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The few rappers who are lucky enough to get a shot at recording usually turn to Pablo Herrera. Herrera, 33, who studied English and Russian at the University of Havana and wrote his dissertation on American hip-hop, is one of the island's foremost promoters and producers. Herrera was able to persuade the Ministry of Culture to provide a turntable, drum machine, sampler and keyboard for the studio in his aging Spanish-style home in Havana. Thus equipped, he has promoted, produced or managed a dozen or so hip-hop acts, including Cuba's founding fathers of rap, Amenaza, which later reformed as Orishas. Herrera also produced the U.S.-released CD Cuban Hip-Hop All Stars Vol. 1 (Papaya Records), one of the first compilations to capture the new wave of raperos. "Cuba is one of the last places in the world where hip-hop arrived, and that actually gives us an advantage," Herrera argues. "We have a chance to fulfill what it started out to be in the U.S.--a way to strengthen the voice of black youth."
Cuba's leadership has warmed to hip-hop in recent months. While the music still gets more lip service than actual support, Minister of Culture Abel Prieto recently funneled $32,000 worth of audio equipment to rappers through the Young Communists Union's cultural arm, Hermanos Saiz. "In the past, we made some mistakes and had prejudices, like against rock 'n' roll," Prieto says. "Not anymore."
That remains to be seen. Even though there's no money to be made in hip-hop, it attracts top talent. In Havana's lush Miramar neighborhood, Equis Alfonso, a.k.a. X Alfonso, 28, is talking about his upcoming hip-hop/son fusion album titled X-More. He also has some sharp words about the Buena Vista Social Club, the geezer vocal group that popularized prerevolution balladry everywhere but Cuba. "People think because of Ry Cooder and Buena Vista that Cuban music became better known," says Alfonso, who is also a member of the hot fusion group Sintesis. "That may be true, but it set us back 40 years. Now we are fighting against the mythological vision of the old Cuba, the Cuba of the Tropicana Club and old cars. All the musicians today have to fight to find a market."
Once again this summer, Alamar will be the site of Cuba's rap festival, which organizers predict will draw 3,000 to 4,000 listeners and a dozen musicians. Alfonso plans to attend. Even if the electricity cuts off, as it did last year, Cuba's raperos will still find a way to have their say.
--With reporting by Dolly Mascarenas/Havana