Jay-Z (Shawn Carter) and Beyoncé Knowles recently made waves when they traveled to the island of Cuba (which has been under U.S. trade embargo since it became a socialist/communist country in 1960) to celebrate their fifth wedding anniversary. The initial reactions came from the most likely quarter: Cuban-American Republican politicians raised an uproar, demanding to know if the trip was legal, since U.S. citizens are restricted from visiting the island (or, more specifically, from engaging in economic transactions with Cuban citizens) unless they have a license or official clearance from the Treasury department.
Last Thursday, Jay-Z put out an “Open Letter” in response, rapping over a dark track produced by Swizz Beats and Timbaland. Rather than elucidate, Jay-Z’s lyrics added to the furor already surrounding his trip: he responded to the Republican outcry by threatening to commit “a real crime,” like “flood the streets,” (presumably not with water). In keeping with his overarching aesthetic, most of the verses feature unrelated boasts about Hov’s cultural influence, his wealth, and his ownership of the Brooklyn Nets.
Then…”I’m in Cuba, I love Cubans/This communist talk is so confusing/When it’s from China/The very mic that I’m using.” These verses are fascinating, although the message is far from clear: is this a nuanced analysis of communism, globalization and political propaganda? Is Jay-Z asking, “How can the U.S. place an embargo on Cuba, while doing extensive business with China, another so-called communist country, which provides major financial support to Cuba?” Or, is this a simple dismissal of the relevance of politics at all? Hov provides no further indications, switching back to swag mode, he boasts that he got “White House clearance” to travel to Cuba, and raps “Obama said chill, you gonna get me impeached.” Unsurprisingly on Wednesday, Obama denied that the White House was specifically involved, saying, “We’ve got better things to do.” Treasury department officials indicated that the celebrity couple went on an “educational exchange trip” organized by an unnamed licensed group.
The musical story (and polemical discussion) has expanded with the responses of other artists to Jay-Z’s “Open Letter.” First, Common added some verses in which he professed support for Jay-Z, dissed the U.S. media and praised Black Power activist Assata Shakur, who has been in political exile in Havana since 1984. Common fare from his corner.
Next, the Cuban-American rapper Pitbull jumped on the track to deliver his own analysis of the Cuban-American relationship, masked by Mr. Worldwide’s usual braggadocio. Besides shouting-out a series of clichéd catch-phrases without explanation or context (Scarface, Russian Missile Crisis, Brothers to the Rescue, etc.) and dragging out the tired Elián Gonzalez soap opera, Pitbull simultaneously criticizes Castro’s government for being repressive and the U.S. government for letting down the Cuban Americans during the failed Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961. The chorus of Pitbull’s version is openly political and anti-Castro: “C-U-B-A, hope to see you free one day.” Unsurprising sentiments from Miami. It is more surprising that Pitbull ultimately came out in support of Jay-Z’s trip, and raised the question of race: “Politicians love to hate you/But then they run away when it’s time to debate you/Question of the night/Would they have messed with Mr. Carter if he was white?”
Almost not worth mentioning, but Wyclef also joined the trend, although not to talk about Cuba but rather his own interests, specifically the political situation in Haiti, his own celebrity connections, and his failed run at Haiti’s presidency.
Yesterday, the first response came from a Cuban artist, Danay Suarez, an excellent young singer who came up in the underground hip-hop scene in Havana. She teamed up with DJ EFN from Miami to deliver her own take on the Jay-Z vacation and the Cuban-American political situation. Today, Danay wrote a short statement on Facebook about her remix: she expressed gratitude that the Cuban people are receiving the attention of artists such as Jay-Z. “It was a nice gesture that he visited our marvelous island, we should develop our fraternity, not focus on our differences,” she wrote. But also, “As a member of the People, I take a vow of honesty as I undertake the 4th Open Letter…”
Danay moves seamlessly between rapping and singing in her highly expressive version of the track. She also presents a bitter experience of the results of the Cuban Revolution: “In 1959 our culture was tinted green/But not the green of hope/The green of military dictatorship/That censors….We are the polemical species on the planet/We are victims of an incomplete freedom.” She seeks to reconnect Cubans across the Florida straights, blaming both governments for the division. “We are a community of poets living between two governments that choke each other and don’t respect each other.” In the second verse, she voices a common complaint of Cuban artists: there is no place for them to really grow and develop their music in Cuba. In general, Danay claims, professionals in Cuba do not get the respect or the opportunities they deserve. “Drugs and alcohol are the consolation of the youth,” she claims. Later she dips into lighter territory, praising “the Havana of thousands of lovers, of J and B’s fifth anniversary.” Her chorus is part love-poem to her city, part denunciation of censorship, part subtle critique of cultural tourism: “There are few places like Havana/If you make direct contact with the people/Without Wifi, Facebook, Twitter or dollars.”
Danay’s voice is a welcome addition to a previously male-dominated conversation about Cuba, U.S. foreign policy and J and B’s all important vacations. What do you think?