When it comes to hip-hop, particularly in Latin America, much is owed to Africa.
And for Isnay “DJ Jigüe” Rodriguez—a Cuban music producer and DJ whose blend of electronic, urban and African rhythms has come to be known as Afrofuturismo Tropical—it was time to pay that debt.
It’s a debt that traces back to his own humble hip-hop beginnings growing up in Santiago de Cuba, more than 500 miles from Cuba’s capital city of Havana where he now lives. It was Santiago’s street music scene of the 80s and 90s that nurtured his hip-hop creative spirit, indoctrinating him first by breakdancing before mastering the turntables.
But with Havana dominating much of the island’s coverage of culture, art and music, the story of Santiago’s predominantly Black thriving and innovative urban music scene has never been told. Until now.
The 2019 award-winning documentary film “Bakosó: AfroBeats of Cuba,” directed and produced by brothers Eli and Kahlil Jacobs-Fantauzzi, follows Rodriguez as he embarks on a journey tracing the spiritual and ancestral origins of a new genre of music from Santiago, Bakosó—a synchronous amalgamation of African rhythms from Angola, Ghana, and Nigeria with traditional Santiaguero sounds.
“The story of what was happening in Havana was always told,” said Rodriguez, the founder of Cuba’s first independent music label, Guampara Music. “And the story of what was happening in other places like Santiago de Cuba was not told, which has always had a very rich cultural and musical history. And I always felt the need to tell that story. Now is the time of Afrobeat, the influence of African music, and it’s the perfect time to pay off that debt.”
The film, which premieres nationally on PBS on May 3, not only traces the musical origins of Bakosó, but examines Cuba’s historical resilient spiritual connection to the African continent, one that is notably embodied by the Cimarrónes, or Maroons—Africans who freed themselves from enslavement by seeking refuge in the Cuban mountainside.
The film, which features various Afro Cuban musicians, includes scholar Dr. Raúl Miyares, an expert on African and Caribbean studies, who says that “Cuba embodies the spirit of the Cimarrón…the ability to create a new culture that keeps its ancestral roots.”
“When you think about it, when you talk about our traditions, our customs, our spirituality, what we have today, it comes from those Maroons,” Eli said. “We’ve been through all these horrific things that colonization, that literally tried to outlaw drumming, tried to outlaw our language, tried to outlaw who we are…And after everything we still have that. What an honor, what a legacy and what a joy to be able to hold that.”
For the Jacobs-Fantauzzi brothers, who are of Afro-Puerto Rican descent, the film is the culmination of a 20-year relationship with Cuba. It was during Eli’s showing of his first documentary “Inventos: Hip Hop Cubano” in Santiago in 2005 that he met Rodriguez. A friendship that resembles family blossomed soon after. But it wasn’t until after Eli’s second documentary “HomeGrown: HipLife in Ghana” (2008) that Rodriguez told him about what was happening in his hometown. African students who came to study medicine in Santiago de Cuba were gradually influencing the local music scene with Kuduro from Angola, Afro House from South Africa, and Azonto from Ghana. And from there came the idea of documenting the birth of a new genre, Bakosó.
“We see a huge reflection of ourselves in the images that we portrayed in the film,” said Eli. “We’re really interested in what it looks like to tell a just story. What does justice look like in storytelling, where it’s non-extractive and you aren’t mining stories from communities, but you’re telling it alongside the community…we’re let into these spaces, where I wasn’t even sure a camera should be let into that space.”
One such scene comes near the start of the film that shows Rodriguez visiting his grandmother Mama Cuca in Santiago. The film captures Cuca praying before her altar to the Yoruban goddess Yemaya and blessing Rodriguez on his journey after cowrie shell reading.
Aided by a film crew composed of locals, the film captures the magic of Santiago. The end result is something that doesn’t feel scripted or contrived, but rings of authenticity. And perhaps more importantly, the film visibilizes the often ignored and erased images of Black people not just in Cuba, but throughout Latin America.
“That’s something that we intentionally really wanted to focus on because historically it hasn’t been part of the conversation,” Kahlil said. “When you look at news media outlets, and you take a look at people’s skin and the color of their eyes and the texture of their hair, it doesn’t represent truly who we are as a people. And so those images have a profound impact on how we see ourselves and the way we see the world around us.”
“It is a responsibility that I think all people have, not just Afro-descendants. I think it’s the responsibility of all people around the world to elevate, to feel proud, and to represent and teach their roots,” Rodriguez said. “For many years, those in power—white colonialists—have tried to erase the histories of the community, of the people. Not only of Afro-descendants, but of indigenous people as well.”
He’s right. For centuries, the histories, music and spiritual practices of people of Afircan and Indiegnous descent in the Americas have undergone multiple cultural assisanination attempts by the colonial powers that be. And when those histories and cultural practices are kept alive by sheer resilience, they are often buried beneath the dominant narrative pushed by political leaders and controllers of mass media.
But in the words of DJ Jigüe: “I feel that with Bakosó, we are contributing to that cause.”
“Bakosó: AfroBeats of Cuba” premieres on PBS on May 3, check local listings for additional showtimes. San Francisco’s Museum of the African Diaspora (MoAD) will host a virtual film club discussion with Eli Jacobs-Fantauzzi on May 16, and the virtual Fist Up Film Festival will be screening the film on May 27, visit fistup.tv for details.
Want to learn more about the featured artists in the film? See here: