Editor’s note: With the U.S. Embassy reopening in Havana on July 20, The Root is giving some insight and perspective into the lives of Afro-Cubans who suffer discrimination and economic distress, even in the midst of the Cuban revolution that Fidel Castro declared put an end to racism. Harvard professor and The Root Chairman Henry Louis Gates Jr. hosted the PBS documentary Black in Latin America in 2011. This excerpt is from a chapter in the companion book called “The Next Cuban Revolution.”
I decided to spend a little time with some Afro-Cubans who are making some noise about the state of race relations in contemporary Cuba. I headed to the home of a rapper known as Soandres. His proper name is Soandres Del Rio Ferrer, and his stage name is Soandry. He’s the leader of one of Cuba’s top hip-hop bands, Hermanos de Causa.
I was very eager to meet him. I knew the Cuban government had banned two of his songs because they are about racism. I’d actually planned to record one of his concerts during my trip, but the government told me I couldn’t attend. (We sneaked a camera crew in and recorded the concert anyway.) When I arrived, I realized Soandres hadn’t just invited me to his home—this was also his underground recording studio. After a very thoughtful and long discussion while we waited for a tropical rainstorm to pass, he agreed to perform one of his banned songs for me:
The black Cuban wants to be just like the white man
Because he thinks that darkness is obsolete and that whiteness is
It’s this way so much that he’s always laughing loudly at racist jokes
The black Cuban discriminates against his brother and is violent to him
And even though he has no master, he crawls like a worm
He has nothing of his own because his self-esteem and pride are
The black Cuban is the rubbish of his island
Soandres told me that he grew up during the Soviet Union’s collapse. He saw what it did to Afro-Cubans, and he began to wage his own personal war on the silence that followed. Listening to him, I started to feel inspired. Soandres wants to see social reform—to see the lives of Afro-Cubans get better, now. He wants all of Cuba to recognize a little reality and to join him in his personal war.
“What we do is underground rap,” he explained. “Underground rap informs the people of what is really going on. What is being shown to us on television is not really what is going on. On television, they tell us that everything’s good, that everything’s okay, that everything is going the way it should, that the economy is doing great, that the country is getting better. But in the poor areas, this is not true.”
“We do everything in an independent way,” he went on. “Our strategy is to get our music to people, because government institutions don’t play us. We build our own recording studios, we burn our CDs, and we give them out at concerts. We decided not to wait for major Cuban labels to tell us what they want. We create our own possibilities.”
I asked him about the two songs I’d been told he is not allowed to perform because they deal with racism. “Well, I’m kind of allowed to sing them,” Soandres said, looking at me sideways and smiling, “but it puts the success of the concert and my colleagues at risk. The police could stop the concert right then and there. I could maybe sing that song, but the next person might not be allowed on stage, and that would be a loss for the rap movement. We want hip-hop to continue.”
Soandres told me the government wants to censor artists of all kinds, but it also wants to avoid criticism for doing it. So punishments are not always direct. Soandres and his fellow musicians just keep making their music and testing their limits.
“Many of us have been put down for what we do,” he told me. “But we haven’t stopped doing it, because this is our reality. When you accept your reality, at least you have the courage to face what is happening. And you can begin working on how to fix it.”
“So you believe there is real racism against black people in Cuban society?” I asked.
“Yes, yes it exists,” he said emphatically. “The system feeds its existence, because the system does not speak of its existence. The system pretends that there is no racism toward black people in Cuba. All along Cuba’s history, Cuba’s future has been put first, and the black people’s situation took a back seat. But we need to analyze this problem and face it up front and say that racism exists. Cuban soap operas show blacks almost like slaves. In the movies, the black man is always a thief, a criminal. This is what people are seeing. We need to say that we have a problem with racism, and we have to fight against it.”
I loved Soandres’s spirit. The boldness of his critique of contemporary Cuban race relations was so refreshing and invigorating—and I realized that while I respect Cubans’ love for the idea of cubanidad, even more, I respect those who see how Cuba is falling short of its ambitions and are determined to do something about it, despite repression from the government.
I left Soandres and went to visit Miguel Barnet, Cuba’s most successful living writer. Barnet is the author of the international bestseller Biography of a Runaway Slave. He works in Havana as the director of the Fernando Ortiz Foundation, a most fitting appointment since he was Ortiz’s student. He believes passionately that only one thing can truly eradicate racism in Cuba: education.