THS Interview: DJ EFN talks his Cuban hip-hop doc, ‘Coming Home,’ and his own ‘escape’ from Cuba

cominghome3DJ EFN is a mainstay in the Miami hip-hop scene. From the ‘90s until now, EFN has flooded Miami city streets with his mixtapes earning him the moniker of Miami’s Mixtape King. He flipped that mixtape hustle into launching several businesses including a marketing company, an artist management company (he currently manages Garcia, Strange Music’s ¡Mayday! and others) and a film company under the Crazy Hood moniker.

Although it seemed like EFN had done everything that his heart desired, one thing he hadn’t done was visit the homeland of his people — Cuba. Traveling to Cuba as an American tourist is illegal. The only way to get approval from the U.S. government is if you’re visiting immediate family or if the trip is for educational purposes. After waiting for some time, EFN and his crew were approved for the educational cultural exchange plus received a letter of invitation from artists in Cuba. They were good to go.

Thus begun the film company’s first project, Coming Home. DJ EFN, along with Garcia, documented their very first trip to Cuba in the summer of 2012. The documentary’s goal was to find out the country’s hip-hop history along with learning more about their family’s roots. The result is a powerful film that displays the influence hip-hop has given a people who are oppressed and suppressed. The film also illustrates how hip-hop has given Cubans an avenue to express their pain, their struggles and their dreams.

The film was named Best Documentary at 2013’s People’s Film Festival and is currently airing on Revolt TV.

We caught up with EFN to talk about the experience, the controversy surrounding his trip from Miami’s Cuban community and how he had to “escape” from Cuba after losing his visa.

Growing up Cuban in Miami, was Cuba a place you always wanted to go to or did family members scare you?

It’s kind of like both. And people who aren’t Cuban might not get it. We’re raised very steep in Cuban culture so we’re learning Spanish since being a baby, the food, the mannerisms, we grow up being Cuban. So I tell people that it feels like we lived in Cuba, even though we’d never been there. In the poster of our movie, it says “Going Back to a familiar place we’ve never been to.” At the same time, a lot of my family members left escaping the revolution, they have a lot of harsh words and it’s a very sensitive topic.

So most of the Cubans that came in the generation of my parents and my grandparents, which is around the ’60s and ‘70s and even in the ‘80s when people came on the Mariel boatlift, which Scarface represents, those people are very politically right wing in their thinking. Anything against the Cuban government. You can’t even look in that direction or else they’ll feel like you’re a communist. It’s just really sensitive. And I understand. They had to leave a country, they left everything behind and it’s just something that’s really hard for them. As the generations have progressed and time has gone on, the world kept moving and things have changed but things haven’t changed in Cuba. So for myself, it got to a point where I feel like I’ve been there but I’ve never been there. I wanted to see it in the bubble that it’s in. The embargo and the revolution kept it in a bubble. The infrastructure is falling apart but it’s still the same Cuba that was there when my parents left, in terms of the way it looks.

So when you told family you were going to Cuba, what happened?

I couldn’t tell a lot of my family. That’s how serious it is. If you go back maybe a decade there’s been instances where there’s been terrorist acts towards people who some Cubans thought were sympathetic to the Cuban government.

In Miami?

Yeah! There’s been like car bombs. It’s very serious because it’s all tied into politics. That’s something I’ve been trying to stay away from in the film. I want to respect my family and the elders in my family. I’m not gonna sit there and try and talk politics with them and convince them otherwise. They went through something, I didn’t go through it. But nonetheless, they made me so proud of being Cuban that I wanted to go to Cuba. So… it’s kind of their fault as well.

So I told my mom, she came around to it. She was alright with the idea to it. You know, they’re worried. They think the worst is going to happen to you. Like they’re going to grab you as a spy and put you in prison and you’re screwed. And they keep telling you, “The American government can’t save you when you’re there!” My mother was the only person I told. When I got back, I told my grandmother and she didn’t want to talk to me for like two weeks. To this day, she still doesn’t want to see the film, see pictures from Cuba, she doesn’t want anything to do with that.

You interviewed all types of folks when you were there. Was there any concern about them being on camera?

The way I felt is, if they’re comfortable, it’s up to them what they want to talk about. I heard instances where people talked in a documentary and they got in huge trouble. But if anybody talked about the government in our movie, which not very many people did, there was a guy at the end, they’re already outspoken. So they’re not worried about it.

What about the cigar dudes though? They were hustlin’ cigars, taking you guys in a secret room trying to sell you boxes of bootlegged cigars.

That’s true, I never thought of that! I didn’t think about that or that they would get in trouble. To me, that’s rampant in Cuba. All the Cubans you meet, that’s how they hustle, that’s how they make ends meet. The average income for a Cuban is $20 a month. So they subsidize their income by trying to hustle tourists. Not in a bad way, though. They’ll sell you what you want and just add a little tax on top. And most of the time it’s fake. At least I think it’s fake. But somebody told me, hey, it’s in Cuba you’re buying a cigar in Cuba, therefore it’s a Cuban cigar!

Did you experience any trouble from Cuban officials or government?

Not personally. We were very low-key. The cameras don’t look like big film cameras, they look like photography cameras. We were also rolling around with credible artists so we didn’t run into any problems.

Garcia and DJ EFN

Garcia and DJ EFN

Besides the poverty, what surprised you about Cuban culture on the island compared to Cuban culture in Miami?

What impacted me the most was how kind they were, how communal the people seem with each other. I talk about it a little in the film, it just blew me away. It’s like, these people have nothing and they seem to be content and happy. They seem more happy than people who have more in the states. And they seem to interact with each other like… they don’t have to know you. I heard stories from my parents like “In Cuba, neighbors would come over at any time of the day.” If you left the door open, they would come right into your house and nobody would think twice about it. Neighbors are like family and I always thought that was weird and that they were making it up. But when I was there, because we stayed with a family, the neighbor just came in.

Like that Zombie dude?

Zombie was amazing, man. He made the trip and made the film for us. Apparently he’s been in a psycho ward. He’s been through some issues in his life and definitely has some mental issues, for real. But at first, based on our interactions with people in the states, I thought he was a crazy drug addict or drunk, so in my head I’m like “We’re going to end up fighting this guy.” He’s going to end up getting in one of our faces… he was just rambunctious, all over, in people’s faces, he’ll touch people. It’s like no boundaries with that guy. I was like we’re going to catch beef with this dude.

But once we warmed up to his antics and just started getting used to it… there was a day that Danay (our host’s neighbor and Cuban artist) was going to take us through old Havana, she told him “that’s it, you gotta go, leave these guys alone, get out of here,” and she shushed him away and that whole day we found ourselves missing him. We just got so used to his craziness. So when we got back, we’re like where’s Zombie? We need him back! He was just a genuine person. He was genuinely crazy, but he didn’t mean any harm, he wasn’t going to try anybody and he was a genuine hip-hop fan, of hip-hop in general and the hip-hop of Cuba. He even had hip-hop tattooed on the side of neck. I equate him as the Flavor Flav of Cuba. The artists there, they bring him onstage and shout him out.

If there was any drama during the documentary, it was when you lost your visa. You were genuinely pissed off and the fun and games were over. How did that get worked out?

Yeah, it definitely wasn’t a game anymore and I can hear my family saying, “I told you so!” The process was going to take a while, for the paperwork to go through. It’s very slow in Cuba. You can’t do paperwork over the internet, you have to go to a building somewhere and fax paperwork, all kinds of craziness. So I was being told I could be stuck in Cuba for like up to four months. So they were clowning like you might become a Cuban citizen in that time period.

That’s crazy.

They won’t let you through the airport on the Cuban side if you don’t have your paperwork. In their eyes you’re a Cuban escapee. If you don’t have your paperwork, you’re a Cuban escaping. We didn’t show this in the film, but I didn’t know if I was going to be able to leave until the very moment I was going to the plane. Apparently, Danay’s mom spoke to some officials, but I don’t really know what she did.

So, there’s a U.S. airport for just U.S. flights and there’s a real airport for the Europeans that’s really nice. The one for the Americans is their oldest airport there. So Cubans are not allowed in that terminal to leave so Danay snuck in with me. And she snuck in because she’s like “In case you don’t leave, you have to come home with me,” and I was grateful to her that she was going to stick it out with me. So she snuck in, all my boys waited for me and when we got in I told them that I would go first in case they don’t let me on the plane, I could say goodbye to them. But I went in, they stamped my shit and it was all good. I don’t really know how it all worked out but I was scared until that very moment.

cominghome

So now that the film was finished and you’re showing it to people, what did your elders think about it?

We did a screening in a movie theater for the first showing in Miami, and some of my family members came out and some other Cubans that I know were apprehensive towards it came out and surprisingly enough, they got it and didn’t feel disrespected. They all felt that I did a good job not going into the politics. Had I gone political, they felt that I would’ve gone to a place they didn’t agree with. And I just didn’t want to do that. I just wanted it to be about hip-hop and our experience.

The film is great because it sticks with the people, the community and the hip-hop scene in Cuba. So nobody had a problem?

Most of them loved it. They did pinpoint certain things. There’s a college in Miami that was interested in showing our film to their students for a political science class. It’s a big deal whatever film they pick because they do a curriculum around it. So they reviewed the film and part of the review board are a lot of older Cubans. They said they loved the film but in order for them to show it I had to edit out M1’s (of dead prez) part, because he was kind of pro-Cuba.

In my head, I’m like “guys, first of all, I’m not going to edit shit. I’m sorry you feel that way but I just feel like, you don’t like this communist government because they suppress freedom of speech but yet you’re asking me to suppress my freedom of speech.” It’s all honesty, this is what it is. This is our film. We give both points of view. M1 said what he had to say and the guy at the end said what he had to say about the Cuban government. They gave contrasting views. But for the most part we’re in a grey area there. We focused on the people and the artists. It was very disappointing to hear that and it frustrated me to hear that.

You guys also filmed a music video and recorded a song with some of the emcees there.

That was the key, if we’re going to cover the hip-hop scene and the musicians, we have to go into their studio and record with them. I wanted it to feel like I was one of them and see what it felt like. It was ill. That vibe in that little room was crazy, man.

Were you surprised at all about how knowledgeable they were about U.S. hip-hop?

Yeah, it impressed me. What I really liked is that they grasped the golden era of hip-hop, which I love and the reason I’m involved with hip-hop, they really grasped what was important about the golden era. And they understand that we’re not doing the same stuff from the golden era and we strayed away from that. They talk about it very eloquently and can explain how Americans have gone astray from what the true essence of hip-hop is supposed to be and that we’ve gone to chase the dollar. And you think, how would they even know that’s what’s really going on when they’re so disconnected? But they get it, man. They’re having their own issues over there too, where a lot of the hip-hop artists are switching over to reggaeton. They don’t make much money, but it’s popular over there, the youth go for dancing and they’re switching to that now.

What’s next?

We plan on doing more Coming Homes in other countries. I want to basically explore various countries and their cultures through the eyes of hip-hop. And take somebody back that’s from that region or family is from that region. And I want to go to countries that you don’t expect. I want to go to all of South America, all the Latin countries but Peru is one of my first stops. Plus Haiti, I’m trying to go to Vietnam and to the Middle East. I want to show how much we’ve influenced the world through hip-hop, it’s really like the #1 U.S. export. We’re kind of shaping the future of the world through hip-hop. Whether it’s bad or good.

Check your local listings for airings in Revolt TV or you can visit crazyhood.com to get the film on-demand.

About the author

Quibian Salazar-Moreno is co-founder of The Hollywood Shuffle. He's an experienced entertainment journalist based in Los Angeles, by way of Denver, Colorado.