RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
This is the sound of Obsesion.
ALEXEI RODRIGUEZ: (Singing in foreign language).
MONTAGNE: Obsesion is a Cuban hip-hop duo. They invited our colleague, David Greene, for a visit when he was in Havana a few weeks ago.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Their names are Magia Lopez and Alexei Rodriguez. But they told us through our interpreter that they usually go by their nicknames.
RODRIGUEZ: (Foreign language spoken).
UNIDENTIFIED TRANSLATOR: Her name is Magia and he is el tipo este which means this dude.
GREENE: Magic and this dude...
UNIDENTIFIED TRANSLATOR: Yes.
GREENE: ...Are the rapper group, Obsesion.
UNIDENTIFIED TRANSLATOR: Yes.
GREENE: I like that. Magic and this dude sing about social justice, fighting inequality, racism, and sexism. In this song, they're asking why Cubans have forgotten their revolution, which brought socialism to the island six decades ago and aimed to make society more equal.
(SOUNDBITE OF OBSESION SONG)
RODRIGUEZ: (Singing in foreign language).
GREENE: We went to visit Obsesion to help answer one of the big questions we brought to Cuba - what does change mean in a society where change has been such a buzzword? These artists say for one thing, the world is learning more about Cuba and vice versa. Even though the island is just 90 miles from Florida, it was long isolated. Rodriguez remembers the 1990s when the government frowned on hip-hop, which made its way to Cuba on cassette tapes.
RODRIGUEZ: (Through translator) It was seen as something that came from the U.S. So if it comes from the U.S. it must be bad.
GREENE: Today Cubans are listening to music from around the world. Few people have access to the Internet but people do get MP3's from friends, or they can take thumb drives to black market businesses and fill up on music. But Cubans are also much more free to travel these days. Obsesion has been around Latin-America and to the U.S.
MAGIA LOPEZ: (Through translator) Before, we used to get all our information from - like the exchange was a one-way street - was people who would come to Cuba - Venezuelans, Mexicans, Chileans and Spaniards. But that it wasn't us going there. And now that has changed.
GREENE: So those are the voices of two musicians in Havana. Here is another Cuban artist who has seen the same thing.
CANDELARIO: I always said the moment to be in Cuba - it's now. There is more and more interchange between Cuba and abroad. There is more and more Cuban going outside, bringing new ideas.
GREENE: That's the visual artist known as Candelario. He goes by just that one name. He has an art collective that works with neighbors to improve life in their crowded community outside Havana. Candelario came to Miami for an exhibition recently and stopped by at a studio to chat, along with the curator of the exhibition, Elizabeth Cerejido. Elizabeth is part of Florida's Cuban-American community which has for years been hostile to the Castro regime, feeling that it's repressive and backwards. Now she visits her relatives in Cuba frequently and she's trying to build bridges between Cuban and Cuban-American artists. But as you are about to hear, connections between Cubans and Cuban-Americans can be complicated.
ELIZABETH CEREJIDO: There are many instances when I travel to Cuba that I do not go visit my family. And I do that purposefully because they don't understand this idea that perhaps, you know, Elizabeth wants to engage with Cuba and with Cubans on a very different level outside of that exile Cuba narrative. I think we've had 50 years of that and that conversation needs to change.
GREENE: And there was one other voice in the room - a Cuban-American artist, Leyden Rodriguez-Casanova.
LEYDEN RODRIGUEZ-CASANOVA: It's always seemed like the distance between Miami and Havana have always been so far. And they're just so close, not just in distance but in culture.
GREENE: Leyden's trying to eliminate that distance. He plans to show his own work at an exhibition of Cuban-American artists in Havana soon. Candelario, Elizabeth and Leyden each have views of Cuba shaped by different paths. Leyden told us how his parents escaped Cuba with him as a boy on the Mariel Boat Lift in 1980.
RODRIGUEZ-CASANOVA: For my parents, difficulties were just day-to-day - the ability to find food, just a constant daily exchange and trade and bartering system of how to find milk. And from my side of the family, they're still going back there on a regular basis, taking a lot of basic supplies to family members. It seems to be very much a class divide there, as it is here in terms of poverty versus affluence. The stories that my family's bringing back are working class people that are having a really tough time there. And it's interesting how, you know, at least the ideology of the revolution was sort to do away with that.
GREENE: Candelario, can I just ask you one question about what Leyden just said? His parents, 34 years ago, struggled to find milk. Is that the reality for some families in Cuba still today?
CANDELARIO: No. Absolutely not. This is funny because I have a few friends that had told me the same thing. And I promised them you can find everything that you want. It's true that sometimes when you want to buy any special thing, for sure it's difficult to find it. But the rest - milk or meat or whatever is there every day.
CEREJIDO: If you have the money to buy it. It becomes how do you get that money?
RODRIGUEZ-CASANOVA: At $40 a month.
CANDELARIO: Yeah but this is the life. I mean, that's a problem. That's another thing. I don't want to talk about money. I'm just talking about possibility.
CEREJIDO: Right, but I don't think you can divorce the question from the broader, socio-political environment which is that most people who make $20 a month cannot go and buy milk. Yes, it's in the market. But if that bottle of milk is $5, that's one-fifth of your salary.
CANDELARIO: I agree. But what if you have money and then there is nothing to buy? That's why I'm trying to speak, to answer the question really. Now you are in Havana and you go to one direction, there is huge supermarket. There is another, Agro, I did not say that.
CEREJIDO: Like a farmer's market.
CANDELARIO: Now let's talk about money - OK. With your salary you cannot but hello - there is Cuban with $20 salary but they have an Audi - car -that come from - I don't know, I don't want to wonder.
CEREJIDO: Well, relatives from the United States that - I mean...
CANDELARIO: Yeah, could be. Not just from Germany - the United States but from abroad, yes.
GREENE: Artists will often tell you that you can see different things in the same image, and maybe the same can be said for Cuba. These three seem to interpret what's happening on the island differently, but they acknowledge the same reality. While there's been progress, the portrait of Cuba remains largely unchanged. People are struggling to find their place in a society where there's quality public education and healthcare but where the price of a bottle of milk can trigger a debate about the future.
CANDELARIO: In Cuba, people adapt to the situation they have and they try to survive, I mean, in a way using a lot of jokes. That's why the reason I always said that Cuba is the best place to be a child and then to be an old man. But in the middle you have to move.
GREENE: That's the voice of Cuban artist Candelario. We also heard from a Cuban-American artist Leyden Rodriguez-Casanova and Miami art curator Elizabeth Cerejido.
MONTAGNE: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.