Where Hip Hop Fits in Cuba's Anti-Racist Curriculum

The country’s education leaders confront deep-seated discrimination in the classroom through rap.

Alexandre Meneghini / Reuters

I was sitting with the Afrocentric rapstress Magia López Cabrera in her modest Havana walk-up in June when Cuba’s prominent black-history scholar Tomás Fernández Robaina showed up for a café con leche. Her tiny living room was filled with African folk art and images of women with 1970s-style Afros. It felt like the Cuban equivalent of Cornel West dropping in on Queen Latifah. Two nights later at an anniversary celebration for López’s rap-duo Obsesión, Fernández Robaina sat discussing racial profiling in the U.S. with Roberto Zurbano Torres, widely known in the U.S. for his writing on Cuban racial issues.

Since arriving in Havana several weeks before to investigate Cuba’s work to eliminate racism, I had discovered a collaborative, tight-knit movement that’s gone largely unpublicized in the U.S., including in its six-time-zone, decentralized academic world. In Havana, community artists like Lopez, academics like Fernández, and members of the National Ministry of Education are collectively exploring how to integrate Afro-Cuban history and related gender concerns into the primary-through-university school system. It’s hard to imagine a U.S. parallel, such as Secretary of Education John King officially asking teachers to teach students a song like “Le Llaman Puta” (They Call Her Whore)—López’s critique of how Afro-Cuban women are driven into prostitution—to fulfill the Common Core standards.

Efforts to combat racism in Cuba—which is widely believed to be majority nonwhite—through education have emerged quietly over the last several years. The National Ministry of Education officially leads the way through the Aponte Commission, where Fernández has served, exploring how to remove traces of racially denigrating language and imagery from, and include more Afro-Cuban history in, school textbooks. But the bold efforts are coming from below. A few semi-independent universities in Havana, and regional centers like Matanzas, Santiago de Cuba, and Camagüey, are taking the initiative, along with grassroots educators and activists involved in a hip-hop movement spearheaded by Obsesión.

These educational shifts belie the stereotypical image of hovering Cuban authorities appropriating schools to baldly transmit socialist ideology and shut down social criticism. The U.S. press has historically maintained an ambivalent dual narrative when it comes to Cuba. Recent storylines note the promise of the American flag above the U.S. embassy in Havana and American Airlines flying direct from New York beginning this fall. But a darker narrative depicts continued repression under Fidel Castro’s lingering presence. Education is often assigned the second narrative, but that’s not what I found on the ground. While I did read some dry 10th-grade history texts portraying the U.S. as an imperialist aggressor and was slightly unnerved by overzealous, uniformed fourth-graders in Camagüey Province reciting Fidel quotes in the yard, generally, I found schools to be relaxed. There were engaging communities where I openly talked about social concerns, including those like racism that showed the government in an unfavorable light, and even designed lessons comparing Cuban and U.S. racial dynamics.

Cuba has historically been slow to publicly confront its deep racism—largely because it has almost mythologized its supposed racial unity. Anecdotal evidence suggests that Cubans quote their post-racial nationalist hero José Martí more often than they do Fidel or the Marxist revolutionary Che Guevara. They often cite Martí’s 1893 statement that “Man is more than white, more than mulatto, more than black.” Inspired by Martí and other nationalist predecessors, the revolutionary government after 1959 impressively reduced racial economic disparities. But it became absolutist, announcing in 1962 that racial issues had been fully resolved and then closing off public debate. The silence was reinforced by what the government perceived as the need to prevent internal tensions from disrupting national unity in the face of ongoing U.S. aggression.

Alejandro de la Fuente, a Cuban-educated professor of Latin American history and African American studies at Harvard, told me that the Cuban government “expected racism to wither away once its perceived structural bases were dismantled. It did not.” While Cuba, according to the U.S. State Department’s Overseas Security Advisory Council, has no ethnic violence that compares with the police killings of young black men in the U.S., the Aponte Commission has acknowledged the reality of police racial profiling, a tourist industry that disproportionately hires whites, and a national entertainment media in which Afro-Cubans are underrepresented.

University professors, including the political scientists Esteban Morales Domínguez at the University of Havana and Maikel Pons Giralt at the University of Camagüey, are encouraging classroom discussions on race. In a lesson that could be taught in almost any U.S. undergraduate class, Pons had groups analyze details of a five-minute fictional film depicting a black male teen being racially profiled in a store. As the boy scans shelves for medicine to aid a sick mother, we see the stereotypical images in the mind of a suspicious grocer and elderly white woman. Group analyses, which I later read and discussed with their professor, were sound, if slightly superficial—perhaps a global pattern among freshmen undergraduates. A representative response was “In this case, the young man is misjudged by everyone, while the white woman, who has a shared trust with the vendor,” is the one who actually robs the store. The government allows the university to give Pons the freedom to design such lessons.

Many primary schools address racial prejudice by talking with parents about how to engage with their children. In a 2014 study, the University of Toronto education professor Arlo Kempf showed how primary-school teachers in Cuba make family visits, helping parents talk about racial prejudice with their children. This is a relatively common, though not an officially mandated, practice; about a third of teachers make such visits.

Beyond the classroom walls, several hip-hop groups and grassroots activists have openly developed an anti-racism curriculum, signaling the government’s willingness to permit public discussion of racial issues. Some hip-hop groups are even registered with a national Cuban Rap Agency. The key community-outreach organization is Red Barrial Afrodescendiente (Afrodescendent Barrio Network), a group of Havana women who hold meetings to discuss racial realities and provide hands-on workshops for families. The leader, Hildelisa Leal Díaz, said the meetings give women a language to describe a racism they had never consciously named. In the Black Doll project, named for a José Martí short story, mothers and their children make paper-maché figures that are sometimes Afrocentric, such as the Yoruba Santería deity Yemaya.

Many artists focus more on children. Working with poets and visual artists, Obsesión’s López and husband Alexey Rodriguez Mola have done extensive anti-prejudice education in primary schools. They described one workshop for fifth- and sixth-graders that explored prejudice through fables. “In one story, there was a cockroach who was supposed to be ugly and we talked about why we separate people into beautiful and ugly,” López said. “Some of the students actually laughed at my natural hair. They’ve taken in the message that straight hair is better.”

“We don’t impose these ideas on the students,” Rodriguez said. “We want to help them ask questions about prejudice.”

The couple carries those ideas beyond classrooms through their music, too. In “Víctimas,” Obsesión depicts police racial profiling, and in “Los Pelos” the group celebrates natural black hair. The “Los Pelos” video opens with López echoing the black-doll theme, darkening the skin of a white doll found in a storefront and then calling out, “Yo te enseño” (I teach you) to convert a Havana street into a collective open-air classroom. While she and Rodriguez walk the barrio announcing that “stretching your hair makes you a liar,” a crowd trails repeating the enseñso chant.

López layers feminism into the anti-racism message in the “La Llaman Puta” video. Rapping as an African-clothed godsister, she suggests how historically rooted racial-economic disparities, institutional racial discrimination, and individual prejudice combine to marginalize black women.

De la Fuente said that “the hip-hop movement has played a leading role in promoting public debates about race, discrimination, and racism in Cuban society.” Morales said that “groups exemplified by Obsesión can reach beyond the classroom to the street, and in particular, to young people.”

In Cuba since the 1960s, revolutionary ideology has emphasized a national unity that transcends race and discouraged racial identification. The average Afro-Cuban on the street today will often name being Cuban first, and black, mulatto, or white second. Cuba’s national racial identity is confounded by the fact that there is no accurate way to measure its demographics, especially when using the blurring mixed-race category of “mulatto,” which in Cuba is interchangeable with the term “mestizo,” a self-selected label easily applicable to more than half the island. While the National Office of Statistics stated in 2012 that Cuba is 36 percent nonwhite, Morales claims a more accurate figure is between 60 and 70 percent, largely because many Cubans suffer an internalized racism that makes them publicly deny blackness. I observed this subtle negation one night along the seaside Malecón when a roving guitarista approached the dark-skinned Afro-Cuban poet, hip-hop writer, and activist Carmen Gonzalez Chacon, and tried to flatter his way into 5 pesos by serenading the “beautiful mulatta.” She quickly corrected his misidentification.

But that’s changing, and contemporary Afrocentrism has been a collective coming-out. The spiritual core of the anti-racism work in Cuba in the last decade is an Afrocentric awakening reminiscent of the 1970s black-power movement in the United States that challenged the integrationist ethic of the preceding civil-rights era. Many Cubans now practice Santeria, a spiritual tradition based in Yoruba mythology. Gonzalez, for example, liberally sprinkles her poetry with Yoruba phrasings. At a three-day Afro-Cuban cultural gathering headlined in June by Obsesión’s hip hop-jazz performance with the pianist Roberto Fonseca, a centerpiece was a seminar on Afro-Cuban hairstyles that was followed by a parade of young black girls proudly displaying their natural hair.

Fernández, who presented at the gathering, expressed frustration, however, about work on the government side of things. He said the bureaucratic Aponte Commission and the National Education Ministry have been admirably committed to racially sensitive curricular change, but that they have implemented little at the classroom level.

“There are classrooms where racism is being combatted, including at the primary level, where some teachers talk about racial vocabulary. But we don’t see anything yet that shows a real change at the national level,” Fernandez said. De la Fuente added, “you will not find a serious discussion in any of the textbooks about race and discrimination, nor a vocabulary to describe it.”

The professor Morales claims that a new curriculum recognizing Afro-Cuban contributions in history is slowly being implemented. He has written, however, that without stronger steps there is a “dangerous dichotomy between school education and social reality. What stays out of our schools stays out of our culture.”

Obsesión’s Rodriguez said hip hop could provide an inroad. “It would be a significant step if hip hop were part of the Cuban educational program,” he said. This might seem unlikely given the conservative approach of the Ministry of Education, but the channel is there for dialogue. Lopez has been the president of Cuba’s Rap Agency, and government education officials and activists in Havana have ongoing communication.

The evolution and social dynamics of Cuba’s fledgling anti-racism education work echo similar work in the U.S. over recent decades. Without any national curricular guidance, U.S. educators, like their Cuban counterparts, have created anti-racism teaching at the ground level of districts and individual schools. Collaboration across the Straits of Florida could be powerful because Cuba’s contrasting racial paradigm offers an opportunity for the U.S. to examine its racial realities through a different lens. Currently, many U.S. students know virtually nothing about race in Cuba, although Cubans hear about the U.S.’s more high-profile news, including fatal police profiling and the Black Lives Matter response.

As the debate on lifting the Cuban embargo continues into the next presidential term, Congress might recognize that the embargo affects more than commerce. Schools can’t exchange materials: Cuba cannot buy any of the U.S.’s anti-racism curricular materials or African American and Latino literature.

I talked to Cuba’s national director of history instruction, Miriam Egea Alvarez, about great African American novelists who illuminate racial realities, such as Langston Hughes and Richard Wright. When I pulled out my Spanish translation of Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, she said, “We’d like these, but we can’t get them with the embargo.”

I’d like to imagine President Obama having coffee in Magia López’s living room after he’s freed up in January and talking with Egea and other Cuban activists about how to promote educational exchange for social justice between the two countries. I’m sure he’d be interested. I remember him saying once his favorite novel is Morrison’s Song of Solomon.