Denis Solís moved to Novi Sad, Serbia, in November 2021 — quietly, wearily, without a job lined up. Of his large and tightknit extended family, only two cousins joined him. And now, every day, when he leaves his apartment to wander unfamiliar streets in search of work — as a cleaner, dishwasher, mason, anything — he looks over his shoulder.
“Before leaving my country, the police let me know they will be watching me here. They are like ghosts,” Solís, 33, told Rolling Stone. “Sometimes I see someone [looking at me] and think, ‘Oh, that’s nothing, that’s just my trauma.’ But recently, a guy passed beside me on the street, and the way he looked at me, I could read it. It said, ‘I’m here. I’m watching you.’”
In his hometown of Havana, Cuba, Solís had two jobs: a sick-bay nurse and a rapper. It was the latter that led to his detainment, trial without an attorney, and imprisonment in November 2020, after he released music critical of Cuba’s communist government and was a leader in the city’s San Isidro Movement, an artist-led, pro-democracy uprising. His arrest became a watershed moment in the nascent movement: Amnesty International and PEN America condemned the arrest, calling it arbitrary and saying it violated international human rights law; closer by, his peers staged protests and a hunger strike on his behalf. Six of his fellow rappers secretly recorded a fiery resistance anthem against the government, “Patria y Vida” (“Homeland and Life”), which quickly went viral.
By the time Solís was released in July 2021, the San Isidro Movement was making headlines internationally, and “Patria y Vida” had won two Latin Grammys. But two of the song’s biggest stars, Maykel Osorbo and El Funky, had been arrested, too. So had Solís’ closest friend in the movement, the visual artist Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara, whose prominence in the cause had already led him to be arrested more than 20 times since 2017. And immediately, Solís’ life outside prison was unbearable, he says. Cuban police constantly harassed and surveilled him, he says, preventing him from working or leaving his house. He worried for the safety of his friends, who stopped visiting him out of fear. Self-imposed exile to Serbia — one of the only countries accepting Cuban nationals in fall 2021 — felt like his only way forward.
“I think it will be impossible to return to Cuba; I am on a blacklist now. I feel so homesick,” said Solís, whose legal last name is González. “But I will make more music about [what is happening in] Cuba. Making music, for me, is breathing.” (A representative for the Cuban government did not return a request for comment from Rolling Stone.)
Cuban rappers are now some of the most persecuted rap artists in the world, according to Freemuse, an international NGO that advocates for artists’ rights and freedom of expression. Since 2018, it has been researching and documenting government targeting, censorship, and imprisonment of rap artists. It originally released its findings at the 2020 Roskilde Festival in Denmark, and relaunched its research as an ongoing advocacy campaign, called #tRAPped, in July 2021. In Freemuse’s new findings, Cuba topped the list of countries with documented incidents constituting violations of artistic freedom, followed by Russia.
“We have seen a very clear global trend on the targeting of rap music, and it’s not a fad that is coming and going,” said Gerd Elmark, executive director of Freemuse. “It’s quite noticeable that lyrics of rap music, on a relatively thin basis, seem to be used as persecution evidence. It has happened with other types of music before, but there is an accumulation of these cases now.”
She added, “That rap lyrics seem to be something that hold information to be policed is a worrying trend. It is also very worrying to see that the amount of arrests, detainments, and pretrial detentions are on the increase.”
Hip-hop, now the most popular genre in the United States, is arguably the lingua franca across all of Western culture, in part for the frequent social and political commentary in its lyrics. This reputation directly contributes to its artists’ persecution worldwide, according to Freemuse researchers.
“We have seen that rap is particularly targeted among music genres now because of its capacity to mobilize people, and because it is often used as protest music,” said Jasmina Lazović, research manager at Freemuse. “Whether [artists are protesting] racial discrimination, political crisis, corruption, or unqualified and unprofessional political leadership, rap music is often used to express disagreement with how things are governed in any society. So that’s why we see rap music disproportionately targeted now.”
Added Lazović: “Because rap musicians are quite often associated with a quote-unquote ‘indecent’ way of life, they are seen as an easy target for the authorities to put legal charges against them for alleged abuse of drugs, alleged harmful effect on minors, inappropriate language — all the things that come under the umbrella of alleged indecency, which is interpreted in different ways in different regions.”
Freemuse’s findings to date, which are shared in summary on its website and were made available in detail to Rolling Stone, show that from January 2018 to June 2021, the organization verified 170 global cases related to the persecution of rap artists, with 71 percent of these actions executed by governments in retaliation for artists’ politically dissenting views. Censorship was the most frequent action (at 32 percent), followed by detainment (18 percent) and imprisonment (15 percent); other harassment and intimidation tactics comprise the remainder.
Notable cases include the 2020 arrest of two Cambodian rappers, Kea Sokun and Long Puthera, for releasing songs that criticized the government. In Russia, in 2018, two clubs canceled concerts by the rapper Husky after allegedly receiving threats from authorities over his lyrics; Husky was detained on-site at one. Brazilian rapper Rosa Luz, a Black trans woman artist and activist, is cited as the target of several 2020 instances of online harassment, including death threats, related to her identity and perceived criticism of President Jair Bolsonaro. Skengdo and AM, two London drill rappers, were sentenced to nine months in prison, suspended for two years, for breaching a gang injunction; in their sentencing, police cited their lyrical content and performances on social media.
Some incidents of censorship in the Freemuse report took place in the U.S., including the 2019 removal of five rappers from the Rolling Loud music festival in Queens, New York, after the NYPD cited them as “public safety concerns”; each of the artists had previously had run-ins with law enforcement, including the late Pop Smoke. Freemuse’s findings do not yet include incidents of the U.S. government using rap lyrics and videos as evidence in criminal court cases, but weaponization of rap lyrics is nonetheless a rising trend in the U.S. judicial system, too, as evidenced in the trials of YNW Melly, Tay-K, and the late Drakeo the Ruler. As Erik Nielson, co-author of Rap on Trial: Race, Lyrics, and Guilt in America, wrote in Rolling Stone in 2017, U.S. law enforcement has used rap lyrics as criminal evidence “hundreds” of times over the previous decade.
Drakeo the Ruler became a reluctant figurehead for this during his 2019 trial for homicide charges; Los Angeles prosecutors submitted his music as evidence that he was a gang leader. (The accused gang: his rap crew, the Stinc Team.) As he told The Fader, “I know they’re just painting a picture that’s not there. It’s outright racism.” Often, the argument of rap music contributing to crime is presented in language that is factual, presumptive: In February, New York Times bureau chief Emma G. Fitzsimmons tweeted, “Mayor Eric Adams says he’s going to hold a meeting with high profile rappers to address drill rap music, a contributor to gun violence in New York City. The mayor said he asked his son about the music, and he sent him some videos.”
Several Catalan rappers appear in the Freemuse findings, including Pablo Hasél, arrested in Spain in February 2021 under anti-terrorism legislation, for lyrics and tweets that allegedly slandered the Spanish monarchy and praised terrorist groups, including the Basque separatists ETA and the Spanish Maoist group GRAPO. Before his arrest, Hasél barricaded himself inside a university, surrounded by supporters, in a daylong standoff with police that made international headlines. More than 200 artists in Spain signed a petition for his release, including director Pedro Almodóvar and actor Javier Bardem.
Freemuse maintains that Hasél’s support of Catalan independence from Spain was a reason for his imprisonment and that his lyrics did not call for violence. The group’s research tracked 14 Catalan rappers sentenced to prison under the terms of glorifying terrorism in the lyrics of their songs since 2016. “In Spain, we have seen how authorities misuse legitimate legislation that is meant to fight against terrorism to suppress the voices of those who are expressing dissenting opinions against the ruling government,” said Lazović. “We have also seen that disproportionally in Turkey, where either being vocal for the Kurdish cause or being vocal against President [Recep Tayyip] Erdoğan can be perceived as membership of terrorist organization or spreading terrorist propaganda.”
Cuba not only ranked Number One in overall violations in Freemuse’s findings, it also displayed the sharpest increase in detainments around the world from 2018 to 2021. This is partially attributable to Freemuse’s changing modes of data gathering; its researchers and fact-checkers primarily focused on Europe before 2020 and shifted to include more Latin American, Asian, and African research after that. But it also coincides with well-documented tumult in Cuba since the pandemic began in 2020, after which the country — already weakened by the recent freezing of internal reforms and Donald Trump’s reversal of Barack Obama’s engagement policy — lost its crucial tourism industry, and its economy suffered its worst losses since the fall of the Soviet Union. The spread of the Delta variant, heavy currency inflation, and food shortages led Cuban people to unprecedented protest, calling for an end to the country’s 62-year-old communist regime in person and on social media. The government responded by increasing its arrests, especially of previously known dissidents, under the guise of trying to prevent crowding and the spread of Covid-19; according to Human Rights Watch, 1,028 people were arbitrarily arrested in the first eight months of 2020.
Solís, who appears repeatedly in Freemuse’s report with his San Isidro Movement allies, joined the movement in 2020, two years after it was formed by artists in San Isidro, a poor and majority-Black neighborhood of Havana. Initially, they opposed a new law that restricted art and cultural activity not authorized by Cuba’s culture ministry. Solís had a history of anti-government protest; in 2018, he released “Sociedad Condenada” (“Doomed Society”), which paid homage to political prisoners on the island and Cubans who died fleeing the country. In October 2020, he and others in the movement were arrested for trying to stage a pro-freedom concert. After his release, he uploaded a photo to Facebook showing a tattoo reading “Cambio Cuba Libre” (“Make Cuba Free”) on his torso, with the caption, “Communists, now they are going to have to remove the skin from my chest.”
Weeks later, on Nov. 6, Solís went viral when he broadcast a live video on Facebook of him confronting a uniformed police officer who had entered his home. The video shows Solís asking him, “Who gave you permission to enter?” in Spanish, as well as insulting the officer, calling him “a chicken” and a “coward in a uniform.” At no point onscreen does the officer produce a warrant; Solís told Rolling Stone that he never showed one and that police had been harassing him for several days before that encounter, trying to goad him into violence. (In the video, he also uses a homophobic slur against the officer and shouts, “Trump 2020, that’s my president”; he apologized on social media for the former but said he stands by the latter sentiment.)
Three days after posting the video, Solís was arrested; he said he was beaten and choked on the way to the police station, and his fingers were broken. He was detained and sent to a summary trial, for which he refused the state-provided lawyer. As he recalled later, “I told them, ‘This is your government, not mine, and those people don’t have power.’ I knew the sentence was signed by the dictatorship.”
Solís was sentenced to eight months, for “contempt of authority,” at the maximum-security Valle Grande prison. Some members of the San Isidro Movement, including Osorbo and Otero Alcántara, protested his sentencing and were detained, too. Others went on a hunger strike, during which Solís said he was pressured by prison security to call them and tell them to quit. He refused. “I felt so sad and fearful when I heard about my brothers [in the hunger strike]. One of those officials warned me, ‘This is your fault,’ and I said, ‘You began this, not me. But what you began, we will end,’ ” said Solís. “It is terrible inside prison. The prisoners have no rights for medical attention, and the doctors are not real doctors. There is no hygiene. The food is not enough; hunger reigns.”
Fifteen days before Solís was released, in July 2021, guards put him on a WhatsApp video call with “Patria y Vida” star Osorbo, who had been detained again, in May 2021, for charges including “assault and resistance.” Their fellow San Isidro Movement leader Otero Alcántara had recently been arrested, too, on his way to join one of the historic anti-government protests that swept Cuba on July 11, in which thousands of Cubans participated and an estimated 700 were detained, including many San Isidro Movement members. As of press time, both Osorbo and Otero Alcántara remain in jail; in February, the United Nations’ Working Group on Arbitrary Detentions called for Osorbo’s release. “Maykel was anxious to talk to me. He wanted to tell me to keep going in the music, keep exposing freedom of speech and the reality of the Cuban people through the music,” Solís said. “I felt very happy to see him and sad knowing I was about to get out of prison, and he is still inside.”
Diana Arévalo, campaigns and advocacy officer for Latin America at Freemuse, said that Solís, Osorbo, and other San Isidro Movement activists have been punished by the Cuban government for both the content of their art and their online and in-person protests. She said Osorbo had been detained at least 16 times between 2020 and 2021, and that he is currently very ill in prison, which his friends have echoed in Cuban media. “The government has been extremely severe against Maykel Osorbo because he represents what the majority of people think in Cuba but others don’t have the courage to say because they are afraid,” said Arévalo. She said the arrest of Osorbo in May and many other San Isidro Movement artists after July 11 was a clear act of reprisal for previous efforts. “The only thing they did was protest with the rest of the people, but as they were very critical before in their lyrics and in their activism, that was a problem.”
Her research points, unsurprisingly, to race as a significant factor, in Cuba and beyond. “From my perspective, there is a direct relation between race and what is going on with rappers in Latin America,” she said. “The persecution and the harassment and the excessive use of violence against Black rappers is not the same against white rappers.” She plans to direct future research toward more examination of female artists in hip-hop, as the original findings skewed overwhelmingly male.
For his part, Solís said the San Isidro Movement endures, though some members were shaken after the arrests in its ranks on July 11. He is still in contact with many of its leaders and calling for the release of Osorbo, Otero Alcántara, and other jailed activists. From Serbia, he is hopeful.
“The San Isidro Movement became the world. It is everywhere right now,” he said. “I think 2022 will be the end of the dictatorship in Cuba, because the dictatorship is getting old. It’s poor and does not have enough tools to control the country. No food, no resources. And in the meantime, the members of our movement will keep struggling for the freedom of our brothers in prison, and for the freedom of Cuba.”