Jay-Z making waves in Cuba

Jay-Z and Beyoncé in Cuba, April 2013

As it was only slightly more widely reported than your average presidential trip abroad, you might not have heard about Jay-Z’s recent vacation to Cuba with his wife Beyoncé. While virtually any outing the power couple takes inevitably makes it to some media outlet or the other, this late-March visit was plastered across the mainstream news because of its particular destination: nominally a no-fly zone for American tourists. The trip ruffled some feathers, with conservative politicians and news pundits asking how such a high-profile couple could be allowed to openly flaunt one of the longstanding sanctions the US government has imposed on Cuba to deny that country the benefit of American tourist dollars.

Upon his return to the States, the hip hop magnate penned a new Timbaland-laced track responding to his critics called “Open Letter” and posted it to his YouTube account on April 11. In and amongst the boasting that he had somehow obtained personal clearance from President Obama (a charge that Obama himself, hilariously enough, felt called upon to deny), Jay-Z did manage to bury a couple of cool lines from a protest perspective:

This communist talk is so confusing
When it’s from China, the very mic that I’m using

Say what you will, that’s a pretty damn astute, concise critique of current US policy. Of course, the issues around Cuba are nuanced, and while both critics and supporters of Castro’s rule have their arguments, Jay-Z seems to take a fairly uncritical look at the regime (you can look forward to a thorough treatment of anti-Castro Cuban hip hop in a future article).

The track has since spawned a couple of responses — so far from Common, Wyclef, and Pitbull. As a Miami-born Cuban American himself, Pitbull’s version references Cuba’s history with the United States, and questions whether or not the outcry over Jay-Z (real name Shawn Carter) and Beyoncé’s trip was racist in nature:

Question of the night –
Would they have messed with Mr. Carter if he was white?

Although coming down much less favorably towards the Cuban government than the Jay-Z original (the Cuban community in Miami is overwhelmingly anti-Castro), Pitbull nonetheless makes some valid points. For example in the chorus, “C – U – B – A,  Hope to see you free one day,” the point stands that even among the increasing freedoms enjoyed by Cubans over the past couple of years, the Castro regime has yet to work out giving average citizens the simple freedom to leave the island. More remarkable than what’s in these lyrics, though, is what’s left out: for Pitbull to do anything even vaguely political, without once mentioning alcohol or the female anatomy, seems like a minor miracle in and of itself.

From Common, however, we’ve come to expect lyrics that go further than merely skin deep, and the Chicago rapper delivers a fitting addition to Jay Z’s original two verses. He mentions former Black Panther Assata Shakur, who escaped from a New Jersey prison in 1979 and, in 1984, fled to Cuba, where she was formally granted political asylum. Common also talks about parading for peace on Chicago’s South Side, where gun violence has reached epidemic proportions, and an entire generation of children are growing up thinking this is how they have to survive — or as Common poetically puts it, “trying to eat in the belly of the beast”. Check out a letter he wrote for the Chicago Sun Times last month, as well as a couple lines from his response to Jay-Z:

Y’all gonna learn today
Like you’re listenin’ to Malcolm or MLK

Finally, as far as Wyclef’s track goes, he doesn’t even mention Cuba. Instead the song comes off as little more than an opportunity to recount how many amazing things he’s done (he was the only one the UN trusted to bring peace to Haiti), how many important people he knows (he’s down with Bill Clinton, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie), and how many millions of dollars casually pass through his hands. He once tried to run for president of Haiti! Wow!

All in all, hats off to Jay-Z for inspiring political tendencies in his colleagues and calling out hypocritically up-in-arms politicians who pick and choose which dictators to support and who, as he says, “never did shit for me, except lie to me, distort history”. Though he could stand to tone it down a bit about being Obama’s BFF — and his audacious claim of being “the Bob Dylan of rap music” is surely debatable — at least he didn’t make his entire song about namedropping. Sorry, Wyclef. I know you “used to eat dirt” and everything, but bragging about how humble you are tends to obscure the point just a bit.


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