The greatest hip hop artist on the planet is someone whose name you might not know, though you should. He goes by the name of El B, and he practices his art right here in the United States.
BY T.J. ENGLISH
I first saw El B perform last year at an event in Miami. I was blown away by the concentrated ferocity of his performance and the dynamic content of his message. More recently, I saw him perform at the Bob Marley Birthday Tribute in Miami, and it was more of the same: raw and powerful. In a show headlined by the great local band, Locos por Juana, and a line-up that included the masterful hip hop veteran Tomás Diaz, El B stole the show – as he usually does.
To say that El B is a badass doesn’t even begin to tell the story. Born Bian Oscar Rodriguez Gala in the Havana neighborhood of Buena Vista, at the age of thirty-one he already has an intense sense of purpose as an artist. He is trying to affect the world with his lyrics and his flow. Since arriving from Havana in 2009 as a member of the popular duo Los Aldeanos (which translates, roughly, as The Villagers), he has emerged as a rising solo star.
I recently had a chance to sit with El B in Miami, where he now lives, and talk with him about his life and work. His English is minimal and my Spanish is rough, so we partly used as a translator his manager Tony Gonzalez of Rock the Moon Prods.
I wanted to know about El B’s origins. “Why rap and hip hop?” I asked. “And when did this music first get into your soul?’
“I didn’t even know it was called rap when I first started hearing it,” said El B. He recalled first hearing the music in Havana when he was five or six years old.
Internet access was not allowed in Cuba, so he first heard the music over clandestine antennas on radio stations from the U.S. Music that was earthy, bass-driven, and commented on conditions in the hood – police brutality, repression, poverty and other aspects of the struggle – spoke directly to young Bian. By the age of 12 he was writing lyrics.
“The words were very simple because I was so young,” says El B, “but it was always a conscious message. It was always about the struggle I felt within myself as a 12 year old, and also about the social conditions around me.”
His primary influences were Public Enemy, Big Pun, and, of course, Tupac Shakur.
Much has been written about the emergence of rap in Cuba in the 1990s and how the government tried to control its content. In the early days, the entire rap movement was clandestino. Teenagers like El B would meet with friends in basements and abandoned buildings with little more than a beat box or the beat of a popular American rap song that they would dub over what they were doing. The young rappers also created their own videos, using primitive technology, which they burned onto CDs and distributed among their friends. It was an organic, non-commercial movement that spoke directly to the people, primarily the young.
At first, the Cuban government responded, as expected, through repression. Authorities raided underground rap shows and sought to snuff out the movement before it gained steam. But eventually, as desire for the music persisted and even grew, the government sought to co-opt the music.
“It was a guy named Soli who first organized the rap movement on behalf of the government,” remembers El B. “He was in charge of an organization called Grupo Uno. For a while, it was okay. Festivals and shows were organized by Grupo Uno.” But the more popular the music became, the more threatened the government felt by its message of personal liberty and freedom of speech.
“In 2003,” says El B, “the government instituted the Ministry of Rap, a division of the Cuban Agency of Culture. The only way to make it is if you were being backed by the government. This divided the movement.”
It was at this time that El B first combined with Aldo to form Los Aldeanos. “We knew that by forming Los Aldeanos we were putting ourselves in direct conflict with the government.”
With their conscious lyrics and anti-authoritarian persona, Los Aldeanos became a cultural phenomenon. But the larger they grew, the more El B began to feel as if he were being manipulated by forces beyond his control. Not having Internet access on the island, Los Aldeanos could not gauge how they were being presented by political interests beyond the island. A controversy emerged when it was alleged that the rap movement in Cuba had been infiltrated by anti-Castro operatives who were seeking to influence the movement and use it as a counter-revolutionary source of discord. El B felt compelled to issue a public statement reiterating the independence of his music. Eventually, it would become one reason he felt the need to leave Cuba for Miami, in the interest of being able to control his own destiny.
Watching El B discuss his life and art, I see a man whose dedication to what he does is beyond reproach. I know enough about life in Havana to know that the burdens of daily life there can drive a person over the edge. El B has a controlled temperament that I recognize as the consequence of a young artist who is determined to follow his path. “Whether I’m in Cuba or outside of Cuba,” he says, “it doesn’t change the message of my work. If you feel the struggle and never give up the fight, then it’s just a matter of communicating your message. I am a Cuban through and through, no matter where I might be living.”
The content of his music remains uncompromising, and, as with most rap artists, his work is translated with great style through videos. Here are the opening lyrics to Sigo Pensando (I Keep On Thinking), translated into English, with the video posted below…
I keep on thinking, keep on believing that you are here
I keep on forgetting, keep on dreaming, but I lost you
How to forget, how to think, I keep dreaming of you at night
How to dream, how to sleep, if you are not here in the night
I wake up again thinking that it’s all over
I look at myself in the mirror and my reflection screams that it’s still me
I am still here, my heart beats
Another opportunity to try and deserve forgiveness
With this video, El B seeks to combine the personal nature of the lyrics with a critique of political repression. It is a common theme of his music. For anyone who thinks that rap and hip hop is all about boasting and big booties and materialism, El B’s music will be a revelation.
“Since most hip hop artists come from the ghetto, from marginalized communities,” says El B, “they are faced with two alternatives: One, you can try to change your circumstances and the ghetto itself though your message. Or, two, you can escape, make your money and get out.” El B still sees himself as the voice of the ghetto; it is still important to him to be a spokesperson for the oppressed and downtrodden.
“The ghetto is in my soul,” he says.
For now, the artist has no intention of rapping in English or making any other commercial compromises. His intention is to bring the people to him, not the other way around. In Cuba, he is already a legend, and in the U.S., even among hip hop fans that speak little or no Spanish, he is emerging as a massive and original talent.
We talk for an hour or so then part ways. El B is a serious man, not necessarily demonstrative or overly friendly, but we have connected through a discussion of his art, and there is no more important subject to this consummate warrior artist. We embrace, giving each other the Cuban bro-hug, shoulder to shoulder.
That night, El B performed at the Bob Marley Birthday tribute. He burned down the house.