- Buena Vista in the Club: Rap, Reggaetón, and Revolution in Havana by Geoffrey Baker
Buena Vista in the Club is a lively text with this ostensible aim at its outset: to explain the phenomenon of hip hop in Cuba. To accomplish the aim of a Cuban hip hop survey, Geoffrey Baker attends to significant factors in the continuing development of the genre: socialism, the opposition of reggaetón, and space. These are covered in four chapters on [End Page 174] nationalizing rap, the politics of dancing, urban music, and transnational exchange between Cuban producers and foreign consumers. Meanwhile, a vast repertoire is effectively summarized. At the time of publication, the author had access to some of the top raperos and he frames his arguments with their claims. The result is a sense of authenticity. Baker eases heavy theorization of this field in between ethnographic sketches.
In the first chapter, “¡Hip Hop, Revolución!,” Baker lays the foundational question of what hip hop means in the context of a socialist state. Rap (the terms rap and hip hop are used somewhat interchangeably throughout the text) has been coded as revolutionary music in a global context, but how does it “sound” the call to revolution in a Cuban context if the revolution has already happened? The simple answer is that it does not. Rap instead provides subtle adjustments to the existing order, Baker argues, and it serves as a counter-critique to Castro’s Revolution. It is sanctioned by the state as an acceptable form of critique because Cubans see it as black music in a United States context, a musical setup that is inherently and necessarily subversive. This brings me to a curiosity that crops up throughout the text: the manner in which U.S. hip hop is presented. When U.S. rap is mentioned, it is either at its inception, in the boogie-down Bronx of the 1980s, or in a current state of political apathy and crass commercialism that has no particular location. This book portrays the U.S. scene as a sort of ancestral specter, whether in a past unified by a common yet undefined goal or in a present of wasted opportunity. This manner of presentation could be mistaken for a poorly handled comparative frame, but I believe that the author intended it as a subtle rebuke of the hegemonic position of the United States and its cultural products. Also covered extensively in this chapter is the history of state involvement in hip hop, from the first objections of the Asociación Hermanos Saíz (AHS) to rap, to the formation of the Agencia Cubana de Rap (ACR) especially for rap, and the subsequent influence of reggaetón on both. (Acronyms are frequently used, and there is no glossary. Note carefully as you proceed.) This chapter is an excellent example of questioning the position of hip hop as inherently oppositional, and Baker alludes to such on page 102.
The second chapter, “The Revolution of the Body,” is a bit less straightforward, as the primary premise, that rap is too intellectual for dancing and reggaetón is the answer, is founded upon a clear juxtaposition of rap and reggaetón, one which never appears in this text. We come to learn that the subject materials differ, with Cuban rap focusing on civil ills, and reggaetón on the superficial gains of money and material wealth. But we are never advised to the musical differences between the two, a disappointment given the author’s excellent treatment of both genres’ origins. I press this point because the separation of reggaetón into its own genre relies on perception. Hip hop styles in an American context have come to exist on a wide spectrum, and this approach might be helpful in a Cuban context. If many reggaetóñeros are former raperos, a few might cross back over. A treatment of musical sound instead of solely musical people would allow for this maneuver. Baker notes “a shift away from alarmist reactions to reggaetón itself toward a...