How Escaping Cuba, Castro, & Prison Fuels Lawren’s Hip-Hop Story
The United States, land of the free, home of the brave. The mantra of this phrase has been blurred over the years as many feel that statement is not an objective one depending on who you are. For Christian emcee, Lawren, with all politics and social chaos aside, being free is something he and his family will never take for granted because of their heritage.
Lawren was born to a Puerto Rican mother and a Cuban father in Florida. While he and his mother are citizens of the U.S., the American dream wasn’t as much of a goal as it was a way to survive to live another day for his dad. Lawren’s father is a Cuban refugee.
Located in the Caribbean, the beautiful island of Cuba is merely judging a book by its cover because deep down inside, paradise has a lot of problems which can be summed up in one word – Castro.
Fidel Castro led his “revolution” of Cuba in the 1950s and officially took power in 1959. Since then, he has ruled the island as a mostly atheistic Communist dictator.
Over the years, Cuban’s have even their simplest of human rights taken away and tens of thousands have been killed for speaking out against the government among various other unjust circumstances. They can’t own land or businesses, and the concept of working is skewed.
The island is rich with resources and culture, and yet they are cut off from the world and no one really thinks anything of it.
“I tell people, we talk about North Korea all the time, but, it’s not much of a difference between North Korea and Cuba,” revealed Lawren. “It’s an oppressive state with a Communist regime. Sometimes people say the worst thing about Cuba is the Communism. That’s not the worst thing. You have a tyrannical government who doesn’t believe in freedom of speech, basic human rights such as the ability to own land, the ability to sell your own goods the ability to go out. When you live in Cuba, you own nothing.”
Lawren said that often times, the people of Cuba, have to wait in line for hours just to get food vouchers.
“A lot of the times, tourists have a better opportunity of getting a good meal, than a Cuban family would. It’s just little things that we take advantage of, like going on Facebook or having the Internet. There are only certain websites that you can go to.”
Another aspect of the turmoil in Cuba is that not everyone disagrees with the government. More often than not they have been brainwashed to accept that Castro is doing the right things for the country.
“If you say something that is anti-Castro, anti-government, you can potentially be putting yourself at risk. The government also puts up spies in neighborhoods.”
One extreme example of Cuban Communist propaganda is the way they inundate the children with love for the dictator in much the same fashion where the people of North Korea almost worship their leader.
A teacher or official will gather with a group of children and sit under a tree. He will say. ‘Close your eyes and ask God for candy’. The kids do as they are told and after a few moments, they open their eyes to nothing. The teacher will then tell the kids to close their eyes and ask Fidel for candy. Another person will climb into the tree with a bag of candy and drop huge piles of candy in front of the children. When they open their eyes, they become excited about the candy. ‘You see kids, God gives you nothing, but Fidel gives you candy!’ He’ll say and the kids all cheer.
It’s truly disturbing and frightening, the lengths the Cuban government will go to gain control of everyone. It is for these very reasons that so many choose to flee this advertised utopia, that looks so much fun in “Godfather 2.”
Roughly 16,000 people have died in the short 90 mile trip from Cuba to Florida. The perilous journey often starts on a flimsy makeshift boat that is just left to float through shark-infested water. It makes you wonder, how bad are things over there that so many are willing to die just for a chance?
Lawren knows the answer to that question. His father did it and lived to talk about it. In fact, it’s one of the key highlights on his latest album Pieces. Every track of the record is a different “piece” of Lawren’s life, and track six is called “Castro.”
“The song means a lot to me, it means a lot to my family, it means a lot to Cuban exiles,” he said.
Hip-Hip music has served as a beautiful outlet for people of all walks of life looking to tell a story or spread a message. Christian rap music has grown to the forefront of what’s popular for believers. Artists have gone head to head with racism, abortion, death, and gay marriage all while confronting the affliction of oppressed people. In this instance, oppressed people under a Communist regime is certainly an untapped story even in secular markets.
“This topic I’d say has not been covered by many people,” Lawren said. “I’m probably the only Christian rapper who will ever talk about this, or has. The topic, in general, hasn’t been hit on.”
Mainstream hip-hop’s Cuba perspective is through music by Pitbull, who right now is only creating party music and not talking about the struggle of his people. His focus is different, and so is Lawren’s, so this was a story he was almost literally born to tell.
“My dad was in prison by the Castro regime because he didn’t want to fight in the army. My dad was not a Communist, and since he was not a Communist you were an enemy of the state and they locked him up because of that,” the emcee shared. “And my sister tried to leave Cuba a couple of years back but the government actually shot at her while she was trying to leave. She’s in her 40’s now and still hasn’t left and she probably never will because she’s so frightened.”
Lawren said his father was able to flee Cuba through an incident similar to what is seen in the movie “Scarface.” He was part of nearly 125,000 Cubans who escaped the island and were looking for asylum in various embassies before Castro decided to open up the Mariel port and give permission to those looking to leave in April of 1980.
Fortunately, many of these people were able to make their way to the Florida Keyes and Miami. Unfortunately for America, many of these people were criminals or people released from mental institutions.
Lawren admitted that everyone coming into Miami “completely changed the shape of America as far as the drug trade. It had a ripple effect.”
Many of these refugees struggle to assimilate to America because of their lack of skill and knowledge of work. Criminal activity is much easier to get involved in, especially when you have nothing.
“When you grow up in a government like that, there’s no incentive to work. Some people come over here, and they don’t get why you have to work for what you want,” he said. “Everyone gets the same thing.”
“You see the effect of Castro almost every single day when you drive through Miami.”
The song “Castro” is really speaking to a perspective that a lot of people who are maybe not Christians but are Cubans can relate to. Then he throws in a Christ-like example of praying for Fidel Castro’s soul and forgiving him. This may be something that fellow Cubans would not understand.
It’s not an easy thing for Lawren to pray about. Fidel has killed, jailed, and impoverished tens of thousands of people.
“He’s not Adolph Hitler, but he’s not much better than Hitler, Stalin, or Saddam Hussein,” the rapper said.
So far the song has been received positively from his family and community, and he hopes sharing his story inspires people to speak up about Cuba. In addition, he said God aligned its release with a huge family milestone.
“The week I released that song is crazy to me. My niece and nephew from Cuba came over to America that same week,” Lawren said, as he prepares to meet his nephew. “I’ve never met him before. I’ve never even met my sister.”
Lawren has already spoken to his nephew on the phone since he’s been in America, and is looking forward to meeting him soon. This was all made possible by a new program that allows people in America to claim family over in Cuba.
As far as going to Cuba himself, it’s something that eats at him. Since he’s half Cuban and his father was born there, he has always been allowed to visit the country despite any tensions between them and the U.S.
“I’ve never gone to Cuba. I don’t know if I ever will. I’m split. It’s hard for me,” he lamented. “There’s a bigger picture that you have to look at. Even though the U.S. relations are better, it’s still the same for them over there.”
Lawren’s mother was also concerned that if he or his father were to visit, the government might capture them and keep them there. This is a very real possibility, especially since international visits of that nature often lead to wild headlines.
Families choose to be broken apart because of how bad it is. Cubans are faced with the daunting decision to leave everything they know behind, including their family, just so they can have a chance at life. The hardest part is, that it’s only 90 miles away.
One of the most famous incidents goes back to 1999 when a 5-year-old Elian Gonzalez was found floating in a tube off the coast of Miami. His mother had died on the journey when a boat with 18 others sank.
A very public custody battle between Elian’s family in Miami and his father in Cuba ensued, and ultimately his father won and he was deported back to the island.
“They brainwash people like Elian Gonzalez. Countless people have died trying to come to the United States because Cuba is THAT BAD. That’s a very scary thing to do,” he said. “Fidel used him as a political pawn. Now he talks about how he hates the U.S. and he grew up hating America.”
Another well-documented case involves Cuban-born brothers who played in the MLB, Orlando ‘El Duque’ Hernandez and Livan Hernandez. Their story is featured in the ESPN 30 for 30 documentary called Brothers in Exile.
Livan defected to America from Cuba when he literally ran out of a hotel and past Cuban security and into the back of an agent’s car while the Cuban National team played an international event. In 1997 he got to pitch for the Florida Marlins, and ultimately led them to their first World Series title.
Livan became the pride of Cuban Americas across the U.S. He helped give those who escaped to Miami a meaningful victory in the form of sticking it to Castro. Livan’s brother Orlando would defect to the Yankees the following year and lead them to a World Series championship too.
Two Cuban brothers, both pitchers, both escaped, both led their teams to championships in back-to-back years. It was truly a story that couldn’t be scripted any better.
Lawren said the Hernandez brothers brought so much pride and honor to the families living in the mostly Cuban section of Miami. It was an answered prayer from a God that wasn’t named Castro.
“Everyone in my family played baseball and loves baseball,” said Lawren, which is a sentiment shared by many Cubans.
In fact, Lawren is not alone when it comes to his background and being in Christian hip-hop. Newcomer Eric Heron’s parents were born in Cuba and came over with their families when they were children.
Heron’s grandfather was a store owner and doing fairly well for a family on the island at that time. When Castro took over, he knew it was time to go, and the family basically started from scratch in a foreign country that relegated him to kitchen help.
The young rap artist has not fully told his story through music yet but hopes to one day share it.
Another thing that ties Heron, Lawren, and even the Hernandez brothers together, is baseball. Heron plays college baseball and one of his brothers was drafted to play for the Milwaukee Brewers pro club.
“We are very much a baseball family,” said Heron.
And therein lies undoubtedly something else of importance for the Latino population in general, family. Todo para la familia, “everything for the family,” which as of this writing is in mourning for one of Cuba’s brightest stars.
Marlins star pitcher, and Cuban defector, Jose Fernandez, died in a tragic boating accident on September 25th, just a day before his next scheduled start. The 24-year-old was already one of the best players in baseball and left behind a pregnant girlfriend.
The impact created by the loss of life has left a crater throughout baseball and in the hearts of sports fans all over. For Cuban-Americans, their devastation is even more pronounced.
It took Fernandez four tries to make it into America with three of his escape attempts landing him in jail while he was still a teenager. Nevertheless, he finally made it and worked to become the pride of his country on America soil. He was even able to see his mother and grandmother join him in Miami.
This is the plight of the Cuban refugee. RIP Jose. https://t.co/6MyWEL4uNd
— Lawren #16 (@lawrenonit) September 25, 2016
“As a Cuban-American from Miami, Jose was our guy. He really represented us. Honestly feels like we’ve lost a family member,” said Lawren on Facebook.
The Marlins honored Fernandez by pounding the New York Mets on September 27, 7 to 3. The ball clubs shared in an on-field and televised memorial service that saw both teams come together in solidarity. Players were sobbing on the field, the announcers were crying, and rivals embraced in a hug. The Marlins players circled around the mound, and someone led the team in prayer.
Many said the Marlins had an “angel in the outfield” and Christian athlete Jeff Francour said, “Humbled to be a part of such a special night honoring #JDF16. If you didn’t believe in God after watching this game, you do now.”
Teammate Dee Gordon said something similar:
Dee Gordon tried to explain his lead-off HR last night, his 1st of the season. pic.twitter.com/nianjCebmF
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) September 27, 2016
This story, a bit out of the box than normal, is an important one to tell. It goes beyond Christian hip-hop and tackles the story of an oppressed people. Many artists with Lawren’s unique background don’t exist. Yet, he’s using his platform to not only touch on topics of faith but also to shine a light on a people who have not been allowed to even search for a God to believe in.
It’s incredible to see how faith and tragedy and music and sports can provide such a common ground for people to start a conversation. Lawren’s listeners may be predominantly non-Cuban Christians, but they now have some insight into someone else’s life with the song “Castro.” In turn, perhaps, they start praying for these people. A Cuban-born baseball player dies, and a community and team come together in mourning, and some seek for answers in God. It’s a chain reaction that may touch countless lives before it’s done circling around.
This isn’t just the story of Lawren Arteaga, it’s the story of a whole nation crying out to be heard.
Special thanks to Sam Kaye for providing the cover photo of Cuba. Check out her photography here.