This week, the Cuban government moved to squelch a new threat to the revolution: reggaeton.
A fusion of dancehall reggae, tropical salsa and American hip hop, reggaeton emerged in the late 1970s in Panama, where it was initially popular with Jamaican immigrants. From there, it spread across the Caribbean and into the United States until, thanks to hits such as Daddy Yankee’s 2004 global smash Gasolina, it became the dominant form of popular music for much of North America’s Spanish-speaking population.
Like both hip hop and dancehall, the lyrics in reggaeton can be crudely direct in their appreciation of sex and feminine allure, and this was the impetus behind the Cuban crackdown. Orlando Vistel Columbie, president of the Cuban Institute of Music, complained to Granma, the government’s official newspaper, that reggaeton’s “aggressive, sexually obscene lyrics … deform the innate sensuality of Cuban women.”
This is not Mr. Vistel’s first go-round with reggaeton. In 2011, both he and Abel Prieto, then minister of culture, denounced the Osmania Garcia hit Chupi Chupi, a catchy, accordion-fuelled dance tune that uses lollipops as a sexual metaphor. Mr. Prieto raged that the song “put the soul of the nation in the balance,” and Chupi Chupi (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ywoC2damVmU) was pulled from Cuba’s national music video awards show.
Cuba’s post-revolutionary governments have long had an uneasy relationship with imported pop styles. Che Guevara had the government outlaw rock and roll, and initiated a crackdown on jazz that banned performances and put some musicians in prison.
But Cuba is actually late to the party in its opposition to reggaeton. Alarmed by the music’s lyrical vulgarity, officials in Puerto Rico launched a crackdown in 1995, seizing cassettes and CDs and fining retailers for violating obscenity statutes. Seven years later, hearings were held to consider regulating reggaeton because of what then senator Velda Gonzalez described as the music’s “slackness.”
In 2006, reggaetoneros such as Tego Calderon and Daddy Yankee were banned from performing in the Dominican Republic because of their lyrics, and their recordings were pulled off the radio. Last year in Colombia, lawyer Joaquin Torres filed a class-action suit requesting a ban on the sale and distribution of reggaeton recordings, arguing that they contained “subliminal messages” encouraging drug use.
Still, banning reggaeton remains one of world’s milder forms of musical repression. In Iran, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad took Western and “indecent” music off state-run radio and television in 2005, a move that silenced such threats to the state as Eric Clapton and Kenny G. Two years ago, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei issued a fatwa proclaiming that, although music was halal, “promoting or teaching music is not compatible with the highest values of the Islamic Republic.”
More recently, the Islamic rebels who control the north of Mali have implemented a complete ban on music, destroying instruments and jailing or executing musicians. “Instead of singing, why don’t they read the Koran,” Oumar Ould Hamar, the military leader for the Movement of Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, told The Washington Post. “We are not only against the musicians in Mali. We are in a struggle against all the musicians of the world.”