Rap on the run

Wanted by the FBI for black activism in the States, Nehanda Abiodun fled to Havana, where she became

Outside a run-down apartment block in the eastern suburbs of Havana, a group of teenagers plays football in the street. They meet and greet each other like long-lost friends with hugs and slapped handshakes, and gesture to the top of a nearby building. If you follow their instructions to climb four flights of stairs, you can hear the sounds of local rhythms echoing down a corridor where a party is in full swing. Inside a tiny flat, a dozen people sit around a sitting room where the conversation and white rum flow freely.

The occasion is the 58th birthday party of the apartment's owner, Nehanda Abiodun. She cuts a fine figure, a black woman who looks younger than her age, and she's in celebration mode today, but her happiness belies the intensity of her life's struggle. Abiodun, who was born Cheri Dalton, is wanted by the US Federal Bureau of Investigation in connection with a string of robberies, including a 1981 hold-up of an armoured car near Nyack, in upstate New York. An exile in Havana for the past 20 years, she is now known as the "godmother" of Cuban hip-hop and founder of a Havana chapter of Black August, a seminal group that promotes hip-hop culture at the grass roots. Since the chapter's formation it has held charitable concerts in New York and Havana featuring high-profile artists such as Erykah Badu, Mos Def, Common and Dead Prez, and until 24 August its work will be one of the highlights of this year's Havana Hip-Hop Meeting and Festival.

Abiodun's life has been inextricably linked with protest, and the music of protest, since her youth. Born in 1950, graduating from Columbia University in 1972, she formed her extreme political beliefs - those of "New Afrikans", political idealists who believed in the foundation of a black-only state within US borders - while working at an experimental drug detox programme in the South Bronx, New York. The programme operated under the banner of a militant black rights group that viewed the political radicalisation of its patients as essential.

"I came of age during the 1960s, a time of unrest, sit-ins, student strikes, mass protests and urban rebellions," explains Abiodun as various friends, and their relatives, sit on her knee. "The music that was being composed at that time reflected what was happening across the nation. Songs like [James Brown's] "I'm Black and I'm Proud", [Marvin Gaye's] "What's Going On" and [McFadden and Whitehead's] "Ain't No Stopping Us Now" were tunes not only to dance to, but which had lyrics that made you think and want to be involved in positive social and political change.

"Hip-hop for me was a continuation of that tradition. At the beginning it was a very important contributor to community debate regarding the conditions that existed, and still persist, in US cities," she says.

It is alleged by the US authorities that the group Abiodun was involved with went on to form the core of "the Family", a politically motivated, New York-based underground crime organisation. They began robbing banks, and by late 1979 were hitting armoured cars. In the 1981 attempted robbery, a guard was killed. Then, in the shoot-out that followed, two police officers were killed and a third was wounded. The FBI believes Abiodun was driving a getaway car with several Family members, all of whom escaped.

By 1990, Abiodun had settled in Havana. "People like me are here for a reason," she says. "I believe there is solidarity from the Cuban government with the struggles we are involved in. So even though the US might consider us criminals, it depends who you are talking to or where you are in the world. Are you a criminal or a freedom fighter? Mandela was considered a terrorist but in reality was and is still a hero."

She began working with Cuban rappers when she was first introduced to local hip-hop artists such as Primera Base, Doble Filo and Amenaza. "In the late Nineties a delegation of young people from the hip-hop generation [New York-based writers and "socially responsible" creatives such as Danny Hoch, Cristina Verán and Clyde Valentin] came to Cuba to participate as journalists in the island's hip-hop festival," she explains. "And some of the individuals were friends with people in the US who are members of the organisation I belong to [Black August]. Some of these people in Cuba asked me along to the festival and I was like, 'I'm not going to any hip-hop concert.' I was really disillusioned with hip-hop at that time."

It was the time when east coast v west coast friction was at its apotheosis, manifesting itself in the 1996 shooting of the west coast rapper Tupac Shakur and death of the east coast hip-hopper Notorious BIG the following year. Shakur's godmother and Abiodun's close friend, the former Black Panther Assata Shakur, is another high-profile Havana exile (in 2005 the FBI placed a $1m reward on her head for the alleged murder of a New Jersey state trooper in 1973).

"Part of it was the kindness of young people, inviting an old lady like me," Abiodun continues. "It was the last night of the festival and I am sitting there, and there was this song performed by Primera Base about Malcolm X and I was like, 'Whoah!' It kind of overwhelmed me, and all of us in that stadium. The chorus was not to my liking." She goes on to explain that it included "the N-word". "As a person who has struggled for the dignity of African people, I found the usage of the word offensive." But she says she saw enough "positivity" from among the new-wave Cuban rappers to inspire her to become more involved.

"The Cuban hip-hop community had earned my respect. To put on the festival like that, they had worked miracles with the very few material resources available. So I said I would make a commitment to the young people; that it would be nice if those of us in touch with hip-hop communities in the US would give material support to the Cuban rappers. Young people from the Havana hip-hop community started coming to me and asking about Malcolm X and various issues regarding progressive struggles in the US and other parts of the world. So we just talk all the time. It is very rewarding to me."

The history of Cuba's hip-hop scene is defined by two phases. Up until the mid-1990s, it generally consisted of imports of American material, but the fall of the Soviet Union, Cuba's main trading partner, crippled its economy, forcing more home-grown alternatives to prosper. One record epitomised this transition: Amenaza's 1996 release "Ochavón Cruzao" - the title plays upon antiquated categories of racial classification, and the song addresses racism and Cuba's mixed-race population. Members of Amenaza later emigrated to Europe and formed the nucleus of Orishas, a Grammy-winning group that has released four critically acclaimed albums and now has a worldwide following.

Having initially tested the Cuban government's tolerance for freedom of expression, the genre is now backed officially, through the Agencia Cubana de Rap (Cuban Rap Agency), which provides a state-run record label and hip-hop magazine.

Racism is a topic still hugely relevant to the Cuban hip-hop scene. "It manifests itself as the retaining of certain ideas and language within people of a certain generation," says Abiodun. "I am a lighter-skinned black woman. If I were to marry someone darker-skinned some people would describe me as 'taking the race back'. If I were to marry someone who has European features I would be seen as 'taking the race forward'. And if you do something worthwhile people might say, 'Oh, that's a very white thing to do.'

"In Cuban hip-hop, most of the lyrics speak to what the artist feels she or he is confronted with daily," she says. "I of course cannot speak for them, but I can safely say that they have been responsible for bringing to the stage topics that in the past were discussed or debated only in small intellectual circles and not made available to the public at large."

Now, Abiodun's focus is back on the US, where ex citing political change could spell a sea change in the lives of young black Americans. "I really hope that [the Democratic presidential hopeful] Barack Obama wins," she says. "I'm not sure what I feel about this, because if it's generally known that people like me support him it will be used against him. One day I hope I will go home. One never loses faith. He could bring that about if he was president. He would have the power to do that . . . though I doubt that he would." A broad smile settles across her face, and the party continues well into the night.

Rob Sharp writes for the Independent