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Us and Them by Robert Cobbold - Essay

Updated: Apr 28, 2022

Before the trade embargo was lifted, a US government agency tried to infiltrate the Cuban hip-hop scene in an effort to stir political unrest. They met with the politically vocal group Los Aldeanos, promoting them with their own TV channel and distributing their music on the black market to avoid government censorship. Los Aldeanos later went on stage at an independent music festival in Cuba and launched a tirade against Raul Castro’s government.

The plan backfired. The US plot was uncovered and the Castro responded by taking over the festival. Los Aldeanos were forced to move to Florida saying they could no longer work in Cuba because of government pressure.

If Western governments are using music festivals to try and shape the political discussion abroad you can be damn sure that they are monitoring them closely at home. Most people will say it’s just about catching drug dealers, but this story should illustrate that it’s partly about keeping tabs on political dissent. At Glastonbury 2015 I stood at the back of the spoken word tent with eyes on stalks as a stand-up comedian unearthed three undercover policemen in the audience in the middle of his set:

“We know they’re undercover because we offered them a drink and a spliff earlier and they turned them all down.” The four heavy set men in bucket hats laughed uneasily around their cabaret table. “Yes they’ve been trained to laugh along,” the comedian’s eyes blazed from the stage, “but we know they’re really undercover.”

The tension in the air was extraordinary. No-one knew quite what was going on.

I went up to the men after the gig to investigate.

“Are you really undercover policemen?” I asked harmlessly. “Yes” one of them replied. Then they laughed it off, “no we’re undercover villains” said another.

Unconvinced I walked away. The men kept up the joviality and even got on stage to take pictures with the comedian, smiles a mile wide all round.

I can’t explain the vibe emanating from these four men. Perhaps they were just nervous. But the real moment of truth came a few minutes later. I was taking a piss in a nearby urinal when the four men came in together.

“Oh look it’s the undercover policemen” I said cheerfully.