Maykel Extremo 

Maikel Extremo exudes authenticity, typically the most hotly contested attribute for a Cuban rapper. On the morning we meet him at his home he's suffering from a bad head cold but he doesn't let it slow him down. In fact he seems even more like the embodiment of the current Cuban rap scene – eloquent, resilient, defiant, proud even if temporarily diminished. On a shelf upstairs is the trophy Maikel took home from Cuba's 2009 Underground Hip Hop Awards for "El Oeste De Las Rimas". He co-wrote and performed that song with Los Aldeanos, the hugely popular hip hop duo who have proved that worldwide fame needn't diminish a rapper's "underground" status in Cuba. So it comes as a surprise to learn that Maikel Extremo doesn't care very much about the current Cuban rap scene or about being a rapper. "What I do is urban poetry, " he says. "It's street poetry. It's about exploring the reality of the people who live around me telling their stories through poetry and telling my own stories too."

We walk out together into the leafy, run-down streets of the Los Sitios barrio. "Poor people have always lived here," Maikel says. "This is a neighborhood that has always, always been poor. There has always been prostitution, there have been pimps, crime. But it's always been a neighborhood of workers. People who work hard, who care about each other. I've lived here all my life and this is where you'll find the real wealth of Cuba -- its history, its people, its stories. The barber is a storyteller and the person who's running an illegal crime syndicate is a good guy who's supporting his family. I deeply respect the people who survive in these conditions, in the suburbs of the real Havana."

Maikel sings about women who search their husbands - who pat them down every evening when they get home from work, and banish dominos and bars from their lives and girls with kisses that taste of bitterness and eyes that glint with betrayal. "Hip hop is a strong medium," he explains. "You can use it to say strong things. When I was a child, in the early 1990s, Cuba was enduring the worst economic crisis of its history: the Special Period, it was called. I watched the waves of people leaving from Cayo Pepa, right here, and I saw my mother was paid 300 pesos and the sneakers I wanted cost twice that much. Everything around me called out to be sung."

"Cuba is a great place to do rap," Maikel continues, sliding into the rhythm of a story. "There are so many people here with an enormous will to live - people who have lived very intensely. You can't talk about Cuba without talking about its people, and you can't talk about its people without seeing their problems - and that, that's rap.

Social criticism. Tell your story, put the rhymes on reality, on your reality. It's strong poetry with deep roots - roots in black culture. Cuban rap really is the voice of the people."

Maikel's hip hop career began in 2005. He was studying electronics and met a fellow student who would become known as DJ Wichy de Vedado. The two of them called themselves El Orden and composed tunes that fused rap (Maikel) and electronic sounds (Wichy). Maikel has since worked with bands that span the music spectrum, from jazz, rumba and reggae to hard core and metal. "When I'm working on an album, I conceive almost the whole idea from a poetic point of view," he says. "Then I get together with the producers, the musicians, and I try to contaminate them, infect them with my idea." He smiles. "A rapper writes. It's a very personal act. I work with a sampler too; that will always be integral to rap. But I also believe the dialogue between rappers and other kinds of musicians is a good thing for both sides, because the musician brings his musical point of view, his expertise with harmony and musical arrangement, and the rapper brings the poetry."

Currently Maikel is working with Qva Libre (Cuba Libre), an alternative rock group that fuses Cuban timba music with rock'n'roll. "It's a big band, with percussion and brass, and the musicians speak a different language, in terms of harmony, arrangements, melody. For an artist like me, from the underground, it's exhausting; we're almost always shut inside our own reality and you've got to work at understanding this new environment. Sometimes I say, 'I'm a rapper who talks like a salsero and sings like a rocker'. I'm a fan of Metallica, of [Cuban mambo legend] Benny Moré, of Kool & the Gang. There's a bizarre mixture and I don't always know where I'm going, but it helps me play with bands from all kinds of musical styles, and that means I can move in a very wide range of creative possibilities."

Even in this challenging morning interview with Havana Cultura, even while sniffling from his head cold, Maikel Extremo can improvise startlingly potent images with his words with barely a break in his stride: "If my music is walking down the road and meets another kind of music, there's a conversation, and that's good. I'm following my own path, but when I meet something that interests me I pick it up. I'm just an ordinary guy, a super-ordinary guy, who shakes hands with the crazy person down the road and with the man who's doing fine in his life. I have my feet on the ground, on the ground of my country, and I'm just living from day to day, because that's Cuba."