Black studies and Spanish double major Christine Croasdaile ’17 wrote a thesis, which examines hip-hop in socialist Cuba. Croasdaile traveled to Cuba for a second time over interterm to conduct interviews, examining how an art form of racial expression exists in a place where race is both “seen and unseen.”
Q: Who has been your advisor for the thesis, and how has their work overlapped with your research?
A: My advisor is professor Solsiree Del Moral. I think it’s a good match, especially in terms of region. The Black Studies Department is a diasporic department, so we cover the United States, Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean, and then we do diasporic studies overall. My thesis is focusing on Cuba, so it is more of a Latin America and Caribbean topic. It also deals with something very contemporary. My professor is a historian by trade, so she has helped me in terms of thinking about how my idea fits into the greater timeline of race in Cuba.
Q: Can you give me an outline of your thesis?
A: I had studied abroad in Cuba. Race is something seen and unseen there. I had also read Eduardo Bonilla-Silva’s “Racism without Racists,” which talks about color-blind racism in 21st century America. So I took his groundwork — specifically, in his appendix he has an interview of sorts where you ask questions about how race has been socialized in different places. I took that, translated it and made it relevant to Cuba. Then, I interviewed people that I knew in Cuba.
I also did research on Cuban hip-hop and how it’s a racialized art form. So, my title is “Racism Without Race,” because they believe they’re a raceless society. The question is, can Cuban hip-hop bring race back into Cuban discourse? I went to one of the bigger group’s shows, and I read a lot of literature that highlighted them and other groups. I also watched five different documentaries on Cuban hip-hop, and I read the true stories of where the groups are now. I tried to get myself acquainted with the art form and with the genre as much as possible.
Q: What was your time like in Cuba when you were abroad?
A: I actually studied abroad before coming to Amherst: once in Mexico and once in Argentina. Both times were with host families, and I saw the value in that. I knew I wanted to go to a place for my Spanish major that also had a racial standpoint — so South America and even more so, Cuba. I knew there were a couple of student resident options, but I really wanted to go with a host family.
What’s also interesting is that I had three other students from Amherst there with me: Christin Washington ’17, Lauren Horn ’17 and Robyn Farley ’17. I was in the same host family with Lauren, Christin is my best friend and I’ve known Robyn since we were in the same program before Amherst. We actually had two other black women on our trip too, so out of the eleven people in our program, six of us were black women. It was interesting for us to see the country through that standpoint. In a place racialized without discussing race and where machismo is very present, there was a … culture shock. Add on the lack of connectivity to internet, and you have a whole bunch of juniors in a space, just trying to get internships, trying to contact their schools to make sure they’re on track to graduate and you also just want to talk to your family. It was a lot of learning about patience, self-reliance and resiliency. It was also leaning into discomfort and understanding that you’re not right, and they’re not wrong but rather where can we find common ground and acknowledge differences?
Q: How did the interview process over interterm go? How did you choose your interviewees and what was the most difficult part of it?
A: I was afforded money from the Alpha Delta Phi fund to go back to do research over interterm.
The majority of people I interviewed were people I knew. I interviewed 22 people, and if I didn’t know them from my first visit there, they knew someone that I knew.
They already knew I was interviewing them about Cuban hip-hop, and I made it explicitly clear that the first part was on their life and the perspective of race and the second part was hip-hop. When any person talks about race, it’s an awkward, uncomfortable feeling, because race is a social construct that many people would like to say doesn’t have a bearing on how society portrays people, but it is ultimately something that is used against people all the time, seen and unseen, regardless of where you are. Whether or not your country is built on it, whether it be slavery or not, it’s still there. Tie in the U.S. relationship with Cuba and you have a whole other thing. Tie in that I’m a Spanish major, but I’m black and my family is from Jamaica, and that’s a whole other thing. In my methodologies, I make sure to talk about an insider-outside status when doing a critical ethnography, because you can feel like you have so much of an “in” with somebody and even then, their true colors can come out.
Q: Did you go into the interviews with certain questions or leave it more open-ended?
A: Everyone was asked the same questions. It was a two-part questionnaire. The first part was based off of Bonilla-Silva and the second part was my design where I asked people their own musical preferences, and what they know about hip-hop. I also asked whether or not their state should be in charge of hip-hop, because coming to a socialist country like Cuba, everything is institutionalized automatically. So Cuban hip-hop was originally its own underground scene (and it still has an underground scene). In 2002, the Cuban Rap Agency was formed in response to its growing capacity. There was already a rap festival being held in this neighborhood called Alamar, which was a black neighborhood that coincidentally, or I guess not coincidentally, resembled housing projects in the South Bronx. That’s where hip-hop was born.
What’s interesting about Alamar as the birthplace of hip-hop in Cuba is the resiliency. Black Cubans were moved into Alamar — out from the eastern into the western part of Cuba — because there wasn’t anything out there and part of the socialist ideology after the revolution was to get everyone housing. So, they created Alamar, which was supposed to be its own gated community of sorts that had all its own amenities, like education. But it didn’t have higher education. When they moved black people into this area, black people tried to recreate for themselves. One of the resilient things they did was create radio signals out of chicken wires and different parts. Because the Alamar housing projects used to be where Soviet workers lived, they were really tall, so the black Cubans could use the wires to get [a] signal from Miami, and that’s how they first started hearing music. Then, once people that were able to get into the country started bringing them music, the hip-hop scene opened up and exploded.
In my conclusion, I look at the state of music now. The height of Cuban hip-hop was in the ’80s and ’90s. I met a hip-hop group that said they were one of the most prominent hip-hop groups, that they have been doing hip-hop in Cuba for twenty years, but I wasn’t hearing hip-hop in the streets. I was hearing reggaeton, I was hearing salsa. Why is it that this art form that is for the people is not for the people? I explore that through thinking about how people do or do not talk about race and try to avoid talking about race. And then, what happens when I engage them with certain examples of hip-hop? I showed them two videos and let them read two sets of lyrics and had them respond and see if they’ve ever experienced anything like what the artists were saying. Do they agree with it? Would they listen to it? How does this align with their everyday conversations? You can see certain people are just turned off by it. Nobody is really writing about race in Cuba now, because nobody is talking about it.
Also, with hip-hop being an art form at the end of the day, people were not getting paid that much for it. The average person in Cuba gets paid 24 dollars a month, and that’s like a doctor. Imagine if you’re making hip-hop that’s very racialized in a place that says, “We’re not black, we’re not white, we’re Cuban.” You’re not getting paid for your craft. A lot of the hip-hop artists have either disbanded, are doing different things or have left the country all together and are creating music outside the country.
Q: Is there a Cuban hip-hop scene in the U.S.?
A: We know Pitbull. Pitbull is not Cuban hip-hop. He makes reggaeton. In one of the documentaries I watched, he comments on how if these artists had extra support, they’d be amazing.
Back in the early 2000s, the Cuban Rap Agency had a magazine called “Movimiento” that got closed down. But there was a collective called Black August and its purpose was to spread hip-hop all around the world and to support the arts. Black August included people like Mos Def, Common, Talib Kweli, Dead Prez, people that are pioneers of black conscious hip-hop. They were going to Cuba to be mentors to these guys and to perform at their festivals. That’s not happening anymore. So, I’m also thinking about the global hip-hop community. There are so many versions of hip-hop all over the place. There’s hip-hop in Jamaica. There’s hip-hop in Africa. There’s grime in the UK. So it’s not only hip-hop on the local level, but also the global art form and what the conversation is within all of them.
It’s unfortunate that the social standings and structures in Cuba prevent them from talking about race openly. Marx says that class-based measures should ameliorate all other things — that resources that address the class divide can help fix all other crises, and that race is a crisis.
In my conclusion, what I’m saying, because I’m blunt, and always will be blunt, is basically “somos cubanos,” which is a trope that says “We’re all Cuban. We don’t look at this.” It’s sort of like “All lives matter.” To create an art form such as Cuban hip-hop that celebrates your whole self is basically saying “Black Lives Matter.” The only difference is in Cuba, it’s punishable or criminal by state.
Q: What was the most difficult part about writing your thesis?
A: I think what’s been the most difficult thing in writing my thesis is that transcribing, translating and analyzing the responses is emotionally taxing. To sit there and know that I’ve made a lot of great relationships with these people, but they’ve either internalized racism or never thought about it or are not allowed to express it. I heard things that to us don’t make sense. At one point I thought it was me that had the problem, but they’re like, “black people are racist too.” So just understanding their concept of race was hard. At one point I was thinking maybe we have an exceptional view and think we know race more than anyone else, but it can’t be that way. There’s no way. It’s called “autocomplejo” which basically means like you’re self-loathing; you’re the reason for your problems. To hear that from blacks, whites, mestizo [and] mulatto alike, it’s a totally different way to think.
I’m blessed to know that I was able to engage in a country so deeply. I think one of my biggest limitations was that I was in Havana, which is the capital. It’s mostly white and has a lot of tourists, but if I were ever to have the opportunity to do some sort of racial study or project in Cuba again, I would love to hear what they think in the eastern part of the region, which is more black, so Santa Clara, Santiago or Camagüey.
Q: How has your thesis surprised you?
A: Critical ethnography is probably the worst thing you could give to someone who’s a perfectionist, because you think you know what you’re going to get, and then you get all these interviews and realize it’s not what you thought. So how has it changed? Well, originally I thought a lot more about how my secondary sources would find their way into my writing. But, the nature of my writing is more like thought processing. The literature that I actually read was people’s musings on Cuban society as a whole, or they’re doing surveys on the hip-hop scene. I’m taking the hip-hop scene and applying it to Cuba.
I was very hopeful in the beginning. I thought Cuban hip-hop could bring race back into Cuban discourse, and it could just be the examples I gave, but there’s a respectability politics tied up in everything, just as there is here. Young people that are afraid of the state or just don’t want to be implicated will not be forthcoming in my recordings with them.
So even though the first time I went there I could’ve had a full conversation with them about how race happens, as soon as I put the recording in front of them, it was done.
Also, my whole idea as to what I thought my thesis was going to bring me and how it would make me feel has changed. I am so grateful for the process, and I know how it goes, but it has been a whirlwind. It’s very reflective for me in terms of knowing what I’m most invested in. I’m not invested in being an academic. I can do academia, but I’m not an academic. I see myself as a social justice, activist person, and that’s what my writing ended up being. It’s a very activist art form I picked, and I went out of my way and engaged with people. If anything, my thesis will be a reflection of the person I am and how I’ve come to know myself. And I think that’s what I need to come to terms with — my thesis is not like anybody else’s, because I am not like anyone else.
My thesis also showed me how the two academic disciplines that I’ve chosen here as well as all the extracurricular activities I’ve been involved in have truly influenced how I spend my time here, and I wouldn’t change a thing. Out of all the classes I took for black studies, I know that my focus has always been about the movement of movement.
Overall, my thesis has allowed me to see who I am as a person. I’m still a perfectionist, knowing that it’s the most imperfect and perfect piece of writing I’ve ever written. And to hate it and to love it and wrestle with it, it’s a lot.