'Patria y Vida,' up for a Latin Grammy, leads a protest music boom in Latin America
This is the first of two reports on a potent new synergy between protests and protest music in Latin America — from Cuba to Colombia, from San Juan to Santiago.
It’s been half a century since the golden age of protest music in the Americas — songs like Creedence Clearwater Revival's “Fortunate Son” that took on the Vietnam War; Mercedes Sosa's "Como la Cigarra," a defiant hymn aimed at Argentina's military dictatorship; or Bob Marley's "Get Up Stand Up," an indictment of Caribbean poverty.
The music helped galvanize protests; the protests seemed to bring out the best in the music. And that same phenomenon is playing out again across Latin America and the Caribbean.
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If you needed any reminder, consider the protest hit “Patria y Vida,” written and performed by several Cuban singers, is up for Song of the Year (and Best Urban Song) at Thursday night’s Latin Grammy Awards.
Or that, in the same week, the Cuban regime is blocking a new round of anti-government protests that dissidents had planned on the island as a follow-up to the unprecedented unrest that took place there in July.
“Patria y Vida” helped fuel those protests — and the protests made “Patria y Vida" more famous internationally.
Or as jailed Cuban protester Daniela Rojo told us: “The song gave us our courage, and the protests made the song more popular.”
The success of "Patria y Vida" reflects a fresh and potent synergy between popular music and protest marches from Cuba to Colombia — where reggaeton star Feid's music accompanied anti-government demonstrations this year — and from Santiago to San Juan, where singers recently helped bring down a Puerto Rico governor.
A LO CUBANO
It wasn't easy to make it as a rapper in communist Cuba in the 1990s, but that was the dream of Yotuel Romero and his buddies in a Cuban group called Amenaza (Threat).
So at age 19, Yotuel (as he's known today) fled the island with them for Paris. In a few years the ensemble, which now called itself Orishas (after the Afro-Cuban Santeria spirits) released a hit album, “A Lo Cubano.”
It was a pioneering effort in a Latin American urban music movement that blended genres like salsa with hip-hop. The song “Represent” from that album samples music from the famous Cuban band La Sonora Matancera, which had made Celia Cruz a household name a generation earlier.
Over the past two decades, Orishas collected eight Grammy and Latin Grammy nominations. Those early songs may have felt more party than politics — but a few years ago, Yotuel, now in his 40s, returned to spend time in Cuba and saw how its economic and human rights misery had only gotten worse since he left.
It helped confirm for Yotuel that artists have a responsibility to make their voices heard on those matters, something he reflected on during a Billboard panel on music and social justice this past September.
"Music isn't just Spotify and Youtube numbers," he said. "Music should also move people's consciences."
In 2018, Cuban artists founded a pro-democracy movement called Movimiento San Isidro. Last year Yotuel watched from Miami as those Cuban activists protested the government’s restrictions on freedom of expression — which, to no one's surprise, the regime cracked down on.
But San Isidro's unusual, social media-fueled dynamism helped inspire Yotuel and half a dozen other Cuban recording artists to release “Patria y Vida” earlier this year. The title — meaning "Homeland and Life" — is a poke at the grim regime slogan “Patria o Muerte,” or “Homeland or Death.”
The song gave us our courage, and the protests made the song more popular. With that song we start to believe that in Cuba we can have a different future.Daniela Rojo
Influenced by the hip hop tradition of authenticity and "keeping it real," Yotuel was once again advancing a Latin American musical form: the urban protest anthem. “Patria y Vida” is a plaintive but hopeful Latin pop song that tells the Cuban regime: "ya se acabó."
Your time is up.
The lyrics are biting. In one verse, Yotuel slams the regime for hyping the “paradise” of Cuban beach resorts — while Cuban “mothers cry for their children” who’ve had to flee the island.
“Patria y Vida” was released last February and its video quickly went viral. Yotuel became the star focus among the ensemble of singers for his movie-star looks and build. In the video, he’s shirtless with “Patria y Vida” painted across his chest.
But it was the song's defiant muscle that moved Cubans most. They now had access to the internet, and by this past summer they were so familiar with “Patria y Vida” that they adopted it as a rallying cry for mass, anti-regime protest marches across the island on the historic date of July 11.
Yotuel was somewhat stunned but not completely surprised by the song’s effect.
“It generated an incredible impact," he told the Billboard panel. "It helped move a society asleep under a dictatorship to take to the streets.”
Still, music experts point out that in order for this symbiosis between protest movements and protest anthems to work, the song can’t just be okay — it has to be hit-worthy.
Lilly Blanco, a Cuban-American singer-songwriter in Miami, says “Patria y Vida” struck such a strong chord largely because its chords were so well written.
“There’ve been plenty of songs making the same argument," Blanco said.
"But I think in the case of “Patria y Vida” it’s — it’s real. What makes it so powerful is that it’s not just people singing along to an ordinary pop song. It’s quality and it's organic — and it's something that people have been feeling for a really long time.”
As more and more international media reported on the historic, spontaneous July protests, “Patria y Vida” experienced a surge in coverage, too. Yotuel was even invited with other Cuban-American leaders to meet with President Biden at the White House in late July.
"We hear your voices," Biden said, "and we hear the cries of freedom coming from the island.”
WE'RE NOT ALONE
Another reason Yotuel became the song’s spokesperson is that some of his collaborators inside Cuba — including the artist Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara — were thrown in jail after the July 11 marches.
So were hundreds of protesters — like Daniela Rojo. During the 23 days she spent in jail after her July 11 arrest, Rojo, a 26-year-old single mother and artist living in Guanabacoa, Cuba, says she angered her cell guard by constantly singing “Patria y Vida.”
“He said that he could [get] me in trouble," she told WLRN by phone last month. "But that song is our anthem. With that song we start to believe that in Cuba we can have a different future.”
Rojo is still facing a trial on public disorder charges; but that hasn't silenced her. She’s now active with other dissidents in a new movement called Archipiélago that helped organize this week’s regime-thwarted demonstrations. She adds that the Latin Grammy nomination for "Patria y Vida" has only emboldened the group.
“I’m so proud of that," she said.
"I feel we are not alone. People in Cuba [want] freedom, they [want food], and so there are too many people that [have] no fear right now.”
On Friday, Rojo was reportedly arrested again and over the weekend her whereabouts were unknown.
It's that sort of frightening, stepped-up regime repression since July that has moved other Cuban artists to release their own liberation anthems in recent months — including "De Cuba Soy" (I'm From Cuba) by Yomil and “Nacimos Libres" (We Were Born Free) by Dianelys Alfonso Cartaya, known as La Diosa (The Goddess).
Among its lyrics: “One day you’ll have your freedom, but resist. Because we were born free.”
One major thing the songs have also done is build a more cohesive protest community between Cubans on the island and Cubans in exile — who’ve long been distrustful of each other.
“It’s an exchange that we’ve never experienced before," Blanco said.
"The exile Cubans like my parents’ generation are finally recognizing that the people in Cuba, especially of Yotuel's generation, are victims as well — they weren’t collaborators in the communist disaster. And the Cubans in Cuba now realize the exiles aren't just five guys from my fathers' generation trying to kill Fidel Castro."
Take, for example, the Cuban reggaeton duo and "Patria y Vida" collaborators Gente de Zona, whose crossover hit "Bailando" has more than 3 billion views on YouTube.
On New Year’s Eve in 2019, Gente de Zona was banned by the City of Miami from performing at Bayfront Park — because at a performance in Havana a year earlier they'd asked the audience to applaud newly elected President Miguel Díaz-Canel, a younger and supposedly more reform-minded leader than the Castros. Díaz-Canel has since been excoriated inside and outside Cuba for his heavy-handed response to the July protests.
The group's ask at that Havana concert made a lot of Cuban-Americans angry, including recording artists like Albita and Willy Chirino.
But when “Patria y Vida” was released, Chirino reposted the song's video on his social media accounts and recorded his own Cuban protest song, "Que Se Vayan Ya" (Leave Already) months later with Cuban reggaeton singers.
And in July, Gente de Zona was even invited to perform at a City of Miami-sponsored concert and demonstration outside the Versailles restaurant in Little Havana.
Later this week: A look at the protest-and-protest music phenomenon in Colombia — featuring reggaeton star Feid — and elsewhere in Latin America.