In a country like Cuba, where the state has its hand in just about everything, it is perhaps not surprising that there is a governmental body that concerns itself with rap music. Alarmed by the number of young people in baggy clothing and ill-aligned baseball caps rapping around the island, the government created the Cuban Rap Agency four years ago to bring rebellious rhymers into the fold.
Chosen to head the agency was Susana Garcia Amaros, 46, who studied Latin American literature at the University of Havana, specializing in the writings of Afro-Cubans. She acknowledged that she was no rap expert when the Ministry of Culture approached her for the job. But she said she appreciates the music and its underlying messages.
"Rap is a form of battle," she said. "It's a way of protesting for a section of the population. It has force. It's not just the beat - the boom, boom, boom - it's the lyrics." The rap agency began co-sponsoring the hip-hop festival that has drawn rap aficionados from all over the island, as well as overseas, to Havana since 1994. The agency also began promoting rappers and occasionally helping them to produce albums, although only those artists whose rap does not veer too much from the party line qualify. "We don't have songs on a record that speak badly of the revolution," she said. "That doesn't make sense."
Not surprisingly, most rappers are averse to joining forces with the government, even as they struggle on their own to spread their rhymes. Only nine groups are part of Cuba's rap agency. Of the remaining 500 or more across the island, some push the envelope, voicing discontent with Cuban society in language that is as blunt as the accompanying beat is loud. "We are not in agreement with any political system, the one here or the one you have," meaning the United States, said Aldo Rodriguez Baquero, 23, who teams up with his friend, Bian Rodriguez Gala, in Los Aldeanos, one of the island's popular rap groups. "We want liberty and freedom."
While rap appeals to just a subset of Cuban youth, many of the five million Cubans under 30 find themselves questioning the system. Government surveys have found that the bulk of the unemployed people in Cuba are young people and that many are uncertain about their futures. The blame, the government argues, lies with the U.S. trade embargo.
Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque noted the disenchantment of many of Cuba's young people in a speech last year that was reported by The Miami Herld.
"We have a challenge," said Perez Roque, who is in his early 40s and considered a member of the new generation of Cuban leaders. "These young people have more information and more consumer expectations than those at the start of the revolution."
He added that young people were more likely to hear their elders telling stories about social progress under the current regime and respond, "Oh, please, don't come to me with that same old speech."
The situation among Afro-Cubans is especially acute. They make up roughly 60 percent of the population but are considerably poorer than their white counterparts, according to studies. Among the reasons is that white Cubans are more likely to have relatives sending remittances from the United States. On top of that, whites hold the bulk of the jobs in the profitable tourism sector.
Afro-Cubans complain that their housing is inferior to that of many whites. They say police officers are more likely to hassle them on the streets. Speaking of these and other problems, often bluntly, are Cuba's rappers.
"What we sing, people can't say," said Rodriguez Baquero, who wore a bandanna to pull back his braided hair as he rapped on the sidewalk. "They think we are crazy. We say what they only whisper."
Rodriguez Baquero said his mother and his rap partner's mother worried about their outspoken ways. "They don't want to lose us," he said.
But they keep rapping, even though some of Havana's club owners have banned them for a time when some of their songs, like one dealing with police harassment, proved too controversial.
As for the rap agency, Rodriguez Baquero dismissed it with a wave of his hand. "We don't want to be in any agency," he said. "It's the same as slavery for us."
Still, not many people hear what he and other independent rappers have to say. They produce albums in their homes in bare-bone studios and then distribute them by hand. "It's very difficult to do rap in Cuba," he acknowledged.
One of those who has been working behind the scenes to aid Cuba's rappers is Cheri Dalton, who goes by the name Nehanda Abiodun. She is a former member of the Black Liberation Party and is wanted by the FBI in connection with a string of robberies, including a 1981 heist of an armored car near Nyack, New York. Now living in exile in Havana, she has formed a chapter of Black August, a group that promotes hip-hop culture.
"There's always been a love for music from the States in Cuba," said Abiodun. "You can go back to Nat King Cole, Earth Wind and Fire, and Aretha Franklin."
Rap, first heard in eastern Cuba in the 1980s by those who picked up Florida radio stations, is no exception. "They point out contradictions in society that were taboo to talk about," Abiodun said of Cuba's hip-hop generation. But rap appears to be losing some ground here. The hip-hop festival, held every August, was a flop last year. The culprit, say rappers, was not government censors so much as another musical genre that is pushing rap aside. Reggaeton, a blend of reggae, rap and Latin music that was born in Puerto Rico, is now the rage.
The governmental rap agency has begun promoting reggaeton artists, whose messages are often designed more to get people on the dance floor than to protest the problems in life. It is harder than ever for rappers to find a stage.
"Reggaeton is about sex and girls and that's it," grumbled Mario Gutierrez, 19, who criticizes fellow rappers who have speeded up their beat and gone reggaeton. "We are singing for change. We want freedom. We want a better Cuba than this one."