14ymedio, Havana | 24 January 2021 — A decade ago, alternative art in Cuba had a name, Omni Zona Franca, and its heart beat in the Alamar neighborhood in eastern Havana. David Escalona, who calls himself David D Omni, was part of that group of multifaceted artists – musicians, poets, graffiti artists and performers.
After Civic Ghost and Contraindicated, the singer-songwriter just released the pure hip hop album Hierro [Iron], punctuating, again in his style, critical and irreverent lyrics.
Regarding his latest work, David D Omni talks with 14ymedio about the times of La Casa de la Cultura de Alamar and the hard struggle in unofficial musical production, while reflecting on the alternative culture, the political panorama in Cuba and that future that sometimes seems to be approaching and other times slips from the forecasts.
14ymedio: Many of the Omni Zona Franca artists have emigrated. Why are you still living in Cuba?
David D Omni: This is my home and my culture. We have unique values that deserve to be saved. If I stay here it’s because I see a light and also because of a hunch, because I always put my heart first in this type of decision. If someone wants to make an honest living from their work and their talent, obviously this is not the place, and it still seems to me hugely illogical to stay in Cuba doing something other than working on change that fosters the freedom and prosperity that so much we dream about.
I think it’s a huge narrow-mindedness to put up borders. I have taken pleasure in art, religion, philosophy, science and masonry
14ymedio: In the musical theme Mídanse, [Measure Yourselves] from your new album, you says: “If I want to, I can be an artist or a politician”, mixing two concepts that many strive to separate. How far or close are both in today’s Cuba?
David D Omni: I think putting up borders is extremely narrow-minded. I have taken pleasure in art, religion, philosophy, science and masonry, I have guarded the bathroom door for someone, I have worked the land, I have experimented with politics, green medicine, and the fact that staying in one element more than in another it is my personal decision, not an obligation. It is hard for me to understand that there is a mental aberration striving to limit human freedom, but it does exist, and if you knock on my door, I will sing a song for you. Politics and art in Cuba, at least in me, become imbued with each other in the same way that nothing is separate in the universe.
14ymedio: In the last two decades, the distribution of audiovisual content and music in Cuba has been significantly transformed. Home studios have sprung up and the packet* reaches everywhere. Do you think there is a saturation of options?
David D Omni: The issue is that anything that happens in the world reaches Cuba decades too late. As long as State Security continues to control what comes out in the packet, as long as independent artists and journalists remain entrenched and quartered in their homes and as long as there is a single party that reigns even above the law, whatever happens in the world, for better or for worse, will continue to be late in reaching us. As Cubans, we would like to have a real problem of excess of options, or the problem of representativeness that takes place in democracies, to give another example.
14ymedio: Guanabacoa, where you live, seems to be a forgotten area of Havana. What’s happening in the independent art scene in one of the oldest neighborhoods in the capital?
David D Omni: Guanabacoa is one of the oldest human settlements in the capital, with its own cultural manifestations that have influenced the network fabric of the nation, putting a mark and a stamp on what it means to be Cuban. The problem is more in being independent than in being an artist, living in a dictatorship.
The theaters, as well as the cinemas, galleries and public spaces belong to the Government, and the few spaces for art that are outside an official institution are under constant scrutiny and penetrated by State Security. Maintaining an open position or creating avant-garde art that proposes and renews reality, as good art or noble science historically does, is to declare war on the Party, which reigns in Cuba in the style of the medieval Church.
What can you expect from a reign where technological advances, like a drone or a satellite antenna, are on the list of enemies of the state, and terms such as “released-controlled chicken” are invented? It seems to me that the consequences of such liberalism have a negative impact on the quality not only of art, but of Cubanness in general, creating a “culture of mediocrity.” How sad, right? It only remains for me to think about these words of [José] Martí: “without freedom, the writer does not write, nor does the speaker speak, nor the legislator meditate; to act with freedom becomes to act with greatness”.
If I start to analyze it coolly, I am risking my youth here and my family’s future, having the ability to do better. I see a change, and I see it as long as I can change myself
14ymedio: There is a defiant and rebellious line in your new album, but also humility, recognizing the fragility of any citizen. Do you hope for a democratic change in Cuba in the short term?
David D Omni: The act of living here reaffirms my hope. If I start to analyze it coolly, I am risking my youth here and my family’s future, having the ability to do better. I see a change, and I see it as long as I can change myself, since one can only give what one has. That is why I speak about fragility and citizen fear in my songs, since, with few exceptions who did suffer the consequences of a direct confrontation with the dictatorship, there is a huge number of Cubans inciting those most vulnerable into doing what they never did, disposing of all their personal frustrations and hatreds on a fragile and long-suffering people.
It is not easy to go out on the street, get beaten and arrested, and then to come home and find your name in the news, turning on the shower and having no water come out, eating a plate of rice with a flour croquette and a glass of water, spending long hours of your life the next day in some human agglomeration under the sun to buy a bottle of oil.
I believe it is pertinent to incite the fight, though that knowledge lives in actions, not in words: inciting from experience inspires, inciting from ignorance exacerbates hatred for hatred. What can be clearly seen is the lack of love and the enormous distance that currently exists between the people and the State. Both what is said on the streets and the follies of the system give evidence of an imminent change.
14ymedio: Chivatón [Big Snitch] is a pretty hard song against the collaborators and informers of the regime. In the Cuba you dream of, what will happen to them?
David D Omni: The life a snitch leads is quite hard. My song is about a collection of true stories assembled over an instrumental one. I believe that envy, lack of self-esteem, mediocrity and authoritarianism are loaded with equal regret on the soul, whether in this Cuba or in the one we dream of.
14ymedio: The health of Cuban hip hop today? Good, with the flu, or in intensive care?
David D Omni: The variety of styles and timbre of hip hop in Cuba is enormous, compared to other countries in the region. It can be said that despite the censorship and the constant war between the Cuban State and this culture, it is inevitable that Cuban rap is one of the most influential in Latin America.
But it is no secret that the Cuban Communist Party (owner of the only Cuban Rap Agency) does not sympathize with this genre, therefore, succeeding in this race in Cuba is not guaranteed at all. And look, I deem doing rap that is not social as a respectable occupation, but doing it in Cuba seems totally lacking in wisdom, since you may, at most, get to sing in some country town or some little national television program.
If what you want is to talk about having a good time, cockiness or romanticism, my advice is to start doing reggaeton now, to earn money and succeed as real artists. At some point, the most respectable Cuban rappers realize they have mistaken the musical genre or the country, if they intend to make a living from music.
In my case, I keep one of the ‘hip hop’ commandments, which is to maintain a business separate from your music. This way, I avoid having to compromise the content of my work
In my case, I keep one of the commandments of hip hop, which is to have a business apart from your music. This way, I avoid having to compromise the content of my work, which I do for sheer pleasure and in total freedom.
14ymedio: Last November 27th, a group of artists planted themselves in front of the Ministry of Culture. What repercussions do you think this act has brought and will bring?
David D Omni: The 27N effect is irreversible. I declare myself an accomplice and in total harmony with the San Isidro Movement, Instar [Hannah Arendt Institute of Artivism] and all the intellectuals and groups that met on that day. The truth is that they managed to sensitize a group in society much larger than the one that existed before in open disagreement with power. The subsequent reprisals orchestrated by the government did not go further than just pretending that nothing had happened. A possibility opened up and experience was gained, and, like the song says: “that’s nuthin’, get ready for what’s to come”.
*Translator’s note: El Paquete (Semanal) The (Weekly) Packet: A one terabyte collection of digital material distributed since around 2008 throughout the underground market in Cuba as a substitute for broadband Internet. In 2015 it was the primary source of entertainment for millions of Cubans.
Translated by Norma Whiting
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