See How Cuba’s Young Artists Embrace a New World

After Fidel Castro’s death, Cuba’s fashionistas, dancers, and DJs are taking their first steps toward a more open future.

What comes next for Cuba? The future of any country can be seen in it's youth. In post-Castro Cuba, however, young people seem to have an oversize say in how their country will adapt to the 21st century—with style and vibrancy, yes, but also in a hurry. Much of the world had two decades to acclimate to the cultural fire hose of the Internet. Cuba's transition has come faster, far faster, with effects as dynamic as they are occasionally awkward.

Personal spirit, the kind that leads to creativity, music, dance, and fashion, has always existed in the shadows across a country that formerly treated the expression as taboo at best, and at worst, illegal. Now, after President Obama’s thawing with the island nation in 2014 and since Fidel Castro’s death in November, individualism is creeping out into the open.

Photographer Greg Kahn made four trips to Havana and several other Cuban cities to photograph the country's gawky arrival to modern global culture. His first revelation was that Cuba, even its capital, had hidden texture. “We’re so used to seeing the same photos of old Havana, but that’s like judging New York just by visiting Midtown. Cuba has a Brooklyn, too.”


Break-dancers prepare for a dance battle at Catedral Del Picadillo, a multipurpose center in Havana's Jaimanitas neighbourhood. Break dancing in Cuba goes back to the early 1980's, the same time it rose to prominence in the United States. By the '90s, the movement had all but disappeared due to Cuba's disconnection from international culture and media. Now break dancing is back. Red Bull has brought several Cuban breakers on tour through Europe, and videos of dance battles are often shared on YouTube.
PHOTOGRAPH BY GREG KAHN, GRAIN

Kahn visited with artists, musicians, and dancers, all demonstrating the emerging sense of individuality and ingenuity in places historically constrained by stoic communism. "By listening to new sounds, we can fuse new styles together," a DJ named Paula Fernandez told him. He found fresh cases of creative capitalism, like the man who turned his laptop into a wireless hotspot to provide cheaper Internet than the government was selling. He met Miguel Leyva, a fashion blogger for an underground magazine, who argued that clothing can be just as powerful a statement of resistance as a speech against the government. "It is my generation's responsibility to make change, to achieve progress," says Leyva. "The world will see us little by little."

In response to Cuba’s new digital connection to the world, one trend has been a rushed exodus to the United States, where normalised relations may soon limit asylum seekers. But Kahn pointed his camera more toward those who wanted to stay and remake their country. "There is apathy and frustration over the system, but there is also pride." Fernandez, the DJ, put it another way: "In spite of all the buts, the youth here smile and dance all the time."

Maritza Riquene, 24, is a dancer for the Havana Queens, a popular dance company that performs weekly for tour groups and foreigners. Some have travelled to Europe to perform and tour. The style of the show mixes modern dance and hip-hop rather than Cuba's famous rumba and ballet.

Together, Paula Fernández and Zahira Sánchez are Pauza, or Pause, the country's first female electronic DJ duo. The two have been featured on the covers of magazines in Cuba and are sponsored by Red Bull. They deviate from the more typical pop-music and reggaeton DJs in Havana and play deep house, techno, and Afro-Cuban sounds instead. In a country where downloading a song from the Internet can take up to 20 minutes, music trends don't spread quickly. But there is a spirit of newness. "Cuba is a diamond in the rough," says Fernández. "We are undergoing changes for the good, and we are convinced that the future will be everything we have dreamed of."
PHOTOGRAPH BY GREG KAHN, GRAIN



Cubans ride the commuter ferry back to Havana from Regla, a commercial and industrial suburb including shipyards in the port of Havana.
PHOTOGRAPH BY GREG KAHN, GRAIN


Modelling school attendees prep before class at the Teatro Municipal in Havana, an old theater without working lights. Modelling schools, which teach young Cubans how to properly walk a runway and pose in a fashion show, didn't exist five years ago. While the government is still the only entity that can give the official title of international model to Cuban residents, schools like this hope to give techniques that will prepare the youth for new opportunities.
PHOTOGRAPH BY GREG KAHN, GRAIN


Dancers socialise and dance after a performance at the Habana Libre Hotel. The hotel, originally built as the Habana Hilton, eventually was nationalised by Fidel Castro, and served as his headquarters in Havana for three months in January 1959.
PHOTOGRAPH BY GREG KAHN, GRAIN


Paula Fernandez, 25, a member of the female electronic DJ duo Pauza spins at La Romana, a club in Havana. The trailblazing pair have been featured on the covers of magazines in Cuba and have received sponsorship from Red Bull. The pair deviates from the more typical pop-music and reggaeton DJs in Havana, instead playing deep house, techno, and Afro-Cuban throwback sounds. But working in a country where downloading a single song from the Internet can take 10 to 20 minutes makes it difficult to keep up with the latest modern trends.
PHOTOGRAPH BY GREG KAHN, GRAIN

Clubgoers listen to house music at Fábrica de Arte Cubano, a popular place for locals and tourists alike. The club, which used to be an old olive oil factory, was opened by X Alfonso, a famous Cuban hip-hop and Afro-rock musician, in 2014.
PHOTOGRAPH BY GREG KAHN, GRAIN


Teenagers gather along the Malecón sea wall in Havana to compare fashion, listen to music, and socialise. New styles are emerging as a result of American and European influence. In the reggaeton community, for example, men looking to show off their physique sometimes wear women's shirts.
PHOTOGRAPH BY GREG KAHN, GRAIN


Young people gather at dusk in Central Havana. As the sun sets and the air cools, people fill the streets
tto socialise
PHOTOGRAPH BY GREG KAHN, GRAIN

A winter storm damaged the Malecón and temporarily closed miles of the iconic Havana road. The popular meeting place for young Cubans is beloved and has cameos in pop culture, including in the reggaeton song "Until the Malecón Goes Dry." The Cuban government is believed to be trying to extend public Wi-Fi to cover the entire Malecón.

Roxanna Macías, 18, works as a model in Havana, a newly viable career. Many young people were once given the sole option of a government job earning under a hundred dollars a month. Miguel Leyva, a fashion blogger in Havana, sees the new opportunities in fashion as a connection to how fashion is evolving. "This generation is doing something new," Leyva said. "They are breaking the stereotype of Cuba fashion. It's an important first step."
PHOTOGRAPH BY GREG KAHN, GRAIN


Cuban teens smoke at a pool party at Miramar Chateau, a Havana hotel near the beach.
PHOTOGRAPH BY GREG KAHN, GRAIN

Alejandro Menéndez, 28, is a music producer and filmmaker. "Young people in Cuba really have apathy and resignment to the government and policy," Menéndez says. "It's not a fear of the government, it's apathy."

At a celebration in Havana, a party guest listens.
PHOTOGRAPH BY GREG KAHN, GRAIN

Jerry Rivera, 24, lights the oven to cook in his apartment in Playa, a suburb on the west side of Havana. Despite new access to technology like smartphones and televisions, Cuba's fragile and aging infrastructure often brings power outages and food shortages.
PHOTOGRAPH BY GREG KAHN, GRAIN


Yosmel Azcuy, 28, a professional break-dancer, holds the hand of his wife, Guirmaray Silva, 29, as they wait for the electricity to come back on in their apartment in Havana. Power outages can occur weekly.
PHOTOGRAPH BY GREG KAHN, GRAIN

Miguel Leyva, 21, a fashion blogger in Havana, says that the Cuban youth no longer look at magazines and see items as unattainable. They see styles that can be theirs. Leyva also finds clothing to be a type of protest, "Clothes have a strong connotation here, like a journalist writing an article against the government," Leyva said. "It means to be free."

Marina Alfonso, 20, is a recent graduate from the University of Havana, where she majored in history. She thinks young people have been the most eager to embrace new possibilities. "We used to have the same patterns in life, but they don't work anymore" she says.
PHOTOGRAPH BY GREG KAHN, GRAIN


Verónik Guerra, an internationally recognised Havana artist, lifts painted communist iconography from the walls around the city and combines it with other materials to create huge murals that she calls "appropriation art." Her work is technically illegal and punishable by jail.
PHOTOGRAPH BY GREG KAHN, GRAIN

This project was supported by the VSCO Artist Initiative.

Daniel Stone is a staff writer for National Geographic magazine, where he covers environmental science and agriculture.

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