Cuba's digital destination
As an American with parents of Cuban decent, the word Revolution has always been a very loaded term. To my elders in exile, it is a word that is synonymous with heartbreak and the memory of separated families. Viewing the word through my American prism didn’t offer much more. Growing up in the States, whenever I turned on the TV set, I’d see a commercial advertising “the new revolution in Toothpaste!” or “Potato chips” or whatever product usurped the meaning. In some places, the word has lost its value, and become a quick catchphrase for marketing.
It’s not that Americans haven’t experienced their own struggles. It is simply just that the real fight for revolution happened 230 years ago, so the memory is not fresh in our North American minds. The true American Revolution was indeed a complex battle that began in 1775, ending when 13 British colonies (settled into North America) finally deciding to break free from British Rule in 1783—and thus began the birth of the United States of America. We, too, had enormous blood spilled, and many lives were lost in order to claim this sovereignty. But for us Americans, it may be lodged too far back in our memory. For the other half of my descent, my Cuban lineage remembers a Revolution that happened only 57 years ago, and it took a rough toll on everyone—for those that left, and those that stayed. To be honest, it was a word mired with conflict and paradox for most of my upbringing.
By the time I became a young adult, I felt the burning need to understand the meaning of “Revolution” for myself. The only way to do it was to launch myself into the motherland, the cradle of this word. It’s not as easy as it sounds. My Miami elders forbade me from going to Cuba. In a rebellious move to disobey the morals of my community, I left for the Island in late 1990s. Eventually, I bumped into my first rap party in Alamar, and thus met my brothers on the other side of the fence, the rebellious youth of the Island, manifested in the hip hop scene. Together, we therapeutically faced all our demons, asked the big questions, and created a beautiful bond of a brotherhood that would begin my journey back to myself.
The rapping community was located “East of Havana” (which would later be the name of my documentary). The artists explained to me that they grew up with their own revolutionary heroes—Camilo Cienfuegos, Jose Martí, and, yes, Che Guevara. These were the figures in their own history books. They explained to me what they were taught in school—that to be a true revolutionary meant to always question injustice, even in the face of danger. This is precisely what they were doing when singing songs that dissected their ideology and pointed out ills in their system. They were criticizing their system not because they didn’t like their country, but precisely because they LOVED their country. They wanted to see the best Cuba possible. Here is the catch. The most rebellious rappers were soon called “counterrevolutionary” (or “contrarrevolucionario”), a term that can quickly turn a resident into a persona-non-grata in their community. Some of the rappers told me they thought it was ironic they were being labeled contrarrevolucionario because they felt they were being more revolutionary than the “revolutionaries.” So who are the true revolutionaries? Now you understand the wordplay of Cuba, and how this word has taken on many different forms.
Let’s stop this dizzying ride of semantics, and observe the official definition of revolution, according to Webster’s Dictionary, which defines revolution as: “a sudden, extreme, or complete change in the way people live, work, etc.” Other definitions are “a sudden, radical, or complete change” or “a fundamental change in the way of thinking about or visualizing something: a change of paradigm.”
Looking at this definition, it is clear that both generations can claim revolutionary fervor. In the 1950s, progressive college community questioned their system and created a new paradigm of thinking, just the same as musical poets in 1990s Alamar created a mental shift and redefined their society through lyrical beats. Both presented radical new ways of thinking. It is an internal battle within the Island that continues to clash, and luckily, artistic boundaries continue to push dialogue forward to new levels each day.
As the opposing forces continue to bump heads with each other, the battle is eclipsed by a more global revolution that is shadowing all in its path—the Internet Revolution. As the world evolves at its own furious pace, the word revolution is redefined over and over again. Technologies once disrupted old systems every 100 years (for example, the horse and carriage was disrupted by the automobile). Today, technological invention is happening so fast that it is now disrupting old systems every single year. Uber disrupts the taxi systems globally. Airbnb disrupts the hotel system globally. We can see how old systems are flipped on their head with the intention of servicing the individual. The Internet Revolution stops for no one.
I remember when one of the Cuban rappers featured in “East of Havana” turned on his iPod for the very first time in 2003 while sitting in his Alamar home with no electricity or water. He shook his head in amazement. “Damn, this is the real counterrevolution!” he said while smiling with eyes wide open. The freedom of carrying 10,000 songs (or books) in your pocket inside a little white device is pure liberation for an artist, an endless supply of inspiration in the palm of ones hand.
When the Industrial Revolution took place in the United States and Europe in late 18th century, it introduced new machines, new sources of power, new ways of manufacturing, and new forms of transportation. With this explosion of invention came new laws and new social responsibilities. In this advanced Internet Revolution, we are also faced with new challenges, new responsibilities, and new morals. This is always part of the script for real Revolutions however this conversation is now taking place globally.
The band Major Lazer is considered a child of the “Digital Revolution” both because the music is born of beat machines (not traditional instruments) and because the band’s fame is born of the Internet generation. Photos of their global travels are disseminated through social media. On Instagram alone, Diplo has 2.6 million followers, while Major Lazer has 1.2 million—that is, 3 1/2 million eyeballs just on Instagram, approximately one third of Cuba’s population of 11 million people. Then there is YouTube, which spreads their gospel of lyrics to nearly 4 million follower subscriptions, with some videos having up to 188,000 MILLION VIEWS. This does not include Twitter and Facebook numbers either. Before landing in Cuba to perform in Havana’s March 2016 show, Diplo performed in Pakistan the day before, another country with an enormous following for the band. It is no wonder that 400,000 Cubans appeared for Major Lazer in Havana. The Island’s youth is plugged into this global consciousness and proved it in droves that day. What is the band’s mission, you ask? Diplo waved two flags the entire show in Havana. One was the Cuban flag in all its glory, and the other was a black flag with the words “Peace is the Mission.” They took one photo with the whole audience in the background, and uploaded it to their networks for the whole world to see.
Make no mistake, technology is reaching the shores of Cuba. On every block, one can see new cell clinics opening up. There is a generation of youth graduating from computer science schools into a country with no firm Internet industry; however, these minds are aligned with the zeitgeist of the world, and will soon be on the front lines of the Internet generation of Cuba. For better or worse, the world wide web will reach the front steps of this nation, and the possibilities of entrepreneurs of this upcoming era is mind boggling. Somewhere in Havana lies the next Jeff Bezos (founder of Amazon) or Steve Jobs (founder of Apple).
There was once a man named William Buckminster Fuller, who was a philosopher and futurist. “You never change things by fighting the existing reality,” he once wrote. “To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” As we sit here and look back at a history of Revolutions, most of them had uprisings, revolts, and mutiny. It seems the Internet generation has put down all their weapons and skipped the bloodshed. In its place, they have picked up computers, musical instruments, video cameras, and paintbrushes—anything else to tell their story and build followers. This is a different sort of revolution, and you can either jump on the train, or be left behind. The message is individuality and self-expression, and this is all Cuba ever wanted, to be seen as a nation of individuals. The next revolution will not have bloodshed. It will instead be a revolution of the mind, and you can only trust that all youth culture is optimistic in their attempts to better the world… Cuba included.