora—even after a fifty-year embargo and the state’s institutionalization of cultural discourses of “racelessness” via mestizaje.

In debates about what constitutes Black U.S. identity politics, claims regarding their geopolitical boundaries and exceptionality negate the continued influence of the U.S. South on notions of Black identity within the United States, as well as rendering invisible the profound influence of Puerto Ricans, Jamaicans, Cubans, Haitians, and so many more from the Americas on the formation of Black U.S. culture, identities, and identity politics. It also obscures the contradictory space that Black people still hold in contemporary U.S. society. The Black experience in the Americas has always had a global element: our relationships to geopolitical borders were fluid until abolition, and national discourses concerning our ability to access the full benefits of American (regionally speaking) citizenships have always been and continue to be tenuous. These tensions have their origins in the colonial period. As such, I focus on the coloniality of Cuban culture and its effects on the possibilities available for Black and Afro-descendant Cubans in the emerging postembargo Cuba. Artists in the Cuban Underground Hip Hop Movement—the majority of whom were Afrodescendant youths—worked to decolonize their own and their fellow citizens’ hearts and minds, as a means of contributing to the progress of revolutionary change in Cuba. In conversation with artists, activists, and intellectuals throughout the Americas and indeed throughout the world, the CUHHM used hip hop as a means to expose and challenge the continued coloniality of the Cuban nation and the region. Hip hop serves as a cultural conduit for exchanging ideas, memories, local histories, and strategies with Afro-descendant populations in various American contexts. It is a continuation of longer legacies of music and orality within the African diaspora in the Americas that have been central in the emergence of what Weheliye (2005) calls “sonic Afro-modernity.”

The public presence of socially critical artists in Cuba contradicts its depiction as a totalitarian state (though it is clearly a repressive state at the time of this writing). The tendency of international onlookers to recognize only Cuban dissidents who seek to overthrow the state completely as potential and legitimate agents for change obscures the presence of a history of political activism within Cuba’s cultural sphere. The development of the Cuban Underground Hip Hop Movement in the late 1990s and early 2000s sparked significant media attention outside of Cuba because it was seen as one of the few notable manifestations of public activism. What is important to stress here, however, is that the movement became notable only when aspects of its discourse and practice became intelligible as political within hegemonic (U.S. and European) understandings of what constitutes “politics” and “political expression.” Had Cuba’s cultural sphere, or any cultural sphere, been taken seriously as a site of political activism and organization, the media would have realized that several generations of political activism have existed on the Island. To be sure, the CUHHM complicated and challenged the dominant discourses of race, gender, sexuality, political economy, and culture in Cuba, but it drew on both historical traditions and transnational networks of critique and contestation in order to do so.

An analysis of this movement highlights the sociopolitical significance of arts-based political activism as a propeller of social change. For the artivists of the CUHHM, “revolution” is centered on a profound and long-lasting disruption of social inequality, effected by altering individual and collective consciousness. Artivists expect to bring about a fundamental change in the structure of society by disrupting the social norms, practices, beliefs, and structures of feeling that reproduce economic and political disenfranchisement as well as human alienation. They work to effect social change by revealing existing realities and contradictions and offering an alternative vision of society. This is a form of cultural politics: “a collective and incessant process of producing meaning that shapes social experiences and configures social relations” (Alvarez et al. 1998, 3). The Cuban Underground Hip Hop Movement serves as a valuable case study of a social movement centered on cultural politics as a path to decolonization.

The CUHHM’s culturally based activism has focused on “knowledge-practices”: spurring social change through creating new discourses and knowledge frameworks for Cuban citizens by drawing from and calling attention to the memory and continued presence of African cultural legacies and other alternatives to hegemonic Eurocentric visions of Western modernity (Casas-Cortés et al. 2008). The movement aimed to help its members and its audience develop a critical consciousness, a key component in envisioning an alternative society and spurring citizens to act for social change. Through hip hop, the CUHHM empowered a generation of youth, now adults, in Cuba to name and understand the various forms of oppression that they face.

The economic crisis of Special Period Cuba challenged the legitimacy of state discourses and social policies centered on material-based social equality and inclusive citizenship. The CUHHM and numerous actors in Cuba’s politicized cultural sphere challenged the state’s material-based discourse both during the Special Period and now. The CUHHM is largely a sphere of racialized social critique of the limitations of the state’s material-based approach to citizenship and equality. It is also a movement whose aim was liberation not only of Black Cubans but also of the Cuban nation, the environment, and the world. In addition to the movement’s critiques of continued racism and racialization, it provided critiques of class inequality, sexism, homophobia, and heteronormativity.

The CUHHM’s critique of coloniality, in which artists also included a racialized critique of gender and sexuality, challenges the key hegemonic ideology in the region: that racism is an issue of individual prejudice, not a systemic, culturally, and by extension materially based problem. According to that ideology, racism ended with Spanish and Portuguese colonialism, only exists in and is perpetuated by the United States, and disappeared from Cuba with the 1959 Revolution. The CUHHM offers a pro-Black, antiracist critique in a socialist country that has pronounced the elimination of racism within its borders. CUHHM artists link racialized oppression to the legacies and ongoing forms of colonialism, imperialism, and rampant global capitalism. By making a cultural intervention against social oppression, however, artivists highlight that such oppression is rooted in ideology and culture and thus is not something that has been or can only be resolved by the state’s redistributive policies. Artivists challenge the underlying ideological basis of nearly every aspect of social and economic life as a means of spurring long-lasting, profound social change.

The Racialization of Culture and the Contradiction of Modernity in Latin America

In his interview Rensoli points out that aesthetics and artistic cultures coded as white in Cuba (for example, abstract painting, rock music, and folk music) are seen as contributing to canonical and contemporary culture, while those classified as Black are seen as problematic and excluded from national culture. The racialization of culture, knowledge, and experience was central to colonial domination in the Americas. While corporal coercion was a standard form of violence aimed at the control of African and indigenous populations during the colonial period, reshaping epistemic, affective, and erotic structures was also central to the project of colonial subjugation.8 This expansive ideological campaign is captured by the term “coloniality.” The coloniality of American culture reproduces a reality in which, despite having the legal designation “citizens,” Black, multiracial, indigenous, gender, and sexual minority individuals are not symbolically recognized as citizens in the Americas.9 Historically, these culturally marginalized groups have been classified via medical and criminal discourses as unfit or unable to contribute to society as healthy citizens (Bronfman 2005). This multilayered system of stratification is too easily obscured because citizenship was officially conferred on all, regardless of racial classification, with no regional equivalent to U.S. Jim Crow or South African–type legislation by which people were explicitly classified and legally separated on the basis of race. Yet, within this region, the colonial legacies embedded in culture (racism, sexism, classism, and heteronormativity),10 which are reflected in laws concerning good taste, appearance, and proper conduct, the neo-colonial policies implemented by twentieth-century regimes (socialist and capitalist) and the neo-liberal turn in global capitalism have served to perpetuate and obscure the existence of massive inequalities.

This book locates Cuba culturally, politically, and ideologically within the Americas and more specifically within the Caribbean. I recognize Cuba as a country that has a significant impact on the cultural and intellectual currents circulating throughout the Americas, a region where power struggles concerning competing visions of Western modernity continue to this day.11 As part of what is often referred to as the Atlantic or Black Atlantic, much of the region has yet to recognize or resolve its contradictory history of race. The Caribbean, in which some scholars include Brazil, was the first part of the Americas to be colonized and the place where the overwhelming majority of African enslaved and free people lived and worked. Before the United States came into existence, colonial European powers created settlements on the Atlantic coast of Latin America, on the Gulf Coast, and on the islands and coasts of the Caribbean, where a significant portion (in many cases the overwhelming majority) of the population was African or of African descent. As the colonies of the southeastern United States developed, their political and economic structures were largely modeled after and in conversation with the colonies of the Caribbean (including the Central American and Brazilian plantation economy systems).

When Western European modernity became defined in racialized, European cultural terms (beginning in the late eighteenth century and intensifying in the nineteenth century), many of the countries in the Americas faced a conundrum: how to fit their overwhelmingly Black, African-descendant, and indigenous nations into a vision of Western European modernity based on European cultural, racial (read: white) supremacy, and emergent anti-Black/anti-African racism. More specifically, this part of the hemisphere faced two contradictions. The first was the contradiction of exploiting African labor and creative energies while simultaneously purporting to create new nation-states that secured the rights of all. Over time a transnational discourse concerning race evolved that attempted to resolve this contradiction by allowing African bodies to be defined as commodities, essentially defining those enslaved or classified as Black as being outside of humanity. The second contradiction facing the emerging nations of Latin America and the Caribbean was that in hegemonic Eurocentric Western discourses they were not defined as being of the West even though they were located in the West, as the majority of their peoples were racially classified as nonwhite, mestiz@, indigenous, Black, and “Latin@.” The Eurocentric elite living in the region needed to find a way to write themselves into Western European modernity and to keep secret the reality that racially and most importantly culturally they were not European. But they also had to contend with Afrodescendant and indigenous populations who did not sit idly by and let Europeans and their descendants who were classified as white simply determine the development of the emergent nations.

Nonetheless, assimilating to European culture offered tremendous economic, social, and political benefits. Cultural Europeanization became an aspiration for many in the Americas because it gave access to colonial power (Castro-Gómez 2008). The contemporary hegemony of French, German, and Anglo countries (the United States and Canada classify themselves as European, which is also a highly questionable proposition to say the least) in what is now considered “ Western Europe” and North America (sans Mexico in the Eurocentric imaginary) has rendered invisible an important part of Western European history: the Spanish Empire and Portuguese Empire. After the reconquest of the Iberian Peninsula, the struggles for power among Iberian powers played out in the Americas, a source of Iberian wealth after the fall of the Moorish Empire. Within these empires, difference was largely based on ethnic and religious differences. Whiteness during this period was largely linked to ethnicity, religion, and relationship to the royal court (nobility). The colonial significance of whiteness as a status marker, as an ethnic marker, and as the foundation of an entire cultural imaginary still organizes social relations within the Americas today.

Countries that were part of the first wave of colonization in the Americas had to reconcile their realities on the ground with the changes that occurred during the second wave of colonialism. Settler colonialism emerged, and a new discourse of race was exported to build “European societies” within the Americas and later in Asia and Africa (Quijano 2000b). During this second and third wave, cognitive and genetic racial differences were increasingly understood as written on the body and encoded in blood. The light-skinned wealthy elites of Latin America and the Caribbean began to contest this increasingly racialized vision of modernity that left them vulnerable to the new reality of their nonwhiteness (read: non-Europeanness).

The primary method used to challenge the emergent discourses coming from the United States, France, Germany, and England was to reclassify culturally African and indigenous populations not as African or indigenous but as something else. By developing a discourse of mestizaje, light-skinned elites in the Americas enacted a selective embrace of only certain aspects of African culture, while simultaneously leaving whiteness culturally and phenotypically intact as a Eurocentric ideal (Arroyo 2003; Castro-Gómez 2008). The undesirable elements of culture and phenotype became associated with blackness (and in some parts of the Americas with indigeneity), while desirable elements were associated with whiteness. Blackness and indigeneity came to represent that which could be defined as outside of modern national culture or at best as representing a “primitive” element of national culture, physiology, and evolutionary history. The continued existence of a racialized Black/African culture has become encoded as a remnant of the “past” according to the national discourse of many countries in the Americas and the Caribbean. It is this continued strategy of selective appropriation and disavowal that allows racism to continue in the region today.

What the United States achieved through state laws that explicitly restricted the political and economic rights of certain groups Latin America and the Spanish-speaking Caribbean were able to achieve through laws that defined “custom.” What these countries defined as acceptable and unacceptable social practices supported the racist, sexist, classist, and heteronormative discourses of the time. They had legal codes concerning morality and productivity and legal codes that criminalized African culture and racialized non-normative sexuality. All of this further compounded the “Black” or “African” body as the sign of non-normativity (Ferguson 2004; Helg 1995; Moore 1997; Somerville 2000). Some examples of the racialization of culture are the criminalization of Yoruba religious instruments and African religious practices and secret organizations (Bronfman 2005; Helg 1995; Miller 2009; Moore 1997). In countries such as Cuba and Brazil, practicing Ifá, Candomblé, Umbanda, Santería, and other African and indigenous religions was and is still associated with the “lower classes,” which include Blacks, indigenous people, mixed-race people (depending on their physical features), and “Africanized” or “nativized” poor whites. Even today in Brazil, for example, Evangelical, Catholic, and other Christian groups are working intensely to have these religious traditions banned because of their “barbarity.”

Laws concerning “decency” governed social life, explicitly addressing what was considered acceptable morality. They designated what was “high culture” and what was “low culture” and racialized African and indigenous cultural practices and knowledge as criminal or indicative of criminal intent. In essence, while the work of sociologist Pierre Bourdieu (1984) illustrates how culture is used to legitimate class-based social inequality, the racialization of culture in the Americas, especially the racialization of “discriminating taste,” is used to legitimate race-based social inequality, in which culture is used as a supplement for race. Race and culture thus became contested stakes among European whites, “Latin/creole” white elites, and African, Afro-descendant, mixed-race, and indigenous populations that assert competing claims to and interventions into what would constitute Western modernity. Because racialized hierarchies of culture, aesthetics, and taste continue to legitimate and reproduce social inequality today, a significant number of politicized social actors focus on cultural politics when working for social change. In this book I begin from the perspective that the term “ West” is an ideological construct imbued with coloniality, meaning that its emergence as a concept has its origins in the colonial history of the Americas. In this way I locate the Americas as central to the evolution of contemporary Western ontology and epistemology (Mignolo 2006; Weheliye 2005).

Cultural Politics and Arts-Based Activism in Cuba and Latin America

Nearly all social movements in Latin America and the Caribbean in particular enact a form of cultural politics, as struggles for cultural hegemony are still very much ongoing throughout the region (Alvarez et al. 1998, 6). Hence the reach of these social movements is much greater than that of movements that focus on a single issue, lifestyle, or form of material inequality. Instead they confront multiple nodes of power within society simultaneously, as activists seek to reconfigure the meanings that are integral to social relations. Social movements in this region also foreground questions of national identity, which in turn have broader institutional and social effects, as they challenge the parameters of who is included in the nation and what is considered legitimately “political.” In short, cultural politics and social movements in the Americas are not simply about a competition for recognition or representation; they are struggles over competing visions of modernity. And hip hop is just one of the latest forms of Afro-descendant aesthetic and cultural interventions into hegemonic notions of modernity within the Americas.

The artivists of the CUHHM are part of a generation that came of age during a radically changing economic and political context: the Cuba of the 1990s that was struggling to respond to the economic, and subsequently political, instability unleashed by the fall of the Soviet Union. The 1989 to 1998 economic downturn is referred to as the Special Period. During this time the Cuban state also undertook its “Rectification” campaign (beginning in 1986 but formally understood to be from 1987 to 1990), whereby the state began to apologize for what it referred to as the “errors” of the Revolution. Through a series of unprecedented actions, the state signaled a new acceptance of religion when Pope John Paul II was invited to visit Cuba and Fidel Castro visited the houses of prominent Yoruba priests. In 1994 the film Fresa y chocolate was released and interpreted by many as heralding the state’s recognition of its mistreatment of Cuba’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) population.14 The state also liberalized its economy and permitted the ownership of small businesses by Cuban families. As Cuba became increasingly integrated into the world capitalist system, racially based material inequality reemerged, affecting Afro-descendant Cubans in particular and revealing the racialized limits of socialist ideology. Black, mulat@, and antiracist white youth began to mobilize to address the conceptual void in socialist ideology, while also demanding that the Cuban government live up to its promise of creating an egalitarian society. Although the 1990s represented a series of social, economic, and political crises, they were also a moment of hope for a new generation of Cuban youth, who realized that they were in the middle of another period of rapid and profound social change.

It is crucial to recognize that the new wave of cultural activism during the Special Period built upon the work of the CUHHM’s predecessors. The critical public space in which CUHHM artivists leveled their social critique was a result of the knowledge-practices undertaken by older generations of utopian artivists, intellectuals, and activists within and outside of the Cuban state. The emergence of Cuba’s particular cultural sphere is a result of its critical artists and intellectuals’ attempts to “socialize culture” and to develop a cultural politic that directly works to alter cultural regimes and expand political participation among citizens (Moore 2006). During a nearly fifteen-year period of intense and overt political tensions among Cuban artists, many of these actors were formally excluded from Cuba’s civil society because of their political investments as well as their aesthetic preferences and their race, class, gender, and sexuality. Despite the state’s attempts at censorship and intimidation during the early years of the revolution, the public engagement of critical artists and intellectuals (artivists) did not always play out as the state intended. As noted by Desiderio Navarro (2002), one of the central contradictions of the Cuban state’s socialization of culture (providing a socially critical education combined with critical artistic literacy) is that the state was fairly successful in creating the mechanisms to build the foundation for the emergence of educated socially critical citizens (BorgesTriana 2009; Martín-Sevillano 2008; Moore 2006) while at the same time expecting and even coercing the population to be less critical. The result was an intensification of frustration within the Cuban population, as several generations gained access to the tools and resources to understand their larger historical, political, and economic context, were encouraged to “act” and to be revolutionary, but then were forbidden actually to do so in any way that was not approved by the Cuban state. Resisting this, Cuba’s critical artists and intellectuals institutionalized a revolutionary, anticapitalist, and anticolonial ideological framework as part of Cuba’s cultural sphere, which has had a tremendous influence on the worldviews of younger generations of Cuban artists born after 1959. It is this framework that provides the foundation for the CUHHM.

The Cuban Underground Hip Hop Movement highlights the importance and value of examining cultural politics in action. It shows that the separation of “culture” from “politics” in empirical work restricts the tools necessary to explain the profound social changes occurring within Cuba and the Americas. This argument is familiar for those working within cultural studies. The social sciences, however, particularly sociology, still have much to learn from cultural studies in terms of moving beyond recognizing that the cultural is political to asking critical questions about cultural politics and recognizing the ways in which cultural workers often initiate or propel social change. When disciplines such as sociology reduce the diverse forms of political mobilization occurring within the arts to being simply “cultural expressions” that are “prepolitical” or simply not political at all, they also limit the ability to understand how cultural activism has been integral to expanding democratic praxis and developing relevant theories of social change. Within the social sciences, particularly in the United States, this ideological division between art/culture and politics has meant that artsbased activism and social movements are rarely understood as a viable form of political activism or recognized as social movements at all. Arts-based activism is often understood primarily as a tool to attract participants to political rallies or as a movement’s catharsis, an affective release linked to the collective frustrations resulting from socioeconomic (“political”) oppression.

Engagement with cultural studies theorists can be useful in informing sociological theories of social change. One of art’s radical qualities is that it helps those who are engaged in it as producers or consumers to connect with and critically reflect on reality (Marcuse 1978). In other words, art allows the articulation of the contradictory nature of reality, as it is experienced and felt, in a way that cannot be articulated by other means of expressing human experience and need. Contemporary political discourse is often centered on the “economy,” frequently utilizing a Eurocentric aesthetic that frames certain discourses as rational (and thus legitimate).

The key difference in approaches to democracy and political enfranchisement in much of Latin America and the Caribbean is that culture, particularly the cultural sphere, is not conceptualized as being separated from other spheres of social life. Culture is understood as another sphere in which political mobilization and organized political action can occur; cultural politics are understood as key to social change. Efforts seeking change in Latin America and the Caribbean tend to center on culture as being constitutive of economic and political praxis (Alvarez et al. 1998; Avritzer 2002; Camnitzer 2003, 2007, 2009; Craven 2006). As such, the ultimate goal of arts-based social movements is to eradicate social inequalities largely shaped by cultural practices. While these movements have had successes in changing policy, they are also a challenge to the very meanings of citizenship, political representation, participation, and redefining the role of the state (Alvarez et al. 1998, 2; Yúdice 2003).

Political processes proceed from the ground up in Latin America and the Spanish-speaking Caribbean: people living in this region tend to address their needs at the local level in town squares and then expect that local needs will be addressed at the state level (Avritzer 2002). In many places, what count as deliberative processes in town squares proceed differently than those political processes that occur in Western European conceptualizations of “civil society” or the “bourgeois public sphere.” The southeastern U.S. coast, Latin America, and the Caribbean are primarily inhabited by people of African and indigenous descent, who use dance, music, poetry, and other cultural forms of expression and orality that are often classified as “art” as key aspects of social/political deliberative processes. Although these practices are not considered integral to legitimate politics within the region, they often structure political debate, inform larger communities of social, political, and economic issues, propel political organizing, theorize about things ranging from cosmology to political economy, and help to set political agendas. It is for this reason that Chuck D of the U.S. group Public Enemy once referred to hip hop during its early decades as the “CNN of Black America.” Cuban music—and more specifically the Cuban alternative music scene, of which the Cuban Underground Hip Hop Movement is a part—has emerged as a recent example of how Cuba’s politicized artivists have been able to create a nascent civil society in a nation that is defined as a totalitarian state, where political activism that challenges state policy is assumed to be nonexistent (Borges-Triana 2009; Martín-Sevillano 2008).

Hemispheric Blackness, Black Identity Politics, and the African Diaspora

CUHHM artivists not only challenge traditional notions of what actions count as political but also redefine the boundaries and scale of political community, political processes, and national identification. Located within its regional context, the CUHHM highlights the way in which blackness in the Americas has a significant regional dynamic, including in its relationship to Africa and African cultural legacies. American blackness has historically challenged the hegemony of Eurocentric national identities within the region and within the hemisphere. It asks what exactly it means to be “American,” regionally speaking, and makes an intervention into our understandings of Afro-U.S. American, U.S. American, Afro-Cuban, Cuban, Black Puerto Rican, and Puerto Rican, for example. When we consider the regional geopolitics of race rooted in European colonialism, what does it mean, for example, to be Surinamese, Martinican, Haitian, or Jamaican? CUHHM artists challenge the discreteness of national boundaries associated with identity politics and systemic racialized oppression within the Americas and in the West by participating in and invoking notions of transnational Black solidarity. The CUHHM reflects the ways in which Afro-descendant people continue to challenge the exclusion of African culture and worldviews in the articulation of Western modernity. This is reflected in the multiple centers of ideological production found within the African diaspora in the Americas, which includes religious institutions and the various technologies of knowledge production centered on music and orality (Gaunt 2006; Perry 2004; Richardson 2006; Weheliye 2005). The CUHHM has an important ideological tie to transnational Black liberation cultural movements and what Cedric Robinson refers to as the Black radical tradition (2000). These movements challenge the underlying logics of Western modernity, which fail to recognize the humanity of all Black people, especially Black citizens living in Western democracies, and the foundational contributions that the African diaspora has made to the emergence of the Americas and the “ West” (Ferguson 2004; Gilroy 1993a; Jameson 1984; Quijano 2000b; Robinson 2000).

The CUHHM is a manifestation of Black American vision(s) of modernity, involving perspectives that are centered on or include African worldviews, such as West and Central African cosmologies. Hemispheric blackness, the experience of being Black, is profoundly understudied (Dixon and Burdick 2012). It includes those whose phenotype indicates a “nonwhite” social classification vis-à-vis a visible presence of an African heritage that precludes being classified as white (however whiteness is interpellated within that country) and being embedded in a broader political context that draws from the cultures, histories, identities, and experiences of people of African descent living in the Americas and the transnational nature of systemic and institutionalized racisms there. That is, the theoretical work that has been produced on global blackness or blackness in the West has ignored an entire region of people who have been formative in the development of U.S., Western, and global articulations of blackness and Westernness. If U.S. blackness were to be read within its regional context, it would raise questions about and highlight the fact that the United States is also not as European as it would like to claim to be.

The lack of empirical research that takes a regional approach to understanding American blackness(es) has led to a situation within academic scholarship, specifically in the social sciences, where there is difficulty in understanding the very existence of Black identity and Afro-descendant identity politics in the region, their origins, and how these identities are understood among people engaged in them. The United States is implicitly (and often explicitly) assumed to be the origin of contemporary Black American politics and even racism. So when questions surrounding blackness within the hemisphere emerge, it is assumed that the work being produced is simply a mimicry of U.S. racial structures.

For example, Danielle P. Clealand (2013) empirically addresses how systemic institutionalized racism in contemporary Cuba is experienced by Black Cubans. She shows that these experiences have been important in influencing the development of in-group identity during the Special Period and afterward. Clealand decided to undertake an empirical study of racial identity and experiences of racism as a means to challenge the hegemony of the ideology of “racial democracy” that tends to dominate academic scholarship on the region. Clealand (2013) writes:

Race in many Latin American countries, including Cuba, has been narrated through the ideology of racial democracy, which negates the importance of race as social cleavage. The ideology rests on the assumptions that (1) race as social cleavage is not relevant and is replaced with a universal national identity; (2) consequently there is an absence of racial hierarchies such that race is not connected to life chances or to socioeconomic status; and (3) racism and discrimination are foreign problems (primarily within the USA) and while individual prejudice may still exist, it only manifests in isolated incidents that cannot be connected to a larger social structure. (1621)

Mark Q. Sawyer (2005) also empirically addresses the relationship between race and racial identity in Cuba:

despite the use of numerous racial categories by interviewers, there was a strong degree of agreement between self-described racial category and the category ascribed by the interviewer. This indicates that the racial categories are seen to be quite distinct. . . . While many social scientists have taken to putting the term “race” into quotation marks, especially in the context of Latin America . . . it is incorrect to assume that race mixing and the existence of multiple racial categories in Cuba make race a confusing and poorly understood construct in daily life . . . people are able to discern who fits into what category. (137)

Sawyer not only found less “fluidity” in racial categories (but instead an increased number of racial categories where textures of hair, lightness of skin, and physical features are taken into consideration to make the classification) but also found that race affects life chances in both the peso economy and the dollar (and now Cuban Convertible Currency/CUC) economy. This challenges the idea that the economic parity continued for those who, when paid in pesos, were dependent on the centralized state economy. Engaging the work of Cuban social scientists in this area, Sawyer also presents empirical data showing that racial attitudes among Cubans have not changed since the Revolution, with white Cubans being less likely to believe that all racial groups have “equal values, levels of decency, and intelligence” (142). Additionally, the mean levels of explicit racism were higher in Cuba than in Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, and the United States.

Cuban psychologists Yesenia F. Selier (who in the 1990s conducted the first studies on racial identity in Cuba since the 1960s) and Penélope Hernández (Selier and Hernández 2009) challenge the commonly held wisdom that national identity is more important for Black Cubans than racial identity. In their study the 68 percent of the people who are classified as Black and see themselves as Black, actively participate in social organizations associated with blackness and Africanness (such as practicing an African-based religious tradition), and “believe that racial identity is as or more important as national identity” (35). The important intervention that these Cuban scholars make in studying race in Cuba is highlighting the link between racial identity and membership in cultural practices and organizations commonly associated with blackness and African cultural practices.

Unfortunately, political actors throughout the Americas, who engage the question of blackness and racial inequality from the perspectives of Afrodescendant populations facing systemic racism, are read as “trafficking race.” Race is reduced to being a product of the consumption of U.S. cultural products such as hip hop. Additionally, as Clealand notes, taking this perspective renders the realities of race unimportant in terms of determining opportunity, life chances, affect, identity, and even self-esteem. While blackness is not equitable throughout the region, it certainly exists: race, blackness, and racial identity are all formed in relation to each other throughout the hemisphere. It is important to take the reality of blackness seriously, empirically engaging what that looks like in various American contexts. Hip hop studies in the region have become a lightning rod for debates about whether or not blackness even exists in countries outside of the United States. What is important to note is that blackness, in whatever country, is constantly in formation and ever changing, depending on economic and political contexts. The assumed rigidity of Black identity is another limitation of the way in which assumptions about U.S. blackness have become essentialized in academic literature. That is why it is important to place various Black identity politics in the Americas in relation to and in conversation with each other in academic work, because they already are so in reality.

These debates concerning the other side of authenticity play out in academic scholarship on the experience of blackness in countries in the Americas. Latin America and the Caribbean are removed from the West and placed in the “Global South,” “non-Western” category. This erases their continued formative influence on Western modernity, which implicitly allows for Western modernity to be defined as white and European. In order for the United States and Canada to be able to position themselves as white European, Western nations, certain histories and realities are rendered invisible, complete with regional separation.17 The dismissal of the reality of American blackness(es) allows for the possibility of then placing Brazil, Jamaica, Cuba, and Puerto Rico, for example, as “global,” outside of a regional context, via the accepted wisdom of racial fluidity, malleability, and miscegenation in the Americas (sans the United States and Canada). That makes it possible for the existence of blackness in the Americas to be considered a myth, imaginary, which includes rendering invisible the presence (or even hegemony) of African cultural legacies and worldviews. This further allows the classification of many American countries as non-Western: they are global spaces that also suffer the influence of U.S. cultural imperialism, in the same way as Japan and Croatia, for example. Acknowledging the hemispheric nature of Black U.S. identity, including discourses of miscegenation and indigeneity, would certainly destabilize the discursive hegemony of a Eurocentric vision of Western modernity.

Let us be clear: a Black, African, or Afro-centric consciousness did not come to Cuba with hip hop. Nor has Cuba been isolated from the discourses of liberation circulating within the Black Atlantic in general, and the Americas specifically, for much of its history (Brock and Castañeda Fuertes 1998; Guridy 2010; Nwankwo 2005; Thompson 1983).18 Black identity politics and Afro-centric cultural discourses have been a key part of Cuba’s culture, history, and national consciousness for centuries (Fernández Robaina 1998a; Helg 1995; Miller 2009; Moore 1997). There was constant cultural contact between the African continent and the Americas via the transatlantic slave trade well into the nineteenth century, with voluntary immigration also connecting the regions in the present. The African diaspora has also been engaged in extensive regional-based migration and movement since the beginning of the colonial period. Additionally, with the invention of the phonograph, technology helped to continue and in some ways intensify the speed of exchanges that circulated the musicality and orality of African diasporic cultures throughout the Americas and the rest of the world (Weheliye 2005).

By the time of the Cuban Revolution in 1959, formerly enslaved Africans were living on the Island, along with a large number of Cubans whose parents, grandparents, and other relatives had been enslaved and still had memories of enslavement and Africa (Barnet 1968). The constant arrival of Caribbean immigrants in the United States, the frequent travel of Black U.S. Americans to the Caribbean, and the transregional movements of Black people within the United States demonstrate the continued circulation of people, ideas, and worldviews in the African diaspora in the Americas. In countries such as Brazil, large-scale illegal immigration from countries such as Haiti has become a policy concern, even while Brazil continues to be a destination for scores of African immigrants to the Americas. As such, for the diaspora in the Americas, the cultural legacies of African cultures and worldviews are not simply a distant memory, the dream of a “return” to some place with which Blacks share a tenuous connection. Instead, the existence of African cultural legacies in the Americas is very much tied to a longer historical cultural circuit, in which the struggle for freedom was not simply a struggle for physical autonomy but also a struggle to liberate consciousness and to recognize African cultures and worldviews as continuously formative elements of Western modernity.

Agustín Lao-Montes (2007) argues against the reduction of the African diaspora, specifically Blacks in the West, to a group of people who share the legacies of the terror of enslavement and social subordination. Lao-Montes (2007) conceptualizes the African diaspora as

a project of affinity and liberation founded on a translocal ideology of community making and a global politics of decolonization. The African Diaspora can be conceived as a project of decolonization and liberation embedded in the cultural practices, intellectual currents, social movements, and political actions of Afro-Diasporic subjects. The project of Diaspora as a search for liberation and transnational community-making is grounded on the conditions of subalternization of Afro-Diasporic peoples and in their historical agency of resistance and self-affirmation. (310; emphasis in the original)

Lao-Montes (2007) goes on to write that Black feminist and queer perspectives from the African diaspora address the reality that not all people who consider themselves to be part of the African diaspora would like to hear “all subaltern subjects speak” (315). He thus argues that “the African Diaspora should be conceptualized as a contested terrain of gender and sexual politics where the very definitions of project, identity and agency are at stake” (315). Just as importantly, the African diaspora also signifies a cosmopolitan project. In the West, cosmopolitanism is central to the definition of Eurocentric Western modernity, associated with a form of sophistication, a familiarity, and a level of comfort engaging with persons and cultures from all over the world (Diouf and Nwankwo 2010; Mignolo 2000). But this conceptualization of cosmopolitanism has its origins in colonialism. The way that Europeans thought of themselves vis-à-vis the rest of the world was racialized, later racist, and always Eurocentric. Through the colonization of the Americas, the region and its colonies reinforced an imaginary cosmopolitan exchange that ideologically excluded non-Europeans.

Conversely, Africans and Afro-descendant populations had their own ideas about what cosmopolitanism and modernity meant—and they continue to do so today (Lao-Montes 2007; Nwankwo 2005). Ifeoma Nwankwo (2005) describes Black cosmopolitanism as follows:

The Blackness of Black cosmopolitanism inheres not in the race of the individuals who express it . . . but rather in the ways individuals and entities seek to define people of African descent and articulate the relationship among them and between them and the world at large. Faced with dehumanization and the Atlantic power structures’ obsession with preventing the blossoming of their cosmopolitanism, people of African descent decided to stake their claim to personhood by defining themselves in relation to the new notions of “Black community” and ubiquitous manifestations of cosmopolitanism that the Revolution produced. (10–11)

The revolution that Nwankwo is talking about is the Haitian Revolution, but it should be noted that this revolution stands not only for Haiti but for all of the insurrections and slave revolts that broke out (often through coordination) during that tumultuous historical period (Dubois 2004). Black and African agency and self-determination scared the elites of the colonies. It was clear that Africans and their nonwhite descendants had their own ideas about what types of societies would emerge upon liberation. This idea that those nonwhite, enslaved, culturally “primitive” people previously racialized as “outside” of Western European Enlightenment ideals and cosmopolitanism would apply these ideals to themselves was a frightening prospect for those classified as white and non-Black (Dubois 2004).

After the Haitian Revolution, “blackness” became a point around which the peoples in the African diaspora in the Americas could define themselves as cosmopolitan subjects both within the diaspora, regardless of national boundaries and ethnic differences, and as a collective with shared historical and cultural affinities (Lao-Montes 2007). Most importantly, this diaspora speaks back and demands acknowledgment of its influence on the evolution of Western modernity. Scholars such as Lao-Montes (2007) argue that more needs to be considered when conceptualizing what constitutes the African diaspora. Specifically, we must seriously consider the impact of African worldviews in the development of American cultures (Marable and Agard-Jones 2008; Walker 2001). An Afro-diasporic perspective can help us to rethink the relationship of memory, culture, and structures of power beyond the limits of the nation-state as both a unit of analysis and the basis for political community—and, as a result, develop a politic of decolonization that is not limited to or reduced to nationalism (Ferguson 2004; Lao-Montes 2007). Many Cuban artists thus use hip hop as a vehicle to represent a Black radical and hemispheric Black consciousness that has long existed on the Island. Most importantly, the artists used hip hop to redefine what blackness would come to mean in Special Period and post–Special Period Cuba (Robinson 2000).19 If we contextualize the CUHHM within the ideological circuits of the Black radical tradition and the African diaspora, it becomes clear that the CUHHM is not simply the imitation of hegemonic, globalized music cultures emanating from the United States. A sector of hip hop has emerged and developed as part of a longer Afro-descendant challenge to Eurocentric visions of Western modernity; it is part of a continued struggle over cultural hegemony in the Americas that occurs within the arts.

Toward a Black Feminist Critique and a Queer of Color Critique

Centering Black identity politics within the Americas includes using an intersectional approach that takes into consideration the region’s Black feminism(s) and antiheteronormativity politics, which also undertake an important project of placing Black U.S. feminism(s) within regional and historical contexts. It is important to undertake this type of analytical study, where academic scholarship begins to do the work of placing American (regionally speaking) Black feminisms into conversation with each other. This can aid in understanding how regionally based, transnational structures of power—which have their origins in the colonial period and have been formative in the emergence of the modern “ West”—operate nationally, transnationally (especially regionally), and locally. Considering these power relationships is crucial for thinking through the politics of transnational feminist solidarities in a region in the midst of cultural decolonization and is central to understanding regional and local Black identity politics and political activism.

The sonic component of Black subjectivity and Black identity formation and competing visions of Western modernity include interventions into bodies and pleasures, genders and heteronormativity. Black women and nonheteronormative subjects are also a part of the Black public sphere even though, as LaoMontes noted, not everyone in the hegemonic Black public sphere may want to hear what they have to say. Nonetheless, Black women and nonheteronormative subjects are also formative participants in the articulation of Black identity and identity politics.

“A Black Feminist Statement” by the Combahee River Collective (2000) explicitly outlines a Black feminist epistemology. The text frames the oppression of Black women as the simultaneous result of homophobia, the non-normative status of Black women, and materially and ideologically based inequality that has its origins in colonialism and slavery but also continues to structure the lives and experiences of Black women in the present. The Combahee River Collective sees Black feminist politics as a struggle against racism, sexism, homophobia, and classism and argues that all of these forms of discrimination simultaneously affect the lives of Black women. The collective asserts that their Black feminist consciousness emerged organically, because, as Barbara Smith (2000) points out, these intersecting dynamics were “driving them crazy.” A Black feminist consciousness emerges when someone learns how to love and value herself and other Black women. The collective rejects the mandate to separate their struggle from the struggles of the larger Black community, because they are interconnected. No socialist revolution, antiracist movement, or feminist revolution will guarantee Black women’s liberation. Their goal as Black feminists is to examine the “multilayered texture of Black women’s lives,” as a means of developing the theories and practices necessary for achieving Black women’s liberation (Combahee River Collective 2000, 268). These are also central points articulated by the CUHHM’s group Las Krudas CUBENSI, who developed this perspective nearly in isolation from the debates occurring within second-wave feminism.

Black feminists have also theorized about how oppression affected women or any oppressed group at the level of the erotic. Here I am referring to Audre Lorde’s definition of the erotic as sexual desire and “an assertion of the life-force of women; of that creative energy empowered, the knowledge and use of which we are now reclaiming in our language, our history, our dancing, our loving, our work and our lives” (Lorde 2007, 55). Lorde’s work was groundbreaking because it included a critique of how affect, pleasure, and desire have been taken up and reorganized in a capitalist, patriarchal system—imbued with coloniality, I would add.

The transnational anticolonial and revolutionary nationalist struggles of women in countries like Cuba have also had a profound effect on second-wave, leftist Black feminism within the United States (Higashida 2013). The histories of Black feminism in the United States reveal that Black feminist leftists were significantly influenced by transnational struggles against heteropatriarchy that were also a part of revolutionary nationalist and transnationalist struggles for liberation. Hence the queer of color critique, emerging from Black feminism, is not reflective of ideas that emerged as a result of U.S. exceptionalism but consists of ideas and discourses that emerged in relation to transnational discourses concerning Black liberation, in which Black U.S. leftist feminists took part. These transnational conversations also included critiques of blackness and the relationship between hegemonic notions of blackness and the heteropatriarchy embedded in nationalist struggles.

Blackness is also a lived reality and can be deployed as resistance in the face of white colonization (Johnson 2003). Hegemonic blackness is wrapped up in notions of heterosexuality, which E. Patrick Johnson (2003) refers to as the imperialism of heteronormativity within Black culture. This imperialism functions through hegemonic Black masculinity and “faggotry,” in which femininity is sutured to homosexuality within the hegemonic Black cultural politic (Johnson 2003). As Johnson writes: “Because femininity is always already devalued in patriarchal societies, those associated with the feminine are also viewed as inferior. Given the ways in which effeminacy in men is read as a sign of homosexuality, particularly in the United States, it follows that homosexual men [and by extension Black women] are devalued” (69). Thus the queer of color critique has always been a part of radical Black feminist activism, especially in internationalist feminism. Black women have been aware of the ways in which questions of race, heteronormativity, nation, and colonialism/imperialism are mutually reinforcing axes of power that have a profound effect on their lives (Higashida 2013).

The queer of color critique emerged from this multilayered perspective of Black feminism to make a similar intervention in the field of queer studies. Roderick A. Ferguson (2004) notes that women of color feminist scholarship and activism highlights how racialized discrimination is interconnected with gender and sexuality-based violence and social inequality. Black feminism and a queer of color critique highlight why liberal ideologies (which include socialist and Communist ideologies) are limited in their articulation of a liberatory politic for racialized, particularly Black, subjects. Discourses concerning the nation, Black liberation, and notions of freedom based on liberal ideology are rooted in naturalized—and oppressive—categories of race, gender, the family, and sexuality (Ferguson 2004; Muñoz 1999).

Broadly speaking, race continues to be treated as an addendum in gender and queer studies despite the work of feminists of color. This unacknowledged racialization of queerness provides the basis for José Muñoz’s theory of “disidentification.” Disidentification is both a politicized and psychological survival tactic among queers of color. To disidentify is a strategy “clearly indebted to antiassimilationist thought” (Muñoz 1999, 18), through which queers of color can construct an identity from multiple subjectivities that at the same time deny the queer subject’s existence. Muñoz notes, for example, that Frantz Fanon, a key pro-Black, canonical, revolutionary, antiracist, and anticolonial subject, doubted and then dismissed the existence of homosexuality in Martinique. Nonetheless, a Black queer person may still identify with the antiracist, anticolonial elements of Fanon’s writing, while simultaneously identifying with elements of white queer theorizing that fail to consider race. Disidentifying subjects remain critical of the exclusionary aspects of their multiple subjectivities. In this way an openly and visibly queer of color person actively challenges the multiple cultural codes that converge to define that person out of existence. This notion of disidentification is at the core of the views of CUHHM and other Cuban activists, including LGBT activists and queers of color. They identify with the ideals of the Cuban Revolution and disidentify with politics and ideologies that may define Black subjects and queer subjects, for example, out of the national or cultural imaginary.

While Ferguson focuses on the materiality of the organization of bodies along racial, gendered, and sexual boundaries and Muñoz acknowledges the psychic significance of a queer of color subjectivity, Manolo Guzmán (2005) considers the psychic effect of the intersections of race and sexuality on the organization of the erotic. Thus gayness is a racial matter even before it intersects with or reflects the experience of racialized subjects. Queer theory needs to offer more of an account of the way in which the erotic is racialized at the level of the subconscious, which affects conscious sexual choice and feelings of desire and disgust. This is a point that Jafari Sinclaire Allen (2011) engages. This text is discussed further in chapter 4, which engages racial identity in Cuba in 1998–2006.

The result of the racialization of erotic desire has been to foster racialized reproduction through reducing the source of all forms of erotic pleasure to the organs necessary for the reproduction of offspring, opposite gender, and homoracial object choice, all harnessed in order to produce heterosexuality (Guzmán 2005). Roderick Ferguson (2004) comes to a similar conclusion when he contends that a materially based argument is not sufficient for addressing the particular social inequalities facing racialized nonheteronormative subjects, as these arguments generally depend on racialized gender and racialized sexual ontology. Not interrogating a racialized ontology results in the naturalizing of the ontological foundations of racialized Western social inequality, including inequalities concerning sexualities.

As I have argued elsewhere (Saunders 2009a, 2009b), the racialization of homoerotic desire works in multiple ways against Black Cuban lesbians. For non-Black lesbians, Black women are an inappropriate object choice in terms of hegemonic homoracial erotic desire. Within the transgressive erotic space of the Cuban lesbian social scene, gender is racialized in such a way that Black women are coded as masculine and are not an appropriately gendered object of erotic desire for lesbians.

Black Music Cultures, Hip Hop, and the Sound of Revolution

During a visit to Trujillo Alto, Puerto Rico, I once said to a Puerto Rican friend and colleague that as a U.S. American in Latin America and the Spanish-speaking Caribbean I would be really nervous if a massive group of people started yelling all of a sudden. She looked at me, confused. “Actually,” I said, reconsidering, “maybe I would actually run to someplace in Latin America or the Spanishspeaking Caribbean where massive groups of people are all yelling, because then I’d know that the revolution was about to start.”

“ What are you talking about?” she asked, perplexed.

I responded: “¿Tu no sabes? Aquí, cada lucha revolucionaria empezó con ‘un grito’ ” (You don’t know? Here, every revolution began with “a yell/shout”).

She began to laugh. The joke was a play on the word “grito,” which means a shout, a yell, a scream. A “Grito de Guerra” is a call to arms. Whenever there is a “Grito de ——,” it is named after the place where it occurred. Further, grito usually refers to a call to arms to fight against some form of social oppression. Some examples are Grito de Yara (Yara, Cuba, 1868: War of Independence) and Grito de Lares (Lares, Puerto Rico, 1868: War of Independence).

The idea of insurrections being named after a sound or a yell in the public sphere that calls people to arms illustrates the importance of sound in mass mobilization, in hailing the subject, a subject, or a group of subjects. Un grito is also reflected in the graffiti behind Sekou of the CUHHM group Anónimo Consejo (fig. 1.1). Behind Sekou is the image of an Afro-descendant male with dreadlocks, yelling. The dreadlocks are important in the context of a country that encourages people with tightly curled hair to straighten or shave their hair. People who not only refuse to do so but also grow dreadlocks are rejecting the hegemony of European aesthetics in Cuban culture and embracing their blackness. Behind the man in the drawing are the head of a microphone, what appears to be the head of a can of spray paint, and a map of the Americas. The message: Hip hop es el grito de los negros en las Américas/Hip hop is the call for the revolutionary struggle of the African diaspora in the Americas.

But given the cultural and linguistic differences within this diaspora, how can hip hop resonate with so many throughout the region? Simply reducing the emergence of hip hop scenes to U.S. global capitalism is not an empirically sound argument to make, as I learned from my interviews with hip hop artists and cultural workers in Cuba and Brazil. As break dancing, rapping, graffiti, and DJing (the four elements of hip hop) emerged in the Bronx, they were also emerging at the same time in Cuba and Brazil, which has also been noted by scholars and filmmakers (Díaz and Díaz 2006; Pardue 2008). The particular U.S. contribution to the emergence of hip hop in the Americas is in the naming of hip hop and the initial framing /theorizing of it as a culture centered on knowledge production and consciousness as well as fun and enjoyment. Artists and intellectuals in Cuba and in Brazil often argue that the elements of hip hop were openly practiced throughout the Americas within several years of its emergence in the United States. How? Why? One of the reasons why it is difficult to capture much less understand this dynamic lies in the ways in which we think about race, ethnicity, the discreteness of national boundaries, the Black subject, and the movement of ideas between Black subjects in the Americas.

Fred Moten (2003) argues that Black performance is inherently radical because it produces a profound rupture in Western ontology: the (Black) commodity speaks and expresses emotion. The act of performing, singing, and making noise is a profound rupture in a society that has historically framed people of African descent as inhuman and as objects. Alexander G. Weheliye (2005) engages this history by arguing for the centrality of “sonic Blackness” in the formation of contemporary Western modernity. He contends that one of the ways in which the Black subject was rendered invisible is linked to the delegitimization of musicality and orality as legitimate forms of subject representation, in favor of writing and printing. Because of limitations of access to writing and hegemonic literary cultures, and because music and orality are also central elements of West African cultural and intellectual production, Black people were limited in their ability to represent themselves as subjects. With the invention of the phonograph, however, the sonic nature of Black subjectivity took on a different role, challenging the visual and written bias of Western modernity (Somoroff 2006) and enabling Black subjects to articulate themselves beyond the geographical borders of the United States and the Western Hemisphere. Weheliye (2005) writes: “Examining the sonic is an important zone for theorizing ‘the fundamentality of Afro-Diasporic formations to the currents of western modernity, since this field is the principal modality in which Afro-Diasporic cultures has been articulated,’ though it is not the only one” (4).

Kyra D. Gaunt explores similar themes through an analysis of the handclapping games and rhythms of Black girls across the United States. Gaunt (2006) argues that “Black musical style and behavior are learned through oralkinetic practices that not only teach an embodied discourse of Black musical expression, but also inherently teach discourse about appropriate and transgressive gender and racial roles (for both girls and boys) in African American communities” (2; emphasis in the original). By including Black girls and women in analyses of Black subjectivity, we can learn more about the ways in which the musicality and orality of Black subjectivity (which is, of course, also gendered and sexualized) are both sonic and corporal. Gaunt defines “kinetic orality” as “the transmission and appropriation of musical ideals and social memories passed on jointly by word of mouth and by embodied musical gestures and formulas” (4). In order to show the regional significance of local Black subject formation in the Americas, with its continuing reverberating effects on how blackness is conceptualized within the United States and outside of the Americas, in this book I center on Cuba as a point of reference. It serves as an example of how these dynamics play out regionally and locally, in a country that without a doubt has had a significant ideological impact globally without the material wealth and militarism associated with the ideological reach of the United States. As hip hop artists have argued in the United States, Cuba, and Brazil, people started doing and hearing hip hop before it became defined as a culture. Musicality, orality, and kinetic orality have been central components of Black American subject identity formation and sonic Black modernity, even within hip hop.

The Emerging Field of Hip Hop Studies

Hip hop studies began to emerge as a new field of scholarship in the mid-1990s. The literature examining hip hop is expansive, with scholars making various kinds of interventions vis-à-vis the genre and representations of it. I began working on this project as an undergraduate in 1998. By the time I finished my doctoral work in 2008, a vast field of scholarship had appeared. To this end, this book is very much in conversation with hip hop studies and highlights several key issues that have emerged in the scholarship, as opposed to making a particular theoretical or analytical intervention within it. Throughout the text, I have included the pieces that have been particularly and personally influential in shaping my thinking in general and my analysis in this book. To the extent that my work makes a unique contribution to this scholarship, it does so by beginning specifically with Cuba and a desire to situate the emergence of an underground hip hop movement there in relation to the complex historical conditions of that post–Special Period space. I consider its implications for questions of identity and social change in the American Black Atlantic. The kinds of questions that I ask here about hip hop are then in conversation with the more thematic interventions made by other scholars who interrogate “gender and sexuality and hip hop” or “Black feminism and hip hop,” or “African cultural legacies and hip hop.”

Nonetheless, it is important to note the profound intellectual significance of hip hop studies in understanding contemporary social movements, racial, gender, and sexual identity politics, contemporary global (consumer) capitalism, and a whole host of social issues and theory. This is widely recognized in the field of cultural studies and acknowledged in the humanities but still virtually invisible within the social sciences. The asymmetry with which the field has been taken up in various disciplines is unfortunate, for hip hop provides a powerful lens through which to understand many different aspects of contemporary social life, including cultural politics, urban youth, arts-based social movements, and activist mobilization. Hip hop scholarship has engaged the social and political significance of hip hop (Rose 1994) and hip hop’s link to Black and African political and cultural legacies (George 1998; Gilroy 1993a; Lipsitz 2007; Neal 1999, 2003; Osumare 2007; Rose 1994). Some scholars engage questions surrounding corporality, commodification, Black cultural production, and feminist, queer, gender, and sexual politics (Gaunt 2006; Morgan 2011; Pough 2007, 2011; Saunders 2009b; Snorton 2013). Others focus on specific components of hip hop such as break-dancing and B-boying and B-girling (Schloss 2009) and explore the relationship of hip hop, latinidad, and the Caribbean Latino population (specifically Puerto Ricans and Cubans, who were formative in the emergence of hip hop) (Flores 2000; Rivera 2003; Schloss 2009). My goal here is not to review this vast literature but rather to highlight those themes that speak most directly to my analysis of the CUHHM: (1) hip hop as a component of and contribution to a transnational Black political public sphere; (2) what it means and who is included and excluded when hip hop is designated as Black, African, or Latin music; and (3) the intersectional analyses of hip hop feminism and queer of color critiques.

Hip Hop as Black Public Sphere

Black music cultures have been a key way in which members of the African diaspora in the Americas have continued to reach beyond colonially imposed national boundaries and continuously re-create alternative public spheres in the face of racial oppression (Black Public Sphere Collective 1995; Neal 1999; Rose 1994). Framing hip hop as a Black public sphere highlights how hip hop has come to function as a space where those of African descent, who have often been excluded from the bourgeois public sphere of previous generations, can organize to challenge social exclusion and racial violence (Black Public Sphere Collective 1995). It is a space where critical practice and visionary politics take place. The tools of deliberation within this sphere, such as music, radio shows, churches, and street corners, include practices (for example, singing, dancing, fashion) commonly and easily accessed by those often excluded from the hegemonic public sphere. These spheres attempt to extend social inclusion, such that those who have historically been excluded from public spheres have the opportunity to address their needs in an easily accessible democratic space (Black Public Sphere Collective 1995). Scholars such as Robin D. Moore (2006) and Mark Anthony Neal (1999) argue that having fun, specifically within poor and marginalized communities, is itself political and socially transgressive.

Tricia Rose (1994) describes hip hop as Black music and an example of Black Diaspora practices. Rose links the emergence of hip hop to changes in urban America’s relationship to global capitalism. In a similar vein, scholars argue that hip hop’s ideological intervention is a product of the sociopolitical losses for the post-1960s generation, including the unfulfilled promises of social mobility and the lack of social welfare safety, such as the weakening of affirmative action and the continued lack of opportunities for poor Blacks (Kitwana 2002; Clay 2012).

Even when music is “commercialized,” this does not necessarily mean that its message is apolitical or supportive of capitalism or market interests. Commercialization serves as a means of mass dissemination. In the case of hip hop, as with all forms of Black music culture, when music becomes commercialized in such a way that artists are limited in their ability to articulate their own ideological stance, they find alternative ways to continue their social critique (Neal 1999). Similarly, Black artists used album covers and inserts as a way to educate, to disseminate ideologies concerning blackness, and to participate in Black identity politics through commercial media institutions (Gilroy 1993b). By means of creative practices such as these, artists participating in Black music cultures can use commercial media tools to expand the reach of the Black public sphere. Black identities, experiences, and ideologies of liberation are exchanged not only through music itself but also through visual images and performances, T-shirts, and graffiti. All of these visual forms have become means to communicate the ideas and experience of blackness through symbolism. These images are tools that help to facilitate Black identity formation for collective mobilization and empowerment (Gilroy 1993b). Using the educational and affective codes of images, artists explicitly and implicitly target their art to specific audiences, such as members of the African diaspora (Pardue 2008; Yúdice 2003).

When we consider hip hop as a diasporic music culture in an American (regionally speaking) context, the term “hip hop nation” has particular resonance among socially conscious or underground hip hop fans (Morgan and Bennett 2011, 177). The global reach of the hip hop nation, as an identity politics and politicized transnational public sphere, can be found in the manifestos of hip hop collectives throughout the world and in the lyrics of global hip hop artists who proclaim that they work for social change. One specific and immediately tangible example of this is the proliferation of Zulu Nation chapters throughout the world and the transnational work of organizations such as CUFA (Central Única das Fevalas/Central Union of the Slums).20 They work for social change through the promotion of hip hop culture as a tool for mobilizing, consciousness-raising, and educational and self-esteem building in poor communities around the world, particularly in urban Afro-descendant communities.

Halifu Osumare (2007) writes:

I reason that this aesthetic in hip-hop culture is the current manifestation of a historical continuum of cultural practices that are, in fact, Africanbased expressivity underpinned by a philosophical approach that extended itself into the African Diaspora as a result of the transatlantic slave trade. . . . The Africanist aesthetic in the Americas continues to reflect similar musical, dance, and oral practices that resemble those in West and Central Africa, the source of the Atlantic slave trade . . . in the United States . . . it still retains enough resonances in the performer’s attitude, artistic methodology, and relationship to audience to make apparent its connections to African expressive practices. (13)

These cultural practices were classified as “low-cultural” in the Americas. Osumare (2007) argues that hip hop also reflects structures of feeling: as such, hip hop is linked across national boundaries by “connective marginalities”: “These are hip-hop perceived linkages across agency in the face of lingering social inequalities in the postcolonial era” (15). Examples of connective marginalities are culture, class, and historical oppression.

Picking up on this last point, Adreanna Clay looks at how youth identity is also a central identity in social justice organizing. Clay (2012) notes how “the incongruity of the gains in civil liberties accompanied by continued racism, sexism and heterosexism constitutes a cognitive and communal crisis for youth” (5). Here she echoes Bakari Kitwana’s description of the hip hop generation (those born between 1965 and 1984).

Clay goes on to note that the promises of the LGBT and feminist movements also evoked a backlash. Like members of the civil rights movement, younger generations also saw the failure of the promises of gender and sexual equality. One of the things that characterizes members of the hip hop generation is the way in which they approach their activism: it is fragmented and diverse (Clay 2012). Social inequality could no longer be reduced to an explicitly white supremist state or to a racist capitalism system (which now included middleclass and wealthy Blacks). As such, contemporary social movements among post-1960s generations tend to take more diffuse, nontraditional forms and are often unrecognized as social movements (Clay 2012).

Relocating Blackness and Latin@ness in National, Regional, and Global Hip Hop Studies

The relationship between blackness and latinidad is a complex one. Raquel Rivera (2003) addresses the tensions among blackness, Africanness, Caribbeanness, and U.S. notions of latinidad. Rivera contends that Puerto Ricans are culturally part of the African diaspora. She argues that the tensions of racialization, racial identity, cultural identity, and cultural production are reflected in downplaying or ignoring the role of Puerto Ricans in the creation of hip hop as a means of maintaining the racial distinctions between blackness and latinidad. Puerto Ricans themselves, especially second-generation Puerto Ricans, find themselves in a situation where they have to navigate the artificial separation between blackness and latinidad, especially since the “Latin@” culture they come from is also an Afro-diasporic culture. Rivera explores the cultural convergences of Black southeastern U.S. culture and Puerto Rican culture which are based in shared African heritages. Through focusing on these points of shared cultural history, Black U.S. Americans and Puerto Ricans were able to live, fight oppression, and build a cultural movement together. Rivera and scholars such as Tricia Rose (1994) and Alan West-Durán (2004) highlight the transnational context in which hip hop emerged, noting, for example, that the founders of hip hop in the United States were from the U.S. South, New York City, and the Caribbean (largely from Jamaica and Puerto Rico). The impact of Cuban immigrants and their descendants on the development of Black U.S. and Caribbean identities and music cultures has been seriously understudied, including their formative influence on hip hop.

As Fernández pointedly asks in his post, “ What is in the end . . . Latin?” Questions of immigration, racism, and colonialism are unresolved tensions among Latin@s (Flores 2000). For example, the immense importance of Puerto Rican contributions to American society are often unrecognized. Puerto Rican identity and culture are rendered invisible in hegemonic narratives of Latin@ ness in the United States, which tend to focus on Mexican American and Chicano/Latino identity (Flores 2000). Additionally, as Caribbean Latin@s, Puerto Ricans culturally share as much with their African American counterparts as they do with some of their non-Caribbean Latin@ counterparts. Though it is clear that Puerto Ricans have also had a tremendous impact on Black U.S. culture and identity politics, Puerto Ricans are written out of Black U.S. history by virtue of their classification as Latin@. The absence of Puerto Ricans in the history of hip hop—or, better said, the absence of a narrative of hip hop as being Caribbean or even Latin@ in origin—is a primary example of how Puerto Rican cultural contributions continue to be unrecognized, especially since Bomba is one of the key musics that form the foundation of hip hop culture. As a Caribbean immigrant to the United States, Fernández is highlighting similar tensions that Cubans, particularly Black Cubans, face, much like their Puerto Rican counterparts.

Frances Negrón-Muntaner (2004) also picks up on this tension of Latin@ness, Puerto Ricanness, and blackness. In her chapter entitled “Jennifer’s Butt: Valorizing the Puertorican Racialized Female Body,” she theorizes about the intercultural, and implicitly interracial, tensions surrounding the casting of Jennifer Lopez to play Tejana star Selena. Negrón-Muntaner (2004) notes that Selena moved from being a Tejana (which she describes as a territorialized “regional” identity) to being a “Latina” (which she argues refers to a national “ethnic minority”) when she expanded her repertoire to include Caribbean, South American, and pan-Latin American genres (231). According to NegrónMuntaner (2004), at this point “Latin@”

refers less to a cultural identity than to a specifically American national currency for economic and political deal making, a technology to demand and deliver emotions, votes, markets, and resources on the same level—and hopefully at an even steeper price—as other racialized minorities. It is also an appeal for ethno-national valorization, a way for diverse groups who are similarly racialized to pool their resources. (231)

The trick here is that while “Latin@ness” until recently has largely been bounded by U.S. political and economic interests (it is a classification that is relevant in a U.S. racial hierarchy), blackness or identifying with the African diaspora as a subject position and identification was not bounded in the same way. Specifically, “Latin@” does not exist as a racial classification in Cuba and many countries throughout Latin America and in the Spanish-speaking Caribbean, but “Black” does. In the case of the tensions surrounding Lopez’s casting as Selena, Mexican Americans were frustrated that Lopez, a Puerto Rican, was selected for the part. Implicit in the tensions was the racialization of Puerto Ricans as potentially Black and therefore not Latina in the same way that Selena is Latina. Much of the tension centered on Lopez’s butt, which was an implicit marker of her Africanness. Lopez, in response, mobilized Black and Latin@ discourses to challenge the critiques of her body as racist and her racialized (possibly Black) body as beautiful, while mobilizing discourses concerning pan-latinidad to argue for her Latin@ness. This again reflects the tensions that Puerto Ricans face, especially New York Ricans such as Lopez: they must navigate the boundaries, by virtue of their Caribbeanness, between blackness and latinidad. The longer they are in the United States, the more they are associated with blackness (African Americanness). Negrón-Muntaner (2004) describes how all of these tensions were negotiated:

Even if “race” was hardly mentioned in this debate over curves and buttocks, for any Caribbean interlocutor, a reference to this part of the human anatomy is often a way of speaking about the African in(side) America. Not coincidentally, the major work on racism by a Puerto Rican author, Isabelo Zenón Cruz, is titled Narciso descubre su trasero (Narcissus discovers his rear end). And despite the fact that Selena was Chicana, an ethnicity not associated in the Caribbean popular imagination with big butts, her measurements, which according to her seamstress actually match Jennifer’s, characterized her as not specifically Mexican American but “Latina,” and hence more easily embraced as one of our own. (233)

Because of the presence of Latin@s who are from Afro-descendant countries and are phenotypically or culturally of African descent, the boundaries of latinidad in the United States are blurred and unstable. The ever-present reality of blackness, which is code for “African” in the Americas, lurks underneath a U.S. classification that claims to be independent of blackness or Africanness. In essence, African diaspora studies implicitly, and explicitly, challenge the stability of “Latin@ness” as a category of “nonblackness.” This approach allows for writing the African diaspora in the Americas out of Western history, and implicitly supports a more insidious discourse, one that assumes the only “Blacks” or “Africans” outside of Africa are U.S. American. While I note the importance of Latin@s in terms of a U.S. experience in the development of hip hop, I also note that most of those Latin@s were Caribbean immigrants (and their descendants). It is important to render visible a history of Black Spanish-speaking immigrants who were also formative in Black U.S. identity formation but are written out of this history because they are defined as Latin@—not Black and not Caribbean.

The movement of hip hop across the globe has largely been linked to U.S. global capitalism, in which blackness became a sign of “difference” for various communities, which allowed a hip hop movement to emerge in Japan and Colombia, for example (Condry 2006; Dennis 2012). In returning to the diasporic origins of hip hop, via the inclusion of Caribbean Latin@s, Joseph Schloss writes the following: “As Raquel Rivera explains, ‘The long-standing tradition of street drumming among New York Puerto Ricans and Cubans—in which African Americans also have participated—strongly influenced the music that was recorded as soul and funk, which was later played as break-beats at hiphop jams’ ” (Rivera 2003, 35; emphasis in the original; cited in Schloss 2009, 20). Schloss then goes on to quote Ned Sublette: in the 1970s “conga drums had become one of the signature sounds of African American musical nationalism, ultimately even acquiring a faux-African pronunciation unknown in Cuba: kungaz. Along with the one-chord groove tune that the conga helped define, the instrument was an important part of the sound of another of America’s great cultural achievements: funk” (20). Schloss notes several important things in his book. First, all of the different aspects of hip hop culture are diasporic in origin. Second, the music that B-boys and B-girls dance to constitutes a canon: recordings are historical documents: the B-boys and B-girls interact with the emotion and the feeling encoded in the documents. And most importantly, a canon expresses a cultural or national identity. Thus hip hop, specifically breaking, has a canon that is diasporic in origin.

It is still quite common for U.S. and global hip hop studies not to take an intersectional approach to their analyses. That is, these texts do not weave the presence of women and their discourses into the overall analysis of hip hop, if the subject is addressed at all. There are of course some exceptions. For example, Derek Pardue (2008) engages questions about gender and organized Black feminist politics in Brazil (and its relationship to the emergence of hip hop feminism there). Interestingly, in Geoff Baker’s book (2011) the voices of women artists are notably absent and reduced to the assumed limited visibility of women in hip hop. This absence is especially notable, because it is widely acknowledged in Cuban media and Cuban scholarship that one of the significant contributions of the CUHHM was the public articulation of feminist discourses, after fifty years when feminist identity politics were not a part of Cuba’s public sphere. The word “feminist” is not in the index of Baker’s book. In global hip hop movements, particularly those with an articulation of Black identity politics within the hip hop scene, a Black feminist/Black woman centered presence is a key part—even if those women have to struggle for visibility, they are still present and profoundly influence the discourses of their respective movements. These women typically are the most invested in Black identity politics because blackness, Eurocentric standards of beauty, and their effects on self-esteem and everyday treatment are a central aspect of the experience of femininity for Afro-descendant women. Hence the absence of hip hop feminists in texts that posit race as fluid (Dennis 2012) or not relevant to national hip hop scenes (Baker 2011) is not surprising.

Hip Hop Feminism Takes on Race, Gender, and Sexuality

Outside of the view of the larger public sphere, Black women have had equal participation in and at times have even dominated Black music cultures (Davis 1998). Describing hip hop as a Black public sphere, Gwendolyn D. Pough (2011) argues that Black women have always been vocal members of the genre. She views women’s participation in hip hop as part of a new generation of Black feminist critique and argues that this generation has used hip hop as a way to critically engage issues such as sexism and homophobia in the larger public sphere. Similarly, Tricia Rose (1994) identifies hip hop as a key site of contemporary Black feminist critique. Many in the larger public sphere are not aware of or do not understand the presence and influence of politicized Black women artists within hip hop, as Black music cultures and their leaders are often gendered (and marketed) as male and misogynistic by the music industry (Davis 1998; Durham 2007). As commercialized hip hop, particularly in the United States, became gendered and racialized as Black and male, it has also been racially sexualized as hyper-heterosexual and hyper-phallocentric.

Numerous critiques describe how the oppositionality of hip hop has been commercialized and marketed to a larger public sphere obsessed with blackness as a form of social deviancy (Pough et al. 2007). As commercialization of the genre has progressed, women’s critical voices and participation within hip hop have been narrowed to being objects of male sexual gratification and subjects who crave objectification. Some hip hop feminists have pointed out and protested Black male complicity in the sacrificing of Black women for economic gain (Durham 2007). But despite the ways in which commercialized hip hop has come to represent hip hop in the larger American public sphere, women still actively participate in both commercial and noncommercial hip hop. Tricia Rose, like Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham (1995), points out that the intersections of race and class encourage a form of solidarity across gender lines within the Black community, because race functions as a metalanguage, especially in the way gender and sexuality are understood. Racial solidarity results in cross-gender alliances within the Black community (including blackness within latinidad ) that are difficult to re-create between Black women and their white feminist and white lesbian peers. This difficulty is largely a result of discourses surrounding femininity and sexuality that marginalize nonwhite women’s gender expression and sexuality. Black women involved in any aspect of hip hop are often portrayed by white feminists as women who have been duped or coopted into being unconscious sexual objects of men (Pough 2011; Rose 1994). This erasure of Black women’s agency within hip hop ironically obscures the important role and critiques of women artists within the Cuban Underground Hip Hop Movement.

The emerging body of work concerning hip hop feminism challenges the assumption that women are absent from hip hop, including socially critical hip hop. It also challenges the idea that when women are present they only serve as objects of male sexual desire. I offer a regionally situated definition of hip hop feminism that draws upon the work of Aisha Durham (2007) and Gwendolyn D. Pough et al. (2007). Pough et al. (2007) define hip hop feminism as “a worldview, . . . an epistemology grounded in the experiences of communities of color under advanced capitalism, [and] a cultural site for rearticulating identity and sexual politics” (vii). Durham (2007) argues that hip hop feminism is “a sociocultural, intellectual and political movement grounded in . . . situated knowledge” (306). The situated knowledge is that of African and Afro-descendant women from the Atlantic’s post-1960s generation,22 “who recognize culture as a pivotal site for political intervention to challenge, resist and mobilize collectives to dismantle systems of exploitation,” which I add are rooted in the legacies of colonialism (Durham 2007, 306). According to both Durham and Pough, a Black feminist identity is central to hip hop feminism. This identity is a hybrid epistemological standpoint composed of multiple subjectivities that borrow from multiple theoretical frameworks, especially personal experiences, in order to articulate itself (Hill Collins 2000; hooks 2000; Smith 2000). Hip hop becomes a mobilization for people often not recognized as participants in political processes to work for social change (Gupta-Carlson 2010). The presence of gays and lesbians is also erased from hip hop history and representation, though some scholars such as Cheryl L. Keyes (2011) and Adreanna Clay (2008) have acknowledged the presence of lesbian hip hop/neo-soul artists, such as Queen Pen and Me’Shell Ndegeocello during the early years of commercial hip hop. Clay (2008) argues that Me’Shell Ndegeocello marks an important turn in Black feminism and reflects the complexities and contradictions of hip hop feminism (53). For queer women of color raised after the canonization of Black feminist theory who grew up as a part of the hip hop generation, Me’Shell Ndegeocello’s presence in national media was groundbreaking: she was visibility.

In considering the relationship between hip hop feminism and sexuality Nikki Lane (2011) argues that a gendered Black body is privileged in hip hop and that male and female interactions are framed via heterosexual metaphors concerning power (776). Hence it is a queer act for a woman to enter into hip hop and make an intervention into non-normative behaviors. Thus (as I argue in chapter 7 on Las Krudas CUBENSI) it is possible, if not probable, to find openly queer women artists within hip hop because the female presence within hip hop is a queer presence in and of itself. As such, a queer female subject is one of many queer female subjectivities within hip hop (the bad girl, the femme fatal, the conscious Black woman, the Afro-centric Black woman, the Black lesbian).

Plan of the Book

In chapter 2 I offer some background information on the process of the socialization of culture in Cuba. This chapter also historicizes race and cultural politics in Cuba, which is important in understanding the intervention that Cuban underground hip hop artivists are making.

Chapter 3 focuses on the emergence and development of the Cuban Underground Hip Hop Movement and racial identity politics in contemporary Cuba. It pays particular attention to Cuba’s racial structure, its relationship to persistent social inequality, and CUHHM mobilization to challenge racism.

Chapter 4 provides a discussion of whiteness and mulat@ness in Cuba. I explore how and why the discourse of “racial fluidity” (a hegemonic discourse that argues that “races” do not exist in Cuba or in much of the Americas because of racial intermixture) is both pervasive and highly problematic. As many scholars, artists, and activists have noted, this discourse is interwoven into the racial structures that continue to oppress and disenfranchise people of African descent, while preventing /limiting the possibility of people to mobilize to challenge racialized social inequalities.

Chapter 5 examines the terminology used by CUHHM artivists, noting the various ways in which words and concepts are reworked and redeployed. Through examining the regional lexicon of the movement, I offer insight into the agenda of the artivists who interrogate and employ terminologies as a means of articulating and defining the terms of their own political struggle.

Chapter 6 engages the feminist debates that emerged in the movement and CUHHM hip hop feminists’ intervention into racism, sexism, and heteronormativity. Drawing from the work of the artivists and their interviews, this chapter highlights the social and economic difficulties facing women, specifically Black Cuban women after the Special Period, with particular attention to how revolutionary discourse limits the possibilities available to women to address these issues.

Chapter 7 engages the discursive intervention of the group Las Krudas CUBENSI. The CUHHM was successful in stimulating national debates at the state level concerning racism, sexism, and homophobia. This chapter is a case study of how one group, as part of a larger movement, was able to push for gender and sexual equality as a key part of the CUHHM discursive intervention. By extension the group used the CUHHM as a national platform on which to address the needs of Cuba’s sexual and gender-nonconforming minorities, bringing specific attention to those classified as female at birth. The concluding chapter addresses the post-CUHHM generation and the lasting impact of the CUHHM on political life, particularly Black political life, in Cuba. I address major changes that have occurred since 2006, when a significant number of the first generation of the CUHHM left Cuba for the diaspora, discussing not only why 2006 is seen by many as the “end” of the CUHHM but also the problems with such a diagnosis.


“This study is a must for any scholar on race, feminism, social movements, music, and, of course, Cuba.”

Cuban Underground Hip Hop delivers an intimate history of hip hop in Cuba between 1996 and 2006…[It] stands out because of its focus on the intersectionality of race and gender.”
New West Indian Guide

“Saunders has amassed a fascinating archive of the Cuban Underground Hip Hop Movement from its beginnings in the late 1990s up through 2006. Her significant achievement is that she has produced a truly intersectional analysis that is attuned to the interrelationship of race, gender, class, and sexuality.”
Aisha S. Durham, Assistant Professor of Communication, University of South Florida, author of Home with Hip Hop Feminism: Performances in Communication and Culture, and coeditor of Home Girls Make Some Noise: Hip-Hop Feminism Anthology