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You Can’t Always Get What You Want, But Cuba Gets a Free Rolling Stones Show

After being banned by the Cuban government, the Rolling Stones will perform their first-ever concert on the island Friday night.

HAVANA, CUBA - MARCH 24:  Mick Jagger, Charlie Watts, Keith Richards and Ronnie Wood of the Rolling Stones wave as they exit their plane after landing at the Jose Marti International Airport on March 24, 2016 in Havana, Cuba. The Rolling Stones are in Havana to play a free concert for the first time, after the music was once banned by the Cuban government.  (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
HAVANA, CUBA - MARCH 24: Mick Jagger, Charlie Watts, Keith Richards and Ronnie Wood of the Rolling Stones wave as they exit their plane after landing at the Jose Marti International Airport on March 24, 2016 in Havana, Cuba. The Rolling Stones are in Havana to play a free concert for the first time, after the music was once banned by the Cuban government. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

On Dec. 8, 2000, Cuban dictator Fidel Castro — who once preached that the Beatles were a dangerous ideological diversion — unveiled a bronze statue of John Lennon in downtown Havana and helped host an open-air tribute concert to the legendary British musician on the 20th anniversary of his slaying.

Castro’s change in tune was largely due to declassified FBI documents detailing Lennon’s run-ins with Washington over the rock star’s “radical” positions against the Vietnam War, according to an official Cuban government statement at the time. The move marked a major step forward for Cuba’s relationship with music from the outside world, much of which was outlawed for decades and had to be smuggled around the country on cassette tapes.

On Friday, more than 15 years after that tribute to Lennon, the Rolling Stones — one of the most famous rock-and-roll bands of all time, whose music was once banned in Cuba — will perform a concert in Havana. It will be free and open to the public, and more than 500,000 people are expected to attend.

The show comes just days after U.S. President Barack Obama visited Cuba on an official state visit, the first of its kind since before the Cold War.

“Obviously something has happened in the last few years,” lead singer Mick Jagger said after arriving in Havana on Thursday. “So, time changes everything. … We are very pleased to be here, and I’m sure it’s going to be a great show.”

The Stones, who emerged shortly after the Cuban Revolution in 1959, were, like the Beatles, banned in Cuba for decades and listened to only in secret by those who were able to obtain their records. Their music helped inspire generations of Cubans to create their own rock and metal music. Some of those musicians became known as frikis, young punk rockers who were marginalized by the government for their music that often criticized the state.

In the 1980s and early ’90s, some frikis were so desperate for regular meals and a place to sleep that they injected themselves with AIDS in order to contract HIV and qualify to move into state-run Cuban sanatoriums. Some of the era’s punk bands got together while they were living in these hospitals.

In the mid-1980s, Maria Gattorno, known as the “godmother” of Cuban rock music, opened a space that allowed rock and metal bands to perform in Havana, and later launched campaigns urging young people not to infect themselves with the deadly autoimmune disease.

Gattorno’s venue was shut down by the government in 2003. But 10 years later, after the Castro regime began to loosen its grip on Cuba’s music scene, she was named director of the country’s fledgling Cuban Rock Agency, which promotes — and monitors — dozens of emerging bands.

Still, for many years, the Communist government in Havana had reason to believe a healthy music scene could overhaul its tight grip on Cuban society. Washington did too.

In late 2014, The Associated Press obtained documents revealing Washington’s failed attempts to infiltrate Cuba’s hip-hop music scene “to break the information blockade” and encourage a youth revolution against the government in Havana.

The operation, which was run by the U.S. Agency for International Development, was hugely unsuccessful. But it shed light on just how large a role the United States believed music could serve as a catalyst for change in Cuba.

Now, with a renewed relationship between the two nations, such dramatic operations might not be necessary. During his Tuesday speech in Havana, Obama directly addressed President Raul Castro, Fidel’s brother.

“You do not need to fear a threat from the United States,” he said. “You do not need to fear the different voices of the Cuban people.”

Photo credit: JOE RAEDLE/Getty Images

Siobhán O’Grady is a freelance journalist working across sub-Saharan Africa. She previously worked as a staff writer at Foreign Policy. @siobhan_ogrady

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