Caribbean sounds such as rumba and salsa carried the hearts of island countries like Cuba for decades. But in the mid-1990s, there was a new beat rising. Hip-hop had arrived in Cuba, and Havana's hungry audiences devoured everything about rap culture.
But not everyone was ready for Krudas Cubensi.
All they had to do was walk on stage to turn heads. Female rappers? Back then, that was enough to cause a stir. And then came the lyrical fireballs.
They took the microphones and rapped about being fat and proudly so, being feminist, black and vegan. The power of these never-before-heard rhymes hit the mostly male crowds in Cuba's capital hard. Unsuspecting audiences during early Krudas Cubensi shows left shocked, in a dizzying haze of powerful poetry and socially conscious rap.
During Cuba's hip-hop infancy, male rappers had already begun raising consciousness about race and class. "But the topic of gender was never touched," said Krudas Cubensi MC Olivia Prendes in Spanish.
Krudas Cubensi now call Austin home. Still on a mission for social justice, their hard-hitting music has spread to an international crowd. Their new album, "Levántate" ("Get Up"), debuts Friday with a CD release party at Esquina Tango in East Austin. "Levántate" features collaborations with both Mexican and Cuban artists.
Since their beginnings in Cuba, Krudas Cubensi have felt a heavy musical responsibility to show that hip-hop culture is not just about drugs, sex or violence. And they had to do it while navigating a male-dominated industry, not only as women, but as openly lesbian women.
"We had a lot of challenging simultaneous revolutions to fight," said Odaymara Cuesta, the other half of Krudas Cubensi, in Spanish. It would take years before the duo were embraced in their home country, but that didn't mean their journey got any easier.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Cuba's island breezes began to carry the sound received from Florida's hip-hop radio shows. From Run-DMC and Public Enemy to the Fugees, Cuban youths were mesmerized as much as their U.S. counterparts with a kind of music that spoke to them. "What was the name of those little guys who wore their clothes backward?" Cuesta said, reminiscing about hip-hop groups heard in 1990s Havana. "Kriss Kross," Prendes remembered, as they both burst out laughing at East Austin's Mr. Natural Mexican vegetarian restaurant on a recent afternoon.
"Guys started dancing, dressing and really feeling hip-hop culture," Prendes said. Hip-hop Cubano was born when artists combined American beats with Spanish lyrics. "The mix of urban Cuban poetry with American beats resulted in an interesting and passionate combination that I fell in love with because, honestly, we could feel it was connected to more than one country or geographic region," Prendes said. "It's the rhythmic roots that come from Africa, get to America and mix with all that's Caribbean. It was like one great pot of musical bean stew."
The cultural connections come through in Krudas Cubensi's unique style, as the duo often sport tribal-inspired earrings and mohawk hairdos. Conversations in their native tongue, at times, even flow like rhymes. They're natural poetic orators at work. But then, what would one expect from free-styling pros?
Though music has long been at the heart of Krudas Cubensi, Prendes' extensive theater background melded perfectly with Cuesta's passion for hip-hop. In 1996, Prendes and Cuesta, along with other artists, formed an experimental performance group. It combined rap, community theater and visual arts. They later revamped that idea — adding stilts. Prendes and Cuesta, along with other members, performed in the streets of Havana in brightly colored outfits, bringing a festive atmosphere to the community and cultural centers where they taught classes such as hip-hop theater.
When the group performed at the International Rap Festival in Alamar — a housing project district in Havana that emerged as the heart of Cuba's hip-hop movement — everything changed for the women. Cuesta and Prendes checked out the evening's rap performances, and inspiration overcame them. It was time to take their own music to a new level.
"Performing on stilts was beautiful," Prendes said. "But I think a new chapter was coming where our work could speak to adults and the youth searching for their place in Cuban society."
Krudas Cubensi formed in 1999 as a trio that included Cuesta's sister Odalys, who now lives in California and no longer raps with the group. Krudas Cubensi pushed their way onto the scene. Their presence in the hip-hop world, Cuesta thinks, brought many problems to the surface. "Even within a revolutionary movement like hip-hop, it's a movement that's machista (sexist)," Cuesta said.
Being a woman in hip-hop can be lonely. And although Krudas Cubensi joined a handful of other female Cuban rappers, the group fought against having to play up their sexuality. Instead, in their song "Eres Bella" (You are beautiful), they rhyme in Spanish,
"You are beautiful being you, ebony in bloom,
black light, you are beautiful being you, your body
is not your only virtue."
And their song "120 horas rojas" or "120 red hours," is an ode to menstruation. "You can imagine how scandalous that was," Prendes said. "Never before had Cubans heard a song about a woman's period."
Krudas Cubensi say their mission as artists is to empower those who suffer. That hasn't always been easy for them. Cuba's checkered past with homosexuality made Krudas Cubensi's decision to come out in their songs a cautious and arduous process.
After the Cuban Revolution ended in 1959, the government arrested homosexuals and sent them to labor or "re-education" camps. The camps eventually closed, and in 2010, former Cuban President Fidel Castro took responsibility for the repression. And though homosexuality is no longer criminalized, Krudas Cubensi, at the time, felt uneasy.
"For us, that decision to come out was a little dramatic," Prendes said. "We thought about how we should do it? Should we even do it? Is it going to be too difficult? Will we be killed? What's going to happen? There was nothing at all easy about the process." Krudas Cubensi took the risk, knowing that speaking out about gender issues was a fundamental part of their musical discourse. "We had to defend it," Prendes said.
The group developed a strong following in Cuba's underground rap scene over the years, and invitations to perform abroad began flooding in from Europe and throughout Latin America. But Krudas Cubensi faced more obstacles. Cubans, aside from obtaining visas, must ask permission from the government to leave the country. Krudas Cubensi would often leave time slots open at music festivals as officials continued to reject their travel requests.
"We became aware of the strong international Latina, feminist, queer and vegan movements out there," Prendes said. "So many things going on in the world, and it was as if we were locked up. Forget it. We knew we were ready for the world, and so we took that step toward change."
Krudas Cubensi arrived in Austin in 2006 by crossing the Mexican border. The route is popular because of the U.S. policy known as "wet foot/dry foot," which allows Cuban nationals who land on U.S. soil to stay in the country and get on the fast track to permanent residency while those caught at sea are returned to Cuba.
"If you live all your childhood and young adulthood in Cuba and then go out into the world, everything seems like a crazy dream," Prendes said. "Life in Cuba is simple, basic. We don't have any corporations or big businesses."
But it seems the culture shock has worn off for the hip-hop duo. They've now performed in places like Mexico, Colombia, El Salvador and Guatemala. They've toured the U.S. and have chosen to live in Austin, where they quickly connected with like-minded musicians and activists.
Krudas Cubensi have become a fixture in Austin's music and social justice scene, playing numerous benefits and cultural events like Austin's World Refugee Day celebrations. At this year's Pachanga Latino Music Festival, Krudas Cubensi jumped on stage for a much-welcomed surprise performance.
"Leaving your country is hard," Prendes said. "But you only live once, and you're only young once. So we chose the liberty of moving freely across borders because there's lots of (social change) to be done in all parts of the world and lots to say from all the world's corners."
Contact Nancy Flores at 912-2559.