Revolution at 33 1/3: DJ Leydis and the Quest for Cuba

DJ Leydis at the New Frequencies Festival at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, 2013. (Photo: Babylon's Train / DJ Leydis Facebook)

Thanks to softened relations with the U.S., Cuba will soon know the swipe of American credit cards and streaming Netflix. But there is no guarantee that Oakland-based DJ Leydis, born Leydis Freire in Camaguey, Cuba, will be able to return home in the island nation’s pending transformation.

“Really, if you want to know my truth, I don’t think it’s going to be a real change for real people,” says Freire, whose work in Havana’s spoken-word and hip-hop underground helped establish a thriving scene in the city, garnering the attention of Americans long before she arrived stateside.

Now a permanent resident of the U.S., Freire has shared stages with everyone from local up-and-comers Los Rakas to tastemakers like Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson and Erykah Badu. Three times, she's applied for permission to return to Cuba. Each time, she’s been denied entry by the Cuban government. Freire recently re-applied; that application, submitted June of last year, is still pending.

“I’ve traveled to all types of countries as a permanent resident,” she says. “I’ve been on all kinds of cultural exchanges to Costa Rica, Colombia, Belize, Puerto Rico -- but to Cuba? No. This is the fourth time I've applied.”

Friere with Erykah Badu at a recent show together. (Photo: DJ Leydis Facebook)
Friere with Erykah Badu at a recent show together. (Photo: DJ Leydis Facebook)

On a recent Friday night, the line into downtown Oakland nightclub the New Parish stretches around the block. In through the muffled bass, past dancing bodies, and jutted against a far corner of the stage is Freire. Though her eyes hide beneath the Dutch wax-print customized bill of her A’s cap, Freire’s personality pours out through the music she loves. One hand on the mixer, she shoots the opposite hand into the air as if conducting the music until she drops that hand to her heart, holding the song close for a moment.

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“If my decision was to come to this country at the risk of death, it’s not to say I hate Cuba or that I’ve renounced where I came from," she tells me a few days afterward, sitting near the windows of a cafe in downtown Berkeley. "I love being Cuban; I’m so proud to be Cuban, I simply choose to live in another place.”

Spending two nights on the open sea atop a makeshift catamaran, she admits to a moment when her life was no longer in her hands. As she tells it, she made the 29-hour voyage with her eyes shut. Despite the odds and uncertainty, the raft landed in Florida, from where she promptly made her way to Oakland via a Greyhound bus ticket gifted to her by local friends.

A cultural inspiration to those that know her, Freire remains appreciated for her resilience and honed ability to weave a dance set from across genres of the Afro-Latino diaspora. She matches beats, stitches rhythms, and as friends approach her with hugs, she spins around to greet them, even dancing with them for a moment before she replaces her headphones and gently cues the next record.

“A couple years back, Obama changed the laws around of cultural exchange,” says Freire. “Many underground artists, not just Los Van Van or established acts, could come to the U.S. to share their work,” she says. “But how can you get artists from the U.S. to Cuba?” With general relaxation around American travel to Cuba, decisions around which U.S.-based artists are allowed to enter the island are increasingly up to Cuba itself.

“For the last few years I’ve felt stuck,” she says, "maybe from a bit of the frustration of not being able to go back to my country. Until recently, Cubans who became (U.S.) citizens still needed their Cuban passport. You don’t need that passport for any other country except Cuba, but that law changed. So, that could be a benefit for Cubans here who are citizens. I know people that came with me, on the same boat, and they’ve been back to Cuba a few times.”

Freire admits that her departure from Cuba may not be perceived as the best way to demonstrate her love for the island, but, she insists, “it was the way that I found -- not my freedom, because I never felt like I needed my freedom; I’ve always felt freedom -- it was the way I found my dream: to be able to, in less than two years, buy my own equipment, to be able to help my family.”

“There’s a pain you carry inside. It’s an emptiness that nothing fills. Music helps, but no. I go to work every weekend but when I get home, I don’t touch my turntables because I want to be online, I want to write my mom," adds Friere. "I don’t need a government change, I need a change for them to think about families like us, families separated, a change for families, that we can go and come.”

Friere still hopes for the day she can return to Cuba and spin records for her family. (Photo: Get Live Media / DJ Leydis Facebook)
Friere still hopes for the day she can return to Cuba and spin records for her family. (Photo: Get Live Media / DJ Leydis Facebook)

In 2013, through the family reunification program, Freire’s only child Erykah arrived in Oakland. “Those processes, from all I’ve read, took people one maybe two years to bring their families together. For my daughter and I, it took five years to be reunited,” says Freire.

There’s something silent and full about the smooth oval of her face, its skin that carries not even a hint of age, and her eyes that look straight into whomever is across the table from her. Hot chocolate steams under her chin as Freire glances out a nearby window. Rain falls in sheets against afternoon foot traffic. “Something I really loved about Camaguey is when it rained,” she remembers of home. “When I’m here and it’s raining and I can smell the wet earth, it takes me 20 years back. It’s like meditation for me.”

And what does she see in that meditation? “Even though I’ve found so many beautiful things," says, Freire, "so much love, so much of a future here in the U.S., when I close my eyes I just see Cuba. It’s the only place I want to be when I feel sad, when I feel bored, when I’m happy, when I have money, when I’m broke -- I just want to be in Cuba, beside my mother.”

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For Freire, allowing channels of musical and cultural exchange to flow easily between the life she left behind and the one she's diligently cultivated here is second to the priority of family. To play records for her mother back in Camaguey, to sit with family and stare at the vintage phonograph she wasn’t allowed to touch as a child, those are opportunities still unavailable in the dance of restrictions between the U.S. and Cuba.