I Breathe Hip-Hop: It was Sacredly Granted to Cuba by Olofi

It’s too real…
How y’all feel out there?
Let me know if it’s real out there.
“Survival Test”, J-Dilla, 2003

Like great thinkers, I have a mission:
hip-hop is the labour of life,
It is why I eat, fight, and live.
I breathe hip-hop.
Which was sacredly granted to Cuba by Olofi
Let’s put our hands up to elevate it,
hip-hop is the calling of human consciousness
It alerts you and awakens you.
Ask your question, kid.
I got the answer.
“Hiphop y Pensamiento”, Papi El Grande, 2019

I first fell in love with hip-hop back in 1979. It was at my aunt Consuelo’s house listening to Sugarhill Gang’s Rapper’s Delight on a Grandes Éxitos (greatest hits) cassette she had brought from Spain. Growing up, visiting her house was always the opportunity to listen to Chic, Donna Summers and lots of Barry White. So, when I heard Sugarhill’s biggest-ever hit, I was hooked by what sounded like a sudden but intensely captivating turn in la musica negra norteamericana (black popular music).

In this commentary, I argue that falling in love with hip-hop is a cyclical process occurring over recursive waves,[1] each a qualitative leap driven by a burning need to become the culture. A global phenomenon, the spark shared in hip-hop’s viral experience produces a type of militant loyalty in those who fall for it comparable to how, as a species, humans form productive, long-term, committed relationships and grasp the purpose of life itself.

Let us take a step back. Also, back in 1979, when the music of The Whispers rocked Havana’s black house parties into a frenzy, all of us vibed with, And Beat Goes On because, unconsciously, as hip-hop heads to be, we had been born ready to become hip-hop. Far from any idyllic frameworks, I know commercial hip-hop’s close ties to consumer culture and neoliberalism. And how rap music serves in the ideologic apparatus of US hegemonic power. The latter is the reason for some of its echoes in Cuba and elsewhere. Yet, Fab 5 Freddy and KRS One’s comments in a recent The Reid Out interview celebrating hip-hop’s 50 anniversary, make it clear: “The business is never going to be bigger than the culture.” Hip-hop’s global reach and why we fall in love with it requires narratives outside its misuses to serve US imperialism and more along the lines of a shared spark of subversion.

In this direction, Jarvis Givens’ work on Carter G. Woodson and the implications of fugitive pedagogy in the era of Jim Crow vis-à-vis Grandmaster Flash and Furious Five’s The Message; KRS One’s Edutainment; Public Enemy’s, Fight The Power; Bettina Love, Chris Emdin, Marinieves Alba and Martha Diaz’s wave in hip-hop education appear as a case in point. Givens’ assertion that ‘the objective of black education, at its highest calling, was and continues to be inherently subversive’ must be understood as applicable to hip-hop, the manifesto of its essence and the symbolic culture dispensed by and for brutalized, marginalized, oppressed, and racialized people; to what, how and why we fall in love with it. How else would we explain that in Havana, young women like Instincto, Mariana MC, Trueno Aguilera, Magia MC, Krudxs, or La Rey y la Real could pick up a mic to lead rap cubano’s Afro-Feminist wave without any cultural knowledge of the English language.

Boricua emcees like Vito C have been significant influences for Spanish-speaking raperos. Yet, centring knowledge, hip-hop’s fifth element, its circulation and transference as music, we may need to ask; what else is shared in being influenced by someone who looks just like us? The belief that the next wave of ‘artists’ is merely following a model of socio-economic mobility is short-sighted. Consider Lakeyta Bonnette’s illustration of how rap music serves as a vehicle for the expression and advancement of the political thoughts of urban youths.[2] Consider Tanya Saunders’ work on rap cubano and how its ideological relationship to Black cultural movements aligned it with a broader challenge to Western hemispheric coloniality.[3] Doing so allows us to contend that hip-hop’s sonic, lyrical, graphic and gestural aesthetics is a system of hidden messages, conspiracy theories notwithstanding. And that falling in love with hip-hop via Rapper’s Delight, despite the song’s compromised nature, still facilitated access to a rubric of tools to engage political power, even when many continue to look the other way. Or claim that hip-hop’s turbulence works best when aimed against itself or at cultures, ideologies and practices that resist Euro-American imperialism.

This commentary is not the space to detail each wave that has made me and other rap cubano practitioners fall for and confirm our love for hip-hop. But, in closing, I would like to briefly discuss an example of an early hip-hop wave and its reciprocal, read horizontal, nature. During the Black August Collective showcases at Havana’s First International Rap Festival, Dead Prez’s (DP) 2001 performance of It’s Bigger Than Hip-Hop, accompanied by a slide show depicting black people in various get-free, fight-for-your-freedom situations, contributed to the anti-racist shaping of Afro-Cuban rap, the strand of rap cubano as performed by dark-skinned Cubans. Anyone who has seen DP burn dollars on stage might assume they were the only purveyors of true hip-hop in Havana that night. Please take a moment to reassess our culture as an ideological locus bridging/manifesting horizontal, reciprocal, people-to-people relations. Doing so might help us grasp that DP was also in Havana to attest to our symbolic reply to; How y’all feel out there? Dilla’s question in Survival Test, and to experience Havana for our local flavours of Afro-descended connections to the diaspora and the continent. In other words, consciously or not, DP was at the Festival in Alamar[4] to witness a different flank of the wave that pulled them to Havana.

Here, the proposition would be to follow Asante to read hip-hop as another site facilitating the shared appreciation of Afrocentric postures central to our culture and its needed reassessment as a locus for reciprocal, horizontal sharing of Afrocentric narratologies.[5] In other words, hip-hop is and has been at its highest calling, another cycle in the work of narrating our lives through the “psychological and historical dislocation” lying at the heart of the cultural, social, and political crisis that is to live in the diaspora; an experience not exclusive to African Americans. But instead, one shared globally by most descendants of Africans born in or experiencing diaspora anywhere we may be from, Gilroy’s formulation of the Black Atlantic gains salience at this point. Spady would demand that we think of such expressive capacity, named hip-hop in North America, yet with other names across the globe, as also representing “an interconnected global movement, a movement of protest.” Spady’s description of our global movement as being somewhat ‘virtual’ may allow adding Dattatreyan’s ‘globally familiar’ notion, and its digital implications in Delhi,[6] to entry points, beyond the African Diaspora, valuable in descriptions of other global perspectives on this thing of falling in love with hip-hop.

During the early-2000s, in Afro-Diasporic Havana, I fell in love with Papi El Grande’s proposition that hip-hop had been sacredly granted to Cuba by Olofi,[7] the Supreme Divinity. Papi El Grande’s Afro-Cuban rap claim and its religious underpinnings help me self-identify as an Afro-Cuban practitioner-scholar theorizing through the Afrocentric methodologies afforded to me by Orisa/Ifa practice, think of Stewart and Hucks’s work on Africana religions, and its assemblage[8] with global hip-hop studies. Accepting the Afro-Cuban rap proposition as a valid diasporic contributor to our global culture will provide a more nuanced account of how the thing of falling in love with hip-hop takes place for the communities behind UK drill’s Pa Salieu, Toronto’s Ras Fresco or Havana reparto’s Wow Popy. That is, not so much through the reception of US hip-hop products but by falling in love with hip-hop by infatuation with, participating in, and developing local hip-hop ferments. It is there where we find hip-hop’s actual function and future.


[1] Listen to last line on Moss Kena’s verse on Newno by Lophile, Moss Kena and Nick Grant.

[2] Lakeyta M. Bonnette: Pulse of the People Political Rap Music and Black Politics. (Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015): 6.

[3] Tanya L. Saunders: Cuban Underground Hip-Hop: Black Thoughts, Black Revolution, Black Modernity. (1st edition. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2015): 88.

[4] See The Emergence of Rap Cubano: A Historical Perspective (Pacini-Hernandez and Garofalo 2004; in Bennett 2004).

[5] Molefi Kete Asante: The Philosophy of Afrocentricity; in Afolayan, Adeshina and Toyin Falola eds. The Palgrave Handbook of African Philosophy. (New York: Palgrave Macmillan US, 2017): 231.

[6] Dattatreyan, Ethiraj Gabriel.: The Globally Familiar: Digital Hip Hop, Masculinity, and Urban Space in Delhi. (Durham: Duke University Press, 2020): 18.

[7] Orisa/Ifa ‘[or Santeria] recognizes a Supreme Being by various Yoruba names, such as Olodumare, Olorun, and Olofi (Asante and Mazama, 2009), 591. See also Idowu, Bolaji. Olódùmarè; God in Yoruba Belief. London: Longmans, 1966.

[8] Diakité, Dianne M. Stewart, and Tracey E. Hucks: “Africana Religious Studies.” Journal of Africana Religions 1, no. 1 (2013): 41.

Pablo D. Herrera Veitia obtained his PhD in Social Anthropology from the University of St. Andrews. He is a scholar-practitioner working at the intersection of Orisa worship, hip hop studies and multimodal ethnography. His research explores what it means to be Afro-Cuban in post-socialist Havana and follows divinatory figures in the Odù Ifá literary corpus as primary conceptual sources. His writing has appeared in magazine Casa de las Americas, Metronome’s documenta 12 Magazines issue, and OkayAfrica.com. He has also collaborated on several major academic research projects on rap and reggaeton music in Havana, including Sujatha Fernandez’s Cuba Represent and Close to the Edge, Tanya Saunders’s Cuban Underground Hiphop; Marc Perry’s Negro Soy Yo; and Geoff Baker’s Buena Vista in the Club.


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