Many see Danay Suarez as the female symbol of ‘conscious’ hip hop in Cuba. To this, she says “I’ve always tried to fight against labels, mainly because I feel less like a hip hop artist and more like an artist who has incorporated hip hop”, a reminder that the genre can’t sum up who she is, or imprison her creativity. Rap, yes; but that’s not all.
It all began in the Cerro area of Havana, where she was born in 1985. Danay grew up in a building that threatened to collapse at any moment. But while life was on the verge of collapse, Danay always knew that there was one thing no-one could take away: her inner life. She already had the voice and the words to express herself. Her only tools: an old PC, a composition program, and a MIDI keyboard. Her only contact: the studio Calle Real 70, where she cut her first tracks.
Danay always wanted to be a singer, and she trained herself. “The radio was my teacher, I started singing along with the radio”, and it was by accident, she says, that she became a rapper. Without playing the gangster, she transcended the genre and invented her own flow, a melodic phrasing. She spent her adolescence exploring Havana’s hip hop underground, where her voice was quickly noticed and sought-after for backing vocals. But she found it hard having to sing lyrics she didn’t identify with: “I didn’t like doing backing vocals, because when you’re a backing singer for an artist, you immediately take on their way of thinking. Hip hop is a always a conversation, and if you don’t join in, you don’t exist”. It was almost as a matter of principle that she started to compose her own music. Her first song ‘Espinita’ was a big hit in the limited Havana hip hop circle: a balance between rap and melody with strikingly poetic wisdom. In the 2000s, rap became more widely recognised as part of Cuban culture. The creation of the Cuban Rap Agency in 2002 allowed her to perform her first official concert at an event dedicated to female Cuban rappers at the Teatro Nacional, which is where she was first spotted.
Life in Cerro heavily influenced her way of speaking and expressing herself in her songs. Her early creations are more crude and direct, like her first record Polvo de la Humedad, which came out in 2011. The exception on that album is the track ‘Yo Aprendí’, one of the most important songs in her career, which she wrote when her brother left Havana and she and her mother moved to Santa Fé. Far from the hustle and bustle of El Cerro, by the sea, her writing took on a new poetry.
Although there are no musicians in her family, her father, a great music lover, was a big influence on Danay and introduced her to a wide variety of music. Yet Danay would not go on to study music, she took a path towards computer science, which she studied for four years. Those studies turned out to be very useful for the singer, when she was starting out, and still today. As well as composing, it allows her to develop her other talents – which should not be underestimated. This music artist is also a passionate visual artist: “I get the feeling that over my life, I will do a lot of other things besides singing […] I’m discovering bit by bit that I have a talent for editing videos, visual material, etc.” She has already shown us her talents when she edited the video ‘Flores’, and with a short film dedicated to her fans, which she made to celebrate the 15th anniversary of the Latin alternative Music Conference in the USA. She was invited there as her first performance in New York, and she was something of a figurehead for other artists. With a set that included one of her first songs ‘Individual’, the unmissable ‘ Yo Aprendí’ and ‘En lo Profundo’, structured on an Afro-Cuban beat, the young artist won over the American audience. There is also an unmissable studio version of this last song, featuring the pianist Roberto Fonseca. This recording at the legendary Egrem studio in Havana was a turning point in the artist’s professional life, as was the meeting with the virtuoso Fonseca. This descarga and jazz fusion legend became more than just a co-producer and accompanist, “My advisor and friend”, Danay calls him. Their collaboration has continued ever since, as seen on ‘Cadenas’ (Yesun) and ‘Preguntas’ (Palabras Manuales). As a beginner, she took her first solo steps at his side, including at the prestigious Jazz à Marciac festival. “I think I had a lot of opportunities I wasn’t prepared for, but still, there I was”, she says.
It was X-Alfonso who first propelled Danay onto the international scene. Her career really took off in 2007, when she walked through the Cuban fusion king’s door, armed with a stack of demos. Impressed by her music, it wasn’t long before he hired her as a backing singer. She accompanied him on a tour that included the legendary ‘Concierto Paz Sin Fronteras’, watched by around 1,150,000 people, the biggest concert in history after those by the Rolling Stones and Rod Stewart.
There’s no doubt that Danay already had a reputation in the Cuban hip hop circle, after a number of collaborations. She has long been part of a team with Aldo Rodriguez (Los Aldeanos) who helped to produce her first album, and she has featured on tracks by the biggest names in Cuban hip hop: Real 70, Papá Humbertico, Raudel, Anónimo Consejo, Ogguere, El Lápiz, Mano Armado and Dj EFN, with whom she made the documentary Coming Soon. But working with X-Alfonso, a real superstar in Latin America, her songs gained an enthusiastic audience overnight.
This is how London DJ Gilles Peterson discovered the gem and decided to include her in the Havana Cultura Sessions project, a series of albums showcasing the very best of musical innovation in Havana. It was a bold bet, but after five days of listening to Danay singing funky Afro-Cuban rumbas, rhythmical guajiras and emotional boleros, he was in no doubt: “The most impressive singer I’ve heard and worked with over the last five years.” This resulted in Danay featuring on a number of tracks, including ‘Check la Rima’ with Los Aldeanos and Silvito el Libre, and the track ‘Cuando ya no esté’ on the album Gilles Peterson Presents Havana Cultura: The Search Continues.
At the last minute, he decided to make an old school recording, a few hundred copies on vinyl. They had just one day left at the Egrem studios. The result was so stunning that it was released as an EP entitled Danay Suárez – Havana Cultura Sessions in 2010. The whole thing was recorded live over six hours, in a sort of trance: four tracks, including the 23-minute opener ‘Ser o no ser’; ‘Hay un lugar’; Guajira’; and lastly ‘En lo profundo’. It is an album that really shows the multiplicity of Danay’s vocal abilities – soul, R’n’B, jazz, scat, etc., “remarkable deep spiritual Cubano jazz, one of the true highlights of my life”, claimed Gilles Peterson.
That is perhaps the day her childhood dream really came into its own. Danay could see herself as jazz singer: “when you say I’m a hip hop artist, that means I’m not a singer, and makes it impossible to envisage other scenarios for me; this limitation is an obstacle to connection with other audiences and other scenarios”. Havana Cultura would open the doors to jazz, but also a wide range of musical genres. Hip hop style, Diva style, Danay has opened up a world of possibilities.
In 2012, the singer also broke into the world of dub, lending her vocals to the first track on the album Mala in Cuba, an initiative by British dub virtuoso Mala (a member of the group Digital Mystikz). The ethereal atmosphere of this work, ‘Noche Sueños’, is clearly demonstrated by the video shot in Paris. The label Brownswood Records would make a house remix in 2013, with Zed Bias Aka Maddslinky. The same year, she headlined the famous festival Hip Hop Al Parque in Bogota, where she sang in front of an audience of 120,000 people. In 2014, she was invited to take part in TED Global in Rio de Janeiro as an influential artist helping to open up southern countries. In 2016, Danay Suárez was selected to represent Cuba at the most important festival in Latin America, Viña del Mar, where she took home the famous ‘Gaviota’ prize.
In 2020, her success meant that the track ‘Viaje en Dub’ was chosen for the original soundtrack to the video game Need For Speed and a few months later, ‘La razón del equilibrio’ for Fifa 2020. But best of all, she was approached by Ricky Martin to write ‘Pausa’, which would earn her a nomination for song writing at the 2020 Latin Grammy Awards, and a Grammy for Ricky Martin as best pop vocal album.
Self-taught, Danay needed no diplomas to find her way into great institutions and participate in unprecedented projects. We’re thinking, of course, of the invitation from Ben Folds, an emblematic figure in piano rock, to take part in the ‘Concerto Remix-DECLASSIFIED’ with the National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center. Danay composed some of the songs she sang specially for the occasion, including ‘Yo aprendi’, alongside Blake Mills. She repeated the experience again with the Nu Deco Ensemble, with whom she revisited her track ‘Dejando al mundo’, a fusion between hip hop and a hybrid 21st century orchestra, a musical experience that inspired, enriched and connected new audiences and artists from all horizons. Danay is definitely ahead of her time.
For Danay, “nothing is more powerful than words; words can physically touch places nothing else can reach.” The title of her last album, released in 2017 with Universal Music, Palabras Manuales, says as much about the palpable nature of words. Words touch, in the literal sense. It’s no surprise that the talented poet Aja Monet, a Cuban Jamaican born in Brooklyn, features on this album.
It is major meetings like these which mark out the singer’s career: characters, reflections of her soul. We should add Ernan López Nussa, Omara Portuondo, Robert Glasper, Raúl Paz, Roberto Carcasés and Interactivo, Lucho Aguilar, Jesus Pupo among others. Danay also has a special affection for collaboration on Palabras Manuales, with five tracks featuring guests: Aja Monet, Roberto Fonseca, Idan Rachel El B of Los Aldeanos, and Stephen Marley on ‘Integridad’, a track shortlisted at the 2017 Latin Grammys for best alternative song, in addition to three other nominations: best album of the year, best alternative music album, and best new artist.
Mission accomplished for this album which strictly respects the authenticity of each genre (world music, jazz, reggae, hip hop, canción, baladas, etc.), a cohabitation without fusion, yet entirely coherent. Her perfectionism, she says, comes from the desire to stay true to her intuition, even if that means leaving a six year gap between albums. It’s clear that success is not the top priority for this singer. It must be said that Danay Suarez is not afraid to take her audience in new directions. “I think that an artist is a creator and they shouldn’t be limited to one particular area of creativity, they should express themselves by any means, because that is the job of an artist.” From rap, she has certainly kept the posture, the feline, instinctive improvisation, and scatting up there with the greats of bebop, but this is an artist who cannot be labelled exclusively as this one style of music.
“Every battle has its anthem, music has no borders and no masters. Music can spell salvation or doom.”