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Interviews Robe L Ninho. Photo: Courtesy of the artist. Robe L Ninho. Photo: Courtesy of the artist.

Robe L Ninho, Afro-seeding rap and awareness

I am now deconstructing myself, rearming myself, but to truly deconstruct yourself you have to go to the root. I was born in Candelaria, specifically in La Sabana, a discriminated place, one of the most complicated peripheral neighborhoods that that municipality had, which —in turn— was one of the most complicated that the province of Pinar del Río had and that Artemisa now has. , which inherited it with the new political-administrative division. I was born in that neighborhood with a high rate of violence, scarcity, but not poverty. Poverty is something that people have never understood, because when you have so much inside, even if you don't have anything material, you can't be poor. So there, in La Sabana, despite living with that precariousness, we had a joy that was difficult to understand. That is a neighborhood where music is never lacking. Not a second. 

Unfortunately the economy in our country, and in the whole world, has skin color. The vulnerable and marginalized areas in Cuba are population settlements of black people. That, people who live in privileged areas cannot understand. He does not understand what it is to live in a place in extreme situations. As deconstructed as I may be in machismo, I cannot understand what it means to live in a woman's body. You, no matter how deconstructed you are in racism, you will not be able to understand what it is to live in a black, racialized body. With that understanding I grew up. But if you're in the savannah, you don't want to be a gazelle; no one wants to be eaten. I had to be one more lion.

At eight years old I was already the man of the house: my father abandoned us and my mother was left alone. Being the oldest of three brothers, I became a child with adult concerns. But life teaches you several paths and you choose which one to follow. From a very young age I used to peel my little brothers or my friends and things began to spread: “Hey, who cut you that, you got a ball”, “Robe L Ninho, the one from La Sabana”. And so, until I started charging for that. From the day I tried it, it turned out great. Styling gave me the opportunity to have economic income so as not to get involved in illegalities.

Robe L Ninho. Photo: Courtesy of the artist.

Robe L Ninho. Photo: Courtesy of the artist.

Later, still in elementary school, I started dancing breakdance and I got to know the hip hop culture. The rap that I liked was American, in Spanish only Vico C. Then, in high school, I started listening to some Cuban rappers. My friends started rapping and we made a rock in Candelaria, which I started dancing and they ended up rapping. Thus began my incursion into this culture to which I owe my life, because it replaced activities that I used to do; Instead of fighting with someone, of having a perhaps dysfunctional behavior —produced by everything that is structural racism and, also, by a racist system—, I danced. The anger that he felt and that he used to unload on someone with blows, now he resolved it through dancing. Let's challenge each other, but dancing. It was a different kind of battle. And another type of acceptance. When I looked back, many of those who grew up with me were in prison or dead, or were alcoholics; and I, who in a certain way was the leader, the moron, was “in stature”: peeling and making my little money, and traveling all over Cuba, to events and festivals. 

So those two things that are my passion right now saved my life. Over time I had the idea of merging them and creating a project called Baber Streets Cuban Hip Hop C4, whose purpose was to provide as many children as possible throughout the country with the opportunity to leave their adverse environment. I was in several poor neighborhoods on the Island, every weekend I did something, jumping from province to province, fighting and singing. But I don't just hair; I do my hair and talk to people, trying to enhance everything that has been taken from us. I want them to feel that they have to live proud of what they think they should be ashamed of. I tell them about the great history that we racialized people have. History is written by those who win and they don't tell you about Africa, which is the first to exist; They call people "slaves" and, when that happens, they depersonalize them, they take away the condition of being human. They speak to you of a white God, of a supposed "discovery". America was not discovered, it was destroyed and looted. How are those who came going to be the gods we want to resemble? The first person to exist was African, so all the inhabitants of the planet are Afro-descendants; yet most black people live ashamed of their ancestry. There is only one race that is the human race, but there is racialization. In my musical discourse, I try to resignify that. 

Another thing that I did with Baber Streets, when I went to a place to fight, is that it offered added value: if you want to fight, you have to take a book and read me aloud; or you can take the book with you. What those people did later with that book was beyond my effort, but it was a gamble. He also mixed all that with rap, with artistic manifestations of hip hop, with graffiti, with breakdance, and else. I started doing Barber Street in 2015 and from then on there has been a revolution around Afro hair in Cuba.

Robe L Ninho. Photo: Courtesy of the artist.

Robe L Ninho. Photo: Courtesy of the artist.

***

Rap for me is the smartest music. The trova is also very intelligent but it is very abstract, the reflection is made by the cults. But rap is neighborhood. The public in Cuba needs a message like that of rap; and rap people need an audience. That's why I used it in Baber Streets, every time I went to fight he took me to a group of rappers, the most interesting ones he could find. And something nice was built, very empowering, so at establishment it started to bother him. Censorship began. But I continued and understood that I had to improve myself more. 

I have an aunt who now lives in the United States and who was a hairstylist. One day he told me that he had passed the Bella Caribe school, that he needed me to go see if his academic degree was ready, because he needed it where he lived. When I arrived, they showed me the requirements to enroll and I met all of them, so I enrolled. That is a school that has a high index of racism — there they teach people to straighten their hair, imagine it —, it has concepts that do not go with me, all racist terms are regulated there. But I was still there to learn techniques and I understood that I had to do the opposite. 

With the passage of time, with all this Baber Streets, from school, I began to do anti-establishment rap. I tried not to use obscenities in the lyrics, not to offend, but when someone is privileged and you remind them of that privilege, they get offended and upset. They had no way to attack me because the texts were quite poetic, let's say. From there, I mixed more things. In my performances he would fight and rap at the same time and put on a show that was a partisan—two thousand or three thousand people wherever he went. Then a movement began to be generated, not only through my music, but with other musicians or rappers who were living the harsh reality; a movement of rebellion against the oppression of the system. Because we can be right or wrong, but respecting the ideology of anyone we have the right to demand our rights. I soon realized that the problem that the majority had was that the so-called Cuban Revolution is more than 60 years old; however slavery has 500, which one are we going to solve first? Are we going to continue to be the cannon fodder? Suppose the people manage to change the government, are we blacks going to continue in misery? Are we going to keep looking down on the way we have hair? From there I said to myself: this is the click. There are people who speak against the system and I have to try to strengthen the pride of black people, fight racism through that pride. 

I also understood what racism is: it is the racist's weapon and weapons can only do harm when they injure the victim. How can someone attacked by racism be hurt? Well, when it affects you. And it affects you by ignorance. If they tell you that your hair is bad and it affects you, it is because you don't know that this was the first hair that existed in the world, that it has the same capabilities as any other hair, you don't know that it is the most versatile hair, the only one that can reach all styles. I can talk about its history through my art: that weapons for rebellions were hidden in our hair, gold was hidden to buy the freedom that had been taken from us, seeds were hidden to sow in the palenques when they escaped, they traced escape routes in the braids to go to the maroons. That story is the one that needs to be told. 

That is the fight we have today. Resignify what we are based on pride. That is the message that my songs carry. Because I can be in one place, but my songs travel. So, if I can make a song with my knowledge as a cosmetologist, as a specialist in Afro hair, as an anti-racist activist and many people can listen to it, then I'll do it. And I think it's working. 

In fact, I just got back from abroad and people recognized some of my songs. It was crazy. I don't know how to deal with that. Here in Cuba no, here nothing is known about what I do. And that is painful. But this has happened to many; Look at Polo Montañez himself —from my land—, first he was known abroad and then here. I was abroad for 45 days and I didn't have a single day off: I went to Colombia, to France, they interviewed me for Canal 24, TeleSur, CNN, DW, but every time I return I return to my Sabana. Because I can't forget anything. Reality exists to stay strong and make that reality change. 

from there was born Black. I knew that I had to change the sound because I come from a place where music is something very rich. Cuba is a country that has exported more than twenty musical genres to the world; So, why am I going to be doing a genre that is from another place? Within rappers there is a concept that I don't like very much, which is that they judge music by the rhythm. I have a favorite artist called Tego Calderón, the guy writes really hard. The important thing is in the letter. The idols that I had in childhood were homophobic, sexist, misogynist and they are the gods of rap. But his message denigrates the woman. I do not want that. So I told myself: I'm going to be more me and less the others. And I started to make this rhythm that I named “rongosere” or “cubacompa”, where I mix several musical genres. so i did Black

I remember something strange happened to me. Around that time a friend from Boston had embodied himself as my DJ and we went to Candelaria to record a video at my grandmother's house, which was where I lived, almost in the center of the neighborhood because my barbershop was there. When I go in I feel that it is ringing Black; it was the birthday of someone who was celebrating it there. The barbershop was full of people, everyone singing the song and this friend came in and filmed it. He then edited a 59-second video for Instagram that I only put on Facebook. That was one day in the morning, at night my phone was blocked from so many notifications. The song had gone viral in no time. It was a bomb. The next day there were I don't know how many channels on YouTube with the song, and I didn't have YouTube. Then we made the official video, with a friend, Orestes Baratuti, who was the one with whom we won the Lucas Awards. After that I did beautiful hair and it was crazy too. I organized my band, the attempts to tour began, to travel, and in the end we succeeded. The reaction of the people has been too much, I did not know that this could happen to me one day.

That was part of the way. Now I have my album almost finished. is going to call transparent black and should come out next year. My intention is to enter it for the Grammys. In that process I sought advice and they recommended that I make a different background for it because the album was very versatile. It had various genres: rap, danchall, afrobeat, rongosere, trap, even a ballad. I wanted to play several things, but in the industry that may or may not favor me, because —although it can reach various types of audiences— it takes away an identity, they don't perceive a label, even if it has the flow it has. Because, furthermore, I have a normal voice, not like Tego Calderón, who wherever or whatever he sings is known to be him, even if he sings pop. So, the idea of this album is to start looking for that label so that as soon as a song comes out, it identifies me. 

***

Throughout this process I also understood that my mission is not to attack. If you attack, there is no dialogue, and if there is no dialogue, there is no change. And we need real change, we need to extinguish misogyny, machismo, homophobia, racism. For that you also have to be anti-racist, anti-sexist, etc. It is not enough not to be sexist, or racist, or homophobic, neutral positions are in favor of the oppressor. We are all raised in a macho society and I, for example, from my macho privilege, try to deconstruct myself as much as possible. Sometimes things go away that I already have preconceived and there I stop and say, what is this? And I question myself: is this right or wrong? In that sense something happened to me with Black, in the first version I did: they told me once that we had been enslaved for being cowards, so in that song I wanted to affirm that we were brave, that's why I said: "... and the size of the Titan is my reproductive member". In Cuba everyone knows that when someone is going to refer to another person's courage they say: “She has it bigger than Maceo, bigger than Mariana”, but the interpretation in this case was literal, as if he was hypersexualizing the black body. I am responsible for what I say, not what they interpret. However, when I say that sentence I have to understand that it is true that this phenomenon exists and I cannot get upset if someone jumps and questions me. That's why I later changed it to another phrase: "... the size of the Titan is my intellect in its splendor", because they have also branded us as brutes. They attacked me for that and I preferred not to attack. Because the attack clouds everything else, which can be positive. That is why I insist that deconstruction has to be from the base and we must look at ourselves. Understanding, in this process, plays a fundamental role. 

@djbroslm150 #aphro #afrodance #afrobeats #afrohair ♬ original sound – DJ BROSLM150

For example, there's a super strong thing on TikTok right now: several white people are doing the challenge by beautiful hair. So you see black people saying: "Hey, you can't take something that doesn't belong to you". There is a whole discussion where I am not going to participate. If you are white and anti-racist, you can sing the song because you are doing an anti-racism exercise, but always from the position that it is not for you, it is a song for the people who have suffered what we have suffered. Who should lead white people in the fight against racism is black people, who should lead in the fight against patriarchy are women, because they are the ones who suffer from it. But sometimes it is difficult to strip yourself of the privilege. If you, as a human being, understand that, then your position is to support. But you also have to be strategic. All the people who were once discriminated against must unite. Because how is the power? White, straight, male. So you have to fight. I want to see the world change, but before that happens I want to see my house change, my neighborhood change, my town change, the country change. For that, you have to start unlearning. 

Amalia Echemendia Amalia Echemendia Visual artist, enthusiastic whistler, drawer of formidable pencil tips. He laughs like a hyena. More posts

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  1. Malagón says:

    I really liked the interview and Roberto's approaches…. Congratulations to Robert for his successes both artistically and from activism🤝🏾✊🏾

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