Thoughts on Cuba, Black Liberation and Hip Hop Today
by Assata Shakur as told to Cristina Verán
The article below comes from the 1998 Source Magazine 100th Issue with LLCool J on the cover. Assata Shakur speaks to on the subjects of Cuba, Black Liberation and Hip Hop. Click below for to read this article.
[CLICK FOR FULL SIZE] Thoughts on Cuba, Black Liberation and Hip Hop Today by Assata Shakur as told to Cristina Verán
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Assata Shakur (the former JoAnne Chesimard) has been a rebel for African people in America for over three decades, most memorably while a member of both the Black Panther Party and the Black Liberation Army during the politically volatile 1970s. She was questionably convicted in a high-profile murder case involving a NJ State Trooper in 1973, during which one of her comrades was also killed by officers. After serving four long years in prison, she escaped from incarceration and, in 1984, accepted an offer of political asylum from the Cuban government.
While unable to return to the United States at this time, she has remained an important figure to many Americans who look to her continued struggle for hope that the ideals of the Black liberation movements of years past still live on.
I chose to come to Cuba because of its politics, having been really impressed by the reading I’d done about the Cuban revolution. Both the revolutionary government and the Cuban people have a strong history of supporting the struggles of oppressed peoples, both around the world and inside the US, as well. They accepted me and I was given the status of “political exile,” as an African woman that refuses to be de-Africanized or demoralized based on persecution and oppression, repression, by the United States government.
One thing that immediately struck me when I arrived was how “African” Cuba really is, in the sense that people here have so much of the traditional African religions, dances and culture that was preserved in its purest form. It’s very different than in the United States where, due to the kind of slavery practiced, African people were completely stripped of their religion. In many places, the price for practicing was out-and-out death.
The US government tried to eliminate me, you know, but I’m not a criminal like they want you to believe, or a gangster. The FBI has a way of leaking all kinds of stories about me to the press, the same way they’ve always tried to criminalize the Black liberation movement. Because of this, we as a people have to be really clear about who we are and what we stand for.
I didn’t choose to be a COINTELPRO (Counter Intelligence Program) victim. I didn’t choose to be a political prisoner or a political exile. Those were choices made for me by the United States government, the FBI, the CIA, as well as New York City and other local police agencies. There are still a hundred or more political prisoners in US prisons right bow, but if enough people would get involved and work for social justice, it would be impossible for the government to continue to isolate activists and imprison us.
Young people need to become aware, to become conscious, to become active and multiply! Create a situation where there are just too many people saying “No!” to what’s going on; saying, “We want another political reality, and we’re not going to be silent or imprisoned.” Activism is a way of life. You can choose to be a cog in the wheel, but understand that the wheel’s not turning around in your best interests.
When I was growing up, I hated the oppression, the exploitation, the police brutality. I hated seeing that a few people had all the money and all the resources, while other people were eating garbage, living in the subway. I believe in freedom, in justice, and a world where people can walk down the street and not be shot at, and live in communities that are not shot up with drugs and pumped full of chemicals, a liquor store on every corner.
Eventually, I realized that I had two choices. I could struggle for stupid stuff—for some trinkets and creature comforts—or I could make a choice to struggle for something that would make a better life for myself, my children and their children. You either work for yourself and your people or you work for your oppressor. Those are the two things that all young people in the United States have to decide, basically, and that they’re not going to participate in their own self-destruction.
There are a whole lot of young people today who haven’t been brainwashed into the “Cuban boogey-monster country” story and are choosing to come here and see the Cuban reality for themselves. They don’t understand why the United States government keeps doing everything to prevent that. I was very glad to see that there were something like 800 students from the United States who came to the International Youth Festival back in August, not giving a damn what the US government thought or being afraid of what they might do to them. I learned a lot from them. I think there’s a lot to hope for our young people and I always feel inspired. It’s not really a question of the older generation teaching the youngster generation anymore—each has something to say.
Since I’ve been in Cuba, for example, I’ve made a conscious effort to learn about rap. At first it took me a minute to get into it, because it sounded noisy, but once I did, though, I started to really like it and respect it as an art form. I remember listening to groups like Public Enemy in the beginning, and how surprised I was when someone had brought down a copy of their record [“Rebel Without a Pause”] and hearing Chuck D actually saying my name, paying me respect! I’ve never had the privilege of meeting with him, though.
As far as the groups that are out now, I’m impressed by the tremendous amount of talent there is out there, but even geniuses need to broaden their horizons. What really hurts me sometimes is that there’s not a lot of consciousness in their music. There could be a whole lot more. Rapping is communicating—it should be an instrument for our
We don’t have time to talk about being players and hustlers and gangsters. We didn’t come off of the slave ships that way. We need to become proud Africans again and stop running around in Shirley Temple curls talkin’ ‘bout how we’re pimps and players. A lot of symbols that are in rap records and videos are indications of decadent consumerism, and in a very real sense, those gold chains, hundred-dollar sneakers and T-shirts with a designer’s name on it underline how much they’ve become enslaved by the consumer mentality in the United States—consumer slaves.
It’s a shame that in the 1990s, with one-third of African men in the United States locked up in prison or under the jurisdiction of the so-called criminal justice system that they don’t find more profound things to rap about. We need to start rapping about ending not only racism, but ending sexism, and start talking about how to have a more human life. We’ve got to rethink the language that we’re promoting; concepts that end up being promoted to African people all over the world.
While most Cubans learn the techniques of rapping by way of cassettes and videos, often by imitating and braggadocio and materialism without really “getting” it, there are many Cuban rappers with a much higher understanding of the realities in the US. They are very intent on rapping their own message, one that is humanistic; that deals with pride, that deals with love. Hopefully, it will continue to evolve into a real, powerful Cuban rap that will empower—not poison—people. I have a dream that one day both they and those rappers in the US can come together on some level to share that same dream and vision.