Since DJs first toasted in Kingston, since b-boys first breakdanced in the Bronx, the hip hop movement has been fuelled by young people speaking up and acting out, opening new frequencies. In New York City, where hip hop first gathered steam, rap musicians didn’t go through official channels because there were no official channels for them to go through. For American record companies in the 1970s, rap simply wasn’t music, just as graffiti wasn’t art and “breaking” wasn’t dancing. So hip hop stayed “underground” and its practitioners were left to perform wherever they could — in parking lots, on basketball courts — typically one step ahead of someone wanting to chase them away. Who could have imagined a day when hip hop would become (in the words of National Geographic magazine) "the world’s favourite youth culture"?
While American hip hop in the 1990s was veering off in the direction of bling-bling fashion and luxury-goods product endorsements, two rappers in Havana were defiantly heading back underground. Aldo Roberto Rodríguez Baquero (Aldo) and Bian Oscar Rodríguez Gala (El B) styled themselves as keepers of the hip-hop flame, and they were going to do it the hard way. They opted to pursue a music career without help from the Cuban Rap Agency, the government-funded organisation that connects artists with performance venues and promotes concerts in Cuba.
“We wanted to take part in the struggle,” Aldo says. “We wanted to be a band that fights for something. A band born from the idea of taking a position on issues that affect so many young people, young Cubans. That’s Los Aldeanos.”
Aldo and EL B first performed together as Los Aldeanos (which translates, roughly, as The Villagers) in 2003. Word of their lyrical prowess spread first around Havana, then around the world. Their output has been impressive even by the most hyper-productive U.S. standards. Not counting their solo composing and producing, Los Aldeanos have released six stand-out albums: Censurados (2003), Poesía Esposada (2004), L3y8 (2004), En 3 T La Musas (2005), Abajo Como Hace 3 Febreros (2006), and El Atropello (2009). And they’ve won prizes: the Rap Plaza award in Cuba for their song “Aveces Sueño” in 2003, and El B won the hotly contested “Batalla de los Gallos,” the freestyle competition sponsored by Red Bull, two years in a row. In 2009 Los Aldeanos were named Best Rap Group by the Cuerda Viva television program.
Considering the success of their songs (audiences know all their lyrics by heart), Aldo and El B should be in da club partying like it’s their birthday. But that’s where Los Aldeanos differs most radically from any popular U.S. rap act: they’re hugely successful, not hugely wealthy. The more famous they’ve become, the more underground they’ve stayed. For one thing, none of the albums mentioned above have enjoyed anything like an official release — you just have to find them where you find them.
Los Aldeanos is the band everyone wants to see, but the question is, Where to see them? Havana’s usual performance spaces, those capable of accommodating the huge fan base Los Aldeanos have built for themselves, refuse to book them. The pair have been accused of expressing anti-socialist sentiments in their lyrics, although Aldo and El B have repeatedly denied such charges, saying, “we are pro-Revolution, pro-revolutionary in the sense that we want things to be better for our people.”
As far as their lyrics, here’s what El B has to say: “‘America’ [from El B’s solo album, Dr. Jekill & Mr. Hyde, 2008] is a song that talks not just about Cuban problems but about problems all over Latin America.” Aldo points to the title song from his own solo effort, Miseria Humana (2008): “This human misery, this is how it is for Cubans today — our need for money, our need to help each other….”
So might the controversy that has dogged Los Aldeanos since the beginning be a big misunderstanding? Could the New York Times be partly to blame? A 2006 Times article didn’t manage to attribute any inflammatory statements to Aldo or El B, but it was entitled "Cuba’s Rap Vanguard Reaches Beyond the Party Line” and included Los Aldeanos in that vanguard, and that seems to have been enough to label them as potential troublemakers, or at least to keep them firmly under ground.
“People are always cataloguing me as ‘underground’,” Aldo says, “because of the way I live, because I matter, because when I see a blind man I help him cross the street, because when I see a pregnant woman on the bus I let her have my seat, because I avoid trouble and take care of my brothers and help them take care of each other. If that’s what ‘underground’ means, OK, then I’m underground.”