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Cuban rapper: Fight the injustice

Story Highlights

• Cuban rapper says he's not afraid to speak his mind in his homeland
• Rapper says he points out injustices and "the people like it"
• Cuba formed a rap agency in 2002 to exert its influence on the music
• Rap organizer says state's involvement has made their base more rebellious
By Morgan Neill
CNN
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HAVANA, Cuba (CNN) -- Working on an old computer with a burned-out monitor, Cuban rapper Aldo Rodriguez painstakingly lays the tracks for his next song.

Sitting shirtless on the edge of his bed, tattoos up and down both arms, the 23-year-old says he's not afraid to speak his mind in the communist country run by Fidel Castro for decades. His lyrics are punchy and edgy, tackling issues that the state would prefer not to be aired.

"I've pointed out the things that seem wrong to me, and the people like it," he says. "They like to hear it because they identify with what they hear in the songs.

"It's not anything bad. It's just the truth, and the people aren't used to hearing it." (Watch a Cuban rapper speak his mind Video)

His group -- Los Aldeanos, or "The Villagers" -- is one of Cuba's best-known underground hip-hop acts. It's earned credibility with lyrics that condemn racism, police harassment, prostitution and inequality -- criticisms often heard in Cuba's streets, but controlled by the state in the media.

For example, in their song "Ya Nos Cansamos," roughly translated "We're Fed Up," you'll hear these lines:

"They're always saying we're all equal
But you tell me if the doorways are crumbling in the generals' houses.
Of course all the hospitals in Cuba are free
But who do they treat better, the officers, or me?"

Rap has a small but devoted following in Cuba. But driving through Alamar, the neighborhood outside Havana thought of as the birthplace of Cuban rap, it's reggaeton, not rap, that's blaring from the dilapidated apartments these days.

Reggaeton is a danceable mix of rap and reggae. Its thumping, bass-heavy rhythms and often sexually explicit lyrics prove an irresistible combination in Cuba, where dancing sometimes seems the national pastime.

But among young men in particular, rap's aggressive stance has a unique appeal: No other form of music takes on the country's problems so directly. (Watch a Cuban rapper bust a funky beat at a concert Video)

In an effort to exert its influence over rap, the Cuban government created the Cuban Rap Agency in 2002. The agency promotes about a dozen rappers and produces their albums, but you won't find government critics like Rodriguez on their roster. These underground rappers say they won't be silenced or co-opted by the government.

So, they work out of their homes and distribute their music by hand on homemade CD's copied over and over again.

Rap organizer: State shouldn't meddle with rap

Last year, the nation's Rap Festival was canceled amid uncertainty surrounding Castro's health. The Cuban Rap Agency began co-sponsoring the event in 2002 to the angst of many.

Rodolfo Rensoli organized the rap festival before the state stepped in. He says government limitations have made groups and their fans more rebellious.

"Since the state took over managing the festival, brothers are coming out carrying signs calling for 'social justice' and other demands," he says.

He says it would be a major mistake to try to set limits on the rappers: "Censor them or cut them out, intimidate them or limit the expression of these kids -- that would be horrible."

CNN asked to speak with the director of the Cuban Rap Agency, but was told there is no director of the agency currently. (In fact, it's difficult to get anyone in the government to comment about rap.)

As for Rodriguez, he says he just wants to rap for himself. "I'm one of those who thinks that once you're part of a business -- not just in Cuba, but anywhere in the world -- they make you a slave."

Speaking from the house he shares with his mother and siblings, he assures us he's not opposed to the government, but he won't keep quiet about injustices he sees.

"I'm not against the commandant, or Raul [Castro, in charge since his brother's illness], or any of those people," he says, "I'm young and I've got a right to express myself. Like all the young people in the world, I see something wrong, and I point it out."


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Cuban rapper Aldo Rodriguez says he likes pointing out "things that seem wrong to me."

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