Franklin Reyes/Associated Press
Franklin Reyes/Associated Press
HAVANA – At 10 o’clock on a Saturday night, the Mariana Grajales park in downtown Havana pulses with a thumping beat. Young men in drooping trousers and women in miniskirts dance, raise their hands in the air and grind pelvis to pelvis amid whooping, clapping and coarse jokes.
The risque dance style known as “perreo,” which translates loosely as “dogging,” is associated with reggaeton, an up-tempo mix of reggae, hip-hop and Latin rhythms that was popularized in Puerto Rico and has become a mainstay on Cuban TV and radio.
Now, the music finds itself squarely in the sights of critics who lament the genre’s notoriously suggestive lyrics, steamy videos and sometimes misogynistic stereotyping.
Cuban authorities recently announced restrictions reportedly declaring state-run recording studios and broadcasts off-limits to songs with questionable lyrics. They also prohibit such music in performance spaces subject to government control.
The rules would theoretically apply to all genres, but it’s reggaeton that leading cultural lights have singled out for criticism in official media while warning of new rules governing “public uses of music.”
Legislators also are studying a bill to regulate the airwaves and performance spaces. Artists would face potential sanctions for lyrics and performances deemed too racy, although it’s not yet clear who would be the official arbiters of taste or what penalties may be imposed.
“It has been decided,” said Danilo Sirio Lopez, director of the Cuban Institute of Radio and Television, in a December speech to lawmakers. “We will not play one more rude song, one more base song, one more song with offensive lyrics or videos that attack or denigrate the image of women.”
The proposal apparently falls short of an outright ban, but in a country where the government is the main patron of the arts and controls all airwaves, the threat of losing access to broadcasts, production facilities and performance spaces sends a clear message to reggaetoneros: Clean up your act, or else.
Last year’s hit song, “Quimba Pa’ Que Suene,” by Los Principales, translates gently as “Shake It So It Goes Off” and is a kind of homage to masturbation. The video was uploaded to YouTube and heralded as “the new hymn of Cuban youth,” and for the last year, it could be heard booming at top volume at private parties, school events and other get-togethers.
The runaway smash “El Chupi Chupi,” by Osmani Garcia and various artists, also was criticized for its creative wordplay about sexual acts. “Go on make yourself pretty, and turn out the lights, the orgy has begun,” goes one of the few lines printable in a family newspaper.
Officials, critics and the influential Cuban Women’s Federation complain both songs are vulgar and demeaning to women.
“Obviously everyone is free to listen in private to whatever music they want,” said Orlando Vistel, president of the Cuban Music Institute, an arm of the Culture Ministry that promotes music. “But that freedom does not include the right to reproduce it and play it in state or private restaurants or cafeterias, public buses or public spaces in general.”
Whether the government can successfully crack down on the music remains to be seen.
Cuba’s unique political and economic model may have cut many off from the Internet and other global phenomena, but they haven’t insulated the island from all of the region’s trends, said Roberto Zurbano, a promoter at the government-run cultural institute Casa de las Americas. Reggaeton’s popularity on the island is a product of those influences, he said.
“Reggaeton is a music that very much reflects the era, an era of marginalization,” Zurbano said. “In general reggaeton is about the poor people of the Caribbean, with its poverty, violence, precariousness, machismo, the avalanche of television, consumerism, the lack of values.”
Experts also credit reggaeton’s popularity to its simple but catchy beat. And they say it’s here to stay, as evidenced by artists from other genres such as salsa incorporating the sound into their music.
“Very easy to dance to. ... It should be no surprise that it has caught on so easily among young people,” said Raul Fernandez, a professor at the School of Social Sciences of the University of California, Irvine, who has written about Cuban music.
“The lyrics to dance music are often not exemplary in a literary sense,” he said, but “people aren’t going to dance in order to be educated by the lyrics.”
Indeed, some fans barely notice the slangy, rapid-fire lyrics, or say it’s not the main attraction.
“I really like reggaeton. It has a beat that fires me up,” said Yanet Perez, a 28-year-old Havana resident. “It’s fun to dance to because of the way it gets you moving, although the lyrics sometimes can be bad or slimy.”
Records with explicit lyrics in the United States have carried parental warning labels since the 1980s, and last year the Rihanna video “S&M” was banned in at least 11 countries. In 2009, Jamaica prohibited songs and videos with explicit references to sex and violence from being broadcast on radio or TV.
The backlash against reggaeton has historical echoes in Cuba, where genres such as danzon, cha-cha, timba and salsa once scandalized older generations by pushing contemporary boundaries of sensuality. Today, they are firmly established in the musical mainstream.
In the 1960s, the Beatles were banned from Cuban radio, and some fans were forced to cut their long hair, reprimanded at work or passed over for jobs. Now, a Havana plaza boasts a statue of John Lennon and the nearby Beatles-themed bar The Yellow Submarine is a thriving nightspot.
Ironically, some of those who would clamp a lid on reggaeton’s excesses once rebelled against their own elders by listening clandestinely to John, Paul, George and Ringo.
“Reggaeton is very popular among young people,” said 22-year-old singer Carlitos “Papi” Chacon, who avoids explicit lyrics in his own music but acknowledged that many of his peers “say crazy stuff.”
“I think (the backlash) has only made people listen to it more,” Chacon said. “What you have to do is keep working and not box yourself in. ... You have to make music.”