VIFF 2013 Review: Viva Cuba Libre: Rap Is WAR
I won’t look the other way. The truth will find a way out.
You can’t ignore us much longer. People are beginning to wake up!
That motherfucker made this country a prison!
Put walls in front of me, I’ll knock ’em down!
If you stop my shows, I will sing on!
When you think of revolutionary voices in rap, who first comes to mind? Public Enemy? N.W.A? 2pac? How about Los Aldeanos? Okay, I know you’re asking “Los Who?” In Viva Cuba Libre: Rap Is WAR, you’ll learn all about Los Aldeanos and why they should be considered revolutionary voices.
Los Aldeanos is a rap group beloved by the people of Cuba but greatly feared by the government. Why should the government fear them? We should remember that Cuba is a communist country. The Communist Party run by Fidel Castro in the late 50’s won a brutal war and started a revolution in Cuba. For decades Fidel was the charismatic leader of Cuba firm to the communist ideal. Fidel even stood by his communist beliefs and rulings during the late 80’s-early 90’s as many countries under communist regimes including the U.S.S.R. did away with communist rule. Fidel simply declared the moves to freedom in those countries as ‘terrible, terrible things.’ Tight Communism still stands in Cuba today even after various economic sanctions against the country, even after Fidel Castro’s daughter defected in 1993 and even after Fidel transferred rule over to his brother Raul upon retirement five years ago.
Rap Is WAR shows the difficulties of living in Cuba. Most of us in North America see Havana and the rest of Cuba as a beach paradise or a place where locals like to dance the samba at night spots. Here we see the shabby living conditions Cubans have to go through in cities like Havana and Holguin City or even local villages and farms. We also see of police brutality given to people even simply for speaking freely. Some of us older people may remember how we were taught that in Russia one could be jailed for free speech. It happens in Cuba today. We also learn of young people of how limited their future is and how it appears they don’t have much of a choice in the matter. We also see a crying child at a farm who misses his mother. She’s jailed for prostitution because she can’t afford to raise her family with the meager wage she received.
One pair of people who are not afraid to speak the truth about what’s happening in Cuba is the rap duo Los Aldeanos: two young men from Havana named Aldo ‘El Aldeano’ and Bian ‘El B’. “Los Aldeanos” is Spanish for “The Villagers.” Those two friends see and live the same daily life as the people in Havana and the rest of Cuba. However they refuse to be silenced. They will speak about the struggles about daily life in Cuba. They will rap about how phony those images of Cuba on those postcards are. They will rap about the limited future Cuban people are given. They will rap commemorating those Cubans who lost their lives seeking to escape the brutal Communist life in Cuba. They aren’t even afraid to rap about what cowards Fidel, Raul and the Communist Regime of Cuba are.
Their music is very well-known across Cuba. The music is not allowed any radio airplay or sales in stores. So the duo record their songs and burn them onto discs to give to the people to hear. The music has spread by the thousands or even millions across Cuba. The people on the streets love Los Aldeanos. They dance to it. They rap along to it. Many are proud of Los Aldeanos for speaking the truth. Many feel that Los Aldeanos speak the voice of Cuba that most Cubans are afraid to speak.
However it’s not to say it comes without consequences. Los Aldeanos use their ‘underground’ distribution methods because they know that what they say in their raps is breaking the law in Cuba and can subject them to imprisonment. In fact they often play to concerts without them on the bill as promoters ‘sneak’ them on stage during intermissions. Both men of Los Aldeanos know of the potential consequences their recorded raps and their rapping in their concerts can give them and it’s a gamble they’re willing to take. In fact the documentary shows two incidents where the two men of Los Aldeanos are arrested but released shortly after. Communists, even locals who believe in the Communist regime, would consider them unpatriotic. Truth is they’re very patriotic to the point they believe in a free Cuba.
The film shows images of Havana and the rest of Cuba as their raps are in the background. The film also shows them on stage at a concert only to have the sound shut off just after they say a few lines. That doesn’t stop the audience from rapping their lyrics out loud. We also see Los Aldeanos as they record their next disc Viva Cuba Libre: a disc they believe will be the ‘death of them’ but are not afraid. We see them preparing for a big street concert but the two struggling to negotiate with concert promoters. We also see as Bian’s girlfriend is pregnant. It’s a struggle for Bian especially since her girlfriend has had bad symptoms during her pregnancy and it threatens to put the duo on hold during their anticipated big show. The big show in the square in Havana goes as planned and they both are able to avoid arrest. Bian’s girlfriend did have to go to the hospital where she gave birth to a healthy boy. Bian proudly says that he will rap for a better Cuba for his son.
The film doesn’t strictly focus on the duo as they plan for their next disc or their big concert. The film also alternates from Havana where Las Aldeanos live and perform to Holguin City. There we meet the mother of the Cruz brothers who are in prison awaiting trial for ‘anti-government activities.’ Their crime? One night they played the music of Los Aldeanos out loud from the top of their house, waved the Cuban flag and shouted out “Viva Cuba Libre!” The police were fast as they came and beat the whole family and arrested the two sons. Their house which had freedom messages painted on it was painted over by the government. The mother talks tearfully of the prison conditions her sons are going through and her fears for the youth of the country. Even the father talks of the fears he has for this country. A reminder that even playing Los Aldeanos’ music can result in criminal punishment.
It’s at the end days after Los Aldeanos gave their grand performance that they meet with the parents and hear their story. They even decide to write a rap about the injustice the brothers have been receiving. The parents give the two huge praise. Looking at that, you could say the documentary is two stories in one. The story of the rap group and the story of the two brothers who are political prisoners for loving their music.
The film is an excellent depiction of a rap band, their music, and the status quo they threaten. It let the duo tell their story and the cameraman show the images uncensored instead of a narrator speaking a point of view. There were times when the cameraman had to turn the camera off but not without showing on film the reason why. Hidden cameras were often used in certain scenes. The film is also a risk to all those involved. It’s not just Los Aldeanos but also the villagers and city people who openly speak their mind about how terrible life in Cuba is. It’s also the fans of Los Aldeanos in the street who proudly say their reasons why they love their music and how true it is. They all risk going to jail for speaking the truth or supporting Los Aldeanos. In fact there’s a message at the beginning that names have been changed and identities protected because of fear of reprisal. Even the Americans involved with the film are subject to possible arrest and are unaccredited. The cameraman even is credited as (Anonymous). Director Jesse Acevedo even risks his own freedom for the sake of getting this documentary out. No one involved with this is immune.
One of the things of this documentary is that it restores the credibility of the term ‘underground rap.’ Underground Rap was a huge phenomenon in the 80’s as young people of a generation wanted music that was untouched and devoid of ‘watering down’ from the mainstream. That’s why underground rock and rap was huge during that time. Underground rap especially took off as a phenomenon during the late 80’s thanks to the release of N.W.A’s Straight Outta Compton. It received no radio airplay but the buzz of the anger in the songs spread like wildfire and made it go quadruple-platinum. The controversy of songs like Fuck Tha Police made headlines and made young people hungrier to buy the records. Its offensiveness to adult society made young people like it even more. It was only a matter of years when gangsta rap would become a huge phenomenon that would last for almost two decades. The ‘rebel spirit’ of gangsta rap and other underground rap was catchy enough for even white middle-class or upper-class kids to get a piece of the action and don the athletic wear gangsta baggy jeans, multiple tattoos, ghetto hand-gestures African-American accents and the walking swagger. Even though it was phony, it shows how catchy the ‘rebel spirit’ of rap was. Even if they couldn’t live it, they adopted the clothes and mannerisms of it to get the feel of it.
Nowadays ‘underground rap’ appears to be a thing of the past at least in the modern world. Underground music of the past had an impact on mainstream music and has caused changes to it. Much of underground rap was able to come above ground over time. Alternative music no longer has to rely on specialized record shops or independent labels to get their stuff hear. Apple’s iTunes has become a domain where even unsigned musicians can display their music and have the creative control alternative musicians in the past could only dream of. On top of it, the ‘rebel spirit’ of rap has faded over time. When the offensiveness of Eminem and 50 Cent faded, it took the flare and fire of rap with it. Rap music is still popular with the young but its phenomenon in terms of shelling out hot new music talent and dominating youth culture has faded over these past few years. Today’s hottest new rap talents seem simply to be ‘carbon copies’ of past phenomenons or just mere entertainers compared to those of the past. In fact I’ve often said: “Rap and hip-hop has faded in popularity so much over the last five years, it’s no longer sissyish for guys to wear skinny jeans anymore.”
One thing about Los Aldeanos is that they bring back the rebel spirit of rap. It’s rightly so because they are rebels. They’re the ones trying to shake the tight grip of Castro’s Communism in Cuba with their raps and the fans that agree with all they say. They do it at a huge risk knowing that they risk imprisonment for violating the tight Communist speech laws but they’re not afraid to do it or pay whatever price comes their way. It’s like one of their lines in their raps: “Rap is war!” Very true as they are battling the regime with the power of their rhymes. It’s been commonly said that the pen is mightier than the sword. Here’s a chance for their raps to be mightier than the sword in Cuba. In fact when I myself heard the raps of Los Aldeanos, I was reminded of Public Enemy. That’s how good they are.
Viva Cuba Libre: Rap Is War is an excellent depiction of a rap group few people know about and the country they come from. Those who have a chance to see this will see why Los Aldeanos is not only great for Cuba but necessary. I can’t think of any other people in Cuba inspiring the young for the hope of a better tomorrow.
BONUS: If you want to learn more about Los Aldeanos, here are a pair of sites to go to:
Official Music Site: http://www.losaldeanosmusic.com