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“As Free as the Words of a Poem”: Las Krudas and the Cuban Hip-Hop Movement

 

The fate of socialism after the fall of the socialist bloc will be determined,
more than ever, by socialism’s capacity to sustain in theory and in
practice the . . . idea that the intellectual’s adherence to the Revolution
(like that of any other ordinary citizen), if the intellectual “really wants to
be useful, can only be a critical adherence” [Roberto Fernández Retamar, “Hacia una intelectualidad revolucionaria en Cuba,” 1967]; . . . by its capacity not only to tolerate,
but to foster the social criticism of its own management that emerges
from those very principles, ideals, and values that socialism proclaims as
its own. . . . — Desiderio Navarro, “In Medias Res Publicas: On Intellectuals and Social Criticism in the Cuban Public Sphere”

Las Krudas

Despite prevailing homophobia among both mainstream American rappers and Cuban society, Cuban rap is a space in which homophobia is contested and alternative sexualities are supported.  My main sources of evidence for this argument are raperas Pelusa MC, Pasa Kruda, and Wanda Kruda, who form the group Las Krudas.  These three women, who are also lesbians, are widely known as raperas and generally well received.  This marks an exception to the dominant discourse on homosexuality, specifically lesbian sexuality and identity within Cuban society.

Although the socialist revolution of 1959 “officially” rid Cuban society of racism and sexism, the government still retained the Stalinist belief that homosexuality was a byproduct of the decadence of capitalism.  From the 1930s until 1988, there was an actual Public Ostentation Law that allowed for, and even encouraged, harassment of gay Cubans who refused to stay closeted.  In 1986, however, the Comisión Nacional de Educación Sexual (National Commission on Sex Education, or NCSE) launched a rectification campaign to educate all Cubans about queer issues.  The year 1989 also saw the creation of the Centro Nacional de Educación Sexual (National Center for Sex Education, or Cenesex), which would implement a national program of sex education and devote time to research, education, and therapy.  Then in the 1990s, laws were passed prohibiting restrictions against homosexuals.  In general, there is no shame attached to Cuban women’s sexuality.  (Women wear tight clothes and high heels, and even the 5 year olds I saw in the streets walk with a switch in their hips.)  Sex education is an integral part of the Cuban education system, and I also saw sexual education programs on television.  In spite of these advancements, some of which are recent, progress in embracing gays and lesbians has been slow, and homosexuality remains a taboo subject in the media.  Las Krudas have used the hip-hop community as a space to address issues like lesbian sexuality and other experiences of Cuban women that aren’t addressed in other areas of the public sphere.

If we contextualize Las Krudas within a larger history of lesbian musical artists, their style and messages do not seem as unprecedented.  Perhaps a transnational influence came not from their contemporary American counterparts in the hip-hop scene, but from the blues singers of the 1920s and 1930s.  In her article “‘Jelly Jelly Jellyroll’: Lesbian Sexuality and Identity in Women’s Blues,” Maria Johnson argues that the blues provided a space for articulations of female pleasure and lesbian sexuality.  Las Krudas follows in the steps of the vaudeville blues singers who “reclaim their sexuality both by speaking out about and against a history of sexual abuse and stereotyping, and by presenting self-defined images of themselves.”1  As Hazel Carby established in her writings on the sexual politics of women’s blues, blues singers established black women as sexual subjects rather than objects and celebrated black women’s sexuality.2 Both the blues women and Las Krudas emerged from histories of invisibility and distorted imagery of black women and essentially “took triple marginalization and turned it on its head.”  Vaudeville blues women “empowered themselves and their audiences”3 and created one of the first true public spaces where African-American women could speak out concerning their sexuality.  Indirectly, this tradition informs and inspires the contemporary Cuban raperas.

In their most recent album Cubensi, Las Krudas subvert the typically conservative and sensual feminine presence.4  Like the blues singers of the 1920s and 1930s, they use bold delivery and powerful voices.  As their name implies, their lyrics are raw and direct, as can be seen in the album’s opening song “Vamo’ a vencer la dificultad.”5

Sexo femenino, siempre relegado

pero las Krudas el molde han quebrado

vamo’ a vencer la dificultad. . . .

Feminine sex, always relegated

But the Krudas have broken the mold

We are going to overcome the difficulty. . . .

In the song “120 horas rojas,” Las Krudas transgress the conventional and address menstruation and feminine biology, with a chorus that starts out, “120 red hours every month.”  In “Eres bella,” Las Krudas rap to “all the women of the world, to all of the women that are fighting with us . . . to all the sisters; especially the blackest, especially the poorest . . . .”

Eres Bella siendo tú, ébano en flor, negra luz

Eres Bella siendo tú, cuerpo no es, única virtud.

Eres Bella siendo tú, ébano en flor, negra luz

Eres Bella siendo tú, intellegencia es tu virtud.

You are beautiful being you, ebony in flower, black light

You are beautiful being you, your body is not your only virtue.

You are beautiful being you, ebony in flower, black light

You are beautiful being you, your virtue is intelligence.

In a society where almost all the news reporters, novela protagonistas (actresses for television series), and magazine models are light-skinned Cubans, Las Krudas create a space in their music that legitimizes Afro-Cuban beauty and womanhood.  In “Eres Bella,” Las Krudas urge women to use their intelligence to realize that their body is not their only virtue.  They also call women to unite — “no más oppressión, mujeres unidas!” — and realize that machismo is a type of slavery: “machismo identico sistema de esclavitud y terrorista.”  The lyrics of Las Krudas illustrate what Bell Hooks describes as a feminist and revolutionary political stance.  “I think we have to fight the idea that somehow we have to refashion feminism so that it appears not to be revolutionary — so that it appears not to be about struggle . . . I say the minute you begin to oppose patriarchy, you’re progressive.  If our real agenda is altering patriarchy and sexist oppression, we are talking about a left, revolutionary movement.”6 Las Krudas may have an oppositional message to the extent they oppose patriarchy and affirm lesbian sexuality.  However, their message falls within the framework of a left, a revolutionary movement; and thus, even their seemingly deviant message reinforces the legitimacy of the Cuban Revolutionary project.

Capitalism functions by fragmenting groups and struggles of the working class, and during the special period this has been especially evident with increased racism and economic inequalities in Cuban society that came with the new mixed-market economy.  However, with more pronounced inequalities, voices criticizing these changes in Cuban society have become more pronounced as well.  Cuban rap music forms one of these voices, widening the public discourse on previously taboo subjects such as racism, machismo, homosexuality, and jineterismo.  Rappers like Las Krudas, as part of the artistic intelligentsia in the Cuban public sphere, legitimate their claims and criticisms by framing them within the larger socialist revolutionary project.  The hip-hop movement is creating spaces for critical expression, yet these spaces — like Cuban civil society — are organically rooted in the heart of the revolution.

Armed with rhythmic and rhyming flows, Cuban rappers are creating a unique poetics of resistance, the ubiquitous call of “puños arriba” (raised fists) being a signature of the complex chorus that is hip-hop Cubano.  Cintio Vitier’s metaphor of relationships between artists and intellectuals and the Cuban Revolutionary project serves to illustrate the dialectic of the Cuban hip-hop movement: “We should be as free as the words of a poem.  But the words of the poem are owed to the poem, they are committed to it and are at its service, as our freedom and our criticism should be at the service of our resistance.”7  Rappers within the Cuban hip-hop movement are words within the revolutionary poem, at once reshaping definitions and dialogue, yet from within the body of the poem.  Cuban rap artists, including Las Krudas, are entrenched in this continual and intimate process of critical deconstruction and consensual rebuilding of the revolutionary poem in the special period, demanding freedom to create critical spaces, but ultimately committing these spaces to the service of the resistance and the revolution.

1  Maria Johnson, “‘Jelly Jelly Jellyroll’: Lesbian Sexuality and Identity in Women’s Blues,” Women & Music 7, 31 December 2003: 31.

2  Hazel Carby, “‘It Jus Be’s Dat Way Sometime’: The Sexual Politics of Women’s Blues,” Radical America 20.4 (1987): 9-22.

3  Maria Johnson, “‘Jelly Jelly Jellyroll’: Lesbian Sexuality and Identity in Women’s Blues.” Women & Music 7, 31 December 2003: 31.

4  Grises Hernandez, “Demo Krudas: CUBENSI,” Movimiento 2: 11.

5  “Venceremos” means we shall overcome, we shall triumph.

6 “Challenging Capitalism & Patriarchy: Third World Viewpoint Interviews Bell Hooks,” Z Magazine (December 1995).

7  Cintio Vitier, “Resistance and Freedom,” boundary 2 29.3 (2002): 252.


Margaux Joffe plans to graduate in May 2006 with a Major in Literature, Minor in Political Science, and Certificate in Film and Video.  This essay is excerpted and adapted from a longer working paper “Reshaping the Revolution through Rhyme: A Literary Analysis of Cuban Hip-Hop in the ‘Special Period'” (the working paper was written in Fall 2004 and published online in June 2005). Her research, conducted in Havana, Cuba, was made possible through funding by the Mellon Undergraduate Research Award in Latin American and Caribbean Studies.


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