I Will Be Me: A Community Residency with Danay Suárez

Cuba is a place of pure ingenuity. Very little is thrown away without being recycled, including music.

Danay Suárez speaks to students at Howard W. Blake School of the Arts
Danay Suárez responds to questions from students at Howard W. Blake School of the Arts

Danay Suárez is a singer known for her versatility. She moves effortlessly between genres, from rap and hip-hop to reggae, jazz, r&b, and soul, yet she has spent years refining and perfecting her distinctive sound. Born in Havana in 1985, her first full length album, Polvo de la Humedad was released in 2011. Her second album, Palabras Manuales, had already been recorded in Cuba when she was offered a contract with Universal in the United States.

Following her talk at Blake, students lined up to have a zine autographed by the singer

At the time she needed US residency in order to accept the contract with Universal, and in the time spent living in the US to establish residency the hard drive containing the recording of the album in Cuba broke.[1] Re-recording the album in its entirety and largely producing it herself led to four Latin Grammy nominations. In a year when the Latin Grammys were praised for finding the balance between commercial and critical success, Palabras Manuales earned nominations for album of the year and best alternative music album; Integridad, Danay Suárez’s collaboration with Stephen Marley, received a nomination for best alternative song, and Danay herself was nominated as best new artist.[2]

Noel Smith, Curator of Latin American and Caribbean Art and Deputy Director of USFCAM, had been developing the exhibition Climate Change: Cuba/USA, which explores the fluctuating relationship between the United States and Cuba and the resulting tension between traditional and contemporary elements of modern Cuban culture. Noel was looking for a way to extend the exhibition’s themes with a project in the local community, and she had been considering Cuban hip-hop as a starting point. Lissette Corso, friend to Noel and freelance music writer and critic, suggested Danay Suárez as an artist to consider. Once Noel began to look and listen to Danay’s music and her messages of empowerment and positivity, she knew she wanted to involve her. Danay’s personal journey from a childhood of poverty to international success, made possible by her focus, dedication, and strong work ethic was an important story to share.

Danay began her workshop with the Prodigy students by showing them some of her music videos

Sarah Howard, Curator of Public Art and Social Practice, reached out to Danay’s management, Bodega Collective, to discuss possibilities, then contacted frequent USFCAM partner the University Area Community Development Corporation (UACDC). UACDC identified their Prodigy Cultural Arts Program as an ideal fit for a program involving Danay. Prodigy is a research-based diversion program in west central Florida, dedicated to the cultivation of positive life skills through the visual and performing arts. Using the arts as a pathway to skills like leadership, communication, problem solving and career ambition, Prodigy is among the highest performing prevention programs; over 95% of young people who participate do not have contact with law enforcement.[3] As Danay said when asked about her participation with the Prodigy program, “I’ve been doing similar programs in several schools, to develop children’s abilities with commitment and responsibility, and they show how music can be a positive or negative influence on new generations. When USFCAM contacted us, we didn’t hesitate to say yes!”[4]

Each participant wrote and recorded their own lyrics

For the week of February 26 through March 3, 2018, Danay Suárez was brought to Tampa for a series of events, partially supported by USF World and the donors of USFCAM’s Art for Community Engagement (ACE) Fund. The USF Cuban American Student Association sponsored an inspiring lecture by Danay at the USF Marshall Center, sharing her experience growing up in Cuba and her rise to fame in the world of music. Youth in the Prodigy program visited USF to view the Climate Change: Cuba/USA exhibition and attend the talk. For many program participants this was their first exposure to a higher education environment.

Danay coached the Prodigy students in music theory and harmonization in order to prepare for their performance

Later in the week Danay gave a talk at Howard W. Blake School of the Arts, a local visual and performing arts magnet high school. The students at Blake participated in a spirited question and answer session, much of which took place in Spanish. Following the talk students lined up to have a free fold-out zine produced by USFCAM autographed by the artist. In addition to these talks, the majority of time during her visit was spent at UACDC in workshops with the young people in the Prodigy program.

Danay poses with the Prodigy students during a workshop
Danay shares the video she made with the students

Through the course of the week, Danay worked with the Prodigy kids to write, record, and perform their own lyrics. Danay taught the students how to record and edit music on computers at the newly installed music studio at UACDC. She continued to share her personal story of overcoming her start in life with nearly nothing, and how she used the extremely limited resources available to her in clever ways to pursue a career in music. As an example of how to create something using techniques and equipment readily available to the students, she produced a video one evening, incorporating their recordings and video shot during a workshop session.

The students and Danay continued to practice their performance through the week, leading up to a performance at the Prodigy Cultural Arts Program Showcase at the UACDC Community Center. Youth from the Prodigy program performed dance, music, and spoken word presentations, visual art by Prodigy students was on display. Danay performed solo, then invited the group of students she had worked with throughout the week on stage to perform.

Each Prodigy student performed their lyrics at the Prodigy Cultural Arts Program Showcase

Danay’s residency extended the themes and subject of the USFCAM exhibition Climate Change: Cuba/USA into the local community, while at the same time enabling local organizations to utilize an internationally recognized artist in their educational programs. Danay weaved her own story of success through perseverance and ingenuity into her interactions with students from USF, Blake and Prodigy, inspiring all who met her with the possibilities within ourselves. USFCAM’s community partnerships are continually exploring new ways to engage community members in collaborative and creative experiences, making the arts more accessible and helping to make our communities more vibrant and energetic.

[1] Marjua Estevez, “How Danay Suarez’s Lost Album Became Her Greatest Redemption Song: Interview.” Billboard, November 15, 2017. https://www.billboard.com/articles/columns/latin/8038368/danay-suarez-palabras-manuales-interview
[2] Leila Cobo, “Latin Grammy Nominations: Residente, Maluma Lead as ‘Despacity’ Earns 4 Nods.” The Hollywood Reporter, September 26, 2017. https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/lists/latin-grammys-2017-nominations-list-full-1043137/item/album-year-1043323
[3] Unfortunately Prodigy’s economic support has been cut by 83% by the state legislature, despite offering a significant cost savings to taxpayers when compared to the cost of incarceration.
[4] Leonardo Venta, “Singer-Songwriter Danay Suárez Speaks with La Gaceta.” La Gaceta, March 2, 2018.

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