Before the AfricAmericas events of 2013 & 2014, what I knew of Cuba derived from old movies, travel logs, and watered-down history taught in school fraught with stereotypes and generalizations. Some stories portrayed the beautiful beaches and an idealistic view of equality among ‘all’ Cubans, including the cigar smoking old women, people playing music, and the dancing Cubans (who are always dancing). Movies featured stereotypical criminals (Scarface), illicit lifestyles (Before Night Falls), betrayal and sexy women (the animated Chico & Rita), or the romance of music. The truths depended on who was telling the tale of Cuba; especially when it came to truths of people of African ancestry
With so many contrasting and conflicting images of Cuba to sift through, finding the true Cuba has been an ongoing discovery. A turning point for me was when a group of Cuban men visited Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 2013 to feature a photo exhibit in a social documentary about the real and current living conditions for many Black Cubans in Havana. The photographer, Juan Antonio Madrazo, a Black Cuban civil rights activist, captured many images of the very poor living and housing conditions, the lack of resources to live what we in U.S. would call a dignified life. But I found those photographs to be a breath of fresh air: this is what I have been in search of, the real people who live in Cuba. No whitewash; just everyday lives and the daily struggle. I invited everyone I knew to visit the exhibit and watch the films to make us more aware of what is really happening. I was happy to bring my mother and aunt and introduce them to the visiting group.
All I want is the truth, no matter how ugly or beautiful it may be. Living as a Black woman in America and a product of a white education system, I know that tainted truth has always been told by the oppressor. But I am thankful I was born with my ancestor spirits inside who kept telling me to search and discover my own truth. There is an African proverb “Until lions have their own historians, tales of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.” This is one of the two quotes I live by as a writer, the reason why I write from “my” point of view, from how my people see their life in America and the world. That is why I encourage freedom of expression from each person I meet; the reason why I want to teach our children to write; the reason I am interested in the history of others outside of America who look like me. I believe we all have similar stories, our struggle may be different but it is the same struggle. The story of the oppressed has been re-told enough from the eyes of the oppressor, it’s time we make our ancestors proud and tell their story, give them voice and give our community the consciousness they need to evolve out of struggle to victory.
My ancestor spirits stirring, I was excited to hear of the return of our Cuban friends for AfricAmericas II in September 2014, with events at the City of Asylum, La Roche College and Carnegie Mellon University. It was nice to reuinite with scholars and civil activists Leonardo Calvo Cárdenas, Juan Antonio Madrazo Luna, Juan Antonio Alvarado, Rafel Campoamor and to meet Eleanor Calvo Martínez and Veizant Boloy González as well as performing artists David Escalona and Raudel Collazo. But it was sad to hear that Manual Cuesta Morúa could not make this trip as he was on restrictive movement in Cuba.* Themed “We Are the Root of Change”, a central event was a panel discussion at LaRoche College featuring Cuba’s Invisible Children (in photographs) and film The Other Cuba.
Discussions and Reflections
Discussion points included the rise of migration from rural areas toward to the larger Cuban cities and how those of African descent are socially excluded, especially when it comes to availability of housing. I was surprised to hear that when people move from their original community to another area (settlement), they are considered illegal squatters: “undocumented”. Being undocumented, they cannot receive government help. To me this is another tactic of being under an oppressive government. Why would a government treat its own citizens as illegals? How can the people’s needs be marginalized? The need access to clean water, good housing, employment to provide for a family.
There are similar examples in American history, including the period when the government forced Native Americans onto reservations and took children from their parents. The children were moved to cities in order to assimilate them into the “American” way of life: a way to erase their culture, their ethnicity. A tactic of control, along the same lines of the institution of slavery: as Africans were bought to America, those in power first took away their family/community unit, then names, religions, and language. To this day, this erasure of culture has a detrimental effect on the way Blacks live in America, on how we think and treat each other and on how we deal with our oppressors. Something we call the “slave mentality” is still alive and kicking.
During one discussion, it was mentioned that the Cuban government was starting to acknowledge racism within its country. But from the list of things that need fixing in Cuba, it is evident that the activists face a long road and difficult fight for changes. But each person spoke with such conviction and determination, I have no doubt all the small advances they have achieved have helped the larger populations in ways they could not even image. They reflect the theme ‘e are the root of change.’ Their fight will be handed down to their children to continue, as we see in the father/daughter team of Leonardo Calvo Cárdenas and Eleanor Calvo Martínez. <Eleanor came for the first time in 2014; it was very meaningful to see a woman as part of the Cuban delegation.> The longevity in their dedication to change the politics and society in Cuba is commendable.
In addition to these and more discussions, artists Raudel Collazo and David Escalona added something very special to AfricAmericas II. I strongly believe it’s the poets and musicians who are called to be the griot and protectors of communities’ history, to share and pass it on to the younger generations, and to make sure the world knows the truth. I was honored to interview Raudel and David on one of their last days in the U.S. I call these men “warriors”.
The term warrior has two definitions: 1. the literal refers to "a person engaged or experienced in warfare”; 2. the figurative refers to "a person who shows or has shown great vigor, courage, or aggressiveness, as in politics or athletics." In today’s universal climate of the oppressor’s foot pressing down harder on the necks of the oppressed, we have discovered an emergence of community warriors: the ones who have taken the risks to allow their art to be the advocate for a people, culture/community and country. Some of the world’s most feared warriors were not the Persians, Zulus, Spartans or even the Apache; they were poets and musicians.
I sat down to interview both warriors, David “D. Omni” Escalona and Raudel “Escadron Patriota” Collazo, during an afternoon cook-out held at the home of their gracious host Kenya C. Dworkin (who was also our English-Spanish interpreter for the interview). Both artists share a common intense love of people and country, which is illuminated in their individual musical form. One comes from a compelling spiritual place as scared as reading a Rumi poem and the other with all the power of [American rappers] Public Enemy or NWA. Yet both artists are rooted in a deep committed of unification of the country and people of Cuba.
David “D. Omni” Escalona
He introduces himself as a musician, as an artist: his name is David Escalona, and he goes by his artist name, David “D. Omni.” I asked him about the voice of spirituality in his music and how it seemingly reaches in your soul, calms and calls one to action at the same time. “Just as there is a market demand, there is a spiritual demand and as a human being I have certain demands on myself,” David said. He first felt there was something more to life at a young age - something he did not find in school. Dropping out of school at 16, he began to study the great religions in search of peace. David said, “I felt this desire to abandon things. I wanted to be in a place where there was no politics or social rhetoric.” His path to discover this peace took him through the exploratory study of Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, Hare Krishna, Judaism and even the Masons.
“I began to meet other people who were concerned about their spiritual condition. We would get together and dialogue.” David shared. These people were poets and musicians. They created videos and diverse arts. As a young emerging artist, David wanted to create a space for himself within this new community. He is now 30 years old and admits he has not found peace, but he has matured through understanding. ‘Understanding’, he explains, is not just of the written word. “It’s not the same to talk of love, than to feel love. It’s not the same to talk about peace, than to be at peace.” David is trying to find a state of being - a state far beyond song lyrics, something he can feel in his heart.
During his performance at the City of Asylum, the audience was caught up by the horizontal and vertical movements of voice and body - movements which reminded me of the Sufi Dervishes (of the Mevlevi order) who use whirling as an active meditation aimed to reach perfection; as David said, he is striving to find the perfect peace. (Sufi searches for peace through the abandonment of personal desires and by listening to music, focusing on God, and spinning the body, which is a symbolic movement of the solar system orbiting the sun.) I did not understand all David’s lyrics, but I understood the music and the movement. It was contagious, and I wanted to jump from my seat to spin and spin until I found my own peace.
David said that he is not a politician but an artist. He is not directing any kind of political movement. The message in his songs may have some kind of political focus, but he’s an artist. His rhetoric is the same as everyone else. What is found in his songs just relays what goes on in his life on a daily basis. “I myself have the same problem as everyone else. The fact that I am permitted to travel doesn’t mean I live a better life in Cuba. I suffer the same as everyone. That is my reality,” he added. He has been subjected to persecution and has had many encounters with the state police.
David said he likes to empower his community through music, as no political system has the right to give and take away freedom. This empowerment he sings enables people be aware of those around them, whether they are a dictator, a loving person, or someone filled with hate. “It’s not a specific human being, as there will always be dictatorships and revolutions, poets and musicians, and issues will always exist in the world,” he says. David believes that the power to overcome one’s situation is within each person.
Through his music he wants to teach people to transcend their situations. His song “Warrior for Peace” carries the call for people to focus on their common goal to overcome: “Listen up, my people/don’t take sides/get the heck out of those divided groups/we are united like it or not . . . I’ve been struggling for a long time to bring peace to people. . . Where are my warriors for peace?/I know I’m not alone/come on over/we are now going to win.”
Raudel “Escadron Patriota” Collazo
This similar message is also heard in the lyrics of Cuban rapper Raudel “Escuadrón Patriota” Collazo. When he took stage I was mesmerized. His performance was an experience I would describe as fierce and powerful. It was like the sweetest of air inhaled. He is what is missing in American rappers: not only musicians but the conviction of American Black males to take the risk and make their community better. He is what the poetry of the Black Arts Movement was to Black America in the 1960s and early 1970s. I said to myself, “the warrior has been delivered.”
Collazo calls his music urban hip-hop, urban poetry. Underground and political. To him, political is not government but instead social. When I explained that “political” in the USA is government, or any entity of oppression, he smiled and continued, “Yes, definitely. I am the people who belong to this group. With the music and with our rhetoric, there is a lot of criticism of the government; we also sing about the social problems within the community. We definitely sing against oppression. We sing against the Totalitarian system.”
Collazo shares that he came to the form of hip-hop because of the social need, not because of a personal passion. It happened during a certain time of his life which he calls the awakening. He felt a strong need to communicate concerns in his life. “I am part of the Zero/Zero generation. I was around 24 in [the year] 2000. It was during this time when our generation started to develop a critical posture towards the system. There were a lot of things wrong at that time, and few [people were] talking about it. We started to become more involved in the community. We used the arts to bring the message; poetry, music, visual arts to talk about the reality.”
When he used the term Zero Generation, it was familiar: years ago, I picked up an anthology of Cuban fiction entitled “Generation Zero.” I recall a short story by Ahmel Echevarría Peré, and I’m thinking that perhaps Ahmel may be one of those artists sanctioned by the government, because his fictional story was a bit boring in a country with so much happening. Also, I remember it being said that in Cuba, the musicians and artists who are sanctioned by government do not write or sing anything against the government. I was disappointed in the anthology of fiction, as I am always on the lookout for the ‘real’ stories of people. I have a different book - a poetry anthology “Island of my Hunger” - in which I hope to find some truths.
How else can anyone from the outside get to know a country and its people unless they can hear or read the truth from the mouths of those who live there? The beauty in the revolution are those who are willing to take the risk to speak the truth. This is not a romantic view or a marginalization of the revolution. Rather, it’s the highest respect to those who fight for others freedom, for those musicians and poets who know it’s a risk to express what is wrong, knowing they may lose their position, be jailed, or worse - be killed - for what they believe in. The government has attempted to control the music of both David & Raudel through censorship, but it is a risk they are willing to take.
Seeing and creating connections - Blacks in USA and Blacks in Cuba
After the assassination of Malcom X and Martin Luther King, there has been a lack of strong consistent leaders within the American Black Community. There are some Blacks who feel that the civil rights movement is over and they have successfully assimilated into the American mainstream. This is not true. The poets of the Black Arts Movement wrote about the struggle and movement to gain equality. Even though this happened in the 1960s and early 1970s, nothing much has changed. Sure, we all have higher education, but what can we do with this education? We are still blocked from high positions and certain jobs, and the pay rate for Blacks is lower.
That is why as a writer my themes speak of inequality, mistreatment and the social conditions of Black Americans. That is why I enjoyed the performance of the Cuban warriors Raudel and David. The unselfishness in their music shows in the life they live. David opens his home to a diverse demographic to exchange conversation and to freely express themselves. He said that he doesn’t need to lock his door. This is opposite of homes in America. Personally I have an electronic lock on my doors and windows, and no matter how hot it becomes in my house at night, I wouldn’t think of sleeping with the windows open. I felt as though he had something much better than I within his community. In fact, during the panel discussions and throughout all the AfricAmericas II events, one of the things that interested me most is how the Cuban civil activists handle their own societal concerns and racism: perhaps we (Black Americans) could learn from them.
As a woman I have dealt with a layers of racism and discrimination, from my own people and from whites. A woman’s place in any universal movement is challenged. I remember the poet Carolyn M. Rodgers, who was part of the Black Arts Movement, was asked by the males in the movement to change her writing style and become a more reserved/submissive type poet. She penned her refusal in the poem “the last m.f.”, which resonates with me as a woman whose works may not always be reserved or submissive.
So I asked Raudel if there were any female Cuban rappers. He smiled and said there were, but not that many; even though he feels the women’s place in the movement is important, there is also the culture of ‘machismo.’ He then explained that machismo is the culture of the man as dominant and the woman as subservient. The social contract within their culture is that the man is the man: he’s makes the money and protects the woman. In this society in exchange for their submissive roles, the women are provided for, protected and respected. They have no power. I had to stifle my laugh, because the term “machismo” appears in English but the meaning seems to be lost; even though it means the woman is subservient and submissive to the needs of men, it doesn’t seem to mean the man will provide and protect the woman. I laughed again because what he described up to a certain point is what most single, independent, strong Black woman in America want: a Black man to take care of them, to protect and provide. We are not all loud, argumentative, and gold-digging women; we want the same as any woman everywhere, and that is: to be loved, protected, provided, encouraged, and supported and to be actively involved in our lives, our families’ lives and the community. He added that ‘machismo’ this only works if everyone is happy in their position. To me, to be free means no one has a position, everyone is equal and all have a voice. I’d love to find a man to do all for me, but I won’t sacrifice my voice. Also in America there is a rise in violence against women and children by the hands of their husbands, boyfriends or other males. This is a deadly type of machismo, which cannot be tolerated in any society. We need to love and respect each other more to be happy.
Being happy may also mean setting goals. I asked Raudel about his ultimate goal with his music. A true activist, he said he doesn’t have a final goal as the only thing that never changes is change. Things are always changing. “We met a goal today. Around the corner there will be three more goals to reach. When you look at it that way there can be no final goal.” Kenya made a similar comment in 2013 when I interviewed her. She said that “people in the U.S. don’t understand what the word ‘revolution’ means. It’s an internal process, something that is in constant change.” It requires a long-term commitment to being dedicated to change all of your life. It’s not a passing fancy or a temporary mood but something that goes on long after you are gone. This is another reason we need to teach our children true history and how to make sure their voices are always being heard.
What Raudel does want to achieve is to create a new consciousness in his country. “I want to create a new way the government functions. I want the people who grew up with few privileges, few resources, and little money - I want them to have the right to live a dignified life. I want them to have the opportunities to make their dreams come true. To have enough food, decent and affordable housing. Just as my friends live with these problems, so do I.”
I’m always interested to know how people see the U.S. I asked Raudel of his very first visit to USA: what did he see? “My goal was to get to know the history, which I wasn’t understanding. I wanted to understand the Cubans who live here in exile. These are things I couldn’t answer until I was here - by talking to people here, by connecting with the community. I want to connect more with the African-Americans who seem to be different from us, but [are] moving in the same direction.”
This statement “different . . . but moving in the same direction” reminded me of a stanza in his song “Intro to the Cuban Soul”: And the blood stained the land, and the treachery was great/ and cries floated through the air./ And I saw my people tense and hungry,/ lost, and me asking my God to take care of them./God, why the separation, why the terror?/ Why the weeping in silence because of the repression?/ why do we have to lose our joy and hope?/ why is there no freedom?” These lyrics reflect the sentiments of those African-Americans living in the USA who are dealing with what seems to be non-stop rampant police killing of young Black men. Of Blacks turning to violence against each other. Of the lack of jobs, the gentrification of what was once Black communities, the closing of schools and the opening of more prisons. We can also ask ourselves “why is there no freedom?”
You won’t find many American rappers talking about freedom or discussing the killings of Black males by the police. Nor will they rap about the inequality in our criminal system. With their twisted sexual lyrics they are certainly not talking about the abuse of women and children. Who is the voice in America taking the risk to speak out? Most rappers now talk about material things, about sex and disrespect of women, about addictive behaviors; female rappers/artists on stage are almost naked and grinding with explicit lyrics of condescension, sex, and self-gratification. Many artists are mis-educated and incorrectly include lyrics of protest but have no idea of ‘real’ protest. There are few socially conscious rappers such as Public Enemy, Talib Kweili, Lupe Fiasco, Dead Prez, Mos Def (Yassin Bey), and KRS-One. Their music doesn’t get as much play yet has important messages that need to be heard by the masses. Yes, there are a few newcomers on the scene: Akala (from London) and Immortal Technique (from Peru). But the ‘mainstream’ American rappers still have that “slave mentality” theme in their lyrics. We are still not free in America.
These stereotypes of Blacks in America find their way to Cuba. Raudel states that the government’s information about America does not include the ‘Blacks’ in US History. But when he arrived here, he saw a different America. What he saw “is different and more unbelievable than the history we learned in Cuba.” For me that was very shocking and impactful.
He was looking for the American dream. He didn’t find it. I laughed and told him that we are all looking for that dream.
On visiting the U.S., David commented that being able to perform in here has allowed him to raise funds to add space to his ‘safe house’, making room for more people. He enjoys meeting new people, conducting deep conversations and even arguments, although he doesn’t need to leave Cuba to do this. “I love my culture, my neighbors. I come to United States to sell my product (my music and paintings). I’m not here to sell an idea; that’s the politician job. I’m an artist.”
Raudel said, “Every time I come it’s a new experience. This trip I was introduced more to the communities in Miami, Atlanta, New Jersey, and New York. I met new people, talked to them - people who have different views. It’s very enriching - not the material things but the contact with people. I return to Cuba more powerful than when I left." With all the misconceptions about Cuba, I asked Raudel what he would like us to know. He shared that his country is not that far and its history is not what the government is sharing. “It’s a country with beautiful people, who struggle every day. It’s our hard reality. We want the people in the United States to know what our reality is.”
I look at Raudel and I see a warrior, someone who is about the struggle every day, and his lyrics and the risks he takes every day prove it. I asked him what advice he would give those Blacks in United States who are fighting the injustice in the killings of our Black men by police. How to keep their voices heard? “You have to bring social consciousness to more people. To connect the same thinking to many people. Get people involved, keep them motivated. Make sure they understand the real problem. People with knowledge, people making pressure can resolve problems. The government may not have the answers, the people have to pressure the government.”
I feel many of our own fair-weather, self-promoting activists can learn a lot about long-term mission from the Cuban activists, and American rappers and other artists can learn from the Cuban movement behind the music of these “warriors”, David and Raudel. Perhaps when they visit next time we will be able to schedule more events within the Black community. I feel it is important for us to connect in our common struggles. The 2014 visit could not have come at a better time, considering the protest in Ferguson, Missouri regarding an unarmed Black man killed by a white policeman and the ongoing deadly violence of police against the Black community. Our visiting Cuban friends were able to see firsthand what really goes on in America when it comes to Black/white relationships, especially in how our local and federal government is run. Even with a “Black” man as president, the oppression of Blacks lives on in full effect. Perhaps on their next visit they will be able to visit more Black community organizations and see more of daily life: after-school programs, a public school and classroom, church, neighborhoods where Black populations live and the conditions of their communities in Pittsburgh. Another great encounter would be for the Black community to host a creative program and share the talented artists we have in Pittsburgh.
I felt sad after the interviews. Raudel and David are so full of promise, with a direction to a better life for those around them. Here in America, as David said, we have an abundance of things. But let me tell you, having an abundance does not take the place of happiness and fulfillment. I walked away feeling they were much more free than I.
• Editor’s Note: Manuel Cuesta Morúa was arrested on January 26, 2014, for attempting to organize a Alternative Forum to the Second CELAC Summit, which would be held in Havana, and include discussions about the Constitutive Declaration of this sub-hemispheric space, which brings together Latin American and Caribbean Heads of State, as would be the case with any summit around the world. This is why he was held for four days, interrogated, and accused of Spreading False News against International Peace, according to Article 115 of the Cuban Penal Code. Its purpose is to try to discipline opinion basing itself on the most recent, Soviet-style Constitution, of 1976. After being released, he was subjected to a Cautionary Measure, which required him to go to a police station every Tuesday to confirm his presence. It also prevented him from leaving the country to attend the 2014 LASA Conference, the AfricAméricas II event, and an event in Poland to which he was invited by the Lech Walesa Institute. The authorities argued that his numerous articles and essays about Cuba’s reality, particularly on the subject of race, threatened world peace. On November 14, 2014, the Cautionary Measure against was lifted and his case dismissed, without there ever having been a trial, due to the lack of legal evidence to justify it.