Danay Suarez Fernandez is more rapper than r&b singer, even if she has a lot less in common with Lil’ Kim than she does with, say, Erykah Badu or Jill Scott. She can rap convincingly about the plight of sisters and the shortcomings of brothers without striking a gangsta pose, and her singing is invariably lovely. Commenting on “Espinita,” one of her songs available on YouTube, a Danay fan describes her as “the representative of conscious female Cuban hip-hop with the most exquisite voice and the most intelligent lyrics,” and anyone who has been lucky enough to watch her perform in Havana is likely to agree.
“I never said I was a rapper,” Danay points out. “I can rap and sing, but my real desire is to be a jazz singer, to develop that style. I haven’t done it because I don’t have the musical skills, but I’ll get there some day. I’ve got it inside of me.”
Danay, 24, was born in Havana’s Cerro district. When her parents separated she moved with her mother to Santa Fe on the outskirts of the city. “In our building in Cerro we had to run up the stairs before bits of the roof would fall on us,” she recalls. “Birds would make their nests in the holes in the roof. It was a very shabby place but I was very happy there because my whole family was together. I didn’t want to leave, I wanted to stay close to civilisation.” But not only did she adapt to Santa Fe, she thrives here. “I have a lot of love for this neighbourhood,” she says. “Now when I see all the noise and dirt in [central Havana], I can’t wait to come back here, for the peace and quiet. And I’m close to the sea here, which is important to me.”
Danay lives with a younger brother and their mother, whose ceramic art decorates the patio outside. Her aunt Isabelle is responsible for the sculpture that sits on top of the house — an enormous toilet bowl gaily painted with a floral motif, which can be seen from miles around.
Danay spends long hours in her room, writing songs on an old PC with a music-composing program and a MIDI keyboard. “I’ve always been a singer but I never had the opportunity to study music,” she says. “I studied computer programming, which I suppose has come in handy for me. In my family nobody is a musician. I don’t think they can even dance.”
She says she started rapping “by accident,” writing about things that matter to her, making up rhymes. “I was sure of myself, sure I had something to say and I wanted people to hear me. A rapper needs to have that kind of confidence. I said a lot of shit and now I’m trying to be more quiet.”
When she was 15 she was invited to take part in a concert in Havana’s Teatro Nacional. “I had to sing with my back to the audience, I was so nervous,” Danay says. She continued to play concerts organised by the Cuban Rap Agency, the government-funded entity that promotes hip hop in Cuba. Then she started working with Aldo, one half of Cuba’s most celebrated underground rap duo, Los Aldeanos. Aldo helped Danay record and produce her own songs (“Libre,” “Individual”), and she sang with him on some of his songs (“La La La”).
One day, back in 2007, Danay gathered together a lot of her demo recordings and went to see Cuban fusion superstar X Alfonso. “He was the only person In Cuba who I thought would understand what I wanted to do,” she explains. “I didn’t think twice. I just went to his house and said, ‘You don’t know me, here’s my music, listen to it. If you need a backup singer, give me a call.’ A few days later he asked me to work with him, and I haven’t stopped.”
What lies ahead for her? “Of course I’d love to have a jazz group,” she says. “I’d love to have a studio with professional engineers behind the mixing board. But until that happens, I’ll continue making my music in the street, rapping, even if I’m not signed by a big record company. The most important thing is for people to hear my music, which is not only about my life but also maybe about the lives of millions of Cubans. That’s what I’m doing.”