Cuban Reggaeton and the Marginalization of Black Music

Reggaeton has been the soundtrack of Cuban daily life for over a decade, spilling out of homes, cars, and bici-taxis all over the island. Cubaton, as it’s sometimes referred to, is the preferred genre of Cuban youth, displacing the Cuban dance genre called timba (a late 20th-century Cuban form of salsa), and redefining the latter as music for tembas, middle-aged people. However, a new state cultural policy adopted last year, Decreto 349, essentially censors artistic expression with an implicit understanding that the main target is the “vulgar” lyrics of reggaeton. In this sense, reggaeton represents a new cultural battleground in late socialist Cuba that is linked to the historic marginalization of Black popular cultural expression.

Cubaton’s profile has risen steadily in the past decade, as groups like Gente de Zona achieve international recognition by recording collaborations with Latin pop stars. In 2014, the group recorded “Bailando” with Enrique Iglesias, which won three Latin Grammy awards, including Song of the Year. The following year, Gente de Zona achieved another major hit with the reggaeton-salsa hybrid, “La Gozadera,” featuring Marc Anthony.

Notwithstanding the overwhelming popularity of the genre, reggaeton has long been maligned by Cuban cultural officials for its “vulgarity” and explicit celebration of capitalist materialism (which is still taboo). During a 2015 trip to Cuba, in a public square in Santiago, I witnessed one of the many ways the genre is marginalized because of its incompatibility with socialist ideals. One of the sound engineers working in Santiago’s Plaza de Marte, where a large open-air sound system had been set up, was playing a variety of Latin dance music genres. He stated that he had been instructed specifically not to play any reggaeton on the sound system. Given the ubiquity of reggaeton in 21st century Cuba, I found the policy strange, as the state clearly can’t stop individual citizens from listening to it. But clearly, cultural officials have decided that reggaeton is not an appropriate representation of national culture.

To this end, and after years of public invectives against reggaeton by intellectuals and cultural officials, Decreto 349 puts reggaeton musicians and other artists seen as critical of the government at even greater odds with the powers-that-be. Cuban American scholar-artist Coco Fusco — a vocal critic of state repression of Cuban artists who, just last week, was denied entry into the country because of her opposition to Decreto 349 — explained the new policy as “a series of restrictions and punitive measures to be imposed on artists, filmmakers, musicians, performers, and writers who operate without authorization from the Cultural Ministry, as well as for proprietors that offer venue space to artists who seek to present their work without this permission.”

The most insidious part of the policy relates to targeting “contents that are damaging to ethical and cultural values.” Fusco emphasized that this is coded language to refer to reggaeton: “While Decree 349 doesn’t explicitly state which musical forms are likely to be punished, the language of the decree, with its many references to unsavory lyrics, high volume, unlicensed performers, and privately owned performance venues, makes it quite apparent that reggaeton musicians and rappers will take disproportionate heat.”

Therefore, a discourse of respectability is being utilized to censor Cuban reggaeton, a genre that is explicitly racialized due to its association with poor, dark-skinned eastern Cubans who have migrated to Havana since the 1990s.

The rhetoric stressing reggaeton’s lack of “appropriate” cultural values relates to the highly sexualized lyrics and often misogynist content of its songs. This calls to mind the furor surrounding gangsta rap in the 1990s and the push by Mary "Tipper" Gore to place Parental Advisory Labels on rap albums warning parents of explicit content.

Although most commercially successful Cubaton artists, like Gente de Zona, are from Havana, the genre first took root in the eastern city of Santiago de Cuba, with rapper Candyman thought to be the first proponent of the practice in the early aughts. It makes sense that Cuban reggaeton — which draws heavily on Jamaican dancehall (as well as American hip-hop) — initially emerged in eastern Cuba, which has historically had more cultural contact with other Caribbean islands, particularly Haiti and Jamaica.

Notwithstanding his pioneering role in popularizing reggaeton, Candyman’s recordings never reached the level of success attained by later Cubaton artists. This was due in part to the fact that his music was subjected to state censorship, even before Decreto 349 was in effect. In a 2016 interview, Candyman stated that he was censored for eight years following the release of a song that critiqued police harassment, called “Señor Oficial” (Mr. Officer). “They never tell you but you come to realize it because you are no longer hired to perform; you get vetoed,” Candyman said of the ban. “The censorship was lifted after eight years but I continue dragging that chain.”

The video for “Señor Oficial” — which appears to have been filmed around a decade after the original song was released — shows stark images of police repression of Cuban citizens, as well as live footage of Santiago’s Rastafari culture. One of the song’s verses roughly translates to, “Mr. Officer, I don’t want Rastafaris on the street to be looked down on. They’re just hanging out in the park and singing and ‘babylon’ comes along and tells them to shut up.” The references to Rastafari culture and vernacular (“babylon” to refer to the police) demonstrate the Jamaican lineage of Cuban reggaeton.

Interestingly, Candyman echoed the comments of the sound engineer in Santiago, noting that the state issues stringent limits on the amount of reggaeton to be played at public events (only 2 percent). He also noted that rules are enforced in uneven ways across the island and are much more relaxed in Havana than in Santiago, whose nickname is the “cradle of the Revolution” — this forces many reggaeton artists to leave Santiago and move to the capital.

Music scholar Geoffrey Baker stated that as reggaeton migrated westward and began to take hold in Havana, a “stylistic lightening” took place. The Blacker, more Jamaican aesthetic of Santiago reggaeton gave way to a more racially mixed Puerto Rican sound in Havana. Indeed, the influence of Jamaican dancehall is immediately apparent in Candyman’s songs, which employ the riddim (the Jamaican term for an electronically generated instrumental track over which rappers record their verses) made famous by Chaka Demus & Pliers’ dancehall classic “Murder She Wrote.” Conversely, Gente de Zona’s international fame is the result of collaboration with pop stars, demonstrating how a less “Black” aesthetic is often more commercially viable.

Like so many musical genres all over the Americas, reggaeton has shed its association with Blackness over the past decade as it has crossed over into the mainstream — so much so that one of 2017’s biggest hits in the US was a Justin Bieber remix of a reggaeton song, “Despacito.” However, in Cuba (and many other parts of Latin America), reggaeton is still scorned by cultural officials for its explicit lyrics and denigration of women. Putting aside the fact that misogyny is in fact a pervasive problem in reggaeton, the censoring and criminalization of the genre is part of a long history of attempting to “discipline” Black music. Ironically, Decreto 349 is likely to have the opposite effect intended by the Cuban state: citizens will only want to consume it more.

About the Author

Rebecca Bodenheimer is an Oakland-based freelance writer and cultural critic who publishes on a range of topics. Her work has been published at CNN Opinion, NPR, Pacific Standard, Mic, Poynter, The Lily, and more. She’s also a scholar of Cuban culture and society with a PhD from UC Berkeley who has written extensively about the island. She is author of the book Geographies of Cubanidad: Place, Race, and Musical Performance in Contemporary Cuba.