The Black side of the story: Afro-Costa Rican MC Huba Watson
Huba Antonio Watson Webley, Costa Rica’s double platinum lyricist and rapper, took time out of his busy schedule with the release of his first solo EP, called “LP,” to sit down and talk to me about his musical influences while growing up in San José.
Born on September 24, 1971 at Hospital México, Watson describes highly racialized upbringing in San José that has informed the consciousness in his music today. Part of a large family of Afro-Costa Ricans with origins in Limón and Jamaica, Watson and his twin sister, Helga, quickly learned to defend themselves in a San José that was not always welcoming to people of African descent.
Watson admits that as a child, he was always fighting because he was constantly taunted and bullied by classmates who called him ‘Cocorí,” referencing the controversial Costa Rican children’s book by Joaquín Gutiérrez. “Cocorí,” until recently a mandatory part of elementary-school curricula, portrays a “Sambo”-like Black boy who speaks to animals and seeks the approval of a little blonde girl.
In order to counteract the negativity of those childhood spaces, Watson’s extended AfroCosta Rican family was a balm to him – especially the loving support of his parents. His mother, a natural storyteller, always cooked the most delicious foods as the family gathered every Sunday for their traditional lunch. Antonio, Watson’s godfather and his dad’s best friend, would often be present with jokes and worldly advice. Conversations around the dinner table was a fluid slip-and-slide of English and Spanish, providing the foundations for Watson’s bilingual mastery in his music.
Admittedly, Watson’s greatest influence was his father, an accountant who studied at the University of Costa Rica (UCR), but was born in Limón. One of the things most salient in Watson’s memory was his father’s daily practice of reading and studying, not only within his area of accounting but also broadly in literature of the Black diaspora. Watson grew up reading “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” and watching the show “Roots” with his father, which promoted hours of discussion about global black consciousness.
Every fifteen days or so, the family would visit Watson’s maternal grandparents in San Juan, Limón. He spent every Christmas and New Year’s there; the highlights of that time as a child were receiving new clothes and his grandmother’s cooking (he admits that she spoiled him with her fantastic meals). Though his grandmother was a Jehovah’s Witness, his parents were Catholic; even with the mash-up of religions, family was always together and everyone was called primo or tía/tío.
Growing up, Watson knew very clearly what he wanted to become: a scientist who specialized in making robots! His dreams were full of taking things apart and putting them back together, focusing on how to make his imaginary robots better and better. He was also famed for his million-questions approach to life, with his dad as the patient recipient of most of them. While his older siblings were listening to his Rod Stewart record, a gift from an auntie, Watson was in a corner reading books and manuals about computers that his father would bring from work.
His “fall” into music was serendipitous. Once morning, when he was 10 years old and preparing for school, he heard a song on the radio: a Billboard Top 100 which had someone rapping over music. He thought that it was a mistake, that the DJ at the radio station was speaking quickly over the music. The evening routine at the Watson family home was that his dad, upon arriving home, would go into his home office to study. If he put on music, Huba knew that was an invitation to go and spend time with him. That particular night, he burst into his dad’s office after hearing him play the same song from the radio that morning, which turned out to be “Rapper’s Delight” by the Sugarhill Gang (1980), the signature song of the hip-hop movement.
That was all it took for Watson to become hooked on rap and breakdancing, although the kids in his San José school could not relate. He felt that he was in the wrong time and place, as the world he lived in was disconnected from his Afrocentric understandings.
When he began attending Monterey High School, his world changed: there were several other Afro-Costa Ricans who were already into hip hop and welcomed him into their world. His best friend from Limón would send him VHS tapes of BET rap videos so he and his friends could learn the lyrics. With friends Alex Curling and Patrick Skipton, Watson began to participate in local talent shows in San José. During visits to Limón, Watson would show off his advance b-boying/breakdancing skills. There was a bigger audience there that was already entrenched in the world of hip hop.
Watson was only 18 when he wrote his first rap. He was invited one day to a high-school talent show that very night; he wrote some lyrics, gave some parts to his friends, and spent hours that afternoon practicing with them. Watson combined rapping and reggae in a style now called reggaeton.
The group was a total hit that evening at the contest. Later that night at home, while washing the dishes, Watson admitted to himself that he loved rap; he found that he could convey a message, and so began his musical journey that has lasted 27 years. His first underground rap groups were HWE1 and VCR.
In 1996, Watson, already a well-established rapper, was part of the band Ragga by Roots which sold double platinum, making the group arguably the biggest seller in the history of Costa Rica. They had five songs on the radio and won Song of the Year in 1997 for “Sentimientos.” Their music was a mix of English and Spanish. He went onto work with other bands, including Moonlight Dub.
Watson says he gets his voice from his mother. Rapping is a way for him to address the injustices that he has faced and that he sees in the world. In September 2016, Watson completed a dream that he has had for 23 years – his solo EP which he released on tour in Argentina with Moonlight Dub. With the release of the EP, called “LP,” he participated in a round table with local MCs in Argentina talking about the future of hip hop and how to make the movement positive for the society through its messages.
There are six songs on the EP with two interludes, all a precursor for the full album, “Lado B,” which is being released in Costa Rica in 2017. The Costa Rican release of “LP” took place on Nov. 25 at El Sótano in San José; the album can be purchased online at resistencia.subversive.com. This is the first time Watson is using 90% Spanish, and most of the songs are not in the raspy voice he is most famous for. The entire album is a play on words that challenges stereotypical notions of blackness; Watson’s goal is to tell the “black side of the story.”
Watson’s creativity is sparked by his intellectual excellence as a voracious and conscious reader. His stance on justice, collaboration, respect and knowledge contribute to his being one of the most important creative voices in Costa Rica today.
Read more from Natasha Gordon-Chipembere here.
Natasha Gordon-Chipembere holds a PhD in English. She is a writer, professor and founder of the Tengo Sed Writers Retreats. In June 2014, she moved to Heredia, Costa Rica with her family from New York. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Her column “Musings from an Afro-Costa Rican” is published monthly.
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