Monday, February 22, 2016

Straight From the Underground: Freedom and Street Art in Havana


Photo credit: Amberly Alene Ellis

Splashes of color stand out against Havana’s aging buildings and Spanish architecture. The walls of parks, school playgrounds, abandoned buildings and alleyways are filling with the work of street artists. They leave behind only the coded signatures of their names. The presence of this modernity in a seemingly time locked country speaks to the challenges and the creativity of Cuban youth. Street art is some what of  a new phenomenon in Havana. Spaces that were once nothing, are now filling up with the work of young people dedicated to bringing art to their city. The risks are high for street artists, as they are not often commissioned for their work and can face trouble for painting without permission. I’ve always wondered of the audacity of these artists, and their bravery to share their work so boldly to the world.

Before I became friends with the Cuban street artist 5stars, I was just another spectator and fan of the work that seems to sweep every available corner of Centro Havana. When we finally met in Havana, he was just begging to regularly use Instagram and Facebook to promote his work. Yairan, better known as 5stars is a street artist from Havana, Cuba. 5stars began painting in 2010, due to a lack of street art in Cuba. His sketches and murals have a very distinct style and can predominantly be found in Centro Havana. Now continuing his work from Frankfurt, Germany, 5stars didn’t leave his love for his country behind.

Like his fellow street artists and friends Yulier P. and Fabian (2+2=5), 5stars is dedicated to using his art to show that Cuban culture is multifaceted, multicultural and so much more than the old cars, cigars and salsa music that attracts so many tourists to the Cuban capital of Havana. He has recently started a hashtag on social media called #CubaSiempre in his efforts to use art to show the lesser known culture of his country. He seeks to show the culture from the streets, from the youth in the underground. 5stars often seeks areas where youth gather to skateboard, and has also expanded to the Regla neighborhood, where monthly hip hop shows take place.


Photo credit: Amberly Alene Ellis

“We look for visible locations, we look for places where people will see our work. Places near bus stops or where there is a lot of traffic.” he says. His friends Yulier P. and Fabian (2+2=5) explain that it is art that has given them the most freedom to express themselves. When I asked Fabian what the symbol 2+2=5 means, he told me without hesitation that it is a symbol that represents his freedom. He told me, “People say that two plus two equals four, but I don’t see it like that. I believe that it can equal whatever you want it to be. You can be whatever you want to be...And I want people to know that, so I put it everywhere with my art. I paint here, I paint there, I paint everywhere. I want people to know that I am free.”

Yulier P. now has a studio and gallery on the famous Prado in Havana Vieja. His work attracts buyers from all around the world. He likes street art because he believes that it gives people a more interactive experience, and he believes that it gives more people access to his work. He was working in studio art when he met 5stars. They began painting in the street together, and from there his love for street art really began to grow.

Photo: Work of Fabian (2+2=5) in Centro Havana,

Yulier P. describes his artistic style as impressionistic. Each of the characters that he creates in his work reflect different kinds of Cuban people. He explains that different characters can sometimes can be encompassed in one person, so he tries to show that in his work. The appearance of each of the characters reflects their inner expressions.

When people ask if his work is urban or underground he says “I wouldn't describe that my art is just one thing, that it is urban or underground or even studio art. Normally people classify my work as urban because I am most known from my art in the street, but my work is not something that I want to so firmly classify.” Yulier says his art, like the diverse Cuban people, is something that has multiple personalities.

Photo credits: Cinco Estrellas Instagram

A visit to his studio in Prado will reveal the immense body of work that Yulier has created in his career. Conveniently located near major tourist attractions like Central Park and the Capital, Yulier explains that it is a major challenge for him to maintain his studio in Havana. There is a constant need for supplies that he sometimes can’t find in Cuba. 5stars mentions of the difficulties of being able to find the paint that they need to work. As I watched Yulier and 5stars paint, I noticed that they had cut off the tops of plastic bottles to use the base to hold their paint, and that some of the other materials that they used to paint were homemade. The kind of paint the artists needs to work are not easy to come by in Havana.

With the coming of more tourism in Cuba, the work of these young artists is becoming more and more visible. It is difficult to scroll through Havana hashtags on social media without seeing photographs of their work, and often the artists do not receive any credit or mention. 5stars recently started his first Twitter account, and he is learning how to best promote his work on the internet. Lack of internet access in Cuba made it difficult for him to manage his social media accounts, but now that he works from Germany, he can share his work with a larger audience.

 Photo credits: 5stars Instagram

I had the opportunity to watch the three artists work on a mural one day. As we joked around, and took photographs, I realized that there was something bittersweet about the work that they were creating together. I saw the sacrifices that 5stars made to be the artist that he wants to be with the resources he needs to work. 5stars is traveling back and forth from Frankfurt and Havana, but the spaces between travel are long and communicating with his family on the island from Germany is still very difficult.

I realize that so many of their everyday struggles are reflected in their art. They are struggles that comes from not having all the tools to paint and finding creative ways to invent them. They are struggles that comes from the need for a spaces to express oneselves, and creating one from nothing. It is art that completely comes from the underground. It is bittersweet because I do not know how long it will remain that way, and how long before it becomes a novelty or a t-shirt in a gift shop as tourism in Havana continues to grow.

When I see the #CubaSiempre hashtag, I realize how important it is. #CubaSiempre is the effort of Cuban youth to claim an artistic movement as their own. It is preserving a medium that has allowed them to visualize their experiences on a platform that the world can ignore. It is their movement. A youth movement. Straight from the underground.

Photo Credit: Yulier P. Facebook 

To learn more about the work of these artist, Please follow them social media

5stars
Instagram: @mr5stars

Yulier P.
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/yulier.rodriguez.52?fref=ts
Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/yuliergraffiticuba/

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/lopezh.fabianpintandopared/


Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Why ‘Naturalization’ Laws in the Dominican Republic are not just a “Dominican” Problem

Haitian laborer in Domincan Republic 

By: Amberly Alene Ellis
Photo Credits: Amberly Alene Ellis


When Haitian representative of the Nation of Islam, Joseph Makhandal spoke at the Justice or Else March led by Louis Farrakhan in October, whispers and chattering from the lips of black and brown faces spilled through the National Mall.

Though the conflict of naturalization in the Dominican Republic is not a new development, the subject has recently surfaced in mainstream media outlets. At most, the coverage has been severely shallow. Many black and brown American people do not know the deep history of the issue or what it means for their own collective struggles in the United States.  I argue for fighters against the devaluing of black American bodies to critically access the global infrastructures of racial injustice. In particular, these fighters for justice in America should examine how injustice is sustained for their very close neighbors in Latin America and the Caribbean.

To continue reading click here 

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Cuba Through the iPhone 6














Masters of the Digital Divide: The Past and Future of Hip Hop in Cuba




Hip hop lives in Havana. On late weekend nights, the sound of stereo systems may surprise you. Salsa, bolero and rumba can blend with the steady bass of the most up to date Hip hop tracks. It can also ease into old school Hip hop beat that could take any Hip hop lover back to the golden days. In Cuba, Hip hop music has played a particularly integral role in the shaping of a youth subculture. Hip hop music sprouted in the days of the ‘special period’ of Cuba. After the fall of the Soviet Union, in 1989, Cuba would never be the same.


Economic hardship drove youth to search for new ways of self-expression. For some young Cubans, the struggles expressed by African American Hip hop artists connected to the marginalization that blacks in Cuba would experience in the 90’s as the economic disparity and the lack of equal opportunities made it more obvious that the racial problem in Cuba were no longer something that could be concealed. Hip-hop would provide a voice to the voiceless. In Cuba, Hip hop has served as an informant for the youth.  Long before social media, cell phones, and email, music was a critical way to share new thoughts and ideas.

In a now rapidly changing country, these technologies are only recently penetrating a culture that never had open access to these technologies, even just a generation ago. The limitations of internet access and news outside of Cuba has inspired youth to find new channels to acquire information, without the technology of some of their global counterparts. The existence of Hip hop in Cuba is a testament to the innovations of youth who are curious to learn more about themselves and their social conditions through music.

Hip hop has provided an opportunity for youth to tap into global conversations concerning social issues around the world. The methods of which Hip hop music entered Cuba were entirely informal. In a park in Central Havana, I met a young aspiring Hip hop artist who appreciatively told me that Hip hop music taught him the history that he did not learn in school. Some may argue of the lack of positive messages for youth in Hip hop, but real fans of Hip hop would counter that Hip hop in Cuba has long had a relationship with themes of social justice.
One summer afternoon in Havana, I had the opportunity to better understand the history of Hip hop in Cuba, and to discuss what the future holds for Hip hop in a time of rapid change. I interviewed two Cuban Hip hop artists from two very different time periods in Cuban Hip hop. The conversation started with Alexey ‘El Tipo Este’ of Obsesión, one of Cuba’s first and most revered Hip hop groups. For the past twenty years, Obsesión, which is now composed of El Tipo Este and Magia Lopez, have created socially conscious Hip hop that touches various themes of culture, history, politics and everyday life in Cuba. Joining in on the Hip hop conversation, is newcomer, Karlito PandP. Karlito PandP is a 26-year-old Hip Hop artist from Havana who is getting some attention from his latest LP Blue Flow which was released in 2014. The two artists openly discuss their experiences and their passion for Hip Hop music.



How would you describe the Hip hop scene when you first started?

Alexey El Tipo Este:  When I first started listening, I didn’t know that what I was listening to was Hip hop music. I only knew that is was a music that I was dancing and listening to day and night at parties. I would go to a lot of parties, at people’s houses, in parks in many different places. There were cyphers, there was a lot during these times.  I learned to break dance at these parties. The first Hip Hop Festival in Cuba was in 1995. In the first festival I was teaching a dance choreography with a group called Malcolm Malcolm. During this time, at the very start, I felt that there was a large sentiment of unification among Hip hop listeners. I think that people were learning though the music about the significance of what it meant to be black and I think that that influenced us a lot in our lives in Cuba. The songs that we wrote unified us because it helped us to create a common idea of blackness. We did not have before, and when you recognize another person as your equal, and someone like you, that is something beautiful.  And of course, there were many contractions in hip hop too. I can’t say that everything was beautiful, but when we began to confront these issues in Hip hop, we began to take save hip hop and to take care of hip hop and make it our own.

How did you find hip-hop music from the U.S in Cuba, during the early days?

Alexey El Tipo Este:  There were different ways that I looked for music from the U.S. There were Cuban sailors that were coming from different countries, and they were bringing in influences from those different countries. They were also bringing in music. I bought my first Hip hop cassette from a sailor; it was a Public Enemy cassette. The first feeling I had to listen to Public Enemy was that someone was trying to use music to try and escape something. That they were hungry and I felt that it was something that was also my experience. At first I couldn’t understand why people were talking so much on a record, because I didn’t understand the style of rap. I didn’t understand why they weren’t singing, and why they were talking instead but later I understood that this was what was called ‘rapping’ and it was a form of self-expression. I also used to climb on my roof with my radio to listen to Hip hop music. If you pointed the antennae in the right way, you could catch the signal of the radio stations in Miami, and I did that a lot. That’s how I learned about Hip hop.

Would you say that Hip hop in Cuba has changed?

Alexey El Tipo Este:  I think that right now, we are missing a common goal, or a movement in the music because aside from the fact that everyone has his or her own dreams and individual wants, there should be a collective goal. I think that doors are closed when are missing this common goal as a collective. I also think that we are missing a self-critical element. I think that the Hip hop groups now are less preoccupied with being different. I remember before, when I first listened to a new Hip hop group, I felt like I was listening to things that were completely different from anything else that was happening at the time. This applies to groups in both Cuban and the U.S.  It is also important to note that back then, there were many more women in Hip hop. To say this is important because this brought an important balance to Hip hop that we do not have now. I believe that women have so many more reasons to speak out than men have.

Who are the artists that inspired you?

Alexey El Tipo Este:  What inspired me first was Motown music. Artists like Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, The Temptations, The Miracles, Four Tops, Ike & Tina Turner, Jackson 5, The Supremes. And also artists like Nina Simone, Aretha Franklin and Etta James. This music had an influence on me more than anything. And then there were other artists, old school hip hop artists like KRS One, Public Enemy, Digital Underground, Vico C from Puerto Rico, A Menace (a Hip hop group from Cuba) Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, Mary J Blige, Death Squad, EPMD, Curtis Blow, Special D. Hip Hop music from Puerto Rico had a big influence on me, it was really impactful music.



How has technology and the creation of your music changed?

Alexey El Tipo Este:  Obsesión was one of the first hip hop groups to record a record in Cuba. The first tracks that we recorded were actually in a storage freezer in a store, like where you store ice.  I knew this guy who was a sound technician and he told me that he liked our music and that he would help us put some songs on a cassette. There wasn’t any other place to record at the time. There just wasn’t.  The sound was good in the freezer, but it was hard because you could only record one song at a time and it was so cold, and our teeth would start chattering and everything (laughs) and then we had to keep checking and making sure that his boss at the store didn’t know what we were doing. (Laughs) but we recorded, and we were one of the first.  

After talking with Alexey, I started my conversation with Karlito PandP.

As a new artist, how would you describe the Hip hop scene in Cuba now?
Karlito PandP: There are many problems in Hip hop now. There are a lot of things that are happening that are just bad for Hip hop. For one, some things are just different now. Like having a performance isn’t like it was before when Alexey first started. Now it is hard to secure a space to have a show and it’s really bad when you can have a thousand views on Youtube and then 8 people come to your show. People do not come out and show support like they used to. The idea of supporting one another has changed.

Who are your major influences?

Karlito PandP: Music from Puerto Rico, Spain and from the U.S are big influences for me.  I also listen to Hip hop music from France and Venezuela. When I started learning about Hip-hop, I started to listen to Maestro from Puerto Rico, and from Spain Tote King and from the United States I remember listening to 50 Cent and most of all I remember his story. I remember the impact that his story had in Cuba when he first came out.  We felt like we could relate to him. I listened to artists like Eminem, DMX. I remember when I had the first CD that Pitbull came out with. It was a lot different from the music that he makes now, but I will always remember his first album. These are just some of the artists that I listened to when I first started to know Hip hop and then I began to study Hip hop in general, and I listened to a lot of old school. I began to study it and really understand it.

How do you search for music in Cuba?

Karlito PandP:  I search for a lot of music online (laughs.) But, this is Cuba, it isn’t easy. Imagine downloading a song here. I download songs from a whole bunch of different sites, but it takes so long to download one song without interruption. So many things can happen to get in the way of your download. For example, one full song could take 12 hours to download. One time it took me two weeks to try and download an album. Two weeks, and I was so happy to have it.  To be able to download something without interruption here is a real problem.

What is the technical process of making Hip-hop music in Cuba and how do you get your music out there?

Karlito PandP:  When I first started trying to make my own music I was using ProTools. I didn’t have any way or anyone to learn from. When I first started making music it was really bad, the sound and everything was horrible but I had to learn some way. Recording sound in Cuba really is not easy. There are so many sounds that you have to deal with that can make good sound impossible. For example like people yelling when they are selling things in the street (laughs) like right now!  The cars passing by, there is constant interruption. I had to learn that it is better to have a medium quality microphone here than one that is to have a really high quality microphone that can for example capture the sound of a fly on the wall because then you will be able to pick up all the sounds there are in Cuba. If you cannot afford a studio with padded walls and all of these things to keep out sound then, you just can’t do it.  You just can’t record.

Do you predict that there will be any change in the outlook of your career with the recent changes in U.S and Cuba relations?


Karlito PandP: I think that if we had access to things like iTunes and Spotify or more access to things like Youtube then of course, we can put our music out there more. But this does not necessarily mean the changes that come will be good for everybody. Even if these things come to Cuba, not everyone will still have the access to use them. Not everyone has access to computers for example, to upload and to share their songs. These are things to think about. You can have the ability to do something here, but if you don’t have the resource to do this something, then simply, you can’t.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

New Adventures in Haiti and Dominican Republic!

As of last week, I have returned from Port au Prince, Haiti. It was so hard to leave this time around. As usual, I am making adjustments to the Washington DC weather. I  tried my best not to think about the snow that would greet me upon my arrival! I finished up on the photography project that I started in  La Piedra, Dominican Republic last year. Here is a small sneak peak of some of the portraits that I took. There are so many stories to tell....





Thursday, December 18, 2014

Classic: Black and White

This winter I have been living in my Doc Martins. Today I was feeling like something classic, an old school look with a new school twist. Photo cred: Richard T. Fields. See the look below: