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Last week, a new music video featuring a group of black Cuban singers accrued over one million hits in three days. The anthem’s lyrics are in defense of Cuban artists and offer a sharp-edged critique of the Cuban government. Grammy award winner Descemer Bueno; rapper Yotuel (of the rap group the Orishas); and Randy Malcom and Alexander Delgado of the reggaeton duo Gente de Zona, teamed up with island-based dissident rappers Maykel Osorbo and El Funky to produce “Patria y Vida” (“Fatherland and Life”), a symbolic call to arms to Cubans everywhere to let go of their fear of speaking truth to power. The astounding success of the video, which is currently spreading like wildfire in Cuba via flash drives (famously known as el paquete semanal, or “the weekly package”) and playing on computer displays in stores in Miami, is yet another sign of widespread discontent on the island and unity among Cubans inside and outside the country. It is also testimony to the power of popular music to evoke the experience of Cuba’s vast Black underclass. The Cuban government’s response has been predictably hysterical. For decades, the Cuban government has used music to drive home its policies and world view, but its capacity to do so is waning as the power of independently produced rap and reggaeton to inspire Cubans to express themselves grows.
The collaboration brought together exiled artists based in the US and Spain; Maykel Osorbo, El Funky, and Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara, members of the artist-activist coalition the San Isidro Movement, make a cameo in one scene, holding a Cuban flag behind Osorbo and El Funky. Cuban photographer Anyel Troya filmed Osorbo, Funky, and Otero Alcantara in secret and sent the material to Miami-based filmmaker Asiel Babastro, who combined it with the footage of the other singers and documentary clips drawn from recent Cuban protests by artists.
The San Isidrio Movement is a multi-disciplinary group that includes rapper Maykel Osorbo, who has been jailed a more than one occasion. Patria y Vida is not the first time that the group has used song to convey its political message. MSI member Amaury Pacheco worked with the arts collective Omni Zona Franca for 17 years before the founding of MSI and produced many works with musician David Omni. During the protests against Decree 349, David Omni rallied together several Cuban rap musicians to produce the song “No al 349.” Another MSI member Michel Matos founded Cuba’s first electronic music festival — called Festival Rotilla — but it was shut down by the Cuban government in 2011.
The title “Patria y Vida” reworks the phrase “Patria o Muerte” (“Fatherland or Death”) that Fidel Castro used throughout his life to punctuate his speeches. It is repeated ad infinitum in Cuba, on billboards, and in newspapers and state media. It once evoked a spirit of self-sacrifice in defense of the revolution. Over time, however, as the promises of the revolution remained unfulfilled, living conditions declined, and state repression intensified, the term took on morbid connotations. And that is precisely what “Patria y Vida” throws into relief. The singers cry out that they want life, not death, not more deception from the government. They contrast the truth of poor Cubans’ lives with the fabricated visions of paradise sold to tourists. They proclaim that Cubans are sick of being stuck playing dominoes instead of being able to make better lives for themselves, and that artists represent “the dignity of entire people that has been trampled upon.” And they repeatedly exclaim, “Se acabó, ya se venció tu tiempo, se rompió el silencio” (“It’s over, your time is up, and the silence has been broken”).
The song’s title is emblazoned in white on Yotuel’s chest, a gesture now being repeated in hundreds of selfies by Cubans on social media. Cubans are also tattooing the phrase on their bodies, publishing essays about the song in a range of magazines, and posting scores of comments about the song and the state’s reaction to it on Facebook.
The authors of “Patria y Vida” express the sentiments of many Cuban artists and intellectuals with regard to their government. In a recent commentary about the music video, Cuban writer Ernesto Pérez Chang describes the relationship between the ruling Communist Party and the citizenry as utterly broken:
They have zero credibility, the loyalty they claim to enjoy is as artificial as the consensus they boast about in front of the TV cameras. They have been forced to create hundreds of thousands of fake profiles on social networks to pretend that someone supports them. Every minute they add millions and millions of dollars to the foreign debt in order to finance a repressive apparatus and an army of parasitic “cyber-combatants” who are less and less feared every day and who, when the time comes, will, out of self-respect have to step aside from the history that corresponds to them.
While the singers’ performances are not elaborately choreographed, their facial expressions and hand gestures overflow with emotion, as if they were spilling their guts for the first time. Indeed, Gente de Zona admitted after the video’s release that they had been silent about their discrepancies with the Cuban government for years out of fear that their family members on the island would suffer repercussions.
The video has put the Cuban government on the defensive, and the reactions of state officials have been vitriolic. President of the federal cultural organization Casa de las Americas Abel Prieto called the song “musical propaganda” tied to purported demands for regime change on the part of the US. The government-backed Cuban Artists and Writers Union issued a statement calling the song “ridiculous” and dismissing the singers as mercenaries. The official state media outlet Cubadebate aired a video in which Yotuel is referred to as a male prostitute because he is a Black Cuban married to a Spaniard, the singer Beatriz Luengo. The video also includes homophobic comments about Yotuel, suggesting that he must have been excited standing bare-chested in a group of men. It is doubtful that these criticisms prevent anyone in Cuba from watching the video; on the contrary, journalist Yoani Sánchez notes that the government’s recent defamation campaigns against artists are having the opposite effect, increasing interest in them and thus bringing them new audiences.
One might find it hard to believe that the Cuban government, which is contending with a tourism-dependent economy that is in shambles due to the pandemic, would devote so much time and effort to respond to a music video. However, the new anthem is the latest salvo from the San Isidro Movement in what is now a three-year battle between artists and the state over the right to free expression and the right of creators to present their work outside government channels and to organize cultural events without state involvement. Were it not for the pandemic, the Cuban government might have convened large-scale rallies against the artists. These days, it can only use social media and targeted police repression.
The roughness of the state’s policing tactics is somewhat predictable, but its hyperbolic media tactics are surprisingly crude. Armed only with cell phones and ingenuity, Cuban artists are gaining the upper hand.