Tag Archives: social justice

This new, trending Cuban song calls for artists to speak out against the island’s regime

Screenshot of the ‘Cuba Primero’ music video, with its singers Linier Mesa and Dianelys Alfonso (‘La Diosa’)

This article was written by an anonymous Cuban author under the pseudonym of Luis Rodriguez and translated by Laura Dunne. The article is republished here in accordance with the media partnership between Global Voices and Shouts.

Try as we might to be optimistic in describing Cuba’s current social landscape, it really is bleak. The inhabitants of the island are emotionally and psychologically drained. With unprecedented inflation, the dollarization of the economy, supply and medicine shortages, endless blackouts, increased insecurity and social inequalities, or worse still, the regime’s systematic repression of those who speak out, analysts agree that this is the greatest crisis Cuban society has faced since the collapse of the Soviet Union (USSR).

However, thanks to the activism of artists in Cuba and their diaspora within the U.S. in recent years, beacons of light now instill a greater sense of hope in this bleak landscape. These artists speak out on behalf of the millions of Cubans denied their basic right to free speech by the country’s regime.

Several talented artists have released various mobilizing songs throughout the years. Let’s not forget Nuestro Tiempo (Ya Viene Llegando) (Our Time Will Come) in 1991 by Willy Chirino, a track to which millions of Cubans danced during Cuba’s difficult period in the 1990s. Chirino’s lyrics soon became an anthem for the balseros (rafters), who risked their lives trying to reach Florida’s shores. Nowadays, many Cubans become emotional just hearing it. Next up in 2021 came Patria y Vida (Homeland and Life), a song by artists and members of the San Isidro Movement (MSI), for example Luis Manuel Otero, who remains in prison today. This became a symbol of the anti-government social unrest on July 11, 2021, and sent shockwaves throughout the country. Today in Cuba, shouting out, “Patria y vida” is enough to land you in jail.

Read also: Freemuse x Shouts Artists’ Voice: Cuban Visual Artist Luis Manuel Otero Alcantara

Just when it seemed as though Cuban artists’ voices had been silenced, two singers in exile in the U.S., Linier Mesa, and Dianelys Alfonso, known as “La Diosa” (“The Goddess”), released their song Cuba Primero (Cuba First), in Miami on April 16, 2023. Each scene of its music video, which truly hit home in Cuba, deals with the symbolic connotations of the country’s historic exodus events, like Operation Peter Pan in 1959 and the 1994 Cuban Rafter Crisis, thus highlighting their underlying emotional toll.

Just like Patria y Vida in 2021, which encouraged Cubans to protest, another Cuban song has now taken on the socio-political activism mantle. However, as protests in 2021 had led to over 1,000 political prisoners, Cuba Primero instead calls upon artists in Cuba and their diaspora to speak out on behalf of the many Cubans suffering in silence. This is a time of great polarization among Cuban artists. While some have chosen to be in compliance with the regime, others criticize this island’s current system. It is, therefore, extremely difficult for any Cuban artist to take a neutral stance.

As such, Cuba Primero is not only a protest song. It also urges us as humans, artists, and intellectuals to step outside our comfort zone, thus ending our passivity and speaking out about the daily ordeal that Cuban lives have become on this vast prison-like island. From this perspective, silence is also a form of complicity.

Activism and its mobilizing power could be a spark within this powder keg that Cuban society has become, especially among young people who regularly access audio-visual content on social media and YouTube. This is a major concern for regime ideologues and their spokespersons, like Michel Torres Corona, who hosts the Con Filo television program. For some Cuban activists, like playwright Yunior García, Con Filo is the “most despicable” program, owing to its continued attacks on activists and critics. In one of his most recent shows, Torres Corona slammed the Cuba Primero music video, by questioning its use of certain symbology, such as a shark to represent Fidel Castro.

Read also: Latin Protest Anthem Nominated For A Grammy While Cuba Cracks Down On Dissidents

While Cuba Primero may able to mobilize civil society, today’s circumstances are different from those of the 2021 protests. However, one thing the activists and the Cuban government do have in common is the battle of symbols raging between the regime’s narrative and the diaspora’s cultural output.

These tracks, from the classic Ya Viene Llegando to the more recent Patria y Vida and Cuba Primero, indicate the cultural ties between the island and its compatriots abroad becoming increasingly connected by a shared vision: the total and unconditional liberation of Cuban people from totalitarianism.

During these bleak periods, Cubans, therefore, don’t just suffer in silence; they also sing and dance to lyrics calling upon them to pursue their much sought-after freedom.

If you would like to listen to more Cuban protest songs, check out this Global Voices playlist on Spotify:

Music Retrospects #3: Elaine Brown, the Black Panther Party and sexism within liberatory politics

These series were written by Cedric McCoy and republished here with the author’s and publisher’s consent. The 3-part series were originally published on The Michigan Daily webpage on Feb. 8, 21 and 23.

For Black History Month 2023, I will be publishing a mini-series of short music reviews under the title “Protest Music Retrospects.” The aim of this series is to both revisit some of the most pivotal moments in Black protest music history and to shed light on overlooked Black figures and musics, specifically those of Black women, that have contributed to socially-conscious popular culture. The reviews will be a mix of musical critique as well as historical and historiographical analysis of the works and their responses in media. I first highlighted Sister Souljah’s 360 Degrees of Power, and then Tracy Chapman’s debut album; for the final entry, I will finish the series with Elaine Brown’s 1969 album, Seize the Time

Brown is best known for her activism in Black Liberatory politics. She served as the leader of the Black Panther Party after Huey P. Newton fled to Cuba in the mid-70s, before leaving the party due to sexist leadership; she was the first and only woman to lead the party, and shifted the standard operations and the philosophies of the BPP towards inclusivity and local advocacy. In addition to her activism, Brown was trained as a musician from an early age and wrote poetry and songs in high school. In 1968, David Hilliard, then-BPP chief of staff commissioned Brown to record some of her politicized songs for the BPP after he heard her perform for some other Panthers — Seize The Time was the result.

Seize The Time exists as a recording (in more ways than one) of the motivations, goals and activism of the BPP. The album contains the party’s unofficial theme, “The Meeting,” as well as various other revolutionary tracks that were often played at BPP social events. Additionally, its cover art was created by Emory Douglas, BPP Minister of Culture. While it is not the only output of music from the BPP (the party also had a funk band composed of active members called “The Lumpen”), it is the only audio album produced by the party that featured exclusively music.

Brown’s Seize The Time is largely unrecognized by scholars and music fans alike; in researching the album for this article, I only found one comprehensive record of it by Michael Lupo of Répertoire International de Littérature Musicale on Smithsonian. From my knowledge of public history projects documenting music of the era, only PBS’s Fight the Power seems to have recognized it (and only in a passing montage of relevant albums). There is no official set of transcribed lyrics either; the original record did not include any with it, and open-source databases like Genius have not tackled the 10 tracks. Fortunately, the album (and its remaster) are available on the major streaming platforms and have not been lost to time just yet.

When I first envisioned this BHM mini-series, Seize The Time was the album I had in mind and most desired to write about. It represents a key shift in the canon of Black protest music in many ways. First, the songs are all composed and performed by a Black woman, one who was often ostracized by her fellow revolutionaries. Second, it predates the move towards overtly political music found in the `70s. Lastly, it demonstrates a unique application of protest music wherein the music serves in a direct-action/political praxis role, beyond “calls to action” or indictments.

Brown was classically trained in both music and dance in her youth, producing a certain restricted philosophy of praxis demonstrated in Seize The Time. Her music leans away from the powerful and raucous funk and soul of the `60s in favor of a more refined, authoritative tone. Though some of her contemporaries resisted this style, higher-ups in the party (namely Huey P. Newton) were fans of her music and supported her songwriting. The arrangements and orchestration were done by Horace Tapscott, pianist and jazz band leader, further solidifying the sound of Brown’s music into existing tradition.

Despite her western-influenced training, the lyricism of Seize The Time consists of a wide range of critiques. In the tracks, Brown addresses systemic racism and oppression, but also engages with the often violent, male aesthetic of the BPP. In “The End of Silence,” Brown includes these lines:

And you can’t go on

With this time-worn song

That just won’t change the way you feel

Well then, believe it my friend

That this silence will end

We’ll just have to get guns 

And be men

Though Brown was known for her ardent anti-sexism stance with the BPP (which often abused and overworked her and other women despite their majority and important contributions), the gendered language of her music leaves much to be desired. See also this excerpt from “The Panther,” which aimed to paint the BPP in a strong, revolutionary light: “He is a hero, he walks with night / His spirit’s beauty, his soul is right … His face is black and he would die for you / To get your freedom back.”

I find that contextualizing Brown’s classical training as well as her high ranking in the party is central in understanding her portrayal of the Black revolutionary. History has often looked upon resistances through the lens of individuals, such as that of Great Man Theory; even today, names like Newton, Bobby Seale, Fred Hampton, Eldridge Cleaver and those of other Black men are used almost metonymically to reference the Black Power movement of the era. Brown met the BPP where it was, both politically and musically, but consistently challenged the party and its leaders to do better and to approach the Black experience with more intersectionality than its founders had originally intended.

Brown’s leadership in the party, and also her musical contributions to the soundscape of Black liberatory politics are key components in the construction of an accurate and holistic narrative of the BPP and protest music. Though Seize The Time never received airplay, charted or earned Brown much compensation, her work as a musician has recently begun to be recognized for its impact on her contemporaries as well as Black protest music as a whole. Records of her activism now often mention her musicianship alongside her politics. Beyond her direct successors, artists such as Alicia Keys have also memorialized her impact on Black music. 

In publishing this mini-series, I hope to recognize and reframe our memory and understanding of Black women artists who have approached, engaged and shaped protest music over the last half-century. It is on their backs that we are able to celebrate the male figures that have come to dominate contemporary narratives of protest music. Through continued efforts such as these, music scholars, fans, archivists and the general public can begin to have a complete understanding of the history of Black protest music.

MiC Assistant Editor Cedric Preston McCoy can be reached at cedmccoy@umich.edu.

Music Retrospects #2: Tracy Chapman, class consciousness and womanism

These series were written by Cedric McCoy and republished here with the author’s and publisher’s consent. The 3-part series were originally published on The Michigan Daily webpage on Feb. 8, 21 and 23.

For Black History Month 2023, I will be publishing a mini-series of short music reviews under the title “Protest Music Retrospects.” The aim of this series is to both revisit some of the most pivotal moments in Black protest music history and to shed light on overlooked Black figures and musics, specifically those of Black women, that have contributed to socially-conscious popular culture. The reviews will be a mix of musical critique as well as historical and historiographical analysis of the works and their responses in media. I first highlighted Sister Souljah’s 360 Degrees of Power; for this next entry, I will continue the series with Tracy Chapman’s 1988 debut and self-titled album, Tracy Chapman.

Arguably, Tracy Chapman isn’t exactly “overlooked.” It is one of the best-selling albums of all time (having sold over 20 million copies worldwide and certified platinum six times over) and earned Chapman Grammys for Best Contemporary Folk Album, Best Female Pop Vocal Performance (for “Fast Car”) and Best New Artist. However, I argue that the political themes and lyricism of Tracy Chapman is frequently missed in discussions of protest music of the era; released in the same year as N.W.A.’s Straight Outta Compton and Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, the surviving narrative is that Black male rappers and emcees pioneered the new resistance. The intrigue of “Fast Car” quickly became what Tracy Chapman was known for, and in combination with the fact that she was a Black woman making folk music in the late 20th century, the politicization of her lyrics was lost on a majority of audiences. As a result of her commercial success, contemporary accounts strip Chapman of her evocative and powerful commentary.

Tracy Chapman is, at its core, an album that documents the experience of a working class Black woman. Chapman, in a traditional folk style, often positions herself as a narrator outside of the story actively being told; even so, she weaves her knowledge and experiences into the narrative. For example, in the lead track “Talkin’ Bout a Revolution,” Chapman discusses the rumblings of an impoverished and overexploited working class interested in a “revolution,” wherein “poor people gonna rise up / and take their share / poor people gonna rise up / and take what’s theirs.” 

Raised by a working-class family in Cleveland, Chapman knows firsthand the challenges of working-class Americans and is able to dictate the experience with a certain specificity: “While they’re standing in the welfare lines” in the first verse becomes “I’ve been standing in the welfare lines” in the third verse. “Talkin’ Bout a Revolution” sets the tone for an album unmistakably entrenched in the struggle.

Every subsequent track on the album continues this thread of what Southern University professor Dr. Rasheedah Jenkins describes as “unabashed critique of the economic system’s virulence during the Reagan-Bush administration and its global influence.” In songs like the album’s lead single “Fast Car” and “She’s Got Her Ticket,” Chapman tells stories of women desperately seeking an escape from poverty and lack of opportunity; “Why?” and “Behind the Wall” comment on violence against women, both domestically and globally; “Mountain O’ Things” critiques American materialism and exploitative labor practices and so on. In each track Chapman addresses these issues with nuance and empathy, directly personifying the resistance of capitalist oppressions and state violence.

Even beyond her searing indictments of American society and western greed, there is something unique and admirable about Chapman’s lyrics that I find especially worth noting. In contrast to the hyper-masculine and chauvinistic aggression found in some of her male contemporaries, Chapman centers love and understanding in her narratives. She connects herself to the stories she tells — not to center herself, but to engage the reader in a more personal listening of her lyrics. In “If Not Now…” Chapman spends the first few verses presenting economic and social liberation as the ruling class’s unrequited love for the working class, but then presents this line in the final verse: “Now love’s the only thing that’s free / we must take it where it’s found.” Immediately this could be read as a continuation of her running metaphor, that we should seize opportunity when it finds us; I argue that Chapman intends a second, more literal meaning with the lyric. In the same way that she has humanized the working-class stories throughout the album, Chapman humanizes our fundamental desire to be acknowledged and cared for. I feel that the album’s final track, “For You,” can also be understood in this double-meaning framework.

Essentially, I encourage the reader to see Chapman’s debut album through a womanist lens – especially regarding the second definition ascribed to the term by its originator, Alice Walker: 

“A woman who loves other women, sexually and/or nonsexually. Appreciates and prefers women’s culture, women’s emotional flexibility (values tears as natural counterbalance of laughter), and women’s strength. Sometimes loves individual men, sexually and/or nonsexually. Committed to survival and wholeness of entire people, male and female.”

While Chapman has never publicly disclosed information about her sexual preferences or identity, we do know that there is potential to see her life and work through a queer lens (ironically, as a result of Alice Walker herself disclosing her and Chapman’s affairs). I borrow musicologist Suzanne Cusick’s framework for understanding music through a lesbian lens from her article “On A Lesbian Relationship with Music” to extend this analysis. Cusick argues that a (assumedly oversimplified but fundamental in nature) lesbian relationship lacks the traditionally heterosexual power dynamic: 

(A woman) is non-power: to be in love with her is to be in love with, to be fascinated by, to be drawn to that which is non-power. With her, a self who is also non-power is more likely to create a relationship based on non-power…No one in the relationship has been formed to be the power figure, although all can play at it.

In short, Cusick claims that queer relationships (but that specifically of lesbians) defy a hierarchical, vertical power structure in favor of a horizontal, fluid power structure. I find this lens, applied to music specifically as Cusick later does, useful in understanding Chapman’s work because it lacks that exact power dynamic protest music had come to embody in that moment: in contrast to a prophet or speaker for Black America to rally behind and listen to, Chapman simply tells her story as-is and lends her ear to her working-class comrades.  Chapman, in the face of multiple jeopardy systemic oppressions, advocates intracommunal love and the liberation of all through mutual efforts. There is no appeal to violence or physical rage, as such devices are unnecessary in her approach; rather, it is more useful to understand one another and build solidarity in absence of hierarchical power structures, both in terms of race and gender but as well as sexuality.

Tracy Chapman will be remembered by, as it already is, Chapman’s transparent and relatable lyricism as well as her politically informed criticisms. In addition to the genre-defining musicality and emotion displayed throughout Chapman’s recordings, I hope that the album is revered for its revolutionary draw to love and its commitment to radical empathy within the canon of Black protest music for generations to come. The album is potent with themes, analysis and lyrics to pick apart for at least a few more decades.

MiC Assistant editor Cedric Preston McCoy can be reached at cedmccoy@umich.edu.