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Picture Stories

Cuba’s Young Artists Embrace a New World

As Cuba enters its next chapter, the country's fashionistas, dancers, and DJs are taking steps toward a more open future.

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Standing atop this rock wall overlooking the Malecón at the Hotel Nacional de Cuba, a spot reserved for tourists, typically invites security and a prompt demand to leave. These are small acts of defiance.

What comes next for Cuba? The future of any country can be seen in its youth. In post-Castro Cuba, however, young people seem to have an oversize say in how their country will adapt to the 21st century—with style and vibrancy, yes, but also in a hurry. Much of the world had two decades to acclimate to the cultural fire hose of the Internet. Cuba's transition has come faster, far faster, with effects as dynamic as they are occasionally awkward.

Personal spirit, the kind that leads to creativity, music, dance, and fashion, has always existed in the shadows across a country that formerly treated expression as taboo at best, and at worst, illegal. Now, after President Obama’s thawing with the island nation in 2014 and since Fidel Castro’s death in November, individualism is creeping out into the open.

Photographer Greg Kahn made four trips to Havana and several other Cuban cities to photograph the country's gawky arrival to modern global culture. His first revelation was that Cuba, even its capital, had hidden texture. “We’re so used to seeing the same photos of old Havana, but that’s like judging New York just by visiting Midtown. Cuba has a Brooklyn, too.”

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Break-dancers prepare for a dance battle at Catedral Del Picadillo, a multipurpose center in Havana's Jaimanitas neighborhood. Break dancing in Cuba goes back to the early 1980s, the same time it rose to prominence in the United States. By the '90s, the movement had all but disappeared due to Cuba's disconnection from international culture and media. Now break dancing is back. Red Bull has brought several Cuban breakers on tour through Europe, and videos of dance battles are often shared on YouTube.

Kahn visited with artists, musicians, and dancers, all demonstrating the emerging sense of individuality and ingenuity in places historically constrained by stoic communism. "By listening to new sounds, we can fuse new styles together," a DJ named Paula Fernandez told him. He found fresh cases of creative capitalism, like the man who turned his laptop into a wireless hotspot to provide cheaper Internet than the government was selling. He met Miguel Leyva, a fashion blogger for an underground magazine, who argued that clothing can be just as powerful a statement of resistance as a speech against the government. "It is my generation's responsibility to make change, to achieve progress," says Leyva. "The world will see us little by little."

In response to Cuba’s new digital connection to the world, one trend has been a rushed exodus to the United States, where normalized relations may soon limit asylum seekers. But Kahn pointed his camera more toward those who wanted to stay and remake their country. "There is apathy and frustration over the system, but there is also pride." Fernandez, the DJ, put it another way: "In spite of all the buts, the youth here smile and dance all the time."

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Teenagers gather along the Malecón sea wall in Havana to compare fashion, listen to music, and socialize. New styles are emerging as a result of American and European influence. In the reggaeton community, for example, men looking to show off their physique sometimes wear women's shirts.

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Young people gather at dusk in Central Havana. As the sun sets and the air cools, people fill the streets to socialize.

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Cuban teens smoke at a pool party at Miramar Chateau, a Havana hotel near the beach.

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Jerry Rivera, 24, lights the oven to cook in his apartment in Playa, a suburb on the west side of Havana. Despite new access to technology like smartphones and televisions, Cuba's fragile and aging infrastructure often brings power outages and food shortages.

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Yosmel Azcuy, 28, a professional break-dancer, holds the hand of his wife, Guirmaray Silva, 29, as they wait for the electricity to come back on in their apartment in Havana. Power outages can occur weekly.

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Verónik Guerra, an internationally recognized Havana artist, lifts painted communist iconography from the walls around the city and combines it with other materials to create huge murals that she calls "appropriation art." Her work is technically illegal and punishable by jail.

This project was supported by the VSCO Artist Initiative.

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