Is it possible to be a female hip-hop artist in Cuba without appearing to challenge the regime? Telmary Díaz proves it is. The 34-year-old rapera habanera and leader of contemporary Cuban music is much less interested in being a political figure than a cultural one. “Politicians come and go—whether in four or eight years, or 50 or 100,” she says. “But 500 years of culture is what is important. That’s what I represent, and that’s what I do.”
Her audience seems to agree. Telmary, who uses only her first name professionally, received a Cubadisco (the Cuban equivalent of a Grammy music award) for best hip-hop record in 2007. She has toured the globe from Colombia to Japan, stopping most recently in New York to perform at the city’s ¡Si Cuba! culture and arts festival in June 2011.
Telmary is not just a rapper. She has been described as a spoken-word musician and jazz poet. The label she most identifies with is “communicator.” In fact, music was never in her career sights. The child of a sociologist father and journalist mother, Telmary studied literature, theater and screenwriting, initially planning to follow in her mother’s footsteps.
But that changed one day in the late 1990s, when a DJ friend handed her a microphone and told her to try free-styling. “I didn’t know I had that voice inside me,” she recalls. “But that’s when I felt that this was my way of communicating.”
Telmary formed her first band, Free Hole Negro, in 1999, known for mixing jazz and rap music with audiovisual dance and theater performances. Later, in 2002, Telmary joined Cuba’s first musical collective, Interactivo, which led her to collaborate with people like Roberto Carcassés, a jazz pianist and the group’s leader; William Vivanco, a reggae and pop musician; and Yusa, a singer and songwriter likened to Tracy Chapman with African and Caribbean roots.
Her first solo album, A Diario, was released in 2007. Melding elements of funk, soul and smooth jazz with the expected hip-hop and timba, the album became a global hit, climbing to number 15 on the European World Music charts. It also established Telmary’s unique style, for which she is loved as well as criticized—toggling between the rapid-fire flow typical of male rappers and the slow, sensual sound of a jazz-lounge crooner.
Telmary’s lyrics are mostly in Spanish, though she sprinkles in some English words and phrases. Her content ranges from the feminist (¿Qué quieres: que espere, que cocine? she asks on “Que equivoca’o”), to the spiritual (Bajando ego, poniendo espejo[…]yo busco gloria, busco sentido she affirms on “Spiritual sin egoísmo”), and occasionally the political (Mi sueño es tenerlos a todos juntos guarachando she says on “Fiesta”). These themes are likely to reappear on her second album, tentatively titled Libre and due out in Cuba in March 2012.
Although Telmary stays away from politics, she calls herself “a warrior for my country.” But her weapon of choice is music. And her message? “Peace. Respect. A lot of happiness—it’s really positive, what I try to say.”