CubaBrief: Award-winning songs of liberation from Iran’s Baraye and Cuba’s Patria y Vida, respectively, shocked the two totalitarian regimes.

On February 5, 2023 the Grammy Awards presented their first award in a new special merit category recognizing a song for social change. This Grammy for social change, went to Shervin Hajipour, a 25 year old Iranian artist who wrote and performed the song “Baraye.”  This song has become the anthem of protests that continue to sweep Iran following the murder of Mahsa Amini.

Morality police in Iran beat Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Kurdish woman, to death for not complying with Tehran’s hijab regulations. She was arrested on September 13, 2022 badly beaten, left in a coma, and died on September 16th.  This sparked nationwide protests with tens of thousands of Iranians taking to the streets, and a brutal regime crackdown that has killed over 528 protesters, with 71 children killed and over 19,763 arrested.

Protests continue to take place in Iran and around the world. Today at 2:00pm in Washington DC, and at 3:30pm in Miami, FL Iranians and friends of Iran will gather to demand freedom for Iran.

The Islamic regime in Iran, long allied with the Castro regime, both share many similarities in their patterns of repression. However, so does the democratic opposition in both countries with large diasporas.

Shervin Hajipour was arrested by Iran’s secret police after his song went viral in September 2022, generating some 40 million views in 48 hours. He is now out on bail and awaiting trial.

All of this sounds familiar to Cubans, who remember the events that took place in Cuba between November 2020 and  July 2021 when members of the San Isidro Movement, a collective of artists organized to protest Decree 349, a new law further restricting artistic freedom in Cuba, where targeted for demanding the release of a fellow artist who was falsely arrested. This led to a series of events that culminated in the San Isidro Movements headquarters raided by the secret police on November 26th,  and all those present taken away in the night.  The following day hundreds of artists gathered at the Ministry of Culture in defense of artistic freedom, and in solidarity with the San Isidro Movement.

Both Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara and Maykel Castillo Pérez—otherwise known as Maykel Osorbo are leaders in the San Isidro Movement, and collaborated in a work of art that shook the dictatorship in Cuba.

Cuban artists both in the diaspora and on the island, Yotuel Romero, Gente de Zona, Descemer Bueno, Maykel Osorbo, El Funky, and Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara, collaborated in the making of the song and video Homeland and Life (Patria y Vida). On February 16, 2021 the video premiered live with Yotuel Romero, Gente de Zona, Descemer Bueno on Youtube, and Maykel Osorbo briefly speaking live from Cuba before the secret police cut him off. The song went viral in Cuba, and around the world. Over 12 million would view the music video. Cuba has a population of 11 million people.

Five months later on July 11, 2021 when mass protests broke out across Cuba the protesters shouted “Freedom!” “Enough!” “Unity!” “We are not afraid!” and they sang the lyrics of Patria y Vida while marching through the streets of cities, and towns across the island. 

“Maykel ‘Osorbo’ Castillo Pérez had already been arbitrarily jailed since May 18, 2021. Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara was taken onJuly 11, 2021 when the political police arrested him to prevent him participating in the 11J protests. Both were recognized as prisoners of conscience by Amnesty International.

Over a thousand Cubans were jailed, and are today political prisoners. An unknown number were killed by the regime officials.

On November 18, 2021 the song Patria y Vida won two Latin Grammy Awards, and the artists outside of Cuba performed the song live. Meanwhile, both Maykel ‘Osorbo’ Castillo Pérez and Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara remained jailed in Cuba.

Cuban artists and prisoners of conscience Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara and Maykel “Osorbo” Castillo Pérez were sentenced to five and nine years in prison respectively by the Castro regime on June 24, 2022. They had not been granted bail prior to their show trials, and remain jailed today.  Their art work continues to be exhibited around the world today, and the Miami Film Festival will premiere next month the documentary “Patria y Vida: The Power of Music”.

Both Baraye in Iran and Patria y Vida in Cuba demonstrate the great power of music, and the fear it instills in tyrants.

This also means that the artists who create these powerful works of art need the solidarity of many to protect them from the autocratic few.

Freedom House on January 31, 2023 featured both Luis Manuel and Maykel in their new campaign “Free Them All: A Political Prisoners Initiative” that highlights ten cases of political prisoners from around the world.

On February 23, 2023 at 3:00pm in Washington DC, Cubans and friends of a free Cuba will gather to demand freedom for Cuba, for all of Cuba’s political prisoners, including Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara and Maykel “Osorbo” Castillo Pérez.

On February 24, 2023 at 3:00pm in Miami, FL, Cubans and friends of a free Cuba will gather to demand freedom for Cuba, and hold a silent vigil at Florida International University for the four members of Brothers to the Rescue killed over international airspace on Raul Castro’s orders on February 24, 1996.

The Monocle, February 6, 2023

The Monocle Minute

Art / Cuba

Vote of confidence

The United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention has concluded that the arrests of Cuban artists Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara (pictured) and Hamlet Lavastida in 2021 violated international law. Both had been involved in the San Isidro Movement, a group formed to protest against state censorship that now comprises creatives of all stripes, from poets and musicians to academics.

The human-rights experts decried the Cuban government’s censorship, political persecution and systematic targeting of critical voices. Despite this, artists have long refused to stay quiet and have been leading the way in calling for a fairer society. Their hope now is that high-profile cases, such as those of Otero Alcántara and Lavastida, will persuade Cuba’s president, Miguel Díaz-Canel, to change tack and serve as a reminder of art’s power to fight for political results.

The New York Times, February 5, 2023

‘Baraye,’ the Anthem of Iran’s Protest Movement, Wins a Grammy

Shervin Hajipour won in a new special merit category recognizing a song for social change. The song has become the anthem of protests that have swept through Iran in recent months.

By Farnaz Fassihi

  • Feb. 5, 2023

He was a relatively unknown young pop singer who had been eliminated in the final round of Iran’s version of “American Idol.” Then he wrote a protest song. On Sunday, he won a Grammy Award.

Shervin Hajipour, 25, won in a new special merit category recognizing a song for social change for his hit “Baraye.” The song has become the anthem of protests that have swept through Iran in recent months, evoking grief, anger, hope and a yearning for change.

The first lady of the United States, Jill Biden, introduced the award. “A song can unite, inspire and ultimately change the world,” she said. “Baraye,” she added, was “a powerful and poetic call for freedom and women’s rights” that continues to resonate across the world.

And as Hajipour’s image and song played on two screens, she reiterated the bedrock slogan of Iran’s uprising: “For Women, Life, Freedom.”

Hajipour lives in Iran and did not respond to a request for comment. “We won,” he posted on Instagram after the award was given.

A video circulated on social media that seemed to capture the moment when Mr. Hajipour, surrounded by friends and watching the ceremony on television, heard his name announced as the winner. He appeared stunned as friends screamed, cheered and hugged him.

“My God, my God, I can’t believe it,” said one of his friends, according to the video.

He was arrested by the intelligence ministry shortly after his song went viral in September, generating some 40 million views — close to 87 million people live in Iran — in 48 hours. He is currently out on bail and awaiting trial, and has made only one short video message since his release.

“I wrote this song in solidarity with the people who are critical of the situation like many of our artists who reacted,” said Hajipour in the video message, from early October.

In late September, protests erupted across Iran as tens of thousands of people, led by women and girls, demanded liberation from the Islamic Republic’s theocracy. The protests were set off by the death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old who had been in the custody of the morality police on the allegation of violating hijab rules.

Iranians tweeted their reasons for protesting using the hashtag #baraye (or “#for”). Hajipour wove those tweets into lyrics, naming his song after the hashtag. He composed and recorded the song from his bedroom in his parents’ house in the coastal city of Babolsar.

As Iranians shared the reasons they were protesting via tweets, Hajipour wove some of them into his verses:

For embarrassment due to being penniless; For yearning for an ordinary life; For the child laborer and his dreams; For this dictatorial economy; For this polluted air; For this forced paradise; For jailed intellectuals; For all the empty slogans”

For the past five months, everywhere Iranians congregated inside and outside the country, be it protests, funerals, celebrations, hikes, concerts, malls, cafes, university campuses, high schools or traffic jams, they blasted the song and sang the lyrics in unison:

For the feeling of peace; For the sunrise after long dark nights; For the stress and insomnia pills; For man, motherland, prosperity; For the girl who wished she was born a boy; For woman, life, freedom…For Freedom.”

The Grammy will raise the song’s profile even more.

“‘Baraye’ winning a Grammy sends the message to Iranians that the world has heard them and is acknowledging their freedom struggle,” said Nahid Siamdoust, the author of “Soundtrack of the Revolution: The Politics of Music in Iran.” “It is awarding their protest anthem with the highest musical honor.”

Siamdoust, who is also an assistant professor of media and Middle East studies at the University of Texas at Austin, said that while music has played an important political role in Iran since the constitutional revolution a century ago, no song compared to “Baraye” in terms of reach and impact. “Music can travel and traverse homes and communities and spread sentiment in a way that few other means can achieve,” she said.

In a 2019 documentary short about his musical journey that recently aired on BBC Persian, Mr. Hajipour said that he began training as a classical violinist at the age of 8, started composing music at 12. He also said he has a college degree in economics but works as a professional musician, composing music for clients and recording his own songs.

He said that his passion was creating music that broke form and that he drew inspiration from the pain and suffering he experienced and witnessed.

“My biggest pain and my biggest problems have turned into my best work. And they will do so in the future as well,” he said in the documentary in what turned out to be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

While Hajipour was in detention, “Baraye” disappeared from his Instagram page. Iranians mobilized, posting and reposting the song. “For Shervin” trended on Twitter with demands of his release.

“Shervin is an extremely talented, innocent and shy young man,” said a prominent Iranian singer, Mohammad Esfahani, who had met him when he was a contestant on the television show.

The Recording Academy said it was “deeply moved” by the overwhelming number of submissions for “Baraye,” which received over 95,000 of the 115,000 submissions for the new category. The award was proposed by academy members and determined by the Grammys’ blue ribbon committee, a panel of music experts, and ratified by the Recording Academy’s board of trustees.

“Baraye” became the vehicle through which people around the world displayed their solidarity to Iranians. Scores of musicians have covered the song, including Coldplay and Jon Batiste. The German electronic artist Jan Blomqvist remixed it as a dance tune. The designer Jean Paul Gaultier used it as a soundtrack as models walked the runway last month at his show during Paris fashion week, and Malala Yousafzai, who won the Nobel Peace Prize, played it in the background in a message to the girls and women of Iran.

The lyrics have been translated and performed in various genres: jazz and opera in English, metal in Germany, choir by French school children and pop in Swedish among others. It has also inspired a number of dance performances, including in Israel. Some artists around the world have covered it verbatim in Persian, including one in Ukraine who said she sang it to highlight the plight of the Iranian people.

Hajipour’s Grammy win stirred pride among many Iranians online after the award was announced.

“God, I am crying from joy,” a Twitter user named Melody posted about Hajipour’s victory.

“A song about the most basic rights of a human, the most simple wishes of an Iranian,” an Iranian journalist, Farzad Nikghadam, tweeted. “A nation crying for gender equality and freedom.”

In the documentary, Hajipour spoke about the importance of music. “The biggest miracle in my life has been music,” he said. “I would like to be successful and to be able to make a living with music that comes from my heart.”

Farnaz Fassihi is a reporter for The New York Times based in New York. Previously she was a senior writer and war correspondent for the Wall Street Journal for 17 years based in the Middle East. @farnazfassihi

Daily News, February 4, 2023


Richard Johnson: Vincent Peters, known as Æthelstan, opens a show Feb. 8 at Carlton Fine Arts on Madison Avenue to counter Decree 349 in Cuba

By Richard Johnson

New York

Feb 04, 2023 at 4:24 pm

Ice-T is busy filming “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” and getting ready to perform with 26 other rap legends at the Grammy awards, but he took some time to promote visual artist Vincent Peters.

“That’s my man,” Ice-T told me. “He’s so super-talented.”

Peters, known as Æthelstan, opens a show Feb. 8 at Carlton Fine Arts on Madison Avenue to counter Decree 349 in Cuba, which forbids artists from creating any type of music or art without the government’s permission.

Ice-T bought the first work in this series entitled “Flames.”

“I went through a lot of censorship in my career,” Ice-T said. “I felt like this is something I should be involved in.”

Peters created this collection to help the families of the artists in prison, including Luis Manuel Otero Alcantara, one of Time Magazine’s Top 100 most influential people in 2021, and Maykel Castillo, a Latin Grammy-winning rapper.

Ice-T, a star of “Law & Order: SVU” since 2000, laughingly complained, “They film every day. It’s a movie that never stops filming.”

But he’s taking some time off for the Grammy awards, where he’ll perform.

“It’s one of those offers you can’t turn down,” he said, “I didn’t want the word to get out. I only got two tickets.”

On Feb. 17, Ice-T will be honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. “It’s something I never imagined,” said the self-admitted former bank robber and pimp.

“All my friends will be there. They are more excited than I am.”

Freedom House, January 31, 2023

Amidst a years-long decline in global freedom, public demands for fundamental rights and accountable governance are growing more urgent around the world. Entrenched autocratic leaders recognize these demands as a threat to their grip on power, and their regimes have consequently intensified efforts to silence human rights defenders and democracy activists. Through this new initiative, Freedom House aims to document and study the cases of the thousands of activists who have been imprisoned or otherwise deprived of their liberty, and to advocate for their immediate release.

An array of targets and tactics

The types of people targeted are myriad, and they are found in every region of the world. They include journalists, anti-government protest leaders, human rights lawyers, artists, opposition politicians, and women’s rights advocates, among others. But ultimately they all seek to effect meaningful democratic change and to defend basic human rights. 

In reprisal for their efforts, they have been arrested for and convicted of a multitude of supposed crimes, including grave offenses such as subverting state power, undermining national security, and engaging in terrorism. Once in custody, they frequently suffer from torture, enforced disappearance, and denial of medical care. Even after they are released from harsh prison sentences or detention without charge, they may face additional restrictions on their liberty, such as travel bans or requirements to regularly report to the authorities, increasing the risk of rearrest. Numerous democracy and human rights advocates are caught in this cycle, unable to fully recover their freedom.

A new initiative

Freedom House seeks to both highlight and combat authoritarian repression, in part by emphasizing its human toll. The experiences of the individuals profiled here illustrate the significant pressures and harms that human rights defenders and prodemocracy activists face in reprisal for their work. Located around the globe, these artists, journalists, and activists often languish in squalid prison conditions, sentenced or detained with little regard for due process rights, and unable to see their legal representatives or loved ones.  

These individuals represent only a fraction of the many democracy and human rights defenders worldwide who endure similar circumstances. Mapping the scale and scope of such restrictions, and the stories behind the numbers, is essential to holding perpetrators accountable and securing the unconditional release of all confined activists. Their personal freedom, combined with long-term support for those who wish to continue their democracy and human rights work, is in turn a necessity if democratic forces are to reverse recent trends and roll back the expansion of authoritarian rule. 

Emblematic cases of political prisoners

On July 11, 2021, artist Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara posted a video on Instagram to tell his followers that he planned to join an anti-government protest in Havana: “Family, I am going to the streets,” he said. “Whatever it costs me. Democracy is what we want.” 

The Cuban people lost their fear. Thousands of citizens turned out that day in what became the largest protest movement on the island in decades. They demanded their freedom after more than 60 years under a one-party regime that has stifled nearly every aspect of public and private life, from politics and religion to economic opportunity and access to basic goods.  

While Otero Alcántara’s brave declaration led to his ongoing detention, he had already spent many years building a reputation for personal and artistic courage. 

Born in the impoverished Cerro neighborhood of Havana, Otero Alcántara had little access to the world of Cuba’s artistic elite. As a young man, he became a professional athlete but longed to express himself more creatively. He discovered performance art, which allowed him to bring together the athletic skills he knew well and his burgeoning artistic curiosity to develop works of genuine emotional and political depth. 

Otero Alcántara felt free as he pursued his new calling and continued to gain confidence, offering performances and other forms of art that imagined a better Cuba and took the government to task. In 2016, he worked with Yanelys Nuñez Leyva to create the Museum of Dissidence (Museo de la Disidencia), a project that focused on expressions of opposition to the Cuban regime. 

In 2018, the Cuban authorities began a new crackdown on artistic expression and passed Decree 349, a law requiring artists to seek government approval for their work and criminalizing anything that officials deem to be “obscene.” 

Rather than being deterred by the law, Otero Alcántara was emboldened. Alongside fellow artists including Maykel Castillo Pérez, he cofounded the San Isidro Movement (MSI), which began organizing public artistic protests against Decree 349 and other repressive laws and policies. In one case in 2019, the group called on Cubans to take photos of themselves wearing the Cuban flag under the hashtag #LaBanderaEsDeTodos, or “the flag is for all,” to protest the Cuban government’s restrictions on how the flag could be displayed. 

Otero Alcántara has faced serious consequences for his work. Since 2017, he has been arrested 21 times. In November 2020, he along with many artists and political activists went on a hunger strike in his house for several days. They were evicted by authorities and Otero Alcántara was then disappeared before being taken to a hospital by force. The day he was forcibly evicted, more than 200 artists gathered in front of the Ministry of Culture (the largest public protest of artists ever seen) forcing the Minister of Culture to negotiate with them. Since his July 2021 arrest, Alcántara has remained in a maximum-security prison, engaging in a series of hunger strikes to protest his confinement. He was sentenced to five years in prison in June 2022 after a closed-door trial, and his health continues to deteriorate as authorities deny him proper medical care.  

In 2022, while still imprisoned, Otero Alcántara and Maykel Castillo Pérez jointly received Freedom House’s annual Freedom Award.

Like so many others, Otero Alcántara believes that all Cubans deserve to be free and is willing to do what it takes to break their chains. He knows that artistic freedom comes with great risk in an authoritarian state, but his body is his canvas, and he has always put it on the line.

The image went viral: a young Cuban dissident in a fighter’s stance. The crowd around him parted, clearing a space. Blue jeans, black belt, no shirt. His right arm raised in defiance and his hand a fist. A pair of handcuffs dangles from his wrist. By all appearances, he’s a man with nothing to lose. Nothing except his freedom. 

This is Maykel Castillo Pérez—otherwise known as Maykel Osorbo. He’s a musician and an author and people know him. As a rising star in Cuba’s underground hip-hop scene, Osorbo had amassed quite a following. He was making art, making friends, just doing his thing. But when the totalitarians started doing their thing—in this case, censoring artists— Osorbo wasn’t silent. He jumped into his fighter’s stance. 

In 2018, the Cuban government passed Decree 349, which allowed the authorities to arbitrarily ban art they did not like. Osorbo and his fellow artists organized, founding the San Isidro Movement (MSI), which began defiantly advocating on behalf of artistic freedom.  

The authorities cracked down. They started raiding neighborhoods, targeting MSI and its members.    

When you’re a target, instinct tells you to be careful. If you work, work in the shadows. Lay low. But Osorbo doesn’t lay low. He and his collaborators did what they do best—they made art. They wrote a protest anthem. 

Back when Fidel Castro and his followers battled Fulgencio Batista’s government, the revolutionaries adopted a rallying cry: “Patria o Muerte.” Homeland or Death. Students of history, Osorbo and his collaborators reached all the way back, snatching their cry and transforming it into something hopeful: “Patria o Muerte” became “Patria y Vida.” Homeland and Life.

The anthem won two awards at the 2021 Latin Grammys, but Osorbo wasn’t on stage to receive them. He had been arrested, detained, released; arrested, detained, released. The cycle continued from April 2019 to early 2021. Each time he emerged, he took to the streets. Loud. Defiant. Fist in the air. 

On May 18, 2021, Cuban authorities arrested and detained him, but this time they didn’t let him out. Rumors spread about mistreatment in prison, about his deteriorating health. Human rights organizations, Freedom House among them, called for his immediate release. But no release was granted. 

When he was finally given some semblance of judicial process—a “trial” in Cuba’s notoriously subservient courts—he was sentenced to nine years in the maximum-security prison at Pinar del Rio. As of this writing, Osorbo remains behind the thick walls there. No word on his health. No word on his release. 

In 2022, while still imprisoned, Osorbo and his compatriot Luis Manuel Otero Alcantára received Freedom House’s annual Freedom Award. As their MSI collaborator Anamely Ramos approached the stage to accept the award on their behalf, “Patria y Vida” provided the soundtrack.  

They broke our door, they blew up our temple and the world knows that the San Isidro Movement continues.