The 8th Annual Political Theatre Festival will explore issues of social justice, featuring one-act plays written and performed by Latino artists, special guest artists presented by the University of Minnesota, and the Midwest debut of REPRESENTA, written and performed by Bay Area spoken word and theatre artist Paul Flores.
The Walker was happy to provide support to one of its favorite community partners Intermedia Arts to make Paul Flores’ visit possible. Intermedia is a vibrant part of the Twin Cities arts community and it’s important that they continue to produce events like the Political Theater Festival. That’s why you should go! And if that reason isn’t enough, read on. The Walker’s own Allison Herrera got the chance to interview Paul about the inspiration for his show Representa and the Cuban Hip Hop scene. You can check out Representa this weekend at Intermedia. Go to their website www.intermediaarts.org for more information.
Describe the process and inspiration for developing Representa?
I was at a symposium on Global Urban Theater at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in 2004, as an invitee of Baraka Sele, an amazing curator and woman. There were attendees from New York, Canada, Los Angeles, Europe, Africa, Philadelphia and other urban centers. Many amazing artists, thinkers and funders including Ben Cameron and Emilia Cachapero representing TCG, as well as Rennie Harris, Trey Anthony (Da Kink in My Hair), Will Power, Brian Freeman, Kamilah Forbes, and Danny Hoch, among others. Urban theater for me meant hip-hop theater, though it did not necessarily only mean that for everyone else at the symposium, especially the woman from West Africa. In my experience “Urban” also referred to people of color, as in urban dwellers, as well as a certain age demographic. This would not have included the urban theater festival producers from Rotterdam. Nevertheless, I was the only Latino at the symposium. As a Latino artist specializing in bilingual and hip-hop performance, I was a little surprised that my culture(s) were under-represented at this table of some of my favorite artists.
Later one evening I spoke with Danny Hoch about where hip-hop might be thriving. We both agreed hip-hop seemed to be more interesting in the sense of its cultural and political activism and sheer movement capabilities in Latin America, particularly in Brazil and Cuba. I had never been to Brazil, but I had been to Cuba twice; the last time I had attended the Hip-Hop Festival in Havana with Danny in 2001 and met scores of Cuban hip-hop artists. Our conversation escalated when Danny suggested that the center of hip-hop was not the United States, and not New York, but somewhere outside of the US. I argued that this was impossible. Hip-Hop was an evolution of American music and culture, like the blues, jazz, rock n roll. Its home and center would always be the place of its birth. Danny maintained that hip-hop’s roots were global (Jamaican, African, Caribbean) and non-commercial, and perhaps, ironically, more sustainable in places outside of the overly commercialized US. The conversation made me recall the experiences I had in Cuba at the Hip-Hop Festival in Havana. I thought of a good premise: tell a story about hip-hop culture outside of the US, from a Cuban and American (in my case Chicano) perspective, and hopefully come to a new realization about the global effect of hip-hop on individuals in other countries, and how hip-hop creates relationships between Latin American citizens and Latinos in the US.
Why did you decide to collaborate with Julio Cardenas?
Julio was a unique participant in the Cuban Hip-Hop scene. First of all, he was not from El Vedado, the downtown Havana area where most of the hot rappers, such as Orishas, were from. He was from the up and coming area of east of Havana called Alamar, which was also the home of the Havana Hip-Hop Festival. Alamar is a large housing project where over a hundred thousand mostly black or Afro-Cubans live. It’s right in the radio frequency of Miami and Key West so many residents were able to hear American rap music if they had a radio with an antennae.
Julio worked as a bridge operator earning $0.35 a day for a fishing company during the day, and at night he was a member of the popular rap group Raperos Crazy de Alamar, aka RCA. For a couple years Julio’s group was the hottest group in Alamar’s hip-hop club scene.
Julio’s style was very much a party style. He liked to have a good time on stage, and off. Though he did not rap in a militant style, criticizing racism or domestic and foreign policies like many of his contemporaries, Julio’s lyrics conveyed the struggle of a young man frustrated with lack of professional options for a rapper in Cuba. He was also not of the polemical school of rap. He liked it all: conscious (political) and party rap. If it was good it was hip-hop and that was the bottom line. He got a long with everyone, and from the time I met him I realized he had a knack for telling funny stories.
His group RCA was among the first Cuban rap groups to be chosen as part of the delegation to come to New York in early Fall 2001. They stayed and performed for a month, and at the end of the tour when it was time to go home, everyone showed up to the ariport to fly back to Cuba, except Julio…and nobody knew where he was. He became known as the defector rapper. I had always wanted to know what happened to him for those months when he disappeared. Where did he go? Who did he meet? How was he treated? How did he survive? Until I finally heard form him again, a couple years later, he had been living in the Bronx and working as a deliveryman for an Italian restaurant. He had not yet become a citizen and he had not performed any of his music or rap since he supposedly “defected”-he never officially renounced Cuba.
The story he told me was incredible; how he came to the US a tourist, and stayed to become a professional rapper, and ended up a pizza deliveryman. It said something about hip-hop, immigration and the American dream that I hadn’t heard before in those categories. I asked him if he would like to tell his and our story as a piece of theater, and though he had never acted before nor wrote a play, he accepted.
Why did you choose 9/11 as part of the backdrop for this story?
Julio and the other Cuban hip-hop delegation arrived to New York three weeks after 9-11 when the city was still in a great amount of shock. To tell our story it is impossible not to include the context of American history during which many Americans began to equate immigrants with terrorists. This was also the time where you literally proved your patriotism by eating freedom fries and going shopping. Even some weak hip-hop artists let fear dictate their nationalism and hate for the other when they recorded and released horribly racist songs about revenge. We wanted to capture this moment not only from a hip-hop perspective, but a foreigner’s perspective. So there is a scene in REPRESENTA!, a pretty powerful scene, that takes place at Ground Zero that reflects on this fear and misplaced idea of solidarity expressed with consumerism.
Why do you think Hip-Hop speaks to a younger generation of Latinos?
This younger generation of Latinos grew up with hip-hop. Even if they are immigrants in the US, they still heard hip-hop in their native countries. They may not have been able to afford to buy a CD or purchase hip-hop style of clothing. But hip-hop is recognized as global youth culture now. It is also, ironically, still the culture of resistance: resistance to hypocritical government officials and policies, resistance to superficial art and over produced popular culture, and resistance to parents. All of these things are a necessary part of growing up in the United States. REPRESENTA! teaches us a lesson of coming of age in a globalized era. It is a hip-hop narrative about the Latino immigrant and the Latino born in the US: What they’re similarities are and how they stereotype each other. Ultimately REPRESENTA! shows us how the character Paul and Julio understand each other in relationship to a love for hip-hop.
Do you think some stereotypes people have of hip hop and hip hop culture are true?
I think there is some truth to all stereotypes. That doesn’t mean they are good. Not all stereotypes are bad. We can learn from stereotyping. Our brain does it automatically, in cases having nothing to do with race or class. However, hip-hop is often stereotyped by people who have no idea what hip-hop is about. I also want to remind people that hip-hop is NOT RAP. Rap is an element of hip-hop culture. Hip-Hop is a culture, not a commodity. This is the first stereotype that must be defeated. You cannot buy hip-hop, just like you cannot buy Buddhism. Hip-hop is lived. Hip-Hop is first something you create. In order to be hip-hop you must create something: a dance, a song, an image, a play. It must be codified to hip-hop’s standards. That means it may not be understood by many. It’s not supposed to be understood by many. Only other creators. Original style is the code of hip-hop. This is the point. Just because one buys something marketed as hip-hop does not mean they are participating, nor creating anything. You must bring something to the table that is unique, and with your own style. This is how culture evolves. Everything else is a front. Luckily we are still creating and codifying hip-hop outside of the commercial market.