Those who complain that hip-hop degrades American culture will be happy to know they have an ally in Fidel Castro, who worries that a generation of young rappers rising in Havana have something other than communism on their mind when they holler about "revolution." In fact, a lot of the rappers in Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck's documentary Young Rebels have chosen the genre strategically, as the best way to get their social agenda across. Some of the performers used to be involved in street theater, while others have hustled drugs or bodies, because the jobs provided by the Cuban government don't pay enough to feed their families.
Young Rebels is built around an annual hip-hop festival organized by this collective of beat-happy Cuban intellectuals, who claim to have bought into the music the first time they heard Public Enemy. Most of them use live instruments because they can't afford samplers, and some play with a harder edge—tougher to dance to—because it best suits their rage at the return of institutional racism and the oppression of the underclass in their homeland. The documentary is short, vividly shot, and packed with interviews in which desperate young men and women let loose their personal philosophies.
In fact, there's so much philosophizing that there's not much time left for rap. Footage from the festival itself gets shoehorned into the last 20 minutes of the movie, and even the scenes where the organizers bicker with the government about permits are too scant. Young Rebels just isn't organized well. But the few live performances are enough to make a case for the vision of these artists, who are fusing the Afro-Cuban tradition with the American pop underground. And they know it, too. More than once, the Cuban rappers take shots at what U.S. hip-hop has become, and they've got a point. Compared to rhymes about breadlines and wage-slavery, America's status-obsessed hip-hop looks not just frivolous, but pathetic.