The immigration experience served as the inspiring force behind a new album by Bian Oscar Rodríguez, better known in the Cuban hip-hop scene as El B.
He co-founded Los Aldeanos along with Aldo Rodríguez Baquero (no relation). The duo rose to become one of Cuba’s most popular underground hip-hop groups in the past 15 years, with more than 30 albums laced with powerful, controversial messages critical of the Cuban government and social problems on the island.
Two years ago, after being censored in Cuba, Rodríguez decided to try his luck in Miami with a solo career.
His new album, titled “Luz” (Light) and produced by his own ZenStar Productions company, “is like a new beginning, a new stage of my life,” the artist said.
Although the album contains songs about human feelings, Rodríguez has not renounced his characteristic direct style of calling things as he sees them and reflecting on Cuban society.
“I am Cuban; I can’t disconnect myself, even if I wanted to, from the Cuban reality and I talk about these issues because I’m interested,” Rodríguez said by way of introducing his song “
Emigrante” (Emigrant), dedicated to previous and current exoduses of Cubans to the United States.
“In the midst of these supposed changes that are occurring with the opening of relations between the United States and Cuba, that everything is supposedly good, now more than ever Cubans are eager to leave the island by all possible means — by sea, crossing borders, however,” he said.
The issue of immigration is close to his heart, not only because of his own experience, but also because of/ fromfriends who have boarded flimsy rafts or traveled across thousands of miles by land to make it to the United States.
“I am concerned because more and more people are risking their lives and I can’t be detached, no matter how much people think that once you’re out of Cuba it’s not the same. For me, what is important is what I feel, what I think and representing my people wherever I am,” Rodríguez said.
Like with any other immigrant, these past two years have put him to the test, leaving behind family, friends and customs. In Miami, he has found a city in which many cultures converge and experienced the warmth of a Cuban community “that has treated me well.”
But his heart remains on the island.
“What I miss most about Cuba is my son,” he said. “My son is still there; my wife and I are in the process of bringing him over here with us. I miss my family, my friends and, of course, Cuba; it’s my homeland and wherever I am, it’s going to be there.”
The rapper has found a loyal audience among Cubans who listened to his music on the island and now live in the United States. El B also is well known in Latin America, especially in Colombia and Venezuela, where Los Aldeanos built an audience of followers of their underground rap.
However, he said, “nothing compares with the energy of a hip-hop performance in Cuba, which is done practically without any resources and people pack the arena and feel what you are singing about.”
Rodríguez is grateful to fans from the island who comment on his Facebook and Instagram accounts, connecting to the internet via wifi spots set up by the government.
“There are people who pay for their wifi connections and set aside a little bit of that time to get on my page and comment, and I appreciate that very much because I know how economically hard it is to get a card and do that,” said the rapper. “But music always gets to the people. I released an album and within two days it was playing in Cuba.”
The reason rappers and many artists leave the country is “cultural politics,” he said. “Artists can’t be artists; they have to be artists with a politically correct message, according to the dictates of the Ministry of Culture and the government, and nobody wants to live tied to those things. Nobody wants to have their creations committed to something they don’t really believe in. That is why people leave and why it is so difficult to grow artistically with those restraints.”
Book author and scholar Sujatha Fernandes said the rap genre has served as an outlet for dissent, particularly among the island’s younger black population.
“Hip-hop culture has provided a vehicle for black youth to address important social and political issues of racism and widening inequalities on the island, and to make their diverse voices heard at a time of marked changes in Cuban society,” said Fernandes, professor at the University of Sidney and author of the book Cuba Represent!
But emigration has relocated the production of Cuban hip-hop, which in recent years has felt the effect of both the departure of its main representatives from the island and the co-opting and institutionalization of those still there who claimed to be “independent.”
El B’s new production illustrates the fluidity that characterizes today’s Cuban music: “There are many people outside who are representing stronger than many inside the island. There are people inside who are representing hard but can only do shows or presentations outside of Cuba. What I believe in is truth and hard work.”
At the same time, Rodríguez expressed skepticism about the effect the closer ties between the U.S. and Cuba could have on the local hip-hop scene, which used to attract many foreigners.
“The same thing is happening that always happens, at least with rap: Foreigners who go to Cuba, either from the United States or anywhere, go to film artists, do interviews, make documentaries and take photos for themselves. None of that benefits the artists,” Rodríguez said. “That happened to me many times. You are there with no place to perform, no way to promote your music and then someone shows up and you see that as the opportunity of your life. Then these materials are sold to television channels, or sold to YouTube channels and rappers don’t get anything.”
Rodríguez said that he is now receiving legal advice to regain control of his music and expose people whose names are registered to songs he composed for Los Aldeanos. While in Cuba, Los Aldeanos, who could not record in state-run studios, produced their music in home studios and would distribute it themselves, usually for free. With his new production company, ZenStar, the rapper dreams of achieving success and helping other talented artists from the island.
Meanwhile, his music does not waver from encouraging social change in Cuba.
“That is very difficult — to get people to rise up in a country that is sick with a sense of apathy, fear and conformity,” Rodríguez said. “But I’ll continue to work on that.”