This interview was conducted in Spanish.
Yrak Saenz, all 235 lbs of him, plows into the sofa at his Miami Shores townhouse which he shares with his wife, Beth and their 7-year old son, Thomas. He kicks up his legs to the side, crosses them and lets them fall on the sofa’s arm rest. I take a seat next to him. A few minutes before he placed a bottle of 75-proof Havana Club rum on the coffee table and offered me a drink. Not one to refuse his charity, I poured some into a mug and took a swig. The rum stung my throat a little but once it reached my gut, it felt right.
Yrak (pronounced Eeh-rahk) Saenz was born in Havana in 1971. His mother, a hospital nurse, raised him and his sister. His father was an alcoholic who left them when he was only 8 years old. He died some years later. Yrak didn’t know him that well. He says he missed the simple things: tossing a baseball with him, talking about girls…, typical father-son stuff. Hardship is a given when a father is absent. Its another thing growing up in a country like Cuba, with a government that limits access to information, among other things I take for granted as an American.
Full disclosure: I am the son of parents who emigrated from Cuba to escape Castro’s dictatorship some 53 years ago. Lots of Cubans remained for reasons too many to enumerate here. And they had to find a way to survive. As a teenager, Yrak’s survival hinged on music. That was his outlet. Not the traditional salsa heard on Cuban radio. He preferred the music de la calle called cargas fed directly from Miami radio stations like 99 JAMZ and Power 96. It was the 1980s and at any time, if it was meant to be, they could get Public Enemy or Run DMC.
We had this antenna which we made out of a wire hanger and with a Selena Russian radio that was very robust we could pick up distant radio signals if we adjusted [the homemade antenna] this way or that way.
His hands snake around in front of me. His face squeezes and releases its muscles as if he can still hear the music from those days.
As isolated as Cuba was (is) from the outside world, Cubans were finding ways to get whatever bit of light through the cracks, acquiring radio signals and live feeds, ironically from the imperialistas living across the Florida Straits. In essence, one can imagine that around the same time the children of Cuban exiles were break dancing at Miami parties, this was also happening in the backstreets of Havana. The children of exiles and the children of those that remained, gusanos and fidelistas, dancing to the same beat on any given night.
Yrak’s contribution to the emerging Havana hip hop scene was dropping rhymes over a neighbor’s rhythmic clap or layered over the instrumental breaks of rap songs that someone may have brought back on cassettes after a trip to the States. Over time, Yrak perfected his delivery, his tone, and his cadence amongst friends in the barrios. And in the process learn something else.
I began to realize that I had an ability with words, how I was able to communicate, how I could not only reflect my life, but also the lives of others, and how people could change and empathize not only with me but with others too. That always made me closer to mi gente, always closer to la calle.
Gradually, Rap Cubano’s popularity began to spread in the wake of growing discontent. Hip hop was becoming not only more audible in Havana but also more visible.
The streets would fill up with kids coming out and break dancing. There were a lot of B-boys. Then the cops would eventually come around and break it up.
One of the key artistic elements of hip hop culture – graffiti – was beginning to appear on the sides of decaying buildings in Alamar, Havana, considered the birthplace of Cuban hip hop.
Then in 1995, a Cuban rap aficionado, scholar, and promoter named Rodolfo Rensoli organized the first rap festival in Havana, right in the Alamar section. In a recent interview, Rensoli said that the purpose was to “provoke an artistic revolution and take rap to a higher level.”
Yrak rounded up four friends from the neighborhood and participated in the festival. The event was a showcase for emerging rap artists. There was also a rap competition. Yrak’s group came in second, behind that year’s grand prize winner, Primera Base.
He was just getting started.
A year later he formed Doble Filo (Double Edged), a rap duo that aimed to represent the influence of two distinct music genres.
We had the ‘freaky’ which is what we called rock music in Cuba and I was the rapper. We wanted to do something unique.
At the 1996 festival, Doble Filo won the grand prize with a rap song called Al Doblar de la Esquina. The song’s message: that violence is prevalent in the streets of Havana despite the Cuban’s media refusal to report it. You don’t have to go far to find it, it’s around the corner.
They were invited to record the song at the studio of musician Silvio Rodriguez. It was one of the first official recordings of Cuban rap ever.
After that, Doble Filo went through several makeovers including experimenting with a female vocalist until 1998, when current member Edgar O. Gonzalez a/k/a Edgaro joined the group. Edgaro brought a different concept, image, and purpose to Doble Filo. He was younger (about 15 years Yrak’s junior), caucasian, stylish, had lived in the Netherlands, spoke English, and was heavily influenced by American music. Their initial colloborations took off from the outset.
At that point, Doble Filo, well entrenched in the rap scene, wanted to make a living off of their music.
In 1998 and 1999, we played concerts and we didn’t make any money. I worked in a shoe factory and I didn’t make any money… we were coming out of our Special Period* that was comiendote la vida and I wanted to earn a living.
Cuba’s Special Period (Periodo Especial) occurred following the collapse of the former Soviet Union in 1991. Cuba lost its primary ideological and economic sponsor and the Castro government initiated desperate austerity measures, including severe widespread cutbacks to the use of energy resources. Food rationing and agriculture deterioration lead to famine and other social problems.
Yrak says that in Cuba all artists have to be part of el sistema. You cannot work independently and earn a living from your craft. So he and his contemporaries worked to institutionalize rap in Cuba, to commercialize it.
I remember that at a General Assembly meeting I had an opportunity to address Fidel Castro publicly. And one of the things I said to him was that rap was the voice of a new generation, not of protest, but of speaking out for change, for a better quality of life, a better life… I thought it was important for the media to focus more on these voices than of those that dance [along with mainstream music] . All you see in the local press was baila, baila, muevete, muevete. There wasn’t a voice that spoke of change, or social improvement.
At this point in the interview, I begin to feel a little uneasy. Its the first time he invokes Castro’s name during the interview. And he does it so matter-of-factly. I think about my dad and my grandparents who are no longer here. They remained Cuban exiles until their last breath. What would they have said had they had an opportunity to address Castro?
Yrak says the Assembly discussion was an important point, a seed, if you will. Within a year or two, Cuban media outlets were all over the annual rap festival, giving rap music its due, says Yrak. Or maybe they were monitoring events for the government. Who knows? But as things go, something indeed happened.
During the 2002 rap festival a rapper named Papa Humbertico did what would have been unthinkable in prior years. He publicly rapped against the police. Fidel’s police. Calling them a nightmare, calling them criminal. “I detest you,” he cried out.
A month later, Yrak says the Cuban government stepped in.
Cuban rap got so immense. It was all over the streets. You know, when the youth have a voice anywhere in the world and they express themselves, their influence, their demands,… that makes governments nervous.
It’s not a fantasy that rap was born in the U.S. And you can’t deny that the U.S. and Cuba are not on friendly terms. With all the history of rap… of protesting, of speaking the truth,… with 4,000 people attending a rap concert and the rappers on stage rapping against the police, .. the government said, wait, wait, we have to control this.
So they created the Agencia Cubana de Rap (Cuban Rap Agency).
Yrak says that most of Cuba’s early rap groups were invited to join. Doble Filo accepted the invitation. The Cuban Rap Agency handles promotion, marketing, and some recording for the rap industry under its own label, Asere Productions. The agency also sponsors lectures and tours.
I think to myself, why would Doble Filo join a Castro-government sponsored agency? Especially knowing that they just want to control him and his peers before they get out of hand. Besides, isn’t rap supposed to be anti-establishment? Isn’t it supposed to rage against the machine?
He repeats what he said earlier: That in Cuba all artists have to be part of el sistema or you cannot work, you cannot earn a living. Doble Filo wanted to make a living as artists. Under the Agency they now had an opportunity to make some money.
Self serving? Maybe a little. But who am I to judge? I was born and raised here, not there.
In an April 2009 CNN article titled How Hip Hop Gives Cubans a Voice, Yrak is quoted as saying this about the Cuban Rap Agency: “[It] has an agenda that goes with the government’s agenda. It doesn’t limit me but it does force me to be creative in how I express my ideas.”
He also said that his generation – old school rappers – were forced to limit what they expressed about life in Cuba. The new school of rappers have a more defiant attitude.
Aldo Rodriguez of the new school group Los Aldeanos is also quoted: “Hip hop is an art form that speaks the truth about how people are living.” In what seems like indirect criticism aimed at more ‘commercialized’ groups like Doble Filo, Rodriguez said, “Our lyrics don’t always go with the standard Cuban rhetoric and often that won’t get airplay,” adding that his group isn’t allowed to perform at local theaters.
Ironically, Los Aldeanos never joined the Cuban Rap Agency and they are the most popular rap group in Cuba today, according to Yrak. He says that which is prohibited and controversial is always in demand. Their music spreads across the island faster than any other rap group’s.
I ask Yrak about being part of el sistema versus remaining underground like Los Aldeanos. He is quick to remind me that the underground rappers would not exist if it weren’t for groups like Primera Base and Doble Filo, the first wave of rappers in Cuba that introduced rap music into the consciousness of Cuban culture, spearheaded the movement and laid the groundwork for new avenues of expression. About 7 years ago, the new generation of rappers began to appear: Los Aldeanos, Silvito Libre, Eskuadron Patriota.
[The new rappers] came with a different vision. One of indifference or defiance: One of … ‘I don’t care anymore, I don’t want to be part of the system. I don’t want to be associated with anything. I have nothing to lose.
Yrak says that these groups should not dismiss the likes of Doble Filo and Primera Base. People can’t think about a future if they disregard the past, he says, adding, you have to know where you came from to know where you’re going. Back in the day, Doble Filo too voiced their opinions. But their style was more subtle, he says. They used metaphorical lyrics and selective wordplay to describe the discontent with day to day life in Havana.
Maybe I’m not like The Aldeanos. I don’t sing, ‘down with Fidel’. Maybe I don’t say that. But the people know what I think.
He says he never holds back on saying what he wants to say. (I understand that we are sitting in Miami as opposed to Havana. He doesn’t have to look over his shoulder here. But he knows this article will be published on the internet, and it will get around, maybe even reach Havana.)
I have a commitment not only to myself as an artist but also to my people (pa’ mi gente). I can’t be someone who says one thing on stage and then another thing off stage. I won’t look good.
I ask him if the integrity of his music is ever compromised as a result of being associated with the Cuban Rap Agency. Whether he ever feels manipulated?
[The Government] never says you can’t say this or that. You live in Cuba. You know what you can and cannot say [publicly]. I have never in my 20 years of making rap music been told anything like that.
But I also take advantage of whatever mechanisms are available as part of the Cuban Institute [of Music] to be able to spread our music.
One of those mechanisms is to be permitted to travel outside of Cuba. Miami is his second home. His wife and second child live here. He has another son who lives in Havana, and an ailing mother. So he returns to Cuba on a regular basis. But spending time in Miami has had a profound effect.
My music is more open, more mature since I’ve been in the U.S. because I see Cuba from outside. I see other possibilities to promote, to create, other possibilities that I didn’t have in Cuba.
In Cuba, I was limited to information. I had limited access to the internet. I was operating under one particular way of thinking and here it’s more open.
Doble Filo’s last album Despierta [Awaken] seems to reflect that. It’s their most non-subtle, opinionated work yet. And even more recent material continues the trend. A song he wrote two months ago called Clandestino contains the rap lyrics: ”My people know me well, they know that I am not lying. I don’t care if I’m annoying, I don’t depart from the context, I fought with all my strength for what is mine and what is ours. I have a thousand reasons, a thousand excuses. Why should I forget about this if I reflect the streets in my words. This is the truth, against censorship, dictatorship, against that power that breaks us and manipulates us, …”
On this day Yrak Saenz sits in his Miami Shores home, ninety miles from Cuba. He has one foot here and another foot there. His mind, present of his surroundings, turns to the future. He begins to wonder about the possibilities, about his purpose.
I have this dream, this vision,… to be able to return to Cuba and try to unite Cubans on the island, not the fidels, not the castros. I mean the simple man.. the guy who eats the bread he gets every day.
It’s what I have to do, man.
Me toca a mi hacerlo, asere.
One rap at a time, Yrak.
From within and from afar.
Here is the video for Apenas (Abro Los Ojos) from Doble Filo’s recent CD, Despierta.
Copyright © 2012 Long Play Miami
Alamar, Havana image courtesy of Jan Sochor