She studied piano, violin and choir direction. She dreamed of classical music and love songs. But her commitment to political change in Cuba and desire to make her message reach more people drove Liettys Reyes to break out of her musical boundaries.
The 25-year-old is now sending her message to Cuban youths in their own language: Reggaeton.
“There's a government that claims to be of the people, and it manipulates my people viciously. There's a people, my brave people, fighting for freedom,” says the catchy refrain of Hay un pueblo – There’s a People – a popular hit these days in her hometown of Santiago de Cuba.
Worth noting is that the rebellious tune is gaining strength in the same city that gave rise to Fidel Castro’s revolution, beginning in 1953. Santiago de Cuba, the island’s second largest city, remains one of its poorest.
Reyes, the daughter of political dissidents, has known since childhood the many forms of official repression against human rights activists and political opponents. She said she learned to respect the opinions of others and to love art from her parents.
Her disenchantment with life in Cuba grew when she briefly left her hometown on the southeast coast of the island.
“I moved to Havana looking for better opportunities, because here in Oriente (the eastern province) there are few opportunities for young people. But that was worse,” she said. Her lack of a Havana residency permit and the shortage of jobs in the capital forced her to return to Santiago, where she started to work with José Daniel Ferrer, leader of the opposition organization Cuban Patriotic Union (UNPACU).
Through UNPACU she met La Armada – The Navy – a group of musicians made up of Ricardo Casamayor (Pucho Man), Aristey Guiver Tejeda (Crezy Man) and Geovanis Torres Chacon (Íkaro Mc). They invited her to record the song Hay un pueblo.
“It was a real challenge because I never thought I could make that kind of music,” she said. “But when you do things with love, everything comes out well.”
For Casamayor, who wrote the song, the lyrics were inspired by the reality around him. The song's success was the result of the cooperation between La Armada and UNPACU.
The lyrics reflect the opinions of a considerable part of the population, tired of the government looking for foreign enemies to blame for its own failures, the artist added.
“Enough already. I can't take one more lie. Who's to blame? He and his brother,” the song says, referring to former Cuban leader Fidel Castro and his brother Raúl, who took over the government reigns a decade ago.
The neighborhood selected for filming the video was not by chance. San Pedrito is one of Santiago's poorest areas, and like other slums around the country has been spreading instead of shrinking. Filming amid its decrepit streets with no sidewalks and homes on the edge of collapse was not easy.
“The support of the people was exceptional. As we filmed, many neighbors sang the song with us,” said Reyes.
The toughest point came when the president of the Committee for the Defense of the Revolution, the government's neighborhood watchdog organization, tried to block the recording.
“She was saying that we were counterrevolutionaries, that we were singing against Cuba,” Reyes said. “We explained to her that we were not singing against our country, but against the tyrants who mismanage it.”
Casamayor said State Security agents at one point asked him to stop supporting UNPACU, in exchange for a musician's license. “That's the way they can manipulate you, with the permit to work as a professional,” he said. Casamayor added that the license also can be obtained by bribing government officials.
The song also touches on the growing number of Cubans leaving the island, a taboo within the pro-revolutionary art world.
“Why do they leave?” Reyes and La Armada ask within the lyrics, replying that a national referendum might answer the song's many questions.
“The video is very popular. The people share it on the USB drives and DVD disks that UNPACU distributes in Santiago,” said Reyes. “But our biggest reward is that people are singing it on the streets.”
Reyes said her life has not been the same since the Reggaeton video went public.
“I didn't like that kind of music before. I saw it as something for a different kind of people. Now I not only learned to like it, but discovered its value as a tool for reaching young people.”
She now dreams of following in the footsteps of iconic Cuban singer Celia Cruz, with the same courage and ethics as the Queen of Salsa, Reyes said.
“We want to make a different kind of art in Cuba, a liberated art, to show our people our reality and promote positive values,” she said. “While they repress artists, we encourage them. And that's why more of them join us every day. “