Cuban rappers open festival with irreverent lyrics

Saturday, August 17, 2002

HAVANA -- Voicing the frustrations of Cuba's urban youth, local musicians followed the lead of American rap pioneers as they opened a festival slamming the police with an irreverence rarely expressed here publicly.

"Police, police you are not my friend," 18-year-old Humberto Cabrera, a soloist known as Papa Humbertico, sang as the 8th annual rap festival got under way Thursday night. "For Cuban youth, you are the worst nightmare ... you are the criminal ... I detest you."

The Cuban duo Alto Voltaje -- High Voltage -- also sang out against the police and of boredom of Cuban youth.

"I'm tired of the routine," sang Alexander Perez and Norlan Leygonier, both 25. "How long is this going to last?"

They told the audience that on their way to the concert they were stopped by police officers and asked for their identification -- a process they said Cuban youth experience almost daily.

Because some of their lyrics are critical of Cuba's system, friends and neighbors "tell us we are crazy," said Perez. "But they keep following us."

"We sing about what is happening, we sing from the heart," Cabrera told reporters after the opening concert.

Such outspokenness about the system has been rare in communist Cuba, where citizens have traditionally practiced a kind of self-censorship, lowering their voices to a whisper when complaining about the police or other government officials.

Tolerating complaints

But since the onset of an economic crisis that began when the Soviet Union collapsed more than a decade ago, the Cuban government has become increasingly tolerant of complaints about the system as long as they remain generalized.

And unlike their parents and grandparents, who lived through much more politically rigid periods, Cubans in their teens and 20s are less likely to hold their tongues about what they see as the system's shortcomings.

The annual festival, which runs through Sunday, features 50 Cuban and 12 foreign rap groups, organizers said.

Thousands attend

Several thousand people attended the opening concert at an amphitheater in the crowded Lamar neighborhood, just east of Havana. Concertgoers paid the equivalent of about one cent to attend.

The American artists scheduled to perform include the Grammy-winning group The Roots, along with Dead Prez and Mos Def. Groups from Mexico and Venezuela also are to perform.

Also confirmed for the festival is Latin rapper Vanesa Diaz, originally from California.

Diaz has said that the hip-hop movement in Cuba still retains the essence of the movement's early years in the United Sates -- as a vehicle for young people to express themselves.

Rap's popularity in Cuba grew during the 1990s and has exploded in recent years to include as many as 500 groups across the island.

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