Buena Vista in the Club: The Rise and Fall of Cuban Hip Hop

Lead Research Organisation: Royal Holloway, University of London
Department Name: Music


Buena Vista in the Club: The Rise and Fall of Cuban Hip Hop' is a study of hip hop culture in the Cuban capital, Havana. Examining the assimilation of recent transnational musical trends in Cuba, it traces the emergence of Havana as one of the key cities of global hip hop and a hotbed of socially-committed rap (rap is the musical style which forms one element of hip hop culture; the other elements are DJ-ing, breakdancing, and graffiti). Placing the conflicted yet symbiotic relationship between rappers and the Cuban state at the heart of my analysis, I explore the rapid growth and the equally precipitate decline of hip hop in Havana as both a response to and a window on the dramatic social and economic changes that have occurred since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the start of the post-Soviet 'Special Period' in Cuba.

An Ethnography of Hip Hop in Havana

Drawing on six periods of fieldwork in Havana since 2003, my study provides a first-hand account of the Havana hip hop scene. In addition to observing numerous performances, recording sessions, official meetings, and informal gatherings, I have interviewed many of the founding figures of Cuban hip hop, together with the cultural officials and intermediaries who played key roles in the institutionalization of rap in Cuba. These interviews and ethnographic observations are interwoven with commentary on a wide range of press articles, documentary films, recordings and videos, presenting a multi-layered analysis of Cuban hip hop culture. I characterize Cuban hip hop as urban discourse and urban practice, since it must be understood in relation to recent changes in the physical and social fabric of the Cuban capital and to the opportunities and restrictions of life in a late socialist city.

The Rise and Fall of Cuban Hip Hop

My study examines both the growth of hip hop into a significant cultural movement within Havana and also its sudden decline, which began in 2002 with the influx of reggaetón, a more commercialized musical style of Puerto Rican origin, into the capital. Since then, many leading figures within the underground rap scene have 'converted' to the rival genre of reggaetón or have left Cuba. I look carefully at the reasons behind the boom and bust of rap in Havana, exploring the role of foreign journalists and documentary makers in the construction of the hip hop scene. I analyze the subsequent divisions over the divergent musical and dance styles of 'underground' rap, fusion, and reggaetón, and trace the international dispersion of many of the rap scene's leading figures as reggaetón tightened its hold. I examine whether foreign observers and scholars of Cuban hip hop have tended to overstate the political potential of the genre. The celebratory tone of cultural studies approaches to global hip hop is called into question by the elision of the idealistic, socially-committed discourses of Cuban rap by the hedonistic, materialistic messages of reggaetón, often from the mouths of the same artists.

Rap, Reggaetón, and State Cultural Policy

One of the most distinctive features of the emergence of Cuban hip hop has been the unprecedented involvement of the state. My account focuses on the Asociación Hermanos Saíz (the cultural wing of the Union of Young Communists) and the government-run Cuban Rap Agency, a unique institution within the world of global hip hop. I pay close attention to the ways in which different branches of the Cuban state have contributed to and reacted against the boom in popularity of rap in the 1990s and reggaetón in the 2000s, both genres that posed major, though very different, challenges to Cuban revolutionary culture. I explore the conflicting attitudes displayed by the cultural officials and artists who have played leading roles in these organizations, while also analyzing the complex role of the Cuban media in disseminating and restricting these musical genres.The issue of cultural policy is thus central to my research.


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