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Alejandro Zamora: A Cuban Hip-Hop Historian

Alejandro Zamora: A Cuban Hip-Hop Historian

Alejandro Zamora Monte is a young artist who was born in Havana in 1978. He is a critic who has, for years, been concerned with understanding and collecting the history of Cuban hip-hop. From his roots as a social commentator, using his experience of working with the Agencia Cubana de Rap, he has accumulated a wealth of knowledge and contacts that made (and make) the necessary convergences to take on his prime passion: documenting the Cuban hip-hop movement. From the National Library of Cuba and that cherished digital website called Librinsula, he pounds the keys of his keyboard, providing us with insights and taking rap to that site which had never before been invaded by the hip-hop phenomenon. These days, his book called “Rapear una Cuba utópica” [Rapping Utopian Cuba] is being evaluated by several publishers, and it is due to be released next year. LaHabana.com chatted with him about this and his work in support of the Cuban hip-hop scene from the literary point of view.

LaHabana.com: How did you start being interested in hip-hop?

I think the start of my love affair with hip-hop culture comes from my maternal grandparents. They were Protestant clergy and when I was little they’d take me to church with them. There was a choir that sounded like American Gospel music and it fascinated me. I loved to listen to what those men and women did with their voices. And my grandfather played the harmonica in church and that music got to me. I am also thankful to my uncles on my mother’s side: one was very much into rock‘n’roll and the other one preferred Afro-American trends such as rap, Soul and R&B. Just like Rodolfo Rensoli, the founder of the Alamar Rap Festivals, I went through the 3 Rs, as he says: I started with Rock, moved to Reggae where I learned about Bob Marley, fell in love, stopped wearing ripped jeans and started wearing sandals and wide-legged pants and finally, I ended up in Rap.

What really got to me about hip-hop culture is the profound sociological slant it takes; not that other genres don’t have it too but I think that rap takes it to a higher level. I love how secondary subjects take power. In that regard, hip-hop culture is an excellent tool for social change.

LaHabana.com: When is it that can we start talking about the existence of a Cuban hip-hop movement?

Many start with the year 1995 because that was when the First Rap Festival was held in Alamar. You could see then that there was a movement made up of rappers, graffiti writers, dancers, DJs…in other words, the four basic elements of hip-hop culture, plus the spirituality or the knowledge. Others believe that it all started with dancers in the 1980s: now that’s nothing strange because Cuba has always been and is a country of dancers par excellence. A video clip was shown here that caused a furor among dancers: “Rock it” by Herbie Hancock.

There are several forerunners: first the Soul Train program that started in 1975 in Chicago and got to Cuba by the end of the 1970s, the start of the 1980s; second, something I dug up myself, there was the Havana Jam event in 1979 when Billy Joel, Rita Coolidge and Fania All-Stars came to Cuba and this was also the year when The Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” appeared. It is considered by the critics to be the number opening up the commercial hip-hop market. My guess is that in Havana Jam there were persons who gave out copies of that song. And third, there was the meeting between Fidel Castro and musician Harry Belafonte who was the producer of Beat Street. Fidel Castro knew absolutely zip about hip-hop and what started out as a one-hour meeting stretched to eleven hours during which fifty percent of what they talked about was hip-hop. I believe this was one of the things that contributed to the subsequent creation of the Agencia Cubana de Rap (ACR in its Spanish abbreviation) in 2002. It’s  aim was to promote and market the work of rappers under the Asere productions label, its catalogue of artists and Movimiento magazine.

The Golden Age of Cuban Rap evidently occurred in the 1990s when youths, generally from marginal neighborhoods, without clothes or food, were thinking: “We have to speak; we have to say this and that.” The situation of prejudice about this kind of music which wasn’t exclusively rap culminated in the debate about “black influences.” In fact there was a very famous saying in the 1990s: “The blacks are getting together.” Because that’s what hip-hop is. It’s a meeting place, a place to dignify and increase the pride of poor Cuban blacks. It’s not that there weren’t any whites, but evidently it is a movement for blacks and mestizos, the poor…just as in the US. Now that I mention it, I understand that there is a Cuban hip-hop archive at Harvard University. UCLA is also interested in such matters and Cornell University also has a hip-hop archive.

LaHabana.com: What about the University of Havana?

That is my pain, my dream and my frustration: to fight for a history of Cuban hip-hop. I understand that at the start of this year US rapper Nas was invited to lecture at Harvard. I dream of the day when Cuban rappers will be giving lectures at the University of Havana. Why not?

LaHabana.com: Tell us about your work at the National Library.

Approximately from the year 2008, I have been writing on hip-hop subjects. I regularly publish in the digital magazine Librinsula and elsewhere. In this time I am proud to have taken rap to the National Library. The first time was with a concert by Primera Base where Cuban intellectuals such as Víctor Fowler, Tomás Fernández Robaina and Roberto Zurbano took part and later, last year, the library held a panel on hip-hop. The panel was composed of a psychologist, a cultural promoter and hip-hop activist, a theologian and myself. Since 2014, we have given presentations at various venues on subjects such as the start of hip-hop culture in the United States and how it landed in Cuba, and its development until the present day; the contribution of Rap Festivals to national culture and the movement as a platform grouping the four basic hip-hop culture elements; rap and hip-hop serialized publications in Cuba and Christian Rap in Cuba.

LaHabana.com: How did the idea for your book come about? What is it about and how is it going?

The genesis of Rapear una Cuba utópica lies in the rapper Tony Manigua, who was compiling material for what would become Comisión Depuradora (2007), a socio-musical project thought up by rappers Maykel Xtremo and Aldo. According to the exponents, it was a desperate cry to create a project for rappers not belonging to the ACR and who at that time were being censored or found themselves outside of the boundaries of cultural institutions. The result was a double album of 30 songs and two concerts. As far as I have been able to research, there is a before and an after to the Comisión Depuradora.

Intellectual and music producer Pablo Herrera, the producer of Amenaza, later the Orishas, has the theory that before Comisión Depuradora there was Afro-Cuban rap dealing with being black, race, racism and discrimination. But after Comisión Depuradora, we can see elements referring to the essence of being Cuban, global issues, anti-imperialist matters and criticism of the centers of power and mass communication and the role hip-hop culture was playing in all this.

At first rappers imitated what they were seeing in the US; for example the names of the Cuban groups Explosión Suprema or Reyes de las Calle. Then this changed. Look at the group called Ogguere. The name means “soul of the earth” in the Yoruba language.

Tony knew I was interested in these topics and with incredible nobility of spirit he gave me the manuscript and told me: “Listen Ale, I’m tied up in thousands of projects, so finish this because I won’t be able to finish it.” As I got into it, I realized that Comisión Depuradora was merely a drop of water within the ocean of hip-hop culture in Cuba and that was when I started thinking about the book.

Rapear una Cuba utópica is a book of interviews, providing a juicy overview where people get mad, talk, get things off of their chests and say things that normally wouldn’t be said in any other type of encounter. I get into the topic of the ACR, of Cuban intellectuals who have backed this cultural resistance movement; there are interviews with the most recent crop of Cuban rappers and I also talk about the four basic elements of hip-hop culture. It is a national overview, very much Cuban, something I very much feel is missing. My major hope is that people will get to know Cuba a little more through hip-hop culture. If I can do that, I will feel very happy.

LaHabana.com: If somebody were to decide to learn about Cuban hip-hop, what numbers would Alejandro recommend in order to get a feel of the movement in Cuba?

  1. Mala Manía (Sigrid)
  2. Mi belleza (Magia López)
  3. 120 horas rojas (Las Krudas)
  4. Cómo fue (Obsesión)
  5. Como está el yogurt (Ogguere)
  6. Hora de abrir los ojos (Alto y Bajo)
  7. Tengo de Hermanos (Causa)
  8. Achavón cruza’o (Amenaza)
  9. Igual que tú (Primera Base)
  10. Ley 5666 (Anónimo Consejo)