Miami New Times September 7, 2000
With the FBI in pursuit, black activist Nehanda Abiodun a decade ago fled to Cuba, where she still dreams of fomenting a socialist revolution in the United States
Even a casual observer in Havana would notice the striking disconnect between the slogans emblazoned on billboards across the city and the actual mood of the Cuban people who pass underneath them. “Imperialists, You Don’t Scare Us at All!” reads one towering graphic depicting a Cuban soldier facing off against a Godzilla-like Uncle Sam. Elsewhere “Socialism or Death” banners compete with stirring admonitions to follow the life example of Che Guevara, a man who once declared that had it been his finger on the button during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, he would have gladly launched a nuclear salvo northward.
Foreign analysts may debate the vitality of Fidel Castro’s regime and the actual dangers it poses to the United States. What’s clear, however, is that Cubans themselves have very different attitudes from those of el jefe when it comes to their Yankee neighbor and his culture.
On a Saturday night this past June, movie theaters across Havana were packed with Cubans soaking up the finest mayhem American directors had to offer: from the feminist road-trip flick Thelma and Louise and the thriller Double Jeopardy to Bruce Willis as an amoral hired gun in Last Man Standing and Brian De Palma’s classic splatterfest Carrie. For those who chose to stay in, the late show on Cuban state television offered, unedited, the HBO mobster biopic Gotti.
It’s hardly a coincidence that the films passing official muster shared an implicit message: Life in America is nasty, brutish, and short — and in the case of Carrie, an unappetizing place for little Elian to attend high school. Still the Cuban people seem to be deriving other unintended lessons from these movies, at least if their growing mania for designer fashions, electronic gadgets, and U.S. pop music is any indication.
Nehanda Abiodun is quite familiar with this Cuban phenomenon. She has lived in Havana for the past ten years as a political exile from the United States (that’s her term; the FBI prefers the phrase “fugitive from U.S. justice”), long enough to bemoan the city’s younger generation. “They watch these movies from the United States, and they see sixteen-year-old kids who have cell phones, cars, computers, all the trappings,” she said with a sigh during a recent interview on the eastern outskirts of Havana. “So they wanna know, “Why don’t we have that?'”
At age 50 Abiodun has a lifetime of social activism behind her — from a Harlem childhood spent listening firsthand to the speeches of Malcolm X on through the civil-rights and black-power movements of the turbulent Sixties and early Seventies. Through it all, even when the conservative cultural chill of the Reagan years should have tested her faith, she believed steadfastly that the kind of revolution that transformed Cuba also would come to the United States. So the attraction of Cuban youths to the glitter of American wealth doesn’t sit well with her.
“This younger generation doesn’t know what it took to get to this point,” Abiodun lamented, “where you don’t have to worry about a drive-by [shootings], where you don’t have to worry about getting your teeth fixed, where you don’t have to worry about paying for college.”
Her lament over materialism, however, seemed aimed almost as much at the current state of American society as at Cuba’s. When she first arrived on the island in 1990 and received political asylum, Abiodun viewed the stay as a tactical move, a pit stop in her efforts to realize “the revolution” back home and a place to regroup in a land that would treat her as an ally. “I never decided to come down here; it was decided for me,” she said, referring obliquely to her notorious presence in the early Eighties on the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Most Wanted list.
Since 1981 she’d been living underground, pursued across the United States by the FBI on charges of armed robbery, murder, racketeering, and federal conspiracy in connection with a string of armored-car holdups in the New York City area. She was wanted as well on charges connected to the 1979 New Jersey jailbreak of Black Liberation Army figurehead Assata Shakur, who had been convicted of charges stemming from the murder of a police officer in 1973. (Shakur also was granted political asylum by Cuba and lives there today, though she recently has gone into hiding.)
The FBI alleges that Abiodun was part of a group that came into being in late 1978 and originally called itself simply “the Family.” According to court records and statements from captured members who became informers, the Family’s ranks consisted of some two dozen people, both blacks and whites, most of whom had cultivated their ideological fervor as members of groups such as the Sixties-era Black Panther Party and its offshoot, the Black Liberation Army; the Republic of New Afrika; and the Weather Underground.
It was a seemingly odd birth date. By 1978 those militant groups, and the cultural tenor that produced them, had long been moribund. For most Sixties survivors, the era was just that: a period they’d survived, learned from, and moved beyond. Indeed those who remained with the Panthers were devoting their energies to political campaigns in the San Francisco Bay area. By then Panther leader Eldridge Cleaver had returned from Algerian exile to face charges from a 1968 shootout with police, telling the New York Times: “I think a situation now exists in this country where I can have my day in court…. Anyone who hasn’t changed their views since 1968 is in trouble.”
The Black Liberation Army, forged in the very early Seventies by Panthers committed to armed struggle (many had formerly been aligned with Cleaver), also seemed to have faded away. After claiming responsibility for the murders of several police officers, BLA members became targets of a nationwide manhunt. Some were arrested; others were killed in police gunfights. In the aftermath of the much-publicized capture of Assata Shakur, little more was heard from them. Meanwhile the Republic of New Afrika, a group dedicated to transforming South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana into a separate black nation, also disappeared from the headlines. By late 1978 several Weather Underground members were getting press coverage, but for leaving their pasts behind and surrendering to authorities in the amnesty climate of the Carter administration.
But not everyone was so sanguine about closing the door on those wrenching and at times apocalyptic days, and it was those remaining faithful who would make up the Family. If their numbers were small, and if conditions for the overthrow of the U.S. government seemed remote at best — well, that just meant they had to be all the more daring. After all, hadn’t Fidel Castro begun his revolution by heading into the Sierra Maestra mountains with barely twenty men?
“First of all I wouldn’t admit I was doing any of that, even if I was,” Abiodun said, alluding to her own involvement with Family crimes. Not that she would prove unwilling to discuss such matters, or to vigorously defend them. As for the Family’s attacks on armored cars: “I don’t consider it armed robbery. I consider it expropriation…. If your cause is just, if you’re at war, then it’s the booty of war.” The two police officers who were killed by Family members during one of those “expropriations”? “They were protecting the state,” she replied testily. “They were upholding the genocidal and oppressive policies of the United States. They were soldiers who were at war with us. When I say us, I don’t mean just “us’ in the African community; I mean people of color and poor people.” Nor would Abiodun express much sympathy for the fatal shootings of two Brinks guards. “They had a choice,” she explained. “They chose to protect the money of the state.”
Reflecting on her mindset in 1978, she continued, “I had seen the results of mainstream politics and I knew it wasn’t going to work. I had traveled throughout the country, trying to do it the “correct’ way, within the system. It wasn’t going to happen.” In her eyes “the United States government had waged war against us,” a situation that demanded an equivalent response: to become a soldier and prepare for battle.
Ten years after fleeing the States for Cuba — almost twenty years after first taking up arms — Nehanda Abiodun is still at war.
In 1972 Abiodun graduated from Columbia University and went to work at a New York City methadone maintenance clinic. Trying to help drug addicts might seem far removed from formulating plans for a revolution but to Abiodun that career path was the catalyst that set her on that political road.
“At the time I thought methadone was a viable way to deal with heroin addiction,” she said. “[Soon] I began to understand the politics surrounding drug addiction, racism, and control.” To her methadone was just another toxic drug, one that purposely kept users incapacitated and reporting to the clinic every day. “It was a way of, once again, capitalism trying to destroy our lives.” She began clashing with the clinic’s managing doctor, who balked at her attempts to detoxify addicts from heroin and also wean them off methadone.
Abiodun soon found kindred spirits working at an experimental detox program at Lincoln Hospital in the South Bronx. Under the guidance of Mutulu Shakur, a charismatic Republic of New Afrika member, Lincoln Detox favored acupuncture over methadone, operated as a self-described socialist collective, and viewed the political radicalization of its patients as essential. For Abiodun, an activist who had been involved with mainstream community groups in Harlem, it was a heady mix: “There were ex-Panthers, ex-members of the Republic of New Afrika, members of the Young Lords — the Puerto Rican movement. And there were white people who had been involved in SDS [Students for a Democratic Society].”
But to city officials, the presence of these radicals only aggravated an already offensive situation. In November 1978 New York Assemblyman Charles Schumer bitterly complained to the New York Times that “Lincoln Detox has compiled a well-documented record of millions of dollars in unsubstantiated payroll costs, overbilling for patient care and other egregious management failures.” Mayor Ed Koch subsequently evicted the Lincoln Detox program from Lincoln Hospital, stripped away its autonomy by placing it under hospital management, and had its Shakur-aligned staffers reassigned. Koch later explained that Shakur and his followers “ran it like Che Guevara was their patron saint, with his pictures all over the wall. It wasn’t a hospital; it was a radical cell.”
But as far as Abiodun was concerned, those two concepts — health care and radical politics — needed some sort of fusion. “It was obvious that alternate methods of healing drug and alcohol addictions were not going to be stood for by the status quo,” she recounted. In her view the city’s actions against Lincoln Detox dramatized the futility of trying to reform a corrupt system: “That’s when I made a conscious decision that I was going to devote my life in a more disciplined way to try bringing about a change in the United States.”
Abiodun joined other former Lincoln Detox staffers in a new collective headed by Mutulu Shakur: the Black Acupuncture Advisory Association of North America (BAAANA), based out of a Harlem brownstone and dedicated to providing health care free from city control. It also was in 1978 that she stopped using her birth name, Cheri Dalton, and chose the moniker Nehanda Abiodun. “Nehanda” was an ancient spirit that inhabited the human form in order to lead the Zimbabwean people in their independence struggle against the British, while “Abiodun” was a word used in Nigeria to mean “born at the time of war.”
That name change was symbolic — community health care was only one of BAAANA’s activities. Several of the group’s former Black Liberation Army and Republic of New Afrika members would form the core of the Family, and under the leadership of Mutulu Shakur, they began robbing banks. By late 1979 the Family had drawn in the remaining handful of Weather Underground members who also clung to armed struggle. The group moved up to hitting armored cars. They also sprung Assata Shakur (no relation to Mutulu) from a New Jersey prison at gunpoint and allegedly spirited her to Cuba.
By the summer of 1980, the Family had netted more than $900,000, funds that would ostensibly be used to finance further revolutionary activities. Details of these actions (and the disposition of the money) are still unclear. Although captured Family members would later proudly refer to several of the robberies as “expropriations,” at the time the group issued no public communiqués. In fact federal authorities were unaware that all the robberies, as well as the springing from prison of Assata Shakur, were committed by one organization.
The Family’s public debut came on October 20, 1981, during the attempted robbery of a Brinks truck in Nyack, New York. Ten members, divided into teams, allegedly were involved in the operation. One team attacked the truck while it was in a parking lot, killing a guard in the process. More than a million dollars was transferred into a waiting U-Haul, which was soon stopped at a police roadblock. In the shootout that followed, two officers were killed and a third wounded. The FBI believes Abiodun was driving a getaway car with several Family members, all of whom escaped. Another getaway car crashed and all four of its occupants captured.
The apprehended suspects were questioned, and authorities discovered, to their surprise, that one of them was Kathy Boudin, a member of the Weather Underground wanted by the FBI since March 1970, when she was last seen fleeing naked from a Greenwich Village townhouse rocked by an explosion. (The townhouse was being used by the Weather Underground to assemble anti-personnel bombs, allegedly for use against the Fort Dix military base in northern New Jersey; one such bomb accidentally detonated.)
With the dramatic re-emergence of Boudin, authorities realized they had stumbled across more than a simple gang of robbers. Three days later the police, now on high alert, tracked down two more Family members, Sekou Odinga and Mtayari Sundiata, via a license plate spotted during the Brinks heist. A car chase ensued, ending in a Queens warehouse district. After exchanging gunfire with police, Sundiata was killed and Odinga captured.
The Family began to unravel quickly as police uncovered a network of safe houses and supporters; six other Family members were subsequently captured as well. By 1986, of the members believed directly involved in the Brinks robbery, only Abiodun and Mutulu Shakur remained at large, crisscrossing the country together. Then in February 1986, on a Los Angeles street corner, federal agents tackled Shakur and threw him to the ground. He was tried, convicted, and sentenced to prison. Abiodun, also thought to be in Los Angeles, managed to elude authorities for four more years.
“Someone said to me, ‘Nehanda, if you get caught, it’s a victory for them. But if you get away, it’s a victory for us,'” she recalled. “That’s what did it.”
She won’t say exactly how she managed to reach Cuba, only that the journey allowed her to re-establish a relationship with her estranged mother. “The first time I called her [from Cuba], she hung up. But the second time she accepted the call. After we’d talked for a minute …” Her voice trailed off, wavering a bit, as if Abiodun had changed her mind about revisiting the memory. Then a broad smile spread over her face, and she related a later story her mother passed along.
“The FBI went to see her and said, ‘Could you tell us where your daughter is?’
“She said, ‘You know where my daughter is. You’ve been listening to everything that goes on in my house.’
“So they asked her, ‘Did she finish her acupuncture studies?’ because when I went underground, I was six months away from getting my acupuncturist license.
“So she said, ‘Nope, she’s got a Ph.D.’
“The [FBI agent] is like, ‘Oh God, this woman’s finally talking to us, giving us information!’ So they ask her: ‘Can you tell us what she has her degree in?’
“‘Well, well, what’s her degree in?’
“‘Fooling you motherfuckers, obviously!'”
(FBI spokesman Jim Margolin said charges against Abiodun are still standing but further investigation has ended. The Cuban government has not commented publicly on her status in that nation. Abiodun says she is officially classified as a “temporary resident.”)
Not all of Abiodun’s underground compatriots are quite so comfortable with their pasts. Alan Berkman was a doctor indicted as an accessory after the fact in the Brinks robbery case, accused of treating one of the Family member’s gunshot wounds. Berkman jumped bail and, according to authorities, was involved in the armed robbery of a Connecticut supermarket, as well as several bombings of government buildings between 1983 and 1985. Caught in 1985, he served time for the robbery and possession of explosives. In 1994, after his release, he told the New York Times: “We made some really bad decisions, and I don’t want to justify them. And if you remove the context of the times, then we were crazed people…. We were trying to make radical change in a nonradical time. We became desperate and kept going further out on the limb.”
The lobby of the Hotel Panamericano is a fitting place to ponder the schizophrenic nature of present-day Cuba. Located to the east of Havana, the hotel sits in the heart of the sprawling Panamericano complex, originally built for the 1991 Pan American Games, a grand stage for socialist Cuba to trumpet its achievements. Less than a decade later, buildings that once hosted visiting athletes serve as housing blocks, and like many of the nation’s recent construction projects, they’re already crumbling.
It was on August 18, 1991, the last day of the games, that Boris Yeltsin took power in the Soviet Union. During the previous two years, as the Berlin Wall fell and the Eastern European nations of the Soviet bloc splintered, the massive economic subsidies that had kept Cuba’s economy afloat shrank drastically. With Yeltsin’s ascent that aid disappeared completely. The “special period” of austerity, inaugurated in 1990, worsened dramatically: Everyday staples, such as butter and toilet paper, vanished from store shelves. Oil imports dried up, and with them electricity and gasoline. Rolling blackouts became common, and bicycles took pre-eminence as a mode of urban transport.
Castro’s solution to this state of near-total social collapse was to turn his embrace of foreign investment, private enterprise, and tourism into a desperate bear hug. Thus even while he decried the collapse of Soviet communism and vowed he would brook no Gorbachev-style perestroika, he opened up Cuba to more international influence than at any point since 1959.
At the Panamericano in June 2000, that economic stimulation meant that Nehanda Abiodun’s voice and her declarations on the revolution were forced to compete with the sound of a television in the adjoining bar. Thanks to a satellite hookup, ubiquitous at Havana’s hotels, VH1’s Pop-Up Video blared out a caterwauling Bon Jovi tune that made for a surreal counterpoint to the paperback copy of Penny Lernoux’s Cry of the People that Abiodun cradled in her lap.
“We all complain here in Cuba, all of us,” she said, discussing how neighbors in her apartment building felt about the evolution of the revolution. “I woke up today and my water was coming out of my pipes green — what the hell is this? Or I’m at my computer and the lights go out!” She flashed a good-natured look of exasperation and continued, “We all complain but there is a very minute segment of the population here — I mean, microminute — that wants to see a change here. The majority of the people, regardless of how much they complain, are in support of this process.”
At mention of reports of repression of dissidents and independent journalists, her expression grew stern. And as for freedom of speech, in particular, she said pointedly: “When the United States is at war, does it not control the press? If you look at the enemies of Cuba, the United States government, and — I put them on equal standing — the Miami Cubans, they are waiting for this process to change. They’ve got their bags packed, okay? They have really contributed to what some people might call lack of freedoms. Stop the war against Cuba and then criticize.”
But what about the steady stream of Cubans so desperate for a better life they’re willing to hire smugglers to carry them across the Florida Straits? “It’s economics, clearly economics,” she said of the draw northward. “If you were to talk to the majority of the people who have decided to take to the sea, once they touch soil they will tell you: ‘It’s not that we’re against these policies. It’s just that we want to live better. You know, we’re tired of struggling.'” And here she slapped her palm against her thigh with each word: “‘But that does not mean we do not support this socialist process.'”
Presented with quotes from new Cuban arrivals to South Florida who certainly are not enamored of the “socialist process,” Abiodun grew visibly annoyed, as if her patience for debate had reached its end. “I’ll be honest with you. My position is, those who want to go should go,” she snapped. “If you’re in a place that you don’t like, you’re dead weight.”
This passionate conviction seems to have affected Abiodun physically. The Afro she wore two decades ago is trimmed down closely and her girth has increased slightly. But energy radiates off her body, making her look a decade younger than she is. The vitality might also be the effect of her social circle, which is primarily composed of people half her age. “I just like being around young people,” she said with a grin, a reference not just to her friends but also to the Cuban study groups and visiting brigades of activists and students for whom she frequently works as a guide. Of course not all of that younger set could fathom her initial arrival in Havana.
“Everybody’s first question was, “Why are you here?'” she recalled. “I couldn’t tell anybody who I was. I said, “I’m here studying, doing this and that.’ After a while they were like, “Well, how long are you going to be studying here?’ When I was able to tell them who I was, they loved me. “Oh, you’re one of us!'” Laughing, she added, “Of course there were some people, mostly younger Cubans, who said, “You’re out of your mind! You could have had so much back in the United States!'”
Not that there weren’t moments when Abiodun agreed. “When I came down here, I didn’t know what to expect,” she went on. “I didn’t speak the language. The machismo wasn’t what I was used to back home. It was just culturally different.
“I had supported the Cuban revolution since I was ten years old, since 1960, when Fidel met with Malcolm [X],” she added, referring to the famed tête-à-tête in the Harlem neighborhood where she grew up. Castro, in New York City to address the United Nations, checked out of his midtown hotel, choosing instead to spend the night in a district he considered more befitting a leftist in solidarity with the black community. “I remember my father taking me to the Theresa Hotel and me waving,” she recalled. It was just one of many childhood memories of listening to Malcolm X speak, the benefit of having a father who belonged to the Nation of Islam. “But I wasn’t ready for Cuba. I had naively thought that Cuba had rid itself of all the problems. I thought I was coming to utopia.
“It was refreshing to a large degree because I felt safe here. Not only did I not have the worries about being captured by the FBI, but just walking down the street.” She paused and turned reflective. “I had a chance to heal when I first got here. I didn’t realize how much damage being underground had done to me. My children — I had to keep them out of my mind. It was killing me internally.”
Abiodun has long been guarded about her two children (both of whom live in the States), saying only that her son, now 24 years old, works in an art gallery and that her 32-year-old daughter is part of a major investment firm. Is she hoping they’ll pick up the revolutionary torch one day? “My choices were my choices,” she replied. “They have the right to make their own choices. I’ve been through the period where what I’ve decided to do has affected their lives. I don’t want them to live through that again.”
Suddenly she brightened. “I’m a grandmother!” she cried, beaming. “I have a beautiful two-year-old granddaughter!” Wagging her index finger with each word, she ordered, “Put this down: ‘She is beautiful!’ I’m not just speaking as a grandmother — she is gorgeous!”
Over the past few months, Havana’s nascent hip-hop scene has taken to gathering together every Thursday evening at a community pool complex in the Alamar neighborhood in eastern Havana. It certainly seems an appropriate spot for the music to blossom: Parts of Alamar bear an uncanny resemblance to the blighted blocks of the South Bronx, where rap first developed in the United States.
With the water drained, a steady stream of local raperos take up positions on the pool’s stairs and proceed to breathe new life into the genre’s building blocks — two turntables and a microphone. Except that turntables are a rare commodity in Cuba. So with just a couple of weathered mikes and some minimal looped beats on tape, the island’s rappers spin their own take on el rap for an adoring, fully pumped-up, largely black crowd.
In the early Nineties, rap concerts often were forcibly broken up by the police. Now the Ministry of Culture sponsors an annual rap-music festival in Alamar. Policy shifts such as this are what Abiodun sees as the government’s growing “respect for the Africanism of Cuba.” Still, Cuban rap songs denouncing racism and the secondary status of blacks, even in the supposedly egalitarian air of socialism, are legion. To some critics (both on and off the island) the government’s about-face on homegrown hip-hop has less to do with understanding than with fear, an attempt to keep a lid on what might otherwise turn a charged art form into a subversive movement.
For Abiodun, a woman who dedicated her life to fighting racism in the United States, addressing prejudice in Cuba is a complex matter. “There is not the ingrained, institutional racism that we experienced back home,” she said, choosing her words carefully, her brow furrowed. “But yes, in my opinion racism does exist here. It manifests itself not in terms of everyday policies, but in the way people think.” She shifted blame again to the United States and the “defensive stand” she says Cuba has had to adopt in response to American hostility. “It has not allowed Cuba the luxury to deal with certain internal issues to the depth they might have wanted to.”
As Abiodun studied a June New York Times article by reporter Mirta Ojito, she grew silent, clearly engrossed. The story traced two Cuban friends — one white, one black — and the changes in their lives since arriving in Miami in 1994. While exploring racism in the United States, the story also pointed an accusatory finger at Cuba, noting the paucity of blacks in top government positions or in higher education, despite accounting for, by some estimates, nearly 60 percent of the population.
The article also included quotes from former Black Panther William Lee Brent, another U.S. fugitive from justice now living in Cuba. In June 1969, facing charges of assault with a deadly weapon after shooting at several San Francisco police officers the previous November, Brent jumped bail and hijacked an airplane from Oakland, California, to Havana. Brent told the Times that when he first arrived in Cuba, he’d hoped the island had found the “antidote to racism.” Unfortunately, he discovered, that wasn’t the case. “The revolution convinced everyone that they are all Cuban and that their struggles were all the same, not separate or different because of their race,” he stated. “If a Cuban raises his voice to say, “I am being discriminated against because I am black,’ then he would be labeled a dissident.”
Abiodun seemed momentarily at a loss for words, then said with a hint of resignation: “Bill’s been here a whole lot longer than I have; he’s probably seen certain processes I haven’t.” Still she was not willing to wholly concede the point. “I’m not trying to duck the question; I do think racism exists here,” she acknowledged before stressing the larger issue. “I don’t think that we as Americans — and I use that term extremely loosely — have the right to criticize this process. We’re guests here. It’s like me going to your home and telling you how to run your family. If African Cubans are really dissatisfied, they will do something about it.”
Cuban rap’s fascination with its African-American parent hasn’t been without problems. In the mid-Nineties, Abiodun explained, Cuban rappers often slavishly imitated not just the musical elements they heard in U.S. gangsta rap but also its verbal depiction of the thug life. “They would be calling people niggers and bitches, and then be, like, “Well, what is a beetch? What does beetch mean?'” She rolled her eyes. “They were just picking up words and not even understanding the meanings behind them.”
Abiodun’s bemusement evaporated when she attended the island’s rap-music festival in 1997. One group walked onstage and performed a song written in dedication to Malcolm X. “The chorus was, “A nigger like you, a nigger like you, we wanna be a nigger like you, Malcolm,'” she recalled with a look of horror. “You cannot call Malcolm a nigger!”
After the rappers finished, Abiodun went backstage to confront them: “People had to calm me down — ‘Chill her out; she’s too old to understand.’ I started out upset with this Cuban group, but then I became more upset with rappers in the United States. We were promoting this; we were responsible for this kind of language. Look at the history of the word: It was created to denigrate us, to make us feel worse than a penny waiting for change. So I cannot accept that the word has evolved into something different.”
One outgrowth of this semiotic battle was Abiodun’s involvement in Black August, a New York City-based collective that seeks to repoliticize U.S. hip-hop with an explicit revolutionary flavor. Although Black August’s outreach programs and benefit concerts (featuring marquee names such as Mos Def, Dead Prez, and Fat Joe) are hardly a new idea, its guiding principles are. As one of the organization’s press releases announced: “Black August holds these elements — hip-hop, U.S. political prisoners, and Cuba — together with the common theme of revolution: Hip-hop was and is a revolutionary cultural art form. Cuba, with all its faults and attributes, is defined by its revolutionary history. And U.S. political prisoners and exiles, many of whom have been given asylum in Cuba, are products of revolutionary movements within the United States.”
It’s a neat formula, using the wide appeal of hip-hop to draw attention to both black revolutionary traditions and their living embodiment in Havana — of which Abiodun is hailed as one example — a feat accomplished literally by flying U.S. rappers down to Cuba. This immersion theory seems to be working. Chicago rapper Common returned from a Black August-escorted visit to Havana last summer with “Song for Assata,” a tribute that grew out of his meeting there with Assata Shakur. In U.S. interviews this past winter, Common made a point of discussing that song, black revolutionary politics, and Shakur’s status as a political exile.
Abiodun is hoping this kind of publicity will mushroom, allowing U.S. blacks to begin to see themselves as New Afrikans who need to struggle for their own land — the Republic of New Afrika — if they’re going to be truly free. “Black August is a tool to raise the consciousness of young people,” she explained, “not necessarily to train them to wage armed struggle but to be conscious of their rights. Even if you’re not a victim of repression, it’s like that old adage: If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.”
Some of that consciousness-raising may still be needed back in Alamar. This past June, as about 200 people milled outside the pool building waiting for the rap show to start, one Cuban fan sauntered over to Abiodun, who was standing with some friends. After ostentatiously whipping out a thick roll of U.S. dollars, he was soon explaining in his best approximation of an American player’s patois that he was from “Minneapolis-Boston,” a mack daddy “raised in the South.” Abiodun was not amused, particularly when he asked her where in America she was from.
“I’m a New Afrikan,” she replied icily, her chin thrust out.
Dinnertime at Abiodun’s Havana apartment is a humble affair, easily dispelling any notion that she lives some form of gilded exile. In fact the walk to her dilapidated building reveals a neighborhood that looks eerily similar to the tenement complexes in America’s inner cities, complete with stray dogs meandering through the trash strewn along the adjoining alleys. As the sounds of music and cooking waft out of windows, though, the feeling in the air is one more of resilience than despair.
Abiodun swung by the local community center where her Cuban boyfriend, Mario — her partner for the bulk of her time on the island — was shooting pool on a battered table alongside several other local men. After he finished his last few shots, the two headed home.
Up several flights of stairs, their apartment is small but tidy. The living room is full of family pictures, but it’s obvious the couple enjoys little in the way of creature comforts. Abiodun has an old computer for typing essays for U.S. publications such as the cultural journal BLU and the hip-hop magazine Stress, but there’s no phone (she relies on a neighbor to relay messages). A CD from a New Orleans jazz band is on display, but there’s no CD player on which to hear it. The water wasn’t running at all that June day, and an open balcony door provided little relief from the stifling summer heat.
As Mario stood in the kitchen slicing mangoes, Abiodun noted that he’s the one with public notoriety. Featured on a Sunday-afternoon televised dance competition a few years ago, Mario won time after time, returning to the show each week for almost twelve months. He remains something of a celebrity, often recognized in the street. “My fame isn’t because I’m me,” Abiodun joked, “it’s because I’m hooked up with Mario.” She imitated the offhand greeting she often receives: “Oh, you Mario’s woman.”
To some American critics, however, even this modest existence is an affront. So far the bulk of their anger has largely focused on Assata Shakur. A September 1998 U.S. House of Representatives resolution, cosponsored by Miami Reps. Lincoln Diaz-Balart and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, demanded her extradition. New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman upped the level of saber-rattling, offering a $100,000 reward for Shakur’s return, even advertising the sum on Radio Martí broadcasts into Cuba. Shakur apparently has taken the bounty on her head seriously: She is now underground, even in Cuba — her location known only to the government and a few close friends who say she moves constantly.
Miami’s Cuban American National Foundation (CANF), the most prominent Cuban-exile lobbying organization in Washington, D.C., has tried to make Abiodun, Shakur, and the 75 other individuals in Cuba wanted by the FBI (from William Lee Brent and Republic of New Afrika member Michael Finney to notorious financier Robert Vesco) an election issue, as well as a wedge against growing congressional support to lift the U.S. embargo against the island. Besides trying to drum up support for a House bill that would link any loosening of the embargo to the extradition of fugitives such as Shakur and Abiodun, CANF also has created a television commercial featuring Assata Shakur, branding her a “cop killer” harbored by Castro.
Abiodun said she approached the Cuban government to see if the growing Stateside clamor was having any effect on Abiodun and Shakur’s asylum status: “This sassy-assed woman went right up to [Cuban officials] and asked, “This is what they’re saying. So what’s up?’ I sat down and talked with them, and I feel comfortable that they will not [extradite us].”
Abiodun also said she considers the failures of the Family and its predecessors to be less ideological than tactical. “If I had it to do over again” — she quickly corrected herself — “if we had it to do over again, we would be more conscious of having a strong, rooted, community grassroots organization that would be able to support [underground] activities.” And activists, she stressed, still need to be willing to take up arms.
Such thinking is grossly out of touch with reality, said Dick Flacks, a onetime Students for a Democratic Society leader and now a sociology professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “The trouble with that kind of underground is that it is a closed framework that reinforces those views,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 1995, drawing comparisons between the Weather Underground, its successor groups, and the upsurge of right-wing terrorist acts, such as the Oklahoma City bombing by Timothy McVeigh. “From the outside it looks totally irrational. From inside it looks like the logical path to follow.”
Living in Cuba, coming into contact mainly with those who are sympathetic to revolution — both the island’s and the viability of one for the United States — Abiodun arguably also is trapped in a “closed framework.” Yet to her, Flack’s view is typical of that held by many Sixties radicals who took advantage of their white skin when the going got rough and returned to working within the system.
“Tom Hayden is a perfect example,” she said bitterly of the former SDS leader who is now a California state senator. “He was part of the Chicago 7. ‘Blah, blah, blah, I’m a revolutionary.’ When he got tired of it, what did he do? Put on a suit. And he can do that — he was white.
“I don’t think now is the time for armed struggle,” she continued. “Whether it’s still the only way to change things in the United States depends on the United States government. Right now we’re not equipped enough, we’re not sophisticated enough to battle against the first line of defense — the police, SWAT teams.”
That struggle, whatever its form, is something she sees herself taking up again one day in the United States. “For me to think that I will never go back is to say that my enemies are going to always win,” Abiodun said.
Her voice brightening, she added, “Yes, I do think I’m going to go back, and I’m going to go back free. I might be fooling myself, but that’s the only way I can think.”
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