Documenting the Afro-Cuban Experience, One Track at a Time
AfroRazones, a new digital literacy project, is teaching Cuban artists how to take their music to the next level.
“It starts with your network,” says a wise-looking glasses-wearing man with a baseball cap, known as DJ Jigüe, using his hands to guide him to his next point. He’s addressing a group of people gathered in an intimate, white-walled studio on a spring day in Havana. About 15 sets of eager ears, all belonging to aspiring musicians, listen intently to what he’s about to say next. “The more your personal network shares your music, the more chance it has to reach a whole new set of people.”
But DJ Jigüe isn’t talking about professional contacts; he’s talking about the internet, and how new songs can spread through the ecosystems of social media and potentially go viral. It’s a simple lesson, one of the basic principles of being an artist in the digital age, but for the young Afro-Cuban artists sitting in the studio that March afternoon, the information is new and refreshing.
That lesson plan was one in a series of workshops, created by a collaborative team of Cuban and U.S.-based artists and organizers, to introduce digital literacy for a new generation of musical creatives in Cuba. Of the rappers, poets, and producers who attended these workshops, many were featured in AfroRazones, a 12-track compilation album, which dropped today, that aims to explore Afro-Cuban identity through hip-hop, R&B, and poetry. (“AfroRazones” literally translates to “AfroReasons.”)
DJ Jigüe, whose real name is Isnay Rodriguez, is the project’s musical director and the producer for the album. “In this historic moment, because of all the economic, social and political changes that the country is going through, it’s important that the Afro-descendent youth understands their history and black empowerment so they could overcome any obstacles during their careers in Cuba,” Rodriguez shares when asked about the central theme of the album. (Rodriguez is based in Havana; he and other organizers and artists spoke to TrackRecord through voice memos they recorded in Cuba and sent to me via email.)
The idea for AfroRazones started when New Mexico native Luna Olavarría Gallegos, an archivist and writer, began to search for alternative, non-academic ways to archive Afro-Cuban experiences on the island. “I was thinking music would be really awesome,” Olavarría said.
“It started off centering [on] blackness and we realized that there's an interesting experience going on. Artists are less literate in terms of internet and digitality and we wanted to be able to confront those issues as well,” the 21-year-old Olavarría tells me over the phone. She’s now based in New York. “The whole project is more than just a compilation album. The whole project is a [digital] media literacy project, a transnational exchange, and experiment in sustainability.”
AfroRazones is the direct result of collaboration between organizers in the U.S. and young creatives in Cuba. Most of the volunteers involved in the project are Latinos, born in the U.S. to immigrant parents, and have worked in the arts scene through their respective crafts. The artistic and informational exchange between the two groups was a crucial part of the project’s mission. Through the workshops, the artists in Cuba learned how to upload their music to SoundCloud, which they learned is an audio and social platform that has made it possible for international artists to collaborate with one another without ever setting foot in the same time zone.
They also learned to promote their content through social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram. Some of the artists were more advanced and already had Instagram accounts but didn't really know how to use the app. "There was this sense that people come and they enjoy Cuba and they leave and no one ever gave them the tools to understand how to use these things," Olvarría says.
Thankfully, for residents of Havana and other major cities in Cuba, the internet is no longer inaccessible. Government-approved Wi-Fi hotspots have made it easier for Cubans to connect to the world wide web (for a price). It’s just harder to access than it is for most people.
“Cuba esta de moda,” or “Cuba is trendy right now”—Olavarría tells me that’s what the artists would say amongst themselves on the first day of workshops and laugh about it. “[Some of the team] told them, 'You can use that to your advantage and you can showcase it through your music,’” Olavarría says.
Rafael Bou Lemus—a rapper who goes by El Individuo on-stage—is featured on the AfroRazones compilation album, and was an active participant in the workshops. He says he learned “everything that comes after the production of the music.”
“This part is important because sometimes we focus solely on the music, from writing to picking out a beat, and we don’t realize that there’s a lot to be done to make sure the music reaches an audience,” he tells TrackRecord in a voice memo recorded in Havana. “Especially in this time, it’s important to know about social media, especially when it comes to promotion. We’re pretty new to all of it, but we’re learning little by little.”
Bou saw firsthand just how much the internet can do for emerging artists. His track “Mi Raza,” the first single off the album, premiered on the FADER and landed on a featured weekly playlist by the New York Times, in the company of Frank Ocean and Jay Z. In it, Bou raps and owns his afrodescendencia and lyrically lays down the history of resistance of black Cuba.
“The bravery of those who fought against a tyrant – the fearlessness of Maceo in front of a Spanish army,” Bou lists off black revolutionaries, both from Cuba and the U.S., in “Mi Raza.” “The sermon of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. The bravery of Quintin. The literature of Juan Gualberto Gómez. The Black Panther party along with the Independent Party of Color— I rep them both on my t-shirt.”
The pride in black Cuban culture and bodies beams on AfroRazones, especially on the track, “Si No Te Gusta OK” by the Havana-based duo La Reyna y La Real. “The theme of the track is to defend our skin without keeping our head down, and to see that we are black. It’s what we represent,” said Yadira Pintado Lazcano, known as La Real. “My hair is what it is, my body is what it is, and whoever doesn’t like it, they can do whatever they want because I feel perfect just the way I am.”
“It’s been a long time since anything has been done for rap and this isn’t something that we’ll just finish and be over with, it’ll inspire another generation to make this type of music,” Pintado shared via voice memo.
The AfroRazones team makes it clear that the creative exchange between Cuba and the U.S. won’t stop after the release of the album, especially at a time when increased digital access can empower Cuban artists to take control their own narratives. Rodriguez, who doubles as the team’s Cuban rap veteran, knows that the hip-hop baton has been officially passed down to a new generation that can see possibilities in a digital world. “Rap cubano is alive and there are many new artists making music that people need to listen to. Case closed.”
Janice Llamoca is a Peruvian-American journalist covering topics from culture to entertainment. She has written for various publications such as BET, LA Weekly, NPR's Latino USA, Remezcla, and more. Find her on Twitter at @janicellamoca.