Harvard’s Hiphop Archive & Research Institute is part production studio, part classroom and part research lab. It’s something of a museum for hip-hop history. Vintage Nike sneakers, boomboxes and Run-DMC records from hip-hop's heyday in the '80s decorate the walls. For the past year, producer Pablo D. Herrera Veitia has been spending his days and nights here, making a place for Afro-Cuban hip-hop in the archive.
He just completed a curatorial project at the institute titled “Hearing Afro-Cuban Rap” that highlights Afro-Cuban and African-American rap’s reciprocal relationship. For it, he archived Afro-Cuban rap music, which is known for its intellectual sophistication and street smart style, and researched race relations using rap songs as data. The project also involved finalizing an album he started back in 2002 in Havana, “Habana Hip Hop, Vol. 2,” which consists of 18 songs that blend African-American hip-hop styles, Afro-Cuban rhythms and popular music from the island.
Herrera Veitia is considered a pioneer of Afro-Cuban hip-hop, who The New York Times once called “Cuba’s most prolific rap producer.” He’s worked with some of Cuba’s most noteworthy rap artists including Amenaza, who later formed one of Cuba’s most popular groups, Orishas. He was also integral in bringing American rappers to Havana, including Mos Def, Talib Kweli’s Black Star, Common, Tony Touch and the Roots in the late ‘90s and early 2000s for major international hip-hop festivals and production work. Now, he’s returning to Scotland to finish his doctorate in social anthropology at St. Andrews University. His dissertation there considers how Havana’s signature sounds, its music and loudness, is a form of citizenship.
He wanted to finish his album here to leave a legacy of Afro-Cuban rap at Harvard. While there’s been a select group of U.S. hip-hop heads interested in Afro-Cuban rap, Herrera Veitia notes that Americans aren’t particularly schooled in Afro-Cuban rap in the same way that Cubans are with African-American hip-hop. His new album confronts race and race relations in Cuba through its lyrics and at the same time celebrates the contributions of Afro-Cuban hip-hop culture.
It’d be reasonable to assume that a decades-long U.S. embargo against Cuba and the island’s tight control of media access would make cultural communication between the two nations difficult. But hip-hop tells a different story.
Afro-Cuban hip-hop, which mixed African-American hip-hop with Afro-Cuban roots rhythms, drew inspiration not only from the music, but the movement, politics and social consciousness that drove American hip-hop. Rappers from both countries voiced parallel social issues including racism and police violence. (While issues like police violence and other social issues differ greatly in terms of numbers, severity and character in the U.S. and Cuba, rap provided a platform that connected these countries through recognized discriminatory practices and oppression against minority races in both countries.)
Cuba’s geographic proximity to the U.S. allowed Cubans to access American hip-hop through Miami’s radio stations (namely 99JAMZ WEDR), through word of mouth and through the efforts of hip-hop heads in the community at house and street parties.
Cultural critics and scholars often noted that hip-hop spearheaded a “revolution within a revolution” in Cuba that Herrera Veitia says was “like a second literacy campaign” (a largely successful movement spearheaded by Fidel Castro to decrease illiteracy in Cuba) for how to deal with social issues in Cuba.
Herrera Veitia says that hip-hop clubs in Havana were spaces where “people didn’t go to dance, but went to listen to one another.”
Still, Herrera Veitia maintains that it wasn’t initially the movement behind the music that spoke to him but the roots of the music: “The music hit first, but the social issues that drove the music took longer to sink in. Initially, we understood [how American hip-hop was confronting racial realities], but it wasn’t speaking in a sense that was making us aware of racism in Havana. That there was something ‘black’ about the music — that was appealing. Much later, I started realizing how important the music was for understanding race, but that was all a much longer process.”
One of Herrera Veitia’s earliest introductions to African-American hip-hop was when he heard the song “Rappers Delight” by Run-DMC when he was in 11th grade. “Something in it clicked with me,” he says. He describes his future production work that initially sprouted from this song as more “like a calling” that was derived “out of pure love,” than “something that can be rationalized.” He continued to absorb African-American hip-hop culture as if it were his own.
As a translator, language student and later professor at the University of Havana, he was equally inspired by words, lyrics and the ideas that drove hip-hop. He recalls reading a section in the back of Spin Magazine, which devoted a decent amount of coverage to hip hop, that schooled its readers on new slang words.
Conscious, politically-driven hip-hop in Cuba is less of a force today than it was in rap’s peak years on the island. Still, Herrera Veitia’s life and work as an artist speaks to the resistance and resilience of U.S. and Cuban musical and social connections both in the past and present, despite political and economic restrictions.
“The connections that we have as people [through music] is above and beyond politics,” he says.