When I go out, I still come across friends who ask me, “¿Qué bolá? Are you still making that crazy music?” And I tell them, “Yes, I’m still at it.” But what I really want to answer is that this “craziness” is my job.
My name is Rafael Bou Lemus, and I’m a rapper, also known as El Individuo. I’m 34 years old and I was born in Cuba and still live here. I discovered rap when I was nine or ten. Although I grew up in the municipality of Diez de Octubre on the outskirts of Havana, I attended primary school in Central Havana, home to a Cuban rap group called SBS that became very famous at that time. Listening to the group’s rhymes made me curious to learn more about that genre. That’s how I came to the music of Amenaza, Doble Filo, and Obsesión, among other groups that had a strong influence on me from a spiritual point of view.
In Cuba, the music industry is such that there are very few opportunities for rap artists to gain exposure to an international market, or to make money domestically.
It’s difficult to articulate exactly the feeling that rap music caused in me, I only know that it made me dream of discovering how I could return that feeling, what it would feel like if it were my music that made other people feel that way.
I started to wonder: What is rap? Why do I want to be a rapper? As a university student, I started delving into these questions with the aim of knowing as much as I could about the subject. I was in my second year at the University of Havana studying communications when my parents gave me my first computer and my first thought was that now I had what I needed to make my music.
After many attempts at projects that I tried to create as a teenager, at 18 or 19 I created Con100cia. I was beginning to be recognized on the scene in Cuba and I felt that we had a voice.
Con100cia was my first group. We were three rappers whose objective was to make a purely conscious rap, and we were more concerned with the discourse and the message we wanted to transmit than with the music itself. The idea was to advise the listener through our lyrics, taking into account that we were not owners of any absolute truth. Relying on the little experience we had, we tried to spread messages of faith and hope about our lives as young people, telling personal stories through songs that were simple enough that the listener wouldn’t lose sight of what we wanted to say.
If we have this treasure here in Cuba, why aren’t we taking advantage of the success that rap has had in recent years within Spanish-speaking countries?
In Cuba, the music industry is such that there are very few opportunities for rap artists to gain exposure to an international market, or to make money domestically. Although in the 1990s the rap scene was strong enough to fill plazas with fans, today it has been divided into small cells spread all over the country that work independently of each other, but the audience for our music is very small. Most rap concerts are completely underground, using the resources of the artists themselves with very little support from Cuban cultural institutions.
Cuban rap has earned a lot of respect globally and has been very influential in countries within Latin America, so my question is: If we have this treasure here in Cuba, why aren’t we taking advantage of the success that rap has had in recent years within Spanish-speaking countries?
I think there has always been something inside of me and many others in the rap scene that always accompanied us: the desire to make music. What I was putting out there was already having some effect on my listeners and that has been the impulse that comes and goes from my life, between jobs I didn’t like and tensions at home because they didn’t understand my career choices, to continue fighting for that dream. Until one miraculous day a project came into my life that I felt was my opportunity: Afrorazones.
The idea of Afrorazones, besides making an album whose theme was the African diaspora in Cuba, was to hold workshops to share knowledge that we lacked, beyond the music itself. Experts from the music industry in the US came to Cuba to explain many things that we didn’t have the slightest idea about, knowledge that in turn we put into practice as the project progressed. It was like starting over, like realizing that everything what we were doing so far had quality, but that we didn’t know about some fundamental steps, like the difference between an album and an EP, how to launch our work on platforms, how to review a contract, how to use social networks to the benefit of our music, among many other things.
The influence of the market and culture as such are very important for the future direction of the rap scene, and in Cuba these two elements working in tandem are not represented in cultural organizations. With our project we’ve managed to strengthen the rap scene in Cuba from a marketing perspective, which has allowed me to export my music globally.
We’ve managed to strengthen the rap scene in Cuba from a marketing perspective, which has allowed me to export my music globally.
Thanks to this, today I can call myself El Individuo, a Cuban rapper recognized both nationally and internationally. I’ve had the opportunity to tour several countries with my music, which has been mentioned in some of the most important music magazines in the world, including Billboard Magazine and Vibe. Today, I’m grateful to be a rapper who has gradually found an audience that identifies with my music, and I feel blessed with everything I’m able to accomplish with my music, thanks also to my team of collaborators.
That’s why any time someone asks me if I’m still making this crazy music, I say yes, proudly.
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This article was translated by Erin Goodman.