Saunders sheds light on Cuban underground culture

Tanya Saunders

Tanya Saunders spends many a day tucked into her office in Price Hall from morning until night, plugging away at her dissertation and preparing a book manuscript.
But in recent months, her writing has been interrupted by the chime of her e-mail, which she quickly attends to. She permits the distraction because many such e-mails bring good news from Cuban musicians and artists who have sorted out schedules, documentation and paperwork in anticipation of joining her for an upcoming conference here at Lehigh.
Saunders, a doctoral candidate at the University of Michigan, has been planning a first-of-its kind event called “El Proyecto,” which will bring her dissertation and years of research on Cuban culture to life.
“El Proyecto seeks to play a key role in the global hip-hop movement and in Cuba’s underground hip-hop movement,” according to Saunders. “It’s the first international platform to reunite Cuban underground hip-hop artists and the global hip-hop movement in performance, art and discourse.”
Saunders came to Lehigh through a new College of Arts and Sciences Visiting Predoctoral/Postdoctoral Scholars program, which welcomed Saunders and University of Chicago doctoral candidate Jaime Pensado in fall 2007. Both Saunders and Pensado bring fresh perspectives to their departments and strengthen research efforts.
The program was designed to further enhance work in the humanities, social sciences, and interdisciplinary programs. Fellows receive financial support for two years while completing their dissertations and gaining teaching experience under the guidance of faculty mentors. Fellows complete their dissertations while in residence the first year, teach one course, and engage in the intellectual activities on campus.
Saunders is a fellow in the Africana Studies program where she works closely with director William Scott to further develop the program. She also works with the Department of Sociology and Anthropology. Her research and dissertation analyzes the Cuban government’s move to institutionalize culture as a means to increase democratic participation on the island and empower the masses.
“People have access to arts and music in everyday life that is unlike here in the U.S.,” says Saunders.
Through many trips to this northern Caribbean nation, Saunders has observed the socialization of Cuban culture. At an early age, Cuban children are taught that arts education is equally important to lessons in the sciences. Every neighborhood includes a House of Culture, which offers a grassroots, community-based arts experience for its residents.
Saunders’s research is specifically analyzing Cuba’s underground hip-hop artists and intellectuals. Hip-hop emerged in Cuba in the ’90s, and was quickly embraced as a critical voice of the country’s counterculture.
“Globally, people respect and admire the humanitarian aspect of hip-hop,” says Saunders. “There is a critique of the U.S. that hip-hop is not appreciated and wasn’t developed into something meaningful—that it lacks social and spiritual significance.”
Hip-hop took hold in Cuba in a completely different manner than it did when it popularized in the U.S. Cuban artists transformed this typically American art form to critique racial inequality and political struggles as well as chronicle their daily lives as citizens of this socialist nation. Her research is also examining how the hip hop culture has been central to the surfacing of an Afro-Cuban identity among Havana’s black urban youth.
“In Cuba, they chose an aesthetic they thought could address the issues facing them,” adds Saunders. “The spirit of hip hop is community based. It’s viewed as a tool to empower and educate people.”
Cuban artists will converge at the University Center April 18-19 for “El Proyecto” (The Project). The event centers on the social and political impact of Cuban Underground Hip-Hop locally and globally, and will feature internationally renowned speakers, theatre productions, Cuban hip hop’s most cutting edge artists, and a new documentary by the acclaimed director Eli Jacobs-Fantauzzi.
For more information and a full conference schedule, go online or email to register.
--Tricia Long