Balancing artist and activist: Race and hip-hop in Cuba

Magia López and Alexey Rodriguez of the Cuban rap group Obsesión visited UCLA's Powell Library on April 13 to participate in a public conversation on race, gender and hip-hop in Cuba.

Balancing artist and activist: Race and hip-hop in Cuba

Alexey Rodriguez (left) and Magia López (right) of Cuban hip-hop duo Obsesión performing after their talk in UCLA's Powell Library. (Photo: Kevin Sprague/UCLA.)

By Kevin Sprague (UCLA 2018)


UCLA International Institute, April 21, 2017 — In the 1990s a hip-hop movement spread throughout Cuba, bringing with it a new kind of rap: Rap Cubano. Among the pioneers of Rap Cubano were Obsesión, a hip-hop duo hailing from Havana whose socially charged songs elevated them to prominence in the local hip-hop community. On April 13, 2017, Magia López and Alexey Rodriguez of Obsesión visited UCLA’s Powell Library to discuss the intersection of Cuban rap with race and gender.


Cosponsored by UCLA’s Chicano Studies Research CenterDepartment of African American StudiesDepartment of Gender StudiesProgram on Caribbean Studies and Latin American Institute, the event was moderated by Professor Aisha Finch of the departments of gender studies and Afro-American studies. The event reflected the UCLA Library’s ongoing effort to make Cuban cultural resources available to the public following the restoration of U.S.-Cuba relations.


Fostering artists and activists


Magia López and Alexey Rodriguez formed Obsesión in 1996 and quickly gained fame in Cuba both for their messages of social activism and the Afro-Cuban consciousness of their rap verses. Beyond contributing to Rap Cubano through their music, both singers play an active role in fostering the local Cuban artistic community.


As the former director of the Cuban Rap Agency, a government agency that supports rap music, López organized all-female rap groups and showcases to encourage women in hip-hop. Together, the duo organizes public dialogues on social justice and racism and belong to a collective focused on empowering Afro-Cuban culture and businesses in Havana. The pair also host peñas — artistic community gatherings with singing, painting and dancing — in their Havana neighborhood every month.


López explained that the move from making music to encouraging art in their communities was a natural progression. “We were already a well-known group, so we started thinking: ‘What else can we do to help our community, besides just singing about the issues and raising awareness?’” she commented. “We decided to not only discuss gender, race and civil rights with people, but also to give them the chance to express themselves through dance, music production and graffiti. It’s important to us to create a balance between artist and activist,” added López.


Rodriguez explained that the two singers always aim to exchange ideas with the communities they work in, as opposed to imposing their ideas on them. “We might think a community would benefit from singing and talk about sexism,” he said, “but they really want to paint or talk about racism. We want to hear what communities want.”



López and Rodriguez answering questions from the crowd. 
(Photo: Kevin Sprague/UCLA.)



Empowering women through hip-hop


After discussing the pair’s background and philanthropy, López shifted the conversation to the role of women in Cuban hip-hop. “Women have been doing most of the work for the hip-hop movement in Cuba behind the scenes,” she remarked. “They were in charge of artistic production and provided journalism, photography and technical support. Women truly developed Cuban hip-hop,” she continued. “Without those women behind the scenes, it’s very possible that our career would not have been the same.”


The oppression of women and sexism are common themes in Obsesión’s music. “The problems that we discuss in our music are global issues,” said López. “Our intent is to bring to light and appreciate the daily work of women, which is looked down on around the world. We want to appreciate the beauty of the woman in a full sense,” said the artist. “The most important message in our music is that of appreciation for black female bodies.”


One of the pair’s music videos (for the song “Los Pelos”) played at the event and echoed López’s message of black female empowerment. The video depicts López and Rodriguez painting the skin of white baby dolls black and outfitting them with curly hair, while rapping and singing about the beauty of black women.


“We were angry with the fact that there were so few black people on television,” said López, providing some background on the song. “The idea behind this video is to give us pride in who we are and to tell our community that we don’t have to follow Eurocentric beauty standards.”


Remembering black Cuban history


The duo was asked why they thought young black audiences were particularly drawn to their music. “Rap and hip-hop gave black artists in Cuba the ability to communicate our fury and talk about things that we were angry about inside, things we didn’t know how to put words to,” explained Alexey.


“Expressing ourselves through the lyrics in our songs opened the door for us to ask questions such as: ‘Why are we stopped by police all time?’ and ‘Why don’t our communities get very many resources?’” he added.


Alexey also saw hip-hop as giving black Cubans a chance to finally explore their history, which he said was largely forgotten or erased. “We don’t learn the history of black Cubans in class,” Alexey said. “Most black Cubans only know the names of their parents and their grandparents. Beyond that, there’s a huge hole in the history of black Cuba.”


Both López and Rodriguez noted that as adults, they had been able to enroll in university classes dedicated to the history and oppression of black Cubans. Still, they hoped to bring the conversation on their history to a more public forum through their music and philanthropy and to give more black Cubans a voice.


López had a final message before she and Rodriguez closed the discussion by singing a medley of the pair’s hit songs for the crowd. “You as an individual can confront discrimination and colonialism by thinking about how to address these issues daily. Examine your life on a day to day basis,” López urged the audience.


“There are small ways you can stop contributing to racism and sexism. You don’t have to allow yourself to be a part of that system,” she insisted. “Sometimes you think the world would be better if you just left things alone, but not doing anything is the most dangerous, destructive thing you could do.”