Dear Jay-Z and Beyonce,
I hope the United States government investigates your trip and threatens to fine you, under the “Helms-Burton Act of 1996 (Trading With The Enemy),” which prohibits any sort of financial exchange with the Cuban government. Since the Cuban government holds a controlling interest in every business in Cuba, the food you ate, the hotel you stayed in, the cigars you bought (Montecristo No.4 are my favorites)…all of it is proof that you have traded with the enemy. I hope that Senator Marco Rubio and Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the puppets of the few angry Cuban-Americans left in Miami, hold hearings on your trip in front of the United States Congress and the people of this country. For the sake of the Cuban people and the majority of Americans who are not allowed to visit this enchanted island, I hope that they think they can make an example of you. Because for far too long good people have been fighting to lift the unjust and irrational embargo against the people of Cuba, and nobody has listened. Cuba is no Iran. It is no North Korea. They simply have a different way of life and governing. This is NO reason to punish their people. So, if they just threaten that $50,000 fine against you, I know the attention it will bring will finally expose this foolishness of an embargo that has nothing but hurt the Cuban people. And plus, what’s 50 grand to a muthafuka like you? Can you please remind me?
I remember the first time I was in Cuba, it was December 31st, 1998. I was in Havana as an Executive Producer of a film we were shooting in La Habana Vieja (the old city), called “Jails, Hospitals and Hip-Hop,” starring Danny Hoch. Throughout the shoot, we met the entire hip-hop community of Cuba, as the rappers and their crews would hang out on the movie set and want to talk with us about the latest record that just came out or the newest video on MTV (yes, back then when they played videos). It was the beginning of what would become an incredible rap scene in Cuba, as they were still getting their tapes from cousins in Miami or from the one dude who had the long-range satellite to pick up radio from Key West.
After a long day shoot on New Year’s Eve day, one of the only hip-hop DJ’s on the island invited me to his house for dinner. I happily accepted and in just a few hours I found myself around his family dining room table, with his mom, dad, sister and elderly grandmother. When the New Year’s Eve dinner came out of the oven, I spotted just five pieces of pork. I was the sixth. My man never told his parents that I was coming over. As they put the pork chop on my plate, I looked over at grandma and her plate was empty. Nada. Just some beans and rice and some sweet plantains. Not really sure what to do, I kept offering my piece of pork to grandma relentlessly, but she would not have it. In maybe the few words she knew of English, she looked at me and said, “my casa is your casa.” I turned to my new-found friend, the DJ, and asked him, “how do you all survive like this?” He turned back to me and said, “You call it survival, we call it living.” I was young and thought the American way of life was the only way to live. For me, I couldn’t fathom a New Year’s Eve without an abundance of food and alcohol, cookies and cakes, champagne and loud noise-makers. For them, that stuff didn’t matter. What mattered was that the entire family was around the dinner table and they were entertaining a guest from America in their home. Priorities just placed in a different place. We walked out of his house around 11pm to head to a party, and as we walked down the Havana streets…I will never forget this…I heard “no, no, no, no” blaring out of a neighbor’s window. Destiny’s Child. The remix. Part 2. And I was like, “you guys like Beyonce too?” And he said to me, “Like? Chacho. We LOVE Beyonce.” Later that night at the fiesta, we got jiggy with it as they played the Will Smith record over and over again. Yes, they LOVED Will Smith too! Remember, it was 1998.
I have been to Cuba over 25 times since that first trip. I made other movies there, brought children there for cultural exchanges, visited with friends, perfected my dominoes game, talked politics late into the night and learned a lot about the meaning of freedom. I remember during another trip in 1999, when I was filming a movie about baseball, I wanted to include a staunch member of the Communist party in the film. My Cuban producer, Osvaldo, told me that he had the perfect person, as she would defend Fidel Castro to the day she died. When we were walking up to her house, I was petrified. I had never met someone who called themselves a “Communist.” As I was walking up the stairs to her apartment, I had a flashback of the air-raid drills as a kid in elementary school, hiding under our desks, in case the Soviets launched a nuclear bomb at New York. I expected a woman with a mustache to answer the door. When the door opened, this tiny little woman and her entire family embraced me as if I was their long-lost cousin. The aromas from the kitchen were heavenly, the cigars were lit and the one bottle of rum that they had flowed generously. We stayed up until the sun rose, tears flowed when we departed, and a new understanding of friendship emerged. Certainly we discussed the differences in our government’s policies, but we never once flinched about the bond between the people of Cuba and the people of the United States.
Jay and Beyonce. I know you saw what I saw. I know you experienced what I experienced. I have been to the arts university and worked with the students there. I have perfected my salsa moves to a point where I no longer have to look at my feet! I listened to some of the most incredible music on the planet in clubs late into the night. I have recognized that the history of any country, including ours’, has deep wounds and horrible mistakes. But, we know when we put aside politics, what is important is that the people of Cuba are incredibly loving, kind and generous. I know you saw that too! I thank the both of you for not backing down to the fear-mongering of a few politicians and their angry mob. America is changing and the old folks who are holding onto the past will soon be gone. Gay marriage will soon be legal. Undocumented students will soon be citizens. The War on Drugs will soon be over. The belief that we are destroying our planet will be universally accepted. The fascination with guns and violence will be a thing of the past. And Cuba will be just another vacation destination on the map.
Michael Skolnik is the Editor-In-Chief of GlobalGrind.com and the political director to Russell Simmons. Prior to this, Michael was an award-winning filmmaker. Follow him on twitter @MichaelSkolnik