Havana Hip Hoppers for Peace

By Mike Fuller
Havana, Cuba – For over 20 years the Madriguera performance space in Central Havana has promoted tendencies that were of “lesser interests to power centers” and last night the duo Hermanazos hosted a friendly hip hop battle there with the groups Lázaro, La Conjunta, Aparecido and Mateus "Fenómeno."
 As members of the “warring” groups opened and closed the door to the back office, filling and draining the air with deep lyrics and a bass that made the desk vibrate, Roberto Rossell of Hermanazos said that constructive energy is what he likes most about Hip Hop.Together since 2001, Hermanazos has given him and Danny Velázquez a way to “improve humanity through music,” and they called for peace many times throughout the night.

In the essay “The True Meaning of Hip-Hop Culture,” by Afrika Bambaataa, considered one of the main founders of the movement, converting negative energy like gang fighting into something more positive for the community is key.

Rossell seemed to agree with that and said “hip hop has taught me much about forgiveness, and I believe that if we can’t be friends, we can at least respect each other.”

Hip hop also takes the forms of break-dancing and turntable mixing, which were absent from this performance, but the locale was filled with rich graffiti-based murals.

The rapping, or singing on top of previously recorded melodies, stole the show, and Rossell, who did not formally study music and is a licensed physiotherapist, said that through hip hop we can “educate, recover values and change from bad to good.”

He cited influences as diverse as the US Talib Kweli, a 32 year-old African American intellectual from New York with professor parents and brother clerking on the US Supreme Court, who said “for trees to grow in Brooklyn, seeds need to be planted.”

At the same time Rossell listed as another inspiration Cuba’s Grammy-winning Los Van Van, the first Cuban group to use synthesizers and drum machines, and rumba music in general.

The Hermanos Saiz Association operates this space, and its Havana President Jorge Enrique Rodríguez, a poet and historian, explained that the venue is committed to providing stage access for low-budget, unconventional performers.

He listed tolerance, freedom to be spontaneous and autonomous thinking as important values, and said “I don’t look for consensus from others, rather reflection for the benefit of all.” He claims to work on a “creator to creator” level, said he has managed to include many “risky artists” in the programming like Los Aldeanos or Porno Para Ricardo.

He said the only censorship in the Madriguera is aesthetic, and they do not appreciate poor quality performers.

Lázaro, a solo hip hopper called Aparecido, said “This is the best place for a rapper. This is a thermometer, and here we have the possibility to express our street reality. It’s like a big family where we all learn.” Asked if he could articulate a message for his biggest enemy, he said “The only thing war cries bring is war. I hope one day enemies disappear because we are killing each other.”

His message and those of the other groups seemed to be understood as the fans danced with peace signs into the night.

Reprinted courtesy of Mike Fuller.