A House Appropriations subcommittee recently approved a spending bill which contains provisions that would impact people-to-people travel to Cuba. The bill has been dubbed the “Jay-Z, Beyoncé Bill” by Rep. Jose Serrano (D-N.Y.), a member of the House Appropriations Committee who opposes the provision, as it’s timing appears in response to the kerfuffle caused by the celebrity couple’s travel to Cuba in April.

BloqueoIt’s time to end the unfair and unjust travel ban to Cuba!

Eligibility for travel to Cuba has fluctuated during the Obama Administration, with dozens of people-to-people licenses granted in the last two and a half years, allowing U.S. citizens greater ability to learn more about the island. But this bill would threaten to eliminate people-to-people travel and once again restrict travel to Cuba to educational exchanges involving academic study related to a degree program.

Take action to let President Obama know that he took a positive step in liberalizing travel regulations and he needs not only DEFEND these measures but also EXPAND them and grant general licenses for all categories of travel. Your voice will ensure that the White House stays squarely focused on moving U.S. policy towards Cuba out of the Cold War and towards a brighter future that, at the very least, fosters people-to-people ties.

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Cuban Rap Artist Kokino. Photo by Yordis Villalon.

Cuban Rap Artist Kokino. Photo by Yordis Villalon.

While the media storm in response to Beyonce and Jay-Z’s recent trip to Cuba has begun to settle down, those who are most directly affected by U.S. foreign policy in Cuba- Cubans living on the island- continue to feel the repercussions of a conversation, that at least in the U.S. media, excludes their voices.

Kokino, a Havana born rapper, spoke with us recently to share his perspective on legal travel to Cuba and the motivation behind the freestyle rap he released in response to both Jay-Z and Pitbull’s versions of “Open Letter,” the raps that addressed criticisms of the trip shortly afterwards.

Kokino, part of the Cuban rap duo Anonimo Consejo, has been an integral part of the underground rap scene in Havana and is a founding member of the Cuban Rap Agency. The duo is widely respected for their explosive power and socially minded lyrics. Kokino now lives in the United States and recently released a solo album, “El Akokan.” In a recent stop in Oakland, CA, Kokino explained the intent behind his rap and his take on the politics between the two countries.

(This interview was conducted in Spanish and translated into English by the author.)

R: What inspired you to write the response to Jay-Z and Pitbull’s version of “Open Letter?”

Kokino: Well first of all I’m a big fan of Jay-Z. I didn’t write the song to defend him though, he’s so big he doesn’t need anyone to defend him. (I’m responding to) The politics, they’re s**t. Politicians on both sides are making a lot of money, they live well, but everyone else… This is a game between two countries.

R: Why did you target Pitbull?

K: I don’t have anything against Pitbull personally. But I wanted to ask him, if you identify as a Cuban, why haven’t you done anything for Cubans? “Cuba” is a word that sells, internationally. But if Pitbull wanted to help Cuba, why doesn’t he give ten thousand dollars to the Cuban rap agency to support us, for instance? So to Pitbull I say, really help me if you’re my brother. But what rappers do is they talk about an issue that sells, and Cuba sells. That’s what bothered me about what Pitbull said.

R: Can you tell me more about these different versions of Cuba?

Cuban Rap Duo Anonimo Consejo. Photo credit Havana Cultura.

Cuban Rap Duo Anonimo Consejo. Photo credit Havana Cultura.

K: When I first came to the United States I met an aunt in Miami who had left Cuba in the Mariel times. I had never met her before, and she came to get me at the airport. It was a very nice experience, that’s when I learned that blood is thicker than water. But you know, she had this idea of what Cuba was like that she got from Miami and mainstream media. I had to be like, “Tia, you can’t listen to this stuff anymore, nobody is dying of hunger (in Cuba).” Things are hard but you can hustle, you can do what it takes to survive. There’s really good things and really bad things in both countries. I want my song to reach people because I want them to see this reality. Those who talk about Cuba should be those who live there. It’s like I say in my song, “one has to be present/live where we live/be in the heat/with the electricity blackouts, with the pain.” Talking about bad stuff sells, but there’s good stuff too. For instance community. Here, why don’t neighbors know each other?

R: What is your stance on the embargo and the travel ban?

K: It’s a pile of crap. I have to be honest I’ve never really understood the travel ban well. And there’s even a limit on the amount of money (legal travelers) can spend everyday? Doesn’t make sense to me. People should be able to travel where they want. Nobody else cares about traveling to Cuba except for them (Miami legislators.) Like I said it’s like a game between these two countries, and it’s the people who end up paying.

R: What is the ultimate message you are trying to get across with your song?

K: Again, it’s that I want people to talk about reality, what people really live through. As a rapper I choose to speak to my personal experiences, not just sell an image. And the U.S. government- that is what they have done, they have sold an image of Cuba.

Thanks to Kokino for sharing your thoughts with us!

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Take-ActionHelp us tell Beyonce, Jay-Z, and others with influence to join us, the people, in asking President Obama to end the embargo, lift the travel ban, and get Cuba off the list of State Sponsors of Terrorism. Share this post widely in your community by email, Facebook, and Twitter.

mainFurthering the media frenzy following Jay-Z and Beyonce’s recent People-to-People cultural exchange to Cuba, a conversation has sprung up about travel to Cuba, through recorded and remixed lyrical songs.

Jay-Z started off with the first track “Open Letter.” In this freestyle rap, Jay-Z responds to some of the criticisms of the trip: “politicians never did sh-t for me/except lie to me, distort history.” In regards to the “legality” of traveling to Cuba he responds: “wanna give me jail time and a fine/Fine, let me commit a real crime.” Artist Common later contributed to a remix of the Jay-Z track, speaking to the political nature of discussion about Cuba, calling Cuba “a political triangle, Bermuda” and again states “it’s so political, I don’t trust figures.”

Cuban American artist Pitbull also crafted a response. While professing many sentiments common to the Miami anti-Castro establishment, such as hoping for a “free” Cuba, Pitbull also states: “I ain’t here to hold a grudge,” and tells Jay-Z and Beyonce not to worry about the trip, saying “it’s on me.”

Cuban Rap and R&B artist Danay Suarez

Cuban Rap and R&B artist Danay Suarez.

Importantly, Havana born Cuban artists Danay Suarez and Kokino also responded, speaking to their experiences as Cubans who have grown up on the island. Danay paints the Cuba she knows in complex terms where Cubans are “victimas de una libertad incompleta/victims of an incomplete liberty” and there are “millones de profesionales sin gloria/millions of professionals without glory.” She also sings that Havana is a very special place, “hay pocos sitios como la habana, se hace contacto directo con las personas/there are few places like Havana, where you make direct contact with the people,” and is “mi lugar preferido/my favorite place.”

Cuban rap artist Kokino. Photo by Tom Ehrlich.

Cuban rap artist Kokino. Photo by Tom Ehrlich.

Kokino takes on a fairly aggressive stance, criticizing Pitbull and by extension the Miami establishment, claiming “tu no has hecho nada para los cubanos/you haven’t done anything for Cubans.” He also expresses the sentiment that to understand Cuba, one must live the experience: “hay que estar presente/vivir donde vivimos/estar en la caliente/con apagones, con mas dolores,” translated as “one has to be present/live where we live/be in the heat/with the electricity blackouts, with the pain.” While acknowledging hardships in Cuba, Kokino expresses his own style of patriotism as well, saying “yo vine a comerme yuma/el yuma no me va a comer a mi,” translated as “I came to eat the U.S./the U.S. is not going to eat me.”

While the artists have different backgrounds and perspectives in regards to Cuba, common themes emerge. First, none of the artists, including the more conservative Pitbull, question the validity of traveling to Cuba or see it as an act that should be illegal as Miami hardliners would like to maintain. They also reference the role of politics in distorting U.S.-Cuba relations and in influencing representations of Cuba in the U.S. media. Ultimately, the media attention given to the trip and the commentary and questions raised by these artists allow the Cuba dialogue to move beyond the choir and to the general public. Together, we can amplify this conversation and make sure our voices are heard to demand a more sane and just policy towards Cuba! Will you help us spread the word?

Take-ActionTake Action!

Help us tell Beyonce, Jay-Z, and others with influence to join us, the people, in asking President Obama to end the embargo, lift the travel ban, and get Cuba off the list of State Sponsors of Terrorism. Share this post widely in your community by email, Facebook, and Twitter.

Photo shared under Creative Commons license.

Photo shared under Creative Commons license.

If you have been following the news lately you’ve seen that musicians Beyonce and Jay-Z created a media storm by recently participating in a People-to-People cultural exchange in Cuba. The couple has faced criticism from Miami lawmakers who first questioned the legality of the trip, and then after confirming the legal status of the exchange have continued to criticize the nature and “validity” of People-to-People programs in general.

It’s time for us, the people, to say “No More!” to media distortion and lies about Cuba, and to continue demanding saner U.S. policy towards the island. We can’t allow a vocal minority of congress people to continue to sway the national dialogue about Cuba–they harbor hardline views that are not shared by the majority of their fellow Cuban Americans or Americans of any background.

So join us in first thanking Beyonce and Jay-Z for engaging with Cuba and its peoples, and help us urge them to tell President Obama to:

Together we can work to end outdated tactics to create more sane and just policy.

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