This Book Is King!

September 3rd, 2015 by Mustapha

I am absolutely loving this text right now, called: Buena Vista in the Club: Rap, Reggaetón, and Revolution in Havana (Refiguring American Music). It’s absolutely fantastic stuff overall. Can’t wait to get more of his stuff.

Geoffrey Baker, senior lecturer in the department of music at Royal Holloway University of London, takes a piercing look at the hip hop and reggaeton scenes in Havana (with a section on Haiti, of course), one which sets out to reach beyond the construction of the Cuban hip hop culture that results from its extensive documentation in journalistic accounts, film, musical recordings and academic literature. In this book, Baker, as an academic researcher who is an outsider to the cultural phenomenon is positioned ‘outside the main current of the production of knowledge about Cuban hip hop’ (p. 3), thereby offering a critical revision of the paradigms that have shaped the understandings of Cuban popular music. Buena Vista in the Club is, thus, not only the result of firsthand research of the Havana hip hop scene, provided by the author’s interviews with some of its protagonists. It is also, and mainly, a critical work that brings to the forefront the nuances that were obscured by the construction of Cuban hip hop carried out by its numerous documenters and critics.

The text is both extremely readable, for its accessible language, and academically rigorous, for the bibliographic references. The introduction to the book begins with an episode in the history of Cuban popular music culture that will illustrate the forces at play in the creation, circulation and reception of the country’s popular music. Around the time when Wim Wenders’ documentary Buena Vista Social Club was being aired outside Cuba–thus shaping foreign imaginaries about the island and its musical culture–in Havana, some of the leading figures of United States ‘conscious’ rap and activists were taking part in the international Havana hip hop festival deeply and permanently influencing the local scene. This is the kind of exchange that is at the basis of Baker’s analytical efforts. His approaches to the cultural politics of Cuban rap and reggaeton reveal how Cuba and the United States–specifically the city of New York–shared a history of mutually influential culture and politics (p. 362). Cuban hip hop is not, then, another case of adoption-adaptation of an alien culture but rather, given said history of exchanges, a transnational cultural reality.

Throughout the four chapters of the book, the author offers readers the chance to understand how most of the preconceived ideas about Cuban hip hop that have been imposed, mainly through foreign accounts of the movement, fail to give an accurate and thorough explanation of the forces that shape the scene. Chapter 1 brings the reader a brief history of the development of Cuban hip hop and an analysis of the relationship between hip hop and the state: The author’s research into the nationalisation of Cuban rap evidences how the canonical consideration of this relationship does not take into account more sophisticated particularities of such state/music involvement–particularities which give Cuban rap a distinctive position in regards to national identity.

Chapter 2 continues to tear down the academic conceptualisation of the Cuban rap scene. Baker (re)introduces reggaeton in the discussions about Cuban popular music. As he reports, critics–and hip hoppers alike–construct reggaeton as the other of rap, censuring, if not shunning, the musical form in their discourses. The peril of this misrepresentation of reggaeton, the author keenly points out, is that the polarisation of both genres prevents a productive analysis of the tensions between both popular music manifestations and their connection to ideological and cultural shifts in Cuban society.

Despite the well-supported claims made by the author, the absence of any consideration of gender issues in the analysis of Cuban hip hop is a gross oversight. Baker states in the introductory chapter that he will not discuss gender as he considers that it has been comprehensively studied in other research (p. 21). Yet gender is included in his rendering of reggaeton. If reggaeton is symptomatic of recent social and economic shifts in Cuba, and cannot, therefore, be excluded from any serious commentary on popular urban music culture since it is embedded in the adoption of the logics of capitalist consumerism by the younger generations in Cuba, then, gender politics are worth more careful attention in his analysis. As is stated in Chapter 3, reggaeton means a ‘revolution of the body’ because its counter discursive qualities stem from its emphasis on the dance. A kind of dance that allegedly also renegotiates gendered roles as women are ‘the main focus of attention and the principal driving force… with the man’s role reduced from leader to follower or even observer’ (p. 136). In my opinion this rearrangement is far more problematic than subverting gendered roles and should not be reduced to just breaking the boundaries imposed on female sexuality.

Check it out:

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13 Responses to “This Book Is King!”

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