Cuban youth rap against the system

HAVANA — Displaying contempt rarely expressed here publicly, youths whistled and jeered at police Thursday night at a concert of Cuban rap, a cultural movement that has grown explosively in the economically run-down communist-ruled island.

"Police, police you are not my friend," 18-year-old Humberto Cabrera, a soloist known as Papa Humbertico, sang as the eighth annual rap festival got under way before several thousand young people in an open-air theater in the town of Alamar. "For Cuban youth, you are the worst nightmare ... you are the criminal ... I detest you."

Behind the rapper, stagehands unfurled a banner that said "Social denunciation," a rare expression of protest in Cuba.

The Cuban duo Alto Voltaje — High Voltage — also sang out against the police and of boredom of Cuban youth as rappers voiced their frustration with police repression, government corruption and a harsh economic reality that forces Cuban girls into prostitution with foreign tourists.

Alto Voltaje members Alexander Perez and Norlan Leygonier, both 25, 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.

The ruling Communist Party at first censored rap music but then sought to assimilate the rapidly growing social phenomenon by allowing rap on radio and television, and organizing an annual festival.

Many of Cuba's more than 500 rap groups originated in Alamar, a town of 300,000 mostly Afro-Cubans who live on the outskirts of Havana in concrete high rises built for Soviet workers and technicians in the 1970s.

Cuban rappers say their music has spread fast because young blacks identify with their lyrics of frustration of a generation that has not seen the benefits of the socialist revolution led by President Fidel Castro, in power since 1959.

They maintain their critical music is aimed at gaining space for black culture and improving social conditions within the Cuban revolution.

Outspokenness about the system has been rare in 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.

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.

Cuban rap songs also include anti-American lyrics, such as protests against the U.S. Navy's use of the island of Vieques for bombing exercises, and against the U.S. trade embargo on Cuba.