Over winter break this year I was able to go on a two week study abroad writing class to Havana, Cuba. While I was there I was introduced to Nehanda Abiodun, currently living in Cuba under political asylum. After meeting briefly I asked to do an interview and the next day found myself in on the outskirts of East Havana with just my photographer and a backpack filled with notebooks and cameras. Sitting for three hours in the bright Cuban sun with Nehanda was an unforgettable part of the trip but the story of how she got there in the first place is even more intriguing.
The Revolution Will (Literally) Not Be Televised
Track 1: “And now I’m like a major threat, Cause I remind you of the things you were made to forget” – 2Pac
Somewhere in the U.S., 1989
The monotonous tone of helicopter blades chopping at the brisk late afternoon air snapped her suddenly from intense concentration; “Ok, what will it be?” Nehanda Abiodun stood before her open closet, carefully investigating its contents as the walls closed in from all sides. Knowing full well that her spot on America’s Most Wanted list would warrant a parade of her image across TV stations and newspapers should she be captured, she took her time deciding precisely what to wear. “Something that won’t get dirty easily, something that won’t wrinkle,” she thought to herself, carefully fingering through the hangers. Sirens sounded in the distance.
Havana, Cuba – 2012
Sitting on the creaky red bench attached to one of two tables at Los Pollos, a state-owned fast food chicken bodega in the cluttered public housing section of Havana, Cuba known to us as La Bahia I began to wonder if she would actually show up. Popping a chicken croqueta in my mouth and washing it down with an orange soda I saw her approaching from across the street, trading pleasantries with seemingly everyone who walked by.
Pulling herself away from the crowd Abiodun approached my photographer Louis and myself, wrapping us into a hug that seemed meant for an old friend. Puzzled looks followed her as she embraced the two tank-topped pale Americans. Grabbing three Bucaneros from the bodega, she sat down doling out the take, “Let’s do this,” she said with a crack of the can, a smile crossing her face.
Nehanda Abiodun, previously known as Cherie Dalton, holds a degree from Columbia University and a host of 32 felonies against her in America. She was third on the FBI Most Wanted list during her heydey in the late 70s for her involvement in the Lincoln Detoxification Center, a drug rehabilitation complex with a revolutionary message. Whether they are all warranted is up for debate. What isn’t however is the revolutionary spirit of the movement that she and her comrades were a part of.
Track 2: “Give the crack to the kids who the hell cares? One less hungry mouth on the welfare.” – 2pac
The phone rang, another interruption in her decision-making process. Carefully, she picked up the receiver without saying a thing. The voice from the other end informed her that police had set up road blocks around her neighborhood, were handing out photos of her asking for information. Muttering a quick thank you, Nehanda put the receiver back.
They were close; moving in.
Three decades ago, at age 30, Abiodun had had enough with community work. Seeing little positive results from her work within the system, along with the killing of a young boy by police in her neighborhood she felt compelled to do more.
“I felt I had to do everything I could to stop things like that from happening,” Abiodun said. “That’s when I decided to go about a more revolutionary path of bringing about human rights and the ending of ‘badisms’ that exist in the United States.”
To be a patient at Lincoln Detox and Acupuncture Clinic you had to take political education classes, do community work,” Abiodun said. “Doing community work, you were no longer a parasite on your community, you’re giving something back and getting a different outlook on yourself”
New York Comptroller Ed Koch, who would later go on to be Mayor and other members of the government had been keeping a keen eye on the center and it’s revolutionary ideals eventually closing Lincoln with a raid of nearly 100 NYPD officers and SWAT team members. The raid occurred at night, with only five or six attendants on duty, none of whom were Abiodun.
Lincoln was overseen by revolutionaries like Mutulu Shakur and had loose ties to a string of Brink’s truck heists during which several police officers and security guards were harmed or killed. The attempted heists resulted in the jailing of several members of the group, also connected to the Black Liberation Army (BLA).
Stemming from the closing of the center, the attempted heists and the liberation of Assata Shakur in 1979, Abiodun was facing several charges under the Rico Conspiracy Act which deals with being a part of illegal organization for personal gain and had previously only been used in mob cases. She was also implicated in the escape of Assata.
“They say I and others were involved in expropriations of armored trucks, that we were also engaged in the ‘liberation’ of Assata,” Abiodun said. “Personally they say I was involved in the expropriations and aiding and abetting Assata’s liberation.”
The 32 felonies levied against Abiodun, likely a life sentence if tried, are the most of anyone involved in the liberations and “revolutionary” work.
Track 3: The war on drugs is a war on you and me, And yet they say this is the Home of The Free. – 2Pac
It had been eight years since skipping town on the grand jury. Eight years of living out of the public’s eye throughout America and it had come to this. Taking a deep breath she grabbed a pair of dark pants, black shirt and grey sweater. As sirens sounded in the distance, she dressed in a hurry; took a moment to smooth things over in the mirror and soaked in what very well could be her last moments of freedom.
As she put the car into gear and rolled out of the driveway, reversing to the street, she glanced in the rearview mirror, “Here we go,” she said to herself. Dropping the gear from R to D, the car jumped and she turned the corner out of her neighborhood for the last time.
It wasn’t long before what her friend had told her on the phone became reality. Sitting in a long line of cars, she peeked around those in front of her where she saw the black and white of police cars, officers stopping each vehicle with a document in their hands. With a car in front and behind her, a barricade ahead, Nehanda had nowhere to go; slowly inching toward fate.
After the breakup of Lincoln and the subsequent backlash that followed the failed attempt on a Brink’s truck, Nehanda skipped town describing it as “underground”. With a legitimate ID, a job and a home she was well within the reach of American forces but she managed to stay out of their way, for awhile.
She had been called by a Grand Jury to testify against Mutulu, but she refused and went into hiding believing the charges against her and others were bogus.
“At the first trial there was a ledger for all the money that was liberated, robbed, whatever went to do what?” Abiodun said. “To build the clinic, to finance a camp for kids, to help kids with college money. I still have people asking me ‘what happened to the $4.5 million, there must be a stash.’ Well if there is, no one’s told me.”
Speaking to Nehanda about the decades that followed is difficult, highlighted by half sentences, pauses and smiles followed by reminders not to talk about certain things. For obvious reasons, Abiodun is conservative about what she says and does. After all, she spent eight years underground across America. Helped by those sympathetic in the struggle she managed to maintain a semblance of a real life with her children still in New York.
Track 4: “And even to this day they try to get to her, But she’s free with political asylum in Cuba” – Common
As the officer approached her mouth went dry and she swallowed hard to clear her throat, thinking about the hectic schedule of the next couple of days would hold if she were recognized. A rapping on the window broke her reverie, bringing her back to the present. An officer stood outside her window, a similar bored look on his face. She rolled the window down slowly.
“Hello ma’am,” the officer said from behind thick black aviator sunglasses. “Have you seen this woman?”
She reached out and met the officer’s hand at the window,flipping the photo over over in her grip.
Nehanda had expected to see the picture, she had seen it almost everywhere for the better part of a decade: newspapers, magazines; repeatedly on television. This time though, tracing the photo quickly with her eyes she hardly recognized the woman she held in her hands in black and white. She followed the smile on her face to the dread-locked black hair she now wore up in a hat. The photo had been snapped a lifetime ago.
“Never seen her” she said, handing the picture back hoping he wouldn’t notice.
Feeling herself slowly breathing again she passed by the cars and wooden blockades that made up the stop under the watchful eyes of the other officers before turning the corner and hitting the highway. It was late 1990. A couple months later she would arrive on the shores of Havana, Cuba; leaving the U.S. for good.
If Abiodun thought she had seen struggle in America, her arrival in 1991 in Havana was sure to open her eyes up to more. When asked how she got there she says matter of factly, “I didn’t walk on water.” The year marked the beginning of what Fidel Castro called “the special period” in Cuban history. Following the fall of the Soviet Union the country went through a time of intense economic collapse, felt most harshly by the people. It was normal for condoms to be shredded to mask a lack of cheese on pizzas.
“During the special period, people were just so united. If I had something and you needed it there was no questions of sharing it and vice versa,” she said. “I got used to holding on to things because you never knew when you might need it.”
She had arrived on the island fresh from her own revolution and eager to continue her support from abroad. The Cuban government granting her political asylum, however, had other plans. They ordered her to stop, to relax, allowing Nehanda the first semblance of peace she had felt in almost a decade of living underground.
“I’m really, really grateful to (the Cuban government) for insisting that I take a rest because I had spent eight years underground and even though I thought I was normal, I wasn’t. It had psychological repercussions, being underground all that time.”
Abiodun speaks of the pain she felt leaving her children behind initially, not being able to see friends or family members and a pesky habit of waking up in the middle of the night.
Life outside of the United States hasn’t been easy. Cuba, the only country listed as “self-sustaining” by the World Wildlife Foundation has it’s downsides. While she is appreciative of everything the people and government have done for her, there are times she feels it weighing on her.
“I’m comfortable,” Abiodun said. “I feel safe here. I have stress but it’s not the same stress if I was back in New York right now. I don’t worry about being put out of my house, about not eating.”
Politics now on the backburner, Abiodun had a chance to try something new. She began working in communities throughout Havana, blending into her community, picking up spanish word by word. It wasn’t long before her reputation preceded her and she was sought out.
Those looking for Abiodun however weren’t FBI operatives or military officials, but young hip-hop acts in Cuba looking for insight to the turbulent sixties and seventies in America; they wanted to hear about the struggle.
“I’m spoiled,” Abiodun said. “The youth that I see for the most part are very progressive, politically aware, involved in some sort of movement.”
The genre of hip-hop, mascaraded in America with showers of dollar bills, platinum grills and twenty-inch rims has taken on a different role in the land of socialism. It is a political tool of sorts in a country where there are few. Lyrics often work as a commentary on the government, confronting, within bounds, the issues they face.
Before long, Nehanda was tending to groups of Cuban rappers, often nearly a dozen at a time sitting on the floor of her apartment, looking to her for inspiration that is impossible to ignore when she speaks of listening to Malcolm X live or standing on protest lines at the age of ten.
Track 5: “In case you don’t know, I ride for Mutulu like I ride for Geronimo” – 2pac
During her time in New York during her community and revolutionary work there she came to be friends with a woman named Afeni Shakur, future member of famed American rap artist Tupac Shakur. For the first thirteen years of his life Tupac grew up playing and spending time with Nehanda’s children.
“Tupac was a year older than my son, but they played together like most kids that age.”
Abiodun was among those who impressed a revolutionary, socially aware spirit on the young Tupac Shakur was first impressed upon him. That politically aware mindset has carried over to her teachings amongst the Cuban hip-hop youth. Many come to hear the teachings she learned through time spent with the likes of Mutulu and Assata and the do it yourself mindset of their resistance to perceived biases around them.
She was first introduced to the hip-hop community by Dana Kaplan, then a young American college student studying at the University of Havana.
“While I was there I kept getting all these questions about the civil rights movement and racial justice issues in the U.S.,” Kaplan said. “Nehanda has a great historical perspective, I made sure they could have direct access to her, eventually she was hosting discussion groups in her apartment.”
Around the turn of the millennium the Cuban government declared hip-hop “an authentic expression of Cuban Culture,” and Fidel Castro called it “the vanguard of the Revolution.” The art form had jumped American borders and the locals were hungry.
Abiodun obliged, bringing the Black August Hip Hop festival to Havana in 1999 along with the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement of the U.S. The festival has hosted the likes of Mos Def, Common and The Roots. Today Black August is one of the most important hip-hop organizations in the country.
Track 6: “It ain’t easy, being me. Will I see the penitentiary or will I stay free” – 2pac
Life in Cuba isn’t perfect. While citizens don’t worry for basic necessities, luxuries are seldom. The government is nearing a change as the Castro brothers age every day and it is the Cuban hip-hop groups that have increasingly looked to be the voice of the youth.
Since she was ten years old Nehanda Abiodun has sought to stand up for the change she feels is right for the world. She has sacrificed her family and her freedom but the only thing she regrets is not having done things a bit smarter. She is at peace with her life but of course would jump at the chance to return to America without jail time.
Whether she is lending her teachings to the young people of Cuba or fighting for equality in “The Land of the Free,” Abiodun has never stopped pushing for what she believes in as others forced her to adapt.
“When I meet my ancestors I want to be able to look them in the eye and say ‘yes I made a lot of mistakes, but I tried my best. That’s what I really want.”
By Jake Krzeczowski
(scenes in italics early on are not necessarily how things happened)