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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