Beauty Atlas Cover Star Danay Suarez Reflects on Her Cuban Roots

Life in Havana isn’t always easy for Cuban rapper and singer Danay Suarez, but there’s nowhere in the world she’d rather be. Here, Danay shares all that there is to love about her home, sweet home.

 Photo:  10Photos

Photo: 10Photos

The second time that I rang the doorbell at Danay Suarez’s home in Playa, Havana, a beach town nearly 100 miles outside the city, I concluded that she had not yet arrived. And though it was just hours before my return flight to the U.S., I was in no rush. In fact, surrounded by sand and clear blue waters, I never wanted to leave. Just as I started to lose myself in the beauty of the ocean views, the vibration of my cell jolted me back to reality—an unfortunate reality that I’d ended up at the wrong home. With the help of several locals, I eventually found my way.

The 31-year-old welcomed me with a warm smile, her dark, cascading waves defining “beach hair” in the most literal sense—spritzed with ocean spray and tousled by the sea breeze. Danay led me through the complex, stopping every so often to introduce me to her mother and neighbors who live on the garden level, then ascended a winding iron stairway into her home. Greeting us at the apartment was Margarita “Margo” Gregoria Espinoza Plaza, Danay’s 89-year-old neighbor-turned dear friend and roommate. Ileana Rodriguez, Danay’s friend and translator for the purpose of our interview, was also in the room with her precocious two-year-old daughter Nina (who we’d later find finger-painting the floor with sunscreen). Danay slides a vinyl record out of its sleeve and sets the soundtrack for our talk: Cuban singer and guitarist María Teresa Vera’s “Trio Veinte Años.”

Since signing with Universal Music Latin Entertainment, Danay has built a beautiful home on the island. Her airy apartment filled with contemporary details is a glaring contrast to the dilapidated buildings with rusted facades that often depict life in Cuba. However, her tale is unlike the rags-to-riches story of many American celebrities—girl grows up in a middle-class household and works her way to Hollywood stardom. Consequences of the Revolution create added pressures for aspiring musicians in Cuba. Governmental regulations prohibit performers from speaking freely against politics and human rights issues, censoring hip-hop artists with strong opinions like Danay. Shuttered radio stations and limited access to Internet also squander opportunities to publicize their work. “Musicians are generally forced to seek out their own concerts and self-promote,” says Danay. But if a band is fortunate enough to book their own gig, they’re responsible for footing the bill without booking agents or record labels to cover costs. Additionally, a shortage of equipment and studios often leave eager musicians no choice but to leave for a country that better supports their career. 

Yet unlike many performers of her time who have fled to Europe to pursue international Danay has managed to build a fan base overseas without neglecting her homeland. “I love Cuba. I love my home and being visited by friends.” Seeing her in her element, the close relationship she has with her mother, the affection she pours out for Margo, and the pride that she has in her home, it’s no surprise that she has opted to keep her feet planted in Havana. 

But what’s the cost of building a career in music while holding onto her beloved lifestyle? How has she managed to secure a deal with a major record label alongside superstars like Daddy Yankee and Paulina Rubio? Or, garner attention from outlets like the New York Times and rack up nearly 150K followers on social media—in a country that hardly offers Wi-Fi? “Cuban women are fighters,” she says. “Everything we create takes a bit of invention and a lot of ambition.” Here, more from the singer on her triumphant fight to the top.

 Photo:  10Photos

Photo: 10Photos

BEAUTY ATLAS: Tell us about your upbringing.

DANAY SUAREZ: I grew up with my mother in the heart of Havana, in a building that was practically falling down. We had no telephones, so contact between people was very physical. Margo, a neighbor from that building now lives with me. She practically raised me so I never wanted to be separated from her.

BA: You incorporate photos of Margo into your performance visuals. Is that your way of carrying her with you as you travel?

DS: Yes. I love creating photographic documentaries. Before we moved to Playa, I thought of Margo anytime I was out of the country. I’d worry that if it rained, that old building might collapse while she was inside. Even though I have a lot of work around the world, my life is in Cuba partly because I have her.

BA: Do you remember the moment you fell in love with music?

DS: When I was in primary school, I would ride to class on a bike with my father, who lived in Buena Vista. I would sing a song and he would say: “Sing me another!” It was the first time that I believed I could sing because my dad liked my voice.

BA: How sweet! How has your love for music evolved since?

DS: My first album had an urban feel—somewhere between reggae and hip-hop. Later, I recorded a jazz album, and after that I went to Israel and became inspired by other sounds. My music has been a result of this journey that I’m taking. What I love even more than singing is communicating my thoughts through my writing. 

BA: Many Cuban artists relocate to further their careers in other countries. Why have you stayed?

DS: It’s frustrating. We don’t have booking agents or sufficient equipment to work professionally in Cuba. Fortunately, I’ve been able to secure jobs abroad without having to relocate, but if I could work here, I would. I like life in Cuba because I’m happy living with few things. Whatever I need, I have here.

BA: What do you appreciate about Havana? 

DS: I like that people have time for others. When I’m outside of the country, I find that it’s all about the numbers and followers. So many artists in Cuba can’t connect to Internet. If they could, they’d be happy to have two followers.

BA: Let’s talk beauty. What role does beauty play in a Cuban woman’s life?

DS: The majority of Cuban women follow beauty trends that they see on novelas [Latin soap operas] where actresses are overly made-up. But we also have a natural beauty that makeup can’t hide. We sew, wash clothes by hand, and clean without machines or tools so in a way, we’re in shape. And because we’re mixed-race (we’re a blend of Spanish, African, and Indian), we have beautiful golden skin tones.

BA: What’s your beauty philosophy?

DS: I’m most comfortable when I’m natural. I wear makeup for concerts, but generally, I keep it fresh. I might get it from my mom. She hardly wears makeup and she’s allergic to everything so she never applies perfume.

BA: Many Afro-Cubans relax their hair. Is there a stigma against curly or coarse hair textures?

DS: There are girls who feel that having naturally curly hair could represent that they haven’t done their hair. It’s not considered a hairstyle here, but more like you’re not ready yet. Some people call it pasa dura [hard raisin].

BA: Have you ever been ashamed of your curls?

DS: It’s difficult to maintain curly hair, but my mom would always say: “That’s the way you should be.” I’ve straightened my hair because I like to try different styles—not because of a lack of self-esteem. I like my hair the way it is.

BA: Do you have any traditional Cuban beauty secrets that you can share?

DS: Our grandmothers have a lot of recipes for making our own beauty products. We mix up avocado, egg, different types of oils, and aloe as a hydrating treatment for our hair. Also, sugar as a skin exfoliator and honey as a face mask. Bees aren’t affected by many chemicals in Cuba so our honey is very good. 

BA: Religious rituals are also a big part of Cuban culture. What do you do to keep yourself grounded, spiritually?

DS: I’m Christian so I’m not connected to the Yoruba religion like many Cubans. To lift my spirits, I read the Bible and try to treat others the way I’d like to be treated.

Click here to read our full cover story, including Danay's favorite beauty products, plus, a custom itinerary for a day in Havana curated by the singer.