Havana, Cuba – Barbaro ‘El Urbano’ Vargas considers his brand of combat rap to be an existential threat to Cuba’s 60-year-old regime.
“They fear us because we speak the truth,” he declares, looking out from his rooftop DIY home studio over the rough-and-tumble Marianao neighbourhood. “This place is the hood but so is all of the city.”
The truth – according to Havana’s fast-rising underground rap savant – is that financial hardship and rising inequality is only made greater by the recent economic aperture. Cuba and the US’ historic pivot to restore relations, set in motion in late 2014, will reach a symbolic high on March 21 when President Barack Obama visits Cuba, becoming the first sitting US leader to do so in 90 years.
Barbaro, though, doesn’t share the optimism many Cuba analysts have trumpeted since the announcement was first made.
He earned his protest rap chops as a young battle rapper going to the clandestine shows of his hip-hop forebearers, the Aldeanos, the genre’s most widely known export. After being taken under the Aldeanos’ wing , Barbaro’s went from gifted freestyler to polished performer with a smooth counterculture boom-bap rap swing.
He rose to the top of the city’s rap scene by spitting over J Dilla-inspired beats about his neighbourhood’s social issues. Now Barbaro stands at the top as the clearest voice of popular dissidence through his eagerly shared and vastly consumed self-produced albums.
His rapid-fire delivery of anti-establishment lyricism has drawn the attention of state censors. A few years ago he won best music video in a state-run competition, but after ignoring requests to self-censor his content, he’s now regularly visited by imposing secret police who’ve blacklisted the 29-year-old rapper from performing in Cuba.
Once Barbaro came back from a European tour in early 2015, where he linked up with local rappers to record a number of music videos , he was dealt another blow by the authorities. His US travel permit was suddenly cancelled, essentially barring him from his American debut in New York City.
He considers the government’s attempts at censorship as self-defeating. The lyrical content of his songs have always had a coarse political grain , but after the suppression of his freedom of expression, his music doesn’t pull any punches when targeting the government.
Once taboo and grounds for incarceration, he raps a few anti-government bars from his cramped, attic studio – equipped with improvised and contraband recording equipment – affectionately called “the cave”:
“I’m not bombs or anarchy / I’m against a system that’s against me / ever since I chose to live with the truth / I forever consider myself a prisoner of freedom.”
‘We give them the solution: Resist’
Barbaro is not alone in his revolt. A few days later, we meet in Old Havana’s Central Park, the epicentre of a growing tourism industry. Flanked by glistening five-star hotels and touts offering scenic excursions, he introduces us to up-and-coming rapper Dargel ‘Dargelo’ Sanchez, and the veteran baritone street poet Skiudy ‘Faraon’ Buenoduani, as well as the rest of his underground rap crew. The group of MCs, producers, hype men and artists are all associated with the Azotea record label .
The group of crisply dressed, Jordan-wearing 20-somethings with effortless swagger see themselves as counter-revolutionaries, fighting the oppression and censorship of the authorities through razor sharp hip-hop.
Once the Azotea crew is assembled, we leave the din of downtown and head towards the canyon-like streets of Chinatown. Unassuming at first glance, Barbaro enters a creaking pre-revolution tenement that is underground rap’s nerve centre. The asphalt jungle – as it’s dubbed by Faraon – is where Barbaro and the boys plot, spit and battle rap their hip-hop revolution.
They share the jungle with Al Capone, a bootlegger who makes counterfeit rum for a living in the grimy, dimly lit kitchen, while the rappers freestyle and listen to the music they’re working on. In the graffiti-marked room, they discuss how to spread their music – mostly through Cuba’s infamous sneakernet (a hand-traded illegal USB drive filled with television shows, films, music and other digital content known as “the package”). They also vent their frustrations about the difficulty of producing music under the country’s complex economic and political conditions.
The most vocal member, as well as one of Barbaro’s mentors, Faraon, considers himself and the crew to be dangerous men, not because of his nine-year stretch in prison for fighting the regime – “I got into a fight with the police, and I won,” he brags – but because the group’s message is compiled from the inequalities they see on the streets of Cuba’s cities. “We take the calamities we see on the street, make them into rhymes and give them to the people. We don’t only tell them what the problems are, [we tell them] the solution: Resist.”
Faraon, an alias he claims he got for reciting ancient wisdom through his poetry like a Pharaoh, hails from the eastern city of Guantanamo. His lyrics are more militant and his flow more concussive than Barbaro’s. His booming delivery is inspired by traditional Afro-Cuban percussion, he explains, which, in one of his collaborations with Barbaro, he connects with the struggle of fallen martyrs and the oppressed people of Cuba.
‘My Cuba’s a living hell’
The restoration of relations between Cuba and the US has people speculating about what will come next for the island. But Faraon believes nothing will change for average Cubans.
In his song Culo Roto, literally “busted ass,” which he dedicates to the commander – meaning Fidel Castro – Faraon takes shots at the government with lines like: “The government’s guilty / the problem isn’t foreign / our problem comes from inside / my Cuba’s a living hell.”
The song refers to “Cuba’s dark side,” growls Faraon after performing a capella in the asphalt jungle.
The rest of the Azotea crew agrees with Faraon’s criticisms; they malign the current wave of tourists’ obsession with experiencing Havana “before the Americans destroy it”. With the US travel ban being partly lifted in August, Faraon mocks the postcard poverty and Cuban kitsch cottage industry already being sold to foreigners, the one that includes pre-revolution American cars, untouched beaches and Che berets.
To prove his point, he demands to take us on “a tour of the real Havana, the Havana I know”. Through the raucous clang of the late-night guaguas, the city’s ubiquitous and manic microbuses, Faraon strides towards the Curita Park, where homeless people and intoxicated vagrants shuffle around in the pitch black.
“They’re the ones we rap for: beggars and transvestites, the oppressed blacks, prisoners and anyone who’s different. We rap about everything that you don’t see on CNN,” Faraon says.
He points out the groups of underage sex workers. “Here you have what’s really going on – no filter. The young girls are selling themselves out of necessity. Officially, there isn’t prostitution in Cuba. But what do you think is going to happen when a doctor earns $24 a month, and quick sex gets you $30? I rap about the true state of things.”
He lights a cigar and continues: “As rappers, we’re a threat to the state, simply because we tell the truth. No one gave us freedom of speech; we took it.”
‘Our parents failed, but at least they tried’
For the Azotea crew, the fight isn’t only against the “bearded men” (a reference to the Castros), or an unjust and unequal society. Most of Barbaro’s discography centres on his generation’s “loss of values”. He stands aghast at the nullifying indifference of his peers: “Why are so few of us standing up, after all we’ve already been through?” he asks.
He shows a promotional SMS for a popular club that circulates among Havana’s youth with information on weekend events and specials. By luring people to enjoy “a night of elegance and glamour”, Barbaro believes a culture of “elitism and classism” is spreading among young Cubans who don’t even earn a proper living wage.
Twenty-year-old traditional Son singer Celia Perez agrees with Barbaro. Born into a “family that’s supported the revolution from the beginning”, Celia is infuriated by the apathy of those around her.
We visit Celia at her mentor’s studio in Central Havana, where they both form part of a movement to protect Cuba’s traditional art forms. “It’s like they’re blind. The inspiration to change our future is right in front of us. The huge billboards with revolutionary messages invoking ‘courage’ and ‘unity’ are everywhere. The regime gives us the recipe for its own demise without knowing it, but we can’t even see it,” she laments.
Citing the power of art, Celia draws a parallel between her hero, Jose Marti, a Cuban poet who fought for independence from Spain, with the work being done by the island’s rappers. “Our parents failed, but at least they tried. Outside of rappers, my generation doesn’t have anyone even trying to change anything,” she says.
Both musicians see themselves as “different” because they focus on the difficulties facing the youth.
“We are drawing our weapons against our own generation to snap them out of this apathy. And to affect change, you have to stay and fight,” Barbaro reflects.
‘We don’t give up’
Like most Cubans, Barbaro knows people who’ve fled to the US in the recent wave of migration, including several rappers. Even many of Cuba’s most famous rappers, like the Aldeanos, who brought Barbaro into the rap game, have migrated abroad. The fear that the easing of US-Cuban relations will bring an end to the policies that give Cubans preferential access to asylum is driving the current wave. It is something Barbaro understands but refuses to do himself.
The rapper insists that the fight for Cuba’s youth “cannot be fought from Miami”.
It’s in this context that the counter-revolutionary rappers of the Azotea crew, led by Barbaro, feel they are left with no choice but to resist however they can. “If we don’t do anything, the youth won’t even have a future because they’ll all be gone,” says Barbaro from his studio in Marianao.
Even though he faces considerable opposition and even persecution, he is determined to stay and speak up for his people. “We don’t give up. We’re helping take people’s fear of the government away and that’s a start,” he says.
Follow Tomas Ayuso on Instagram: tomas_ayuso