|Cuba: Gender, Sexuality, and Women Rappers|
|Written by Sujatha Fernandes|
|Tuesday, 04 September 2007 05:06|
When I first visited Cuba in 1998, women's presence in hip-hop was still negligible. At concerts I would come across male rappers with their gold medallions, Fubu gear, and mindless lyrics about women, cars, and guns, the latter two hardly a reality for most young Cuban men. Over the years, there have been important changes in gender politics within Cuba, particularly in rap music, and women within the genre feel empowered to speak of issues such as sexuality, feminism, as well as gender roles and stereotyping.
In interviews with Pacini Hernandez and Garofalo, Cuban women rappers mentioned American female groups and rappers such as TLC, En Vogue, Salt n' Pepa, Monie Love, and Da Brat as important influences. Prominent African-American feminist artists like Erykah Badu have performed in Cuba at rap festivals and concerts, and have been important in providing a role model for young aspiring women rappers. Visits and performances by grass roots feminist rappers such as Mala Rodríguez from Spain, Vanessa Díaz and La Bruja from New York, and Malena from Argentina have also been crucial in developing perspectives and exchanging ideas.
Women rappers have been part of the Cuban hip-hop movement from the beginning. Although there were no women performers at the first hip-hop festival in 1995, at the second festival in 1996 there was a performance by the first all-women's rap group, Instinto. Another rapper, Magia, was part of the male-female duo Obsesión, which originated during this early period and has come to be one of the most prominent rap groups in Cuba. Magia has played an important role in raising the profile of women within the movement of rap, and she defines herself as a feminist: "All of those who promote and give impulse to the representative work done by women and who try in one way or another to see that this work is valued and recognized, we are feminists women's presence to me is fundamental, with their work to be shown, with their things to say, with their pain and happiness, with their knowledge, their softness, with the prejudices that they suffer for being women, with their limitations, with their weakness and their strength."
Other women such as DJ Yary also see themselves a part of this tradition: "With all my work, I seek to strengthen the role of Cuban women within hip-hop. It is thought that within this movement men are more important, but young women have shown what we can do to enrich it." The first all-women's music concert was organized by Obsesión in 2002 in a popular venue for rap music known as the Madriguera. The concert included not just rappers, but photography and art exhibitions, guitarists, poetry, and dance. This was repeated twice in 2002 and 2003, and then in December 2003 the Youth League organized an all-women's hip-hop concert as part of the rap festival. The sold-out concert, titled "Presencia Probada," or Proven Presence, signaled the strength of women rappers within hip-hop.
In the first years of the twenty-first century, there were about thirteen women rappers and rap groups in Cuba, a small but prominent number, especially since several of these women are among the relatively limited number of artists that have produced discs through both official and unofficial channels. Given the small number of discs produced by the state recording agency EGREM and the lack of airplay for Cuban rap on state-controlled radio stations, many musicians have begun to produce their own disks with foreign funding and help from friends, and this has produced a growing underground network of distribution and circulation. Magia MC as part of Obsesión has released two discs, one with the Cuban agency EGREM, and another as an independent label. The other woman rapper working within a mixed rap group is Telmary Díaz, from the group Free Hole Negro, who have produced discs both inside and outside of Cuba. La Fresca, a relatively more commercial rapper than the others, recently came out with her first disc. The trio of women rappers who identify as lesbians, Las Krudas, have produced their own disc, and they frequently perform in popular and official tourist venues such as the Sunday-morning rumba at Callejon de Jamel. Other women rappers also sing independently or in all-female groups and consist of Oye Habana (previously known as Exploción Femenina), Esencia, Yula, I & I (pronounced Ayanay), I Two Yi, Atomicas, Mariana, Soy, and Las Positivas in Santiago de Cuba. Women have participated in other areas of hip-hop culture such as graffiti and djaying. Two women disc jockeys, DJ Yary and DJ Leydis put out a cd in 2004, entitled Platos Rotos (Broken Plates), where they have produced tracks by major Cuban rap groups such as Anónimo Consejo and Hermanos de Causa. DJ Yary and DJ Leydis have participated in DJ battles, the Havana hip-hop festival, and concerts with major Cuban rap groups. Not all of these women address feminist themes, and as a tendency within hip-hop they are unstable, but they nevertheless represent a growing, positive force for change.
The networking of feminist rappers with older Cuban feminist activists has helped bolster their voices within hip-hop and create more of a presence for their concerns within society. On International Women's Day, March 8, 2003, activist Sonnia Moro and the women rappers organized a forum entitled, "Machismo in the lyrics of rap songs." Following this, another activist Norma Guillard organized forums on, "The importance of educative messages in rap lyrics" and "Rap and Image: a proposal for reflection." During one of the rap festival colloquiums in 2004, Guillard presented a paper on the work of Las Krudas, entitled, "Las Krudas: Gender, Identity and Social Communication in Hip-Hop." The feminist activists have also offered their writing and poetry to the rappers to incorporate into their songs. For instance, a poem of Georgina Herrera, "Guerrillas of Today," was given to Las Krudas to make into a rap song. In her interactions with the women rappers, Guillard notes that they are much more open to feminist ideas than an earlier generation: "I have observed that young women don't confront the same subjective conflicts as us, they recognize themselves as feminists without problems, they didn't live through the same era we did. We recognize that among the rappers there are feminists, that is to say, with a more radical focus, more autonomous." Because of the inroads made by earlier feminists, it has been easier for this new generation to claim a space. The older feminists regularly invite the women rappers to their forums, they offer them materials to read and understand more about feminism, and they have spoken about women's rap in forums inside and outside of Cuba.
Women rappers, given their experiences in racially-defined transnational networks of hip-hop, identify with the ideas and principles of black feminism as it emerged from third-wave feminism in the U.S. These ideas, as defined in the Black Feminist statement by the Combahee River Collective, consist of a recognition that race, class and sex oppression are intertwined; women must struggle with black men against racism and with black men about sexism; black women face psychological obstacles and minimal access to resources and they must pursue a revolutionary politicsThese themes occur frequently in the texts of women rappers. Indeed, Cuban women's rap fits closely into what some black feminists in the US have referred to as "hip-hop feminism". Just like the music of American rappers such as Salt-N-Pepa, Queen Latifah, and MC Lyte helped inspire the feminist consciousness of a generation of black feminists who listened to hip-hop, feminist rappers in Cuba are also producing new kinds of political awareness among young women affiliated to the growing movement of Cuban hip-hop.
Cuban women rappers attempt to talk about practices such as jineterismo without vilifying the women who practice it. In a song written by Magia MC in 2002, entitled Le llaman puta (They call me Whore), Magia talks about the desperate conditions that give rise to prostitution, and the sad lives of the many women forced into prostitution. The song opens with the sounds of a caxixi, or woven basket rattle over the deep tones of a vibratone. The entry of a traditional drum ensemble including the bata, the bombo andino, a mellow low-pitched drum, and the campana, a heavy cowbell, evoke the rhythmic pulse of hip-hop. The song's chorus, begins with the phrase "They call me puta," deliberately employing the derogatory slang used for female sex workers in order to invoke the humiliation and degradation associated with this occupation.
In contrast to both the objectification of women's bodies and a confining revolutionary moralism, women rappers seek to define their own notions of sexuality and desire. Rap music has been seen by many American scholars as a reassertion of black masculinity, but as Tricia Rose notes, this definition not only equates manhood and male heterosexuality, but it "renders sustained and substantial female pleasure and participation in hip hop invisible or impossible." In Cuba, female rappers seek to carve out an autonomous space within the broader hip-hop movement, in which they narrate female desire and the materiality of the female body on their own terms. In the song Te Equivocas (You are Mistaken) on her 2000 album Un Monton de Cosas (A Mountain of Things), Magia derides an ex-lover who has mistreated her and she asserts her rights to her body and her sexuality. Magia tells her ex-lover that he is no longer welcome in her life, she is not the weak and dependent girl that he thinks she is: "You are wrong to tell me I would die to kiss your mouth." Magia attacks the machismo and egoism of her ex-lover: "With egoism made machismo, you yourself fell into an immense abyss of false manhood." Magia demonstrates that the myths created by her ex-lover about his virility and manhood are false. He is not worth even one-thousandth of all she has gone through for him and he has denied her happiness. She tells him that she will no longer be used by him: "I have finished being your toy." This kind of assertion of female agency has a history in black popular culture, which dates back to American blues women and Cuban rumba. As Imani Perry argues, the music of black female artists "functions in strong contrast to the 'sex innuendo' and objectification of the female body that is generally seen in popular music." Women rap artists continue this legacy of negotiating sexuality and power with their lovers and asserting their presence as sexual beings, not objects.
A notable feature of Cuban hip-hop has been the participation of women openly identified as lesbians. Given homophobia in Cuban society, as well as the absence of queer issues from the mass media, the presence of lesbian rap group Las Krudas represents an important opening. Las Krudas, consisting of Olivia Prendes (Pelusa MC), Odaymara Cuesta (Pasa Kruda), and Odalys Cuesta (Wanda), make open references to their bodies and sexuality in the songs recorded on their 2003 demo CUBENSI. In a song entitled 120 Horas Rojas (120 Red Hours), Las Krudas talk about the monthly experience of menstruation as a symbol for women's enslavement to their biology in a male dominated society:
Painful drops of vital liquid color our
Gotas dolorosas de líquido vital sangre
Menstruation and the female bodily functions are the reason why women are perceived as physically and intellectually weaker than men. Las Krudas address men, when they point out that, "You don't want to listen? Thanks to this red source you could come to know this world." Las Krudas speak openly and directly, "with a single seed I develop you in my vagina cradle." For the rappers, the very processes that are hidden, used to devalue women's participation and silence them, is what brings life into the world.
Black women exist at the intersection of race, gender, and class hierarchies; as Las Krudas rap in 120 Horas Rojas, they are "marginalized by the marginalized, at the bottom, in all senses." While male rappers speak about historical problems of slavery and marginality, black women must face forms of enslavement and marginalization from males themselves. In another song from their album, Eres Bella (You are Beautiful), Las Krudas point to machismo as an "identical system of slavery" for women. Just as male rappers point to the exclusion of rap from major media programming, venues and state institutions, Las Krudas challenge male rappers for their exclusion of women: "I have talent and I ask, how long will we be the minority onstage?" Black and mulatta women have been made invisible, objectified, and silenced in the historical record, and popular culture is no exception. In Amiquimiñongo, Las Krudas argue that since the time of slavery black women and men have been stereotyped as "a beautiful race," "so strong," and "so healthy," but they point out that black women have never been given a voice: "When I open my mouth, 'poof!' raw truths escape from it, they don't talk of this, they want to shut me up." Las Krudas and other women rappers restore subjectivity to black women, as actors with voice and agency.
Women rappers demand inclusion into the hip-hop movement and society more generally. As Las Krudas claim: "There is no true revolution without women." Female rappers are "ebony guerrillas" who are fighting for a place in the struggle alongside black men. The all-female rap group Oye Habana, consisting of Yordanska, Noiris, and Elizabeth, celebrate female power and black womanhood. In their song Negra (Black), Oye Habana celebrate black female beauty, in contrast to dominant representations of beauty:
Black woman with my thick lips,
Negra con mi bemba,
Negative and racist descriptions of black-identified features are fairly common in Cuba; it is not unusual to hear complaints about "pelo malo" (bad hair) or "mejorando la raza" (improving the race) by having children with lighter skinned people. The rappers from Oye Habana reject these stereotypes; they assert the beauty of Afro features and the power and presence of black women. For the women rappers, questions of self-esteem are related to a pride in who they are as black women. In her spoken-word piece, ¿A Donde Vamos a Parar? (Where are we going to go?), DJ Yary claims, "My example of a woman to follow: It's me! And my favorite artist: It's me!"
Cuban women rappers such as Instinto, Magia, Las Krudas, and Explosión Feminina have been able to develop styles and attitudes that reflect their distinctness as women. Perry describes how some American women rappers such as Yo Yo, Harmony, Isis, and Queen Mother Rage seek to carve out a space of empowerment within hip-hop by adopting explicitly Afrocentric styles, wearing braided or natural hairstyles, African headwear, nose rings, and self-naming. Cuban women rappers also use style to project a political message, and indicate their individuality, presence, and identity as black women. Magia and the rappers from Las Krudas usually wear head wraps, African clothing and natural hairstyles, or baggy shirts and pants. In the song Mujeres (Women), rapper Mariana declares her desire to be taken seriously as a performer and protagonist, alongside men. She declares:
I call myself, "Protagonist!"
Yo me nombro, "¡Protagonista!,"
In contrast to the eroticization of black and mulatta women within a new tourist economy as sexually available, good lovers, and sensual dancers, Mariana reclaims for women the capacity of thinking, rhyming, and producing "real hip-hop." Mariana rejects the available role models for young women of cooks ("Nilsa Villapol with her recipes") and models ("Naomi Campbell in her magazine"); rather she chooses to be a hip-hop artist because of the agency it gives her.
Despite the important inroads made by feminist rappers into hip-hop, and their use of the form in order to put forth a feminist agenda, women still face obstacles participating in a largely male-dominated genre. As Margaux Joffe noted in 2005, of the nine rap groups officially represented in the Cuban Rap Agency, only one group had a woman, Magia MC from Obsesión. Most Cuban rap producers are men. Joffe cites Magia as saying that female artists are grateful for the recognition they receive in the annual festival, but she saw the organization of a special section for women within a male-dominated festival as "patronizing," and that "women should not be pitied or put on a pedestal." Part of the problem facing women rappers is that they are part of a broader movement of hip-hop that is closely tied to state institutions and includes a largely male leadership who still make most of the decisions. Yet their attempts to engage with sexism and machismo represent an important step for women rappers; the issues are being discussed and they are part of an ongoing dialogue and debate. Rap music has provided a space for dialogue between older and younger feminists, as well as between black men and women in the hip-hop movement.
Sujatha Fernandes is Assistant Professor of Sociology at Queens College, City University of New York.
More About the Book: Cuba Represent!: Cuban Arts, State Power, and the Making of New Revolutionary Cultures, by Sujatha Fernandes (Duke University Press, October 2006). Photograph by Jay Davis
 Deborah Pacini Hernandez, and Reebee Garofalo. 1999. "Hip Hop in Havana: Rap, Race and National Identity in Contemporary Cuba." Journal of Popular Music Studies 11 & 12: 23.