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Cuban hip-hop: The rebellion within the revolution

By Simon Umlauf
CNN Headline News

Anonimo Consejo
Anonimo Consejo (Anonymous Advice) is one of approximately 500 hip-hop groups from Cuba.

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(CNN) -- A rebellion has taken root in Cuba, nourished by a stifling trade embargo, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and racial inequality.

But these rebels use lyrics, not guns, and they dance instead of march. Hip-hop is the rebellion within the revolution.

Its soldiers are Cuban rappers, (raperos). Their missions are poverty and racism.

There are an estimated 200 hip-hop groups in Havana with another 300 scattered throughout the rest of the island. The groups range from kids rapping in the streets, to artists performing in clubs, to a small number recording in studios.

Rap began growing in Cuba in the mid-'90s. Some of the first groups; Amenaza (The Threat), Primera Base (First Base), were seen as criticizing the country's racial inequality. Despite police raiding shows not sanctioned by the government, the movement grew, as did the audiences.

In the spring of 1999, the Cuban government changed its stance against hip-hop, declaring it "an authentic expression of Cuban Culture." This fall, the government formed the Agencia Cubana de Rap (The Cuban Rap Agency) that provides a state-run record label and hip-hop magazine, and began supporting the annual Cuban Hip Hop festival.

Instinto (Instinct) was the first female rap group in Cuba.

Unlike the "bling-bling," of American hip-hop, raperos reflect the reality of where they live.

Emerging group, "Freehole Negro," chants about the Cuban government's disconnect with Afro-Cubans:

"The government speaks of our paths in life, but the government doesn't know my Cuba ... The father of the government, is not one of us, he doesn't know our music, he doesn't know our people"

Instrumentally, Cuban hop-hip is very different than its American cousin. It incorporates instruments like batas (tall drums), congas, live drums and guitar bass. Most raperos draw on Cuba's rich music heritage, incorporating rumba and mambo tunes.

Pablo Herrera, one of Cuba's top hip-hop producers describes it as "Buena Vista Social Club type of music, hip-hop and a little bit of rock."

But even with government support and hundreds of groups, Cuban hip-hop has yet to penetrate the international music scene. There are only three Cuban hip-hop albums that have hit the U.S. market, and they're more easily found online than in stores.

Two of those albums, "A Lo Cubano" and "Emigrante," are by Cuba's only commercially successful rap group, "Orishas." They left Cuba for France in the late '90s. The third album, Papaya Records' "Cuban Hip Hop All Stars Vol. 1" is a compilation produced by Herrera featuring a dozen Cuban hip-hop groups.

Bajo Mundo (Under World)
Bajo Mundo (Under World) often rap about political and controversial subjects.

Herrera is currently producing the second compilation. He's also organizing a concert in Havana with American group, "The Roots" in a few weeks.

Herrera is certain as he looks to the future of Cuba's musical revolution, "What we're seeing today is only the tip of the iceberg ... hip-hop today in Cuba is what the old school was in the '80s in the States. It's not exactly going to be hip-hop anymore ... it's going to be some new music from Cuba."

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