Across the Border:  Using Music to Bridge the US-Cuban Divide


While cultural interactions between the US and Cuba have taken place even during tense political times, they will inevitably increase in the near future due to recent announcements by both countries to normalize relations. These increased interactions could help establish dialogue between the people and governments of both countries, reverse stereotypes, and restore normalcy. This paper focuses on the potential impacts of musical interaction––a crucial form of cultural interaction––on establishing peaceful relations between the US and Cuba and aiding the White House’s stated goal of promoting democracy in Cuba. I research and analyze two kinds of music. The first, classical music, was used by diplomats to boost US-Cuban political relations prior to the breakdown in the 1960s. The second, rap music, found its way to the Cuba through informal, non-state channels but has now attracted the interest of the Cuban state as well as the US. Both classical music (“high art”) and rap music (“popular art”) can be useful in different ways for diplomacy and dialogue. However, they will be successful in peace building only if the musical interactions are two-way and acknowledge Cuba’s sovereignty vis-à-vis the US. As in other instances of cultural diplomacy, music serves as merely an impetus to the political process, and cannot by itself lead to wide-sweeping democratic reform in Cuba.

The New Negotiations: Music to the Ears?

On December 17th, 2014, US President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro simultaneously announced their intention to normalize relations between the US and Cuba. Among other things, the announcement and preceding negotiations promised to release political prisoners, improve trade relations between the two countries, and initiate a review of Cuba’s designation as a state sponsor of terrorism. Yet the agreement comes after decades of hostility and tension between the US and Cuba.

US-Cuban relations were cordial during the first half of the twentieth century, with the US exerting strong political influence over Cuba. This influence also manifested itself in the cultural sphere, with several American orchestras, such as the Minnesota Orchestra and the New York Philharmonic, touring Cuba in this period. Yet US-Cuba relations would take a dramatic turn after the Communist Revolution of the 1960s led by Fidel Castro and Che Guevara. The US subsequently imposed a trade embargo on Cuba and labeled Cuba a “state sponsor of terrorism.” This breakdown in political relations affected musical interactions as well, as both states were reluctant to provide licenses and visas to musicians traveling to the other country. However, music from both countries, such as rock and roll, salsa, and, in the 1980s, rap, continued to travel through informal channels.

US-Cuban relations have improved gradually in the past five years. The Obama administration revoked several travel restrictions to Cuba imposed by previous administrations in 2009 and has also expressed commitment to a “new beginning with Cuba” on several occasions.[1] Like his American counterpart, Cuba’s current president, Raul Castro, is more amenable to negotiations with the US than his brother and predecessor Fidel. To this end, Raul Castro has passed partial liberalization reforms and has withdrawn Cuba’s support for communist revolutions in Africa and Latin America.[2] The commitment of political leadership on both sides has spearheaded the latest agreement between the two nations.

Aside from spelling hope for improved economic and political relations, the negotiations will also provide a boost to cultural relations. The reforms provide general licenses to people giving public performances to travel between the two countries without burdensome state intervention.[3] This is a marked departure from earlier policies that made it difficult for musicians from both countries to get state licenses to travel between the US and Cuba. Aside from crucial license reform, the US also plans to engage with Cuba’s government to improve Internet penetration in Cuba. Expanded Internet penetration can remarkably improve the speed and scale of cultural interactions and enhance collaboration between musicians from both countries. Several reforms to increase trade, foreign direct investment, remittances, and travel specified in the new agreement will lead to greater commercial and artistic exchanges, and will all help to stimulate musical interactions.

Improved musical and other cultural initiatives between the two states could lead to better people-to-people dialogue, which in turn would increase mutual awareness, reverse stereotypes and animosities, and (hopefully) aid the peace process. In his paper on public diplomacy principles, the historian Nicholas Cull discusses how student exchange programs and the establishment of French and German cultural institutes in each other’s countries helped smooth over France and Germany’s historical enmity.[4] According to Cull, the factors that contributed to the success of this exchange initiative were the two countries’ ideological similarities, the scale of their enmity, and the benefits that the exchanges offered to both.[5] While the US and Cuba are not as ideologically similar as France and Germany, they certainly meet the latter two conditions. If the US establishes peace with Cuba, it can bolster its relations with other Latin American countries that are allied with Cuba. Conversely, given that its economy has suffered severely due to the US’ economic embargo, Cuba would want to increase interactions with the US Normalizing relations would benefit both countries, and promoting people-to-people exchanges would be a crucial step in the normalization process.

While the new agreement highlights the common ground between the two countries, it also reveals the inherent conflicts between American and Cuban goals. While official sources suggest that the US’ only intent is to promote human rights in Cuba through the agreement[6] many scholars suspect that the US has larger and more vested interests to make Cuba a fully capitalist, open, and democratic nation. For instance, the scholar Sheryl Lutjens remarks that academic and cultural exchanges between the US and Cuba were viewed by the US state as an instrument of achieving the collapse of the Cuban regime.[7] Cuban scholar Rafael Hernández takes this a step further, adding: “nothing indicates that the US government would be content with a form of market socialism; it seeks nothing less of a capitalist revolution.”[8] Thus, it appears that the US ultimately seeks to expand its influence in Cuba by making Cuba more politically and economically open.

On the other hand, Cuba’s leadership, while open to dialogue with the US, emphasizes Cuba’s sovereignty and is wary of US intervention. After the recent announcement, President Raul Castro remarked: “Ever since my election…I have reiterated on many occasions our preparedness to hold a respectful dialogue with the government of the United States based on sovereign equality.”[9] Castro’s views on Cuba’s sovereignty were more explicitly expressed in an earlier context, when he offered an olive branch to the US and agreed to talk as long as there were no preconditions or double standards.[10] While open to discussion on issues such as trade and political dialogue, Castro is committed to preserving Cuba’s sovereignty and maintains that the US cannot impose preconditions of democratic reform. Critical to Cuba’s sovereignty is its ability to maintain its socialist state and economic structure. The US will need to negotiate with Cuba over a long period of time before it can convince the Cuban government of any kind of political reform, let alone a transition to democracy and full-fledged capitalism.

In the absence of state cooperation, the US could possibly promote a democratic revolution by galvanizing the Cuban people. But evidence shows that even the Cuban population is not in full support of the kind of democracy that the US desires to implement. Hernández points out that Cuban admiration for various Western traditions, such as modern technology and baseball, does not necessarily translate into political support for the US’ model of democracy.[11] Moreover, Cuban socialists who support democracy envisage not only an end to the military dictatorship, but also envisage elections with highly regulated political parties.[12] Their version of democracy is very different––and much more limited in its scope––than the American brand of democracy. For this very reason, promoting democracy among an ambivalent Cuban population would ultimately prove ineffective.

The divergent goals of the two states and their people reveal that the agreement is still in a very nascent stage. While it offers much promise for better diplomatic relations and enhanced dialogue, it will not lead to immediate political and economic reform in Cuba. Pushing for aggressive reforms could risk damaging the US’ newfound relationship with the Cuban state. Thus, the role of music must be directed towards reducing past hostilities rather than promoting democracy. The relationships between music and democracy in Cuba are explored further in a later section.

Music Today: How can it be used, and who are potential ambassadors?

Revival with Renewal: Classical Music

Although classical music was the primary vehicle for American music diplomacy during the Cold War, it has recently taken a backseat to popular music styles such as hip-hop. However, classical music could be a very useful form of diplomacy in the Cuban context due to the US and Cuba’s history of musical interaction, the Cuban state’s great respect for classical music, and the ability of classical orchestras to send out an undiluted message from the US to Cuba.

As discussed above, the US and Cuba had a history of classical music interactions prior to the Cuban Communist Revolution. After the recent negotiations, a number of orchestras have announced their plans to tour Cuba this summer. The Minnesota Orchestra, which had played in Cuba before the 1960s, recently announced its plans to perform two concerts in Cuba in May.[13] According to Osmo Vanska, the Minnesota Orchestra’s director, as many as 24 other orchestras, including the New York Philharmonic, will be touring Cuba soon.[14] The orchestral tours are positive news, especially after previous instances in which the US government refused to grant travel licenses to Cuba. Such orchestral tours could possibly allow the US to draw on its history of cultural collaboration with Cuba and improve relations with the Cuban state.

Aside from being a tool of state-to-state diplomacy, classical music could also be effective for public diplomacy. The Cuban state began cultivating a mass appreciation for classical music as it attempted to block out American music after the revolution and embargo. The scholar Robin Moore argues that state-sponsored free music education enabled the rise of classical musicians from common, non-elite backgrounds, thus creating a widespread appreciation for classical music.[15] Not only did the Cuban state sponsor free classical music education, it also created conservatories and academies to foster talented and passionate musicians.[16] According to Moore, the Cuban state even took symphony orchestras and virtuoso cellists to the countryside to promote an appreciation for classical music among the farmers outside of schools.[17] Although many of the initial efforts by the Cuban state fell into decline due to the economic crisis of the 1980s and 1990s, they created a number of talented musicians whose legacy remains in Cuba today. It is unclear whether the US is cognizant of the popularity of classical music––traditionally “high” art––in Cuba, but recognizing this fact would allow it to use classical music as an effective tool for reaching out to Cuba’s people.

Classical music performances in Cuba could be a viable strategy for the US to overcome the Cuban state’s criticism of its music industry and hence combat its poor image in Cuba. Classical music can help the US combat its image problems in three ways. First, it could help display the US as more egalitarian, rather than merely as an elite, capitalist nation. Ever since its Communist Revolution, the Cuban state has condemned capitalist states for not making greater attempts to promote classical music among the masses and for making classical music exclusive to a limited elite. For instance, in 1965, Guevara remarked that “[p]erformers of classical repertoire [in capitalist systems] do not often disseminate their art to the masses; nor do they valorize the expression of other groups.”[18] Guevara blames classical musicians in the US and the West for not attempting to popularize classical music. While Guevara seems opposed to Western interpretations of classical music, the state sponsorship of academies and conservatories shows that the Cuban state was not opposed to classical music per se. Using classical music as a form of diplomacy could reverse the Cuban state’s poor opinion of the American classical music as a “high art” restricted to appreciation by American elites.

Second, classical music could counter Cuba’s criticism of the American music industry as commercial and disconnected from social problems. Cuba has often criticized American popular music for commercializing pertinent economic issues without a commitment to solve them, reinforcing its perception of the unequal nature of America’s capitalist society. According to Moore, communist states like Cuba often criticized the capitalist music industry for co-opting and then remarketing the popular music of the poor.[19] Thus, Cuba not only saw US popular music as commercialized and homogenous, but also as exploitative. If the US is able to use classical music, rather than just pop music, to reverse Cuban stereotypes about the American musical climate, it might also be able to reverse larger ideas of the exploitative nature of US society.

Third, if classical music draws on local Cuban musical traditions in its performances in Cuba, it could signal that the US is sensitive to cultural differences, thereby countering Cuba’s criticism of American music as homogenous. Moore comments that the capitalist music industry, particularly in the US, is so profit-driven that it fails to appreciate the diverse and less familiar music traditions that exist around it.[20] In contrast, the Cuban state has chosen to promote classical music by drawing on a mix of universal and local musical traditions. Kim Tran mentions that immediately after the Communist Revolution, the Cuban state promoted Grupo de Renovación Música (GRM),[21] a pre-existing musical collective that drew on the universality of classical music, yet emphasized local musical traditions and musicians. The use of classical music from a variety of traditions and countries could help the US combat Cuba’s criticism of America’s music homogeneity.

Aside from reversing several stereotypes about the US, classical music is an effective way of sending out an undiluted, unilateral message to Cuba in a benign and non-interventionist manner. In her paper on symphony orchestras, Gienow Hecht points out three main reasons why symphony orchestras are good channels of establishing influence: they allow for unilateral communication and prevent miscommunication by making audiences sit and listen through the performance; they generally use historical, universally recognized musical pieces; and the conductor (usually from the host country) determines the protocol and structure of the performance.[22] The repertoire for the Minnesota Orchestra’s twin concerts in Cuba this May exemplifies Gienow Hecht’s points. It included Beethoven’s 3rd Symphony, earlier played by the orchestra when it toured Cuba for the first time in 1939, and Overture to Egmont, a tribute to the power of music. The newspaper MinnPost points out that Profkiev’s Romeo and Juliet (the third piece played) carried special significance as a composition of a Soviet musician and a story of two warring factions coming together in tragedy. All of these pieces reflect the US’ and Cuba’s rich musical histories and renewed commitments towards overcoming hostility through cultural interaction. But observers unanimously agree that the most memorable part of the evening was when the orchestra played the Cuban and American national anthems in succession to an audience that sang along. The national anthem performance helped cement all that the orchestra had been trying to express through its previous performances in the minds of its audience, who, in that one moment, perceived themselves as equal stakeholders in the concert and what it hoped to achieve. The Minnesota Orchestra was able to send out a strong and direct message in its entirety, free of being misconstrued by opposing voices. At the same time, it did not attempt to impose any views on its audience. While this was an independently funded concert, its success carries several lessons for the US government if it were to use orchestras as a tool of state diplomacy.

It is important to note here that sending a unilateral message through a single orchestra performance is different from making classical music interactions completely unilateral. As important as it is for the US to convey its message to the Cuban state and people, it also needs to listen to the Cuban side in order to further the negotiation process. Respecting Cuba’s musical composers, institutions, and traditions would be a preliminary step in demonstrating to Cuba the US’ readiness to listen. Historically, while the founders of the GRM, Harold Gramatages and José Ardévol, were close to the Cuban state post-1960, they also received awards from and toured the US for their outstanding classical work.[23] The Minnesota Orchestra also successfully drew on cultural interactions during its recent tour. While on tour, the Minnesota Orchestra had a joint rehearsal with the youth wing of the Orquesta Sinfonica Juvenil Amadeo Roldán. It concluded the rehearsal with a piece by Cuban composer Guaguancó. Gwen Pappas, a tour team member, mentioned in an interview that the complex rhythms of the piece were unfamiliar to the American orchestra and that the Cuban youth orchestra led the concluding piece.[24] According to Pappas, “moments like this really exemplified the spirit of the tour.”[25] The entire tour was replete with inspiring examples of musical exchange and interaction with Cuba, a practice that must be kept alive by future orchestras touring Cuba. Using Cuban repertoire in public musical performances would serve the two-fold purpose of focusing on the historical successes of US-Cuban interactions and on convincing Cuba of the US’ commitment to the success of future negotiations.

Rethinking Rap: From Anti-Government to Diplomacy

Unlike classical music, rap has never been used as a form of diplomacy between the American and Cuban states, as it evolved long after the US-imposed embargo. But its continued popularity among the youth in Cuba could make it an effective tool of public diplomacy. The interactive and vocal nature of rap makes it all the more imperative for the US to encourage two-way collaboration in this genre. However, Cuban rap’s relationship with the Cuban state highly complicates its use as a diplomatic tool by the US.

Only certain kinds of rap can be used by the US for diplomacy purposes. Broadly, there are two kinds of rap music: rap that discusses generic themes such as love, drugs or crime; and rap that talks about grave political or social issues. Scholars such as Sujatha Fernandes often use the terms “commercial” rap and “underground” rap to distinguish between the two.[26] While both kinds of rap will get an economic impetus as channels of communication open up between the US and Cuba, “underground” rap carries special significance for diplomacy and peace initiatives. Globally, underground rappers have been instrumental in spreading awareness about Black rights, leading rapper Chuck D to call them the “CNN of Black People.”[27] Moreover, a large number of these rappers are from America. In Cuba, the scholar Deborah Pacini Hernandez notes that many local rappers acknowledge politically conscious American rappers such as Queen Latifah and Public Enemy as early influences.[28] Its social messages and American ties make underground Cuban rap a particularly potent diplomatic tool, if used sensibly.

Developments in communication techniques, as well as the recent negotiations’ focus on improving Internet penetration in Cuba, can help overcome the barriers to exporting politically conscious rap from the US to Cuba. As Cuban artists rap in Spanish, they have a limited understanding of English and have often misunderstood the messages of American rappers. In his book on Cuban rap, Geoffery Baker relates an incident where three feminist rappers from Cuba enthusiastically sang along to the Ludacris track “Move Bitch”, and were shocked to realize the misogynistic message after Baker explained it to them.[29] The incident shows how many politically conscious Cuban rappers have adopted American rap styles while grossly misinterpreting the message due to language barriers. However, recent developments could help smooth over language and translation issues. For example, Baker mentions that moving visuals and documentaries were instrumental in transmitting American rap to Cuba and had a better impact than audio recordings.[30] A possible increase in Internet penetration in Cuba will allow information about politically conscious American rap to reach Cuba at a larger scale than ever before through subtitled documentaries and music videos, thus curbing misunderstandings like the one with the feminist rappers.

A renewed export of politically conscious rap from the US to Cuba could then encourage people-to-people interaction on important diplomatic issues and, in the process, could help reverse stereotypes about the US. In his paper on “Arts Diplomacy,” the scholar John Brown argues that high art can contextualize US society.[31] In this sense, the political commentary in “underground” rap makes it come close to John Brown’s definition of “high art.” In a process similar to John Brown’s understanding of how high art contextualizes countries, rap that conveys the struggles of poor minorities could help reveal the positive aspects of the US’ multi-faceted, free and diverse society to Cubans.

While exporting American rap to Cuba, the US also needs to engage with Cuban rap and recognize it as an important genre in its own right. Cuban rap is much less “commercial” and much more “underground” than American rap, and it should be emphasized in public diplomacy initiatives. The evolution of Cuban rap from an American import to a socially conscious, widely popular genre offers many opportunities for the US to use it as a public diplomacy instrument. Additionally, rap in Cuba is evolving from the “CNN of Black People” to a platform for those who are anti-establishment and wish to discuss larger issues like poverty, corruption, and unemployment. Pacini Hernandez points out that rap enjoys popularity among Cubans of all colors and has also influenced other popular genres in Cuba, such as rock.[32] Many rappers, such as Los Aldeanos, rarely discuss racial issues in their socio-political discourse.[33] Due to rap’s widespread popularity, the US can use it to generate discussion and gauge public opinion on issues related to Cuban society, such as the economic embargo imposed by the US.

The focus on Cuban rap is also necessitated by its very markedly localized context and content. Cuban rap was initially influenced by American rap and remains stylistically similar to its “parent genre.” However, Cuban rap has now adapted itself to discuss issues deeply rooted in the local Cuban context. Fernandes points out that Cuban rap music has localized through its frequent mentioning of local affiliations and names of prominent places in the city, creating a feeling of collectiveness among Cubans.[34] Cuban rap, which initially started as an offshoot of American rap, has now evolved into a distinct genre, and the US must be cognizant of this distinction when engaging in rap diplomacy in Cuba.

While US rap diplomacy in Cuba could aid the cause of public diplomacy, it is also risky due to Cuban rap’s complex relationship with the Cuban state, as recent decades have witnessed several instances of the Cuban state promoting rap. Fernandes points out that while the Cuban state initially only promoted commercial rappers, it is now also promoting underground rappers who speak out against it.[35] While state promotion gives rappers better access to audiences and concerts, it allows the Cuban state to control rap’s political anti-state messages. Rap’s relationship with the state offers both opportunities and risks for public diplomacy initiatives.

The effectiveness of using rap for public diplomacy depends largely on the social and political messages it sends out and the freedom of rappers to speak out against the Cuban state. Many scholars suggest that the state “co-optation” of rap has somewhat diluted rap’s character. In her article on popular music in revolutionary Cuba, Simone Christine Munz expressed her reservations about the state censorship of rap, predicting that rap will lose its political character, authenticity, and popularity as it aligns with the state, in the same way that other popular and revolutionary genres, such as timba and nueva trova, have lost their appeal in Cuba. Fernandes demonstrates a possible example of Munz’s theories as she points to the fragmentation in the rap industry and the emigration of several prominent musicians and producers outside Cuba, especially in the recent decade.[36] Additionally, Baker points out the decline in underground rap in favor of commercial reggaetón from 2003 onwards and the dwindling audiences for state-sponsored rap festivals. According to these scholars, state involvement in rap has diluted its messages, with rappers fearing state censorship and restricted access to audiences.

Despite scholarly claims that rap is declining in Cuba, there is reason to believe that rap will retain its appeal as a medium of political discourse for quite some time. Since 2007, there has been a partial renaissance in the rap scene. Several scholars mention the prominence of Los Aldeanos, a political anti-establishment rap group, in the post-2007 rap scene. According to Baker, the Los Aldeanos-led La Comisión Depuradura dominates the Cuban rap scene today and is largely independent of the state. While the number of politically conscious rap groups has declined, the numbers of people listening to rap have increased due to digital media. Baker speculates that Los Aldeanos commands a listenership of about 1 million people due to the digital revolution, whereas the rap groups of the 1990s and 2000s relied on live performances for their listenership.[37] Increasing Internet penetration in Cuba, a key feature of US foreign policy, will help rappers like Los Aldeanos reach a wider audience, enable discussion on serious political issues, and possibly lead to the emergence of more underground rap groups.

Newer forms of rap have been somewhat successful in distancing themselves from the Cuban state and retaining their authentic messages. The Cuban state now provides rap groups a certain degree of autonomy in expressing their views as long as they somewhat dilute their political messages. Abel Prieto, who served as Minister of Culture until 2012, took several steps to promote rap musicians and protect their freedom. Nevertheless, the Cuban state continues to retain some measure of control on the rap groups. The scholar Annelise Wunderlich summarizes this trend: “Anonimo Consejo’s lyrics are edgy…but getting too edgy could end their careers. The girls in Exposición Feminina try to be tough in the macho rap scene, but still rely on their sex appeal to get through the door. Each day is a political and social balancing act.”[38] The balancing act of Cuban rappers vis á vis the Cuban state has resulted in benefits for both, allowing the rappers to express their dissent with the economic situation and the Cuban state to prevent this dissent from turning into a full-blown democratic revolution.

Rap continues to be popular and political and is thus an effective channel for American diplomacy. Even if Cuban rappers do not entirely agree with US state ideology, they will likely be eager to receive patronage from the lucrative US music industry. The samples of Cuban popular music that have reached the US, particularly Afrocentric forms such as rap, have been very well received. Referring to popular music albums such as the nueva trova album “Dancing with the Enemy” in her paper, the scholar Deborah Pacini Hernandez argues that once Cuban popular musicians got access to international audiences, there was heightened interest in Cuban rap all over the world, with major labels such as Sony expressing interest in Cuban rap.[39] While they are extremely keen on establishing a presence in the US, Cuban musicians have very limited engagement with and understanding of the market for music in the US due to the embargo. Pacini Hernandez points out that many Afro-Cuban musicians are unfamiliar and uncomfortable with the racially charged images used to promote Afrocentric forms of music to the American audience.[40] It is likely that Cuban rappers will face similar challenges while trying to market their music in the US. In the aftermath of the US-Cuba negotiations, rap musicians might be open to working with the US music industry to better access and market their music to an appreciative American audience, while simultaneously retaining their authentic style. The Cuban state, which previously used music as a source of overseas revenue, will encourage these efforts as long as they do not threaten its position.

In the absence of a formal Cuban music industry, rap promoters, producers, and DJs have emerged as important players in Cuba’s rap scene and could emerge as a critical channel for the US to engage with the rap musicians in Cuba. Rap promoters serve a multi-fold role: as patrons to aspiring rap artists, intermediaries between the Cuban state and rappers, and a source of information on American musical trends and tastes. Pacini Hernandez gives several examples of key older and well-traveled figures in the rap industry playing the roles of mentors for Cuba’s nascent rap scene.[41] Redolfo Rendolzi, a rap promoter, was instrumental in organizing the first major rap festival in Alamar in 1995 without bypassing state regulations and censorship. The festival, attended by rappers such as Dead Prez and the US-based Black August Collective, was a huge success, and helped Cuban rap reach an international audience.[42] Rap producers such as Pablo Herrera and Julian Fernandes are fluent in English, have traveled to the US, and serve as mentors to the rappers in Cuba.[43] Through rap promoters and “pseudo-ambassadors,” the US can engage with rappers in Cuba and reach out to the Cuban people. While some of these rap producers have recently emigrated from Cuba, many of them retain close connections with Cuban society and could be used as advisors and possible channels of communication.

Rather than promoting one-time concerts between Cuban and American musicians, the US must focus on long-term collaboration through workshops and improvisation sessions between Cuban musicians and the US as a way of enhancing cross-cultural understanding. In his article on public diplomacy, the scholar Nicholas Cull describes exchange diplomacy, a form of public diplomacy, as “based on mutuality” and “an international learning experience in which both parties are transformed.”[44] Cull believes that the emphasis on mutual learning in exchange diplomacy could help both countries understand each other better. If the US were to adopt an exchange rather than advocacy approach in rap, it could help bridge the understanding gap between not only Cuban and American rap musicians, but also between the Cuban and American people. Historical evidence shows that close interactions over a long period of time can help bridge communication divides. For example, in 2001, a series of hip-hop workshops in Brooklyn conducted by three Cuba-based rap groups over a month increased American appreciation for socially conscious rap music.[45] Similarly, NextLevel, a State Department initiative, allows hip-hop artists from the US to visit foreign countries and conduct workshops with local musicians and hip-hop enthusiasts, culminating in a concert.[46] Since rap music is not completely universal and adapts itself to local contexts, such collaborations are essential to successful diplomacy. Since rap is constantly reshaping and evolving itself, long term musical interactions could help form innovative melodies and deepen understanding of US and Cuban musicians for each other’s culture, a key goal of US policymakers.

Music and Democracy:  Jazz of the 21st century?

In the previous section, I have discussed at length the ability of music to promote peace and dialogue between the US and Cuba. I now turn to a more precise discussion of the ends of using music. I see two major goals of US foreign policy in Cuba: the first is reversing hostilities by increasing communication with the Cuban state as well as the Cuban people. The second is promoting democracy in Cuba. The above sections have demonstrated how music can be used to meet the former. I will now demonstrate why music cannot be used to meet the latter.

Classical music is not the best way to promote democracy, as most classical musicians are not vocally against the Cuban state. While several popular musicians emigrated from Cuba from 1960-74, many classical musicians have stayed back in Cuba and have even allied with the state. Moore mentions that despite restrictions on international travel, many Cuban classical musicians remained in favor of revolutionary ideals and saw the restrictions as a small cost for their heightened status in Cuban society.[47] The high reputation of classical musicians in the Cuban socialist state, as well as the economic and psychological challenges associated with immigration, made them favor Cuban state policies. Moore mentions that the musicians Gramatages and Árdevol were very active in Cuba’s music scene in the 1960s, reprogramming the classical music station CMZ to include classical music from a diverse range of composers and establishing a musical division under the new cultural organization Casa de las Américas.[48] While classical music is certainly popular in Cuba and an effective means of outreach to the Cuban people, classical performers’ and composers’ support for Cuba’s revolutionary ideals and their closeness to the Cuban state, means that classical music is unlikely to start a revolution in Cuba.

US State Department officials seem to recognize the futility of using classical music for democracy promotion; for this reason, they have focused on hip-hop––a much more political and anti-government form of music––in their democracy promotion efforts. US officials suggest that despite hip-hop’s anti-establishment sentiment, its critical nature and American origins will help foreign audiences appreciate the freedom in American society, a place where all voices, including those of the oppressed, are heard. For instance, the democratic movements of the Arab Spring, are seen to be a direct result of perceived Arab support for US ideals exported through hip-hop.[49] Thus, the US State Department believes that exporting rap to other regions could similarly prompt support for US ideals and lead to democracy.

However, rap is not a viable means to promote democracy. First, there exists no historical precedent for rap’s success as a democracy promotion tool. Despite US State Department claims to the contrary, scholars actually claim that the hip-hop initiatives of the US have not had a measurable impact on the Arab Spring. In his article, Hishaam Aidi claims that the regions where hip-hop is widely enjoyed have not seen revolts.[50] Second, in the Cuban context, the Cuban state has taken several steps to collaborate with rap musicians and, in the process, moderate their anti-establishment and possibly pro-democracy sentiments. Fernandes mentions that rap groups are organized under a system of music enterprises run by the Ministry of Culture.[51] She also talks about the state-organized rap festival Alamar, which has been taking place since 1995.[52] While the producers and organizers of these rap festivals retain some autonomy, they need state approval to successfully carry out their concerts, and this influences the messages they choose to project. Fernandes mentions that while Cuban rappers have tried to build networks with American rappers, they simultaneously engage in a critique of global capitalism to get patronage from the Cuban state.[53] As a result, while artists talk of social change, they are very careful when it comes to engaging with the government and will be reluctant to make strong political statements for democracy.

Additionally, many rappers support the revolutionary ideals of socialism in principle and believe these principles have been eroded in practice. For example, Fernandes notes that the song “El Barco” by Los Paisanos not only discusses police harassment of Blacks in Cuba but also includes the lines “seremos como el Che”[54] or “we will be like Che.” This suggests that the group looks to Che Guevara, a leader of the Cuban Revolution, as an inspiration, even if they are against current, oppressive state policies. Fernandes also discusses that the same group criticized other rap groups for being more commercial and less political in their messages and practices.[55] Thus, while Los Paisanos are against government policies, they are not eager to engage with the US either. Cuban rap musicians’ subtle support of revolutionary ideals, and their reluctance to align themselves with foreign powers, makes it difficult for the US to groom them as pro-democracy activists.

The failed US funding of Los Aldeanos, an anti-government rap group in Cuba, is another example of the problems with using rap to promote democracy. From 2009-2012, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) spent millions of dollars trying to promote dozens of rap musicians in Cuba, sponsor their concerts, connect them with foreign musicians, and groom them as potential democracy activists.[56] The plan severely backfired when the Cuban government discovered the covert mission and took over the organization of the concerts. The mission failed for two reasons. First, the Cuban state’s takeover demonstrates that it has a degree of control even over musicians radically against the state. The scholar Gamez Torres says that Los Aldeanos constantly has to test the limits of its disobedience of the state through its messages,[57] thus implying that Los Aldeanos does not enjoy complete freedom of expression. Second, rappers attempt to steer clear of taking a clear stance on controversial political issues, choosing instead to focus on problems of poverty and unemployment. After the USAID mission was revealed, one of the founders of Los Aldeanos denied having any connections to the US mission or awareness of the mission objectives. “Neither the American government, nor the Serbs, nor the Cuban government, not anyone, can control my thoughts and my heart,” founder Bian Rodriguez said.[58] Rodriguez’s quote represents the desire of Los Aldeanos, and other rap groups, to distance themselves (or at least appear distant) from political players––whether the state or the American authorities––and to not get trapped in ideological debates. The case of Los Aldeanos reveals the difficulties and complexities in using rap to promote a particular ideology, in this case democracy.

At a macro-level, the US must understand that Cuba now sees itself as a sovereign state and not a US satellite state. Thus, its relationship with Cuba in the present will be different from its relationship with Cuba prior to the breakdown in relations. Rafael Hernández points out that before 1959, Cuba’s limited sovereignty meant that the US did not treat Cuba in the same way as other sovereign states.[59] In his book on Good Neighbor diplomacy, Gellman mentions that several economic policies allowed the US to control Cuba’s markets to suit its own economic and political interests.[60] The US’ emphasis on openness in the present agreement seems to suggest that the US somehow wants to go back to its past relationship with Cuba and influence its political affairs. However, long decades of hostility and isolation have allowed Cuba to develop a distinct national identity, and the US can no longer see Cuba as an extension of itself. Using music to promote democracy would cause more harm than good in the Cuban context.


The recent negotiations between the US and Cuba offer several opportunities for musical interactions between the two countries, which can improve people-to-people interaction and foster new dialogue. Simultaneously, events such as US’ botched funding of the Los Aldeanos concert reveal the risks of poorly-thought cultural interaction. Keeping in mind the changing context of US-Cuban musical and political relations, the US must take care to not immediately promote a political agenda through music diplomacy and ensure that the interactions are two-way, recognizing Cuba’s sovereignty and equality with the US. The distinction between classical and rap music blurs in Cuba, making both effective instruments of diplomacy. While classical music has become “art for all” due to state efforts to promote it to the Cuban masses, rap music discusses “high” and refined messages of social and political consciousness. A combination of traditional orchestral performances that convey US presence in Cuba, and rap concerts and workshops that promote increased collaboration and dialogue, would help the US increase its engagement with its neighbor. Yet neither form can be used to immediately promote democracy. Let’s save that for another day.


Rhea Kumar (’18) is a sophomore in Branford College.


Works Cited

Aidi, Hishaam. “Leveraging hip hop in US foreign policy.” Al Jazeera, Nov 7, 2011, accessed Feb 15, 2015, <>.

Baker, Geoffrey. Buena Vista in the Club: rap, reggaetón, and revolution in Havana. Durham: Duke University Press, 2011.

Basu, Dipannita, and J. Lemelle Sidney. The Vinyl Ain’t Final. Ann Arbor: Pluto Press, 2006.

Brown, J. H., and William P. Kiehl. Arts diplomacy: The neglected aspect of cultural diplomacy. Washington: Public Diplomacy Council, 2006.

Chamberlain, Scott. “Two Nights with the Minnesota Orchestra in Cuba: Powerful performances engender a palpable unity of spirit.” Minn Post, May 27, 2015. Print.

Cooper, Michael. “Minnesota Orchestra going to Cuba.” New York Times, Feb 12, 2015.


“Cuba: Rappers targeted by USAID program “victims.’”Daily Mail. Dec 12, 2014.

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Domínguez, Jorge I. “Reshaping the Relations between the United States and Cuba.” In Debating US-Cuban relations: shall we play ball? Edited by Jorge I. Domínguez, Rafael Hernández and Lorena G. Barberia. London: Routledge, 2012.

English Biographies of Cuban Composers. New York:  The Cuban American Music Group, 1946.

Espeland, Pamela. “Osmo Vanska on Sibelius, softness, the Cuba tour and the Minnesota Orchestra today,” MinnPost. February 18, 2015.

Fernandes, Sujatha. “Fear of a black nation: Local rappers, transnational crossings, and state power in contemporary Cuba.” Anthropological Quarterly 76:4 (2003): 575-608.

Fernandes, Sujatha. “Made in Havana City: Rap Music, Space, and Racial Politics.” In Havana beyond the ruins: cultural mappings after 1989. Edited by Anke Birkenmaier and Esther Whitfield. Durham: Duke University Press, 2011.

Gellman, Irwin F. Roosevelt and Batista: good neighbor diplomacy in Cuba, 1933-1945. New Mexico: University of New Mexico Press, 1973.

Gámez Torres, Nora. “‘Rap is War’: Los Aldeanos and the Politics of Music Subversion in Contemporary Cuba.” Revista Transcultural de Música 17 (2013).

Gienow Hecht, Jessica C.E. “The World Is Ready to Listen: Symphony Orchestras and the Global Performance of America.” Diplomatic History 36:1 (2012): 17-28.

Groll, Elias. “Why USAID Got Into Bed With Cuban Rappers.” Passport. Foreign Policy, Dec. 11, 2014. <>.

Hernandez, Deborah Pacini. “Dancing with the enemy: Cuban popular music, race, authenticity, and the world-music landscape.” Latin American Perspectives (1998): 110-125.

Hernandez, Deborah Pacini, and Reebee Garofalo. “Hip Hop in Havana:  Rap, Race and National Identity in Contemporary Cuba.” Journal of Popular Music Studies 11:1 (1999): 18-47.

Hernández, Rafael. “Intimate Enemies: Paradoxes in the Conflict between the United States and Cuba.” In Debating US-Cuban relations: shall we play ball? Edited by Jorge I. Domínguez, Rafael Hernández and Lorena G. Barberia. London: Routledge, 2012.

Kenny, Christina. “Historic US Orchestra Tour to Cuba.” Sinfini Music, May 29, 2015, <>.

Lutjens, Sheryl. “The Subjects of Academic and Cultural Exchange: Paradigms, Powers and Possibilities.” In Debating US-Cuban relations: shall we play ball? Edited by Jorge I. Domínguez, Rafael Hernández and Lorena G. Barberia. London: Routledge, 2012.

Moore, Robin. Music and revolution: Cultural change in socialist Cuba. Vol. 9. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006.

Munz, Simone Christine. “Popular Political Music in Revolutionary Cuba.” In Music and Dictatorship in Europe and Latin America. Edited by Roberto Illiano and Massimiliano Sala, 685-705. Turnhout: Brepols, 2009.

Navarro, Mireya. “Giving Hip-Hop a Cultural Beat; Rappers Visiting From Cuba Find a Welcoming Audience.” New York Times, Oct 24, 2001.

“Obama hails ‘new chapter’ in US-Cuba ties.” BBC News, Dec 17, 2014, <>.

Penhaul, Karl. “A new era in US-Cuba relations.” CNN, January 20, 2015. <–cuba-relations/>.

The White House: Office of the Press Secretary. FACT SHEET: Charting A New Course On Cuba, December 17, 2014. Accessed April 1, 2015. <>.

Tran, Kim N. “The emergence of Leo Brouwer’s Compositional Periods: The Guitar, Experimental Leanings, and New Simplicity.” Unpublished Senior Honours Thesis. Music Department, Dartmouth College (2007).

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Wunderlich, Annelise. “Cuban Hip Hop: Making Space for New Voices of Dissent.” In The vinyl ain’t final: hip hop and the globalization of black popular culture. Edited by Dipannita Basu and Sidney J. Lemelle. Ann Arbor: Pluto, 2006.


[1] Jorge I. Domínquez, “Reshaping the Relations between the United States and Cuba,” in Debating US-Cuban relations: shall we play ball? ed. Jorge I. Domínguez et al. (London: Routledge, 2012), 43.

[2] Karl Penhaul, “A new era in US-Cuba relations,”  CNN, January 20, 2015, accessed April 1, 2015, <–cuba-relations/>.

[3] The White House: Office of the Press Secretary, Fact Sheet: Charting A New Course On Cuba, December 17, 2014, accessed April 1, 2015, <>.

[4] Nicholas Cull, “Public diplomacy: Taxonomies and histories,” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 616:1 (2008): 41.

[5] Ibid., 42.

[6] The White House, 2015.

[7] Sheryl Lutjens, “The Subjects of Academic and Cultural Exchange: Paradigms, Powers and Possibilities,” in Debating US-Cuban relations: shall we play ball? Ed. Jorge I. Domínguez et al. (London: Routledge, 2012), 220.

[8] Rafael Hernández, “Intimate Enemies: Paradoxes in the Conflict between the United States and Cuba,” in Debating US-Cuban relations: shall we play ball? Ed. Jorge I. Domínguez, Rafael Hernández and Lorena G. Barberia (London: Routledge, 2012), 11.

[9] “Obama hails ‘new chapter’ in US-Cuba ties,” BBC News, Dec 17, 2014, <>.

[10] Hernández, Intimate Enemies, 12.

[11] Ibid., 19.

[12] Ibid., 20.

[13] Michael Cooper, ““Minnesota Orchestra going to Cuba,” New York Times, Feb 12, 2015, <>.

[14] Pamela Espeland, “Osmo Vanska on Sibelius, softness, the Cuba tour and the Minnesota Orchestra today,” MinnPost.  Feb 18, 2015.

[15] Robin Moore, Music and revolution: Cultural change in socialist Cuba, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006), 80.

[16] Kim N. Tran, “The emergence of Leo Brouwer’s Compositional Periods: The Guitar, Experimental Leanings, and New Simplicity,” Unpublished Senior Honours Thesis (Music Department, Dartmouth College, 2007).

[17] Moore, Music and revolution, 64.

[18] Ibid., 19.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Tran, 20.

[22] Jessica C.E. Gienow Hecht, “The World Is Ready to Listen: Symphony Orchestras and the Global Performance of America,” Diplomatic History 36, no. 1 (2012): 27.

[23] English Biographies of Cuban Composers, (New York: The Cuban American Music Group, 1946).

[24] Christina Kenny, “Historic US Orchestra Tour to Cuba,” Sinfini Music, May 29, 2015, <>.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Sujatha Fernandes, “Fear of a black nation: Local rappers, transnational crossings, and state power in contemporary Cuba.” Anthropological Quarterly 76:4 (2003): 575-608.

[27] Dipannita Basu and J Lemelle Sydney, The Vinyl Ain’t Final, (Ann Arbor: Pluto Press, 2006): 3.

[28] Deborah Pacini Hernández and Reebee Garofalo, “Hip Hop in Havana:  Rap, Race and National Identity in Contemporary Cuba.” Journal of Popular Music Studies 11, no. 1 (1999): 23.

[29] Geoffery Baker, Buena Vista in the Club: rap, reggaetón, and revolution in Havana, (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011): 250.

[30] Ibid, 297.

[31] John Brown and William P. Kiehl, Arts diplomacy: The neglected aspect of cultural diplomacy (Washington:, 2006): 59.

[32] Hernández and Garofalo, Hip Hop, 22.

[33] Baker, 274.

[34] Sujatha Fernandes, “Made in Havana City: Rap Music, Space, and Racial Politics,” in Havana beyond the ruins: cultural mappings after 1989, ed. Anke Birkenmaier et al, (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011), 175.

[35] Fernandes, Fear, 595.

[36] Fernandes, Made in Havana City, 182-83

[37] Baker, Buena Vista, 335-336.

[38] Annelise Wunderlich, “Cuban Hip Hop: Making Space for New Voices of Dissent.” in The vinyl ain’t final: hip hop and the globalization of black popular culture, eds. Dipannita Basu et al. (Ann Arbor: Pluto, 2006),168.

[39] Deborah Pacini Hernández, “Dancing with the enemy: Cuban popular music, race, authenticity, and the world-music landscape,” Latin American Perspectives (1998): 110-125.

[40] Ibid., 121.

[41] Pacini Hernández and Garofalo, Hip Hop, 37.

[42] Ibid., 26.

[43] Ibid. 37.

[44] Cull, 33.

[45] Mireya Navarro, “Giving Hip-Hop a Cultural Beat; Rappers Visiting From Cuba Find Welcoming Audience,” New York Times, Oct 24, 2001.

[46] “Next Level: At a Glance,” US Department of State, Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, last accessed April 14, 2015, <>.

[47] Moore, Music and Revolution, 70.

[48] Moore, 82.

[49] Hishaam Aidi, “Leveraging hip hop in US foreign policy,” Al Jazeera, Nov 7, 2011, accessed Feb 15, 2015, <>.

[50] Ibid.

[51] Fernandes, Fear, 596.

[52] Ibid., 580.

[53] Fernandes, Fear, 592-96.

[54] Fernandes, Made in Havana City, 179.

[55] Fernandes, Fear, 582-83.

[56] “Cuba: Rappers targeted by USAID program ‘victims,’” Daily Mail, Dec 12, 2014.

[57] Nora Gamez Torres, “‘Rap is War’: Los Aldeanos and the Politics of Music Subversion in Contemporary Cuba.” Revista Transcultural de Música 17 (2013): 17.

[58] “Rappers targeted,” Daily Mail.

[59] Hernández, Intimate Enemies, 20.

[60] Irwin F. Gellman, Roosevelt and Batista: good neighbor diplomacy in Cuba, 1933-1945, (University of New Mexico Press, 1973), 6.


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