President Obama Visits Cuba and Danay Suárez Talks to Reza Rites: A Bilateral Analysis and Discussion on Diplomacy, Music, and Mixtapes
By Reza Corinne Clifton
(with translation help from Reza Clifton, Tamara Diaz, Bryant Estrada, and Jose Ramirez)
PROVIDENCE, RI – On Sunday, March 20, 2016 President Obama landed down 90 miles away from the US, in Cuba – the first president to do so, reportedly, in 90 years. Three years ago, Jay-Z and Beyonce, another couple that some would consider a President and First Lady (or Queen and Chancellor] of Hip Hop, traveled to the same Caribbean island despite what were, then, even stricter restrictions on travel to the Spanish-speaking island. Then, like now with Obama, Jay-Z and Beyonce inspired conversation, and, some would argue, controversy with their trip. That is because to this day, say anti-Castro protesters, the Communist government running Cuba is still limiting important rights and liberties to their citizenry, such as free speech, a reality reflected in the regular detainment and incarceration of artists and others considered political dissidents. Critics of these types of trips say that visiting Cuba when human rights violations like these are still the norm encourage the Cuban government – now led by Raul Castro – to continue their policies and punishments.
On the other hand, Cuba is also known for its high-performing educational system and effective medical care. There are opportunities and programs for Black American students as well as students from all over Latin America who want to study medicine in Cuba, for instance, and the country’s music, art and culture is rich, varied, magnetic and appreciated all over the world – including in the United States. That’s right, not even a blockade or end to official diplomatic relations could interrupt the world meeting and learning about Cuba through the simple act of pressing play or sitting in person to hear musical selections from an “Habanero” or farmer from the countryside. As I saw in the years 2000 and 2002, the opposite was true too: many Cubans, at least in Havana (la Habana) were aware of American music and different cultural norms from the US despite the divisions being imposed diplomatically. Moreover, I remember during my trips with American University and the State University of New York, Buffalo, that the American dollar was an accepted form of payment everywhere we visited and stayed! If the blockade and harsh policies both governments have against each other – once harsher, too – aren’t stopping the co-mingling of the two cultures, shouldn’t policies be shifted, ask advocates on the other side, to support partnerships that would benefit both regular Cuban citizens and regular Americans?
In the spring of 2013, a number of musicians joined the America-Cuba relations debate when Jay-Z released a single called “Open Letter” to respond to what the radio and world music website Afropop described as “Cuban-American Republican politicians” who “raised an uproar, demanding to know if the trip was legal…” Following Jay-Z’s “Open Letter,” a number of artists released remixes, remakes and responses to Open Letter: Common, Pitbull, and Wyclef, for example.
But so did another artist: Cuban hip hop emcee and world music singer, Danay Suárez. Suárez, whose debut album is called “Polvo de la Humedad” (or Dust of the Moisture), lives in Cuba, though her music is known across the world, including in Europe and here in the US. I know this because she has performed the last two years in spaces I attended and covered, specifically the Latin Alternative Music Conference in 2014 and the Afro-Latino Festival in 2015 – both in NYC. I caught her performance in 2015 and can assure you: many sang along during her set.
I spoke to Suárez shortly after her performance at the Afro-Latino Festival, and one area I asked about was her Open Letter verse and her feelings on what is happening between the two countries. Obama may not see it in time, but the podcast, and Suárez’s insights, may help with understanding what’s at stake and what’s at play in this moment. Please note our conversation was in Spanish.
As a citizen of Cuba, Suárez says she felt proud that popular and well-known artists Jay-Z and Beyonce would visit her hometown. But as for her musical response, Suárez knew that, coming from the streets of Havana, she could offer perspectives that none of the other Open Letter artists could.
Some of those perspectives include the reminder that Cuba represents a place full of contradictions, with its limited liberties that exist alongside a commitment to bring up very educated people and professionals. And that’s nothing to ignore, suggests Suárez, as two areas considered valuable for humans – healthcare and education – do exist and thrive in Communist Cuba.
With her inclusion in “9 Cuban Artists You Need To Know Right Now,” an article published March 16 in The Fader, and her inclusion in a recently-aired CNN mini-documentary it’s clear that Suárez herself is a valuable part of contemporary Cuban culture. To learn more and to hear her music, visit http://www.danaysuarez.com or look for and follow Danay Suárez on Youtube, Instagram, Twitter and Facebook. You can also find her on Soundcloud, where where you’ll find the link to carta abierta, aka Open Letter.
For news on when additional snippets from the conversation with Suárez are available, and for other music updates from me, Reza Rites, visit ambitiousblackfeminist.com and venussings.com, follow @rezaclif on FB and Twitter, @3amblack on Instagram and Twitter, and Sonic Watermelons on FB, Twitter, Soundcloud and BSRlive.com.
Danay Suárez (and band) performing LIVE, July 10, 2015, Madiba/MIST Harlem, Afro-Latino Festival, NYC, 3rd Edition, #afrolatinofestnyc, afrolatinofestnyc.com.