From left, Seattle artists Dani Tirrell, Lara Davis and Shontina Vernon sing in the streets of Centro Havana. Photo by Naomi Ishisaka

Feature

Cuba Libre

What can Cuba teach the U.S. about liberation? About freedom? About community? Artist, musician and activist Shontina Vernon set out to explore these questions in August during a trip to Cuba with 11 other Seattleites.

What can Cuba teach the U.S. about liberation? About freedom? About community? What can the current movement for Black liberation in the U.S. learn from the Cuban revolution? Seattle-based artist, musician and activist Shontina Vernon set out to explore these questions in August during an 11-day trip to bustling Havana and rural Viñales, Cuba, through her brainchild, the Common Ground Music Project. Along with a predominantly Black American cohort of 11 other Seattle artists and cultural workers of color, Vernon used music, dialogue, dance and collaboration to start the conversation with Cuban artists and activists.

“I started Common Ground Music Project with the idea that centering music in my social justice work could be a great catalyst in building solidarity between global communities affected by similar issues—and for facilitating the kinds of conversations that help us to understand the way our cultural histories have been impacted by each other,” Vernon says. “Music has played a part in seeding every major social movement we’ve come to know. So the idea is if you can connect artists from anywhere around music, you can better understand the people in those communities, the beliefs and ideas that govern their way of life, and the best way to draw connections between our lived experiences.”

Vernon believes Cuba’s rich revolutionary history, its close proximity to and conflicted relationship with the U.S. made it a great place to start the project, which she plans to expand to other locations in the coming years. “Cuba’s socialism has lots to teach us about how to be in community with each other,” she says. “Capitalism has had real consequences for artists and for the way we approach our work. I wanted to see what reorienting ourselves to the collective – to the community – might feel like.”

Text and photos 
by Naomi Ishisaka.

Ammonite Youth Dance group
Seattle dancer Jade Solomon Curtis performs a duet with Cuban dancer Michael David Hernandez with the Ammonite Youth Dance group in Viñales, Cuba.

 

street art by ubiquitous artist Yulier
A bicycle taxi driver, or bicitaxi, waits for customers in front of street art by ubiquitous artist Yulier near Obispo Street in Havana.

 

Common Ground Music Project in Viñales, Cuba
Community members dance together after a performance by the Common Ground Music Project in Viñales, Cuba.

 

Centro Cultural Pablo de la Torriente Brau in Havana
Seattle hip-hop artist Gabriel Teodros raps to percussionist Chris Patin’s beats for the Common Ground Music Project and other Cuban artists at Centro Cultural Pablo de la Torriente Brau in Havana.

 

Centro Cultural Pablo de la Torriente Brau in Havana
Cuban hip-hop artist La Fina raps for the Common Ground Music Project and other Cuban artists at Centro Cultural Pablo de la Torriente Brau in Havana.

 

Centro Cultural Pablo de la Torriente Brau in Havana
Seattle’s Jade Solomon Curtis dances with prominent Afro-Cuban author Tomás Fernandez Robaina after a discussion at the Centro Cultural Pablo de la Torriente Brau in Havana.

 

Afibola Sifunola
Spoken word and hip-hop artist Afibola Sifunola listens during a dialogue about Afro-Cuban and African-American life and art in Alamar, Cuba, known as the birthplace of Cuban hip-hop.

 

A horse in Viñales, Cuba
A horse waits for its rider by a pond in Viñales, Cuba.

 

Posters in a shop in Havana
Posters in a shop in Havana.

 

Seattle musician Ben Hunter
Seattle musician Ben Hunter shows children from Viñales, Cuba, how to play a violin at the cultural center.

 

Common Ground Music Project
Cristina Orbe (left), Lara Davis (center) and Shontina Vernon perform in one of three community performances of the Common Ground Music Project in Viñales, Cuba.

 

Hotel Inglaterra on Prado
Cars pass by the Gran Teotro and Hotel Inglaterra on Prado street in Havana.