Earlier this year, thanks to the efforts of the NU administrative team and Weinberg Senior Andrew Kaplowitz, Cuban rap duo Obsesíon was able to make it to Northwestern’s campus on a travel visa. The group discussed the nature of their work at a WNUR Streetbeat weekly meeting.
The student DJs learned firsthand about the impact that the group’s socially conscious hip-hop has had in their native country, as well as the trials and tribulations of their endeavors. Alexey, one half of the urban duo, sat after the presentation and indulged us with a personal interview.
Alexey: My name is Alexey or “el tipo este” [that guy over there]. I am a part of the hip hop group Obsesión. My partner is Magia. We are from Cuba, “cubanisimo” [we are very Cuban]. In June, we will complete our twenty-first year as a group – something that makes us very proud. More so than the videos or special productions, just being together for so long is what’s most important.
Our group was created as a result of the hip hop from the late-80s and 90s. At the same time, we have learned a lot from underground libraries, from books where we could read about things that weren’t necessarily taught in school. Also, from the people – those that are in the know or who were there.
Our biggest influences, are the rapper, from Puerto Rico, Vico C who broke the “taboo” that if you do salsa, you had to sing in Spanish and if you do rap, it had to be in English. He started to break out and many people in Cuba started to realized – “I am going to do this because this guy did it.”
And there are the classics: RUN DMC, Beastie Boys, A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, Public Enemy.
Marc: Can you speak a little more about these underground libraries?
Alexey: Yeah sure, it’s simple… It’s strange, it’s strange. I started to become interested in the history of my country starting from a book like, for example, the autobiography of Malcolm X.
People say “Why do you have to read an American book to understand Cuba?” And it’s because I felt similarities with my history, and similarities that don’t exist in our schooling system, it’s a good system, but there are many information gaps. You have to search for that outside information.
I feel the black children in Cuba grow up with low self esteem or feel marginalized because there aren’t, the history they learn, the patterns to follow or people to look up to – there aren’t many. And the media doesn’t help any either. There, they offer information like in the telenovelas — the soap operas in Cuba are what people see the most, they’re classic — black people don’t have roles or if they do they’re playing infamous roles or slaves — which is part of the history, yes, but look, we have done so much otherwise.
I have a daughter, she’s three years old, and we say there needs to be an equilibrium between what she learns in school and this. I have a responsibility for her self esteem and to support her situation.
There are many people, academics and intellectuals that have demonstrated an interest in hip hop. But you see, academic discourses exist at a very high, conceptual level, that in Cuba is very far away from what is happening in reality. So the hip hop movement does a lot to bring together those ideas and we learn from their point of view as well. This type of interaction has benefited us both.
Marc: what is the difference between an artist in Cuba vs, for example, if you were in a capitalist country…?
Alexey: Well, I think I can speak more of the similarities than the differences. In the sense that, if you lose passion, you’re out. You have to have a mindset of sacrifice – if you think that ‘tomorrow I am going to triumph’, then you have to put in the effort to do so. It’s a career that requires more constant effort than any other.
I think that you have to have a greater purpose. Say someone does it with the dream of being successful, in other careers, you can do that, but with this, you have to have it in your head that hip hop is not a genre if you want to be in magazines, or be mentioned a lot, this level of success is in other sectors.
In both places, sacrifice is sacrifice. You have to be focused in what you want to be and make it happen. This is why I can talk more about the similarities. The differences are contextual, but in the end, passion applies no matter what.
Marc: What has been the most impactful thing you feel you’ve done through your music?
Alexey: Show the people, we are beautiful the way we are. That we have a very beautiful history. We have a marvelous culture. That you don’t have to fit into any model the standards teach us. That is you want to express yourself a certain way or shout then that is good because that is who we are. We have to be proud for how we are.
We have a song called “Los Pelos” [the hairs]. It talks about how our hair is pretty the way it is. Cuban women would straighten their hair or change it to be pretty. And this song came out, and many people, many women started wearing their hair natural, “super afro” and this made me very proud.
Marc: Do you have a message you’d like to bring to the States and to your listeners here?
Alexey: Be careful with the media. It’s horrible. Including, be careful with things that called themselves modernization or civilization, and new technology – because that doesn’t mean there isn’t value in being human.
I’ve heard the words here a lot, acceptance and tolerance, I think, what is more valuable is respect. I don’t hope that you accept me for entering this place, “I can tolerate you”, I think that it is more valuable to respect me, you have to respect me, in the same way I have to respect you.
Respect implies many things, a level of thought that allows you to see diversity as a goal. In this way, I will be a person, when I have your respect.
I’m glad you’ve asked me these questions, you’ve given me a lot to think about. Normally people ask me things like “What is rap to you” but not as many questions that make me look within and ask myself serious questions.
Marc: Do you want to give a shout out to other Cuban artists, with a positive message like yourselves?
Alexey: Ooh, with positive messages…. La Reina y La Real, El Padrino, [old school artists]. It’s great because there are many artists taking off that are great. El Lagarto, he’s very good. El Mesiga – lots of good people. There you have it.