“El raggaeton es la calle pura,” tells me El Chiki, a professional dancer. “There’s no raggaeton without the street, and there’s no street without raggaeton,” adds El Tiger.
In Havana, raggaeton is the soundtrack of the suburbs.
Just outside of the city centre, where old musicians entertain tourists playing salsa and other traditional Cuban rhythms, all you hear are the hits of Gente de Zona (winners of a Grammy), Chacal, Jacob Forever, Chocolate, Harrison e El Principe.
In the markets or out in the streets, shop owners only blast raggaeton from their stereos.
“Cuban raggaeton is split in two genres — farandula and repartero,” explains Capetillo, author and singer. You can tell farandula by the romantic lyrics and the way the artists who produce it show off their wealth. It’s played in the top clubs, like Capri, where Adriano DJ organizes one of the most prestigious soirees, each time inviting one of the most popular artists on the Cuban music scene like Yomil e Dani, Jacob Forever, El Principe, Angels, Lady Laura.
Repartero, on the other hand, is the music of the barrio — the lyrics are raw and they talk about day-to-day life. It still seems confined to the island, while almost all farandula artists live in Miami and only go back to Cuba for live shows and to see their families. Repartero reminds me of a mix between rap and Jamaican dancehall, but every time I dare to make this comparison everybody tells me that no, “Cuban music is Cuban music.” That makes me understand Cubans don’t like to be defined.
Despite the obvious differences between the genres, frequent collaborations between farandula and repartero artists blur the line between the two — as with many other things in Cuba, music is a mezcla of different cultures. What they wear is also a mix of street cultures, a revisited urban style, since most brands that can be found there are fake.
The artists love gold — the symbol of who made it — and their street style is not exactly in line with the Revolution. Their bodies are covered in tattoos and sexual references are a constant, in lyrics and concerts too. Everybody shows me the video where Chacal mimics a full intercourse with a fan during a live at Liceo de Regla, a club where, thanks to Havana Vip planing, the best artists perform at a reasonable price.
Seeing a show is not something everyone can afford: Jacob’s live at Liceo costs 4 cuc, Yomil e Dani’s at Capri is 50 cuc. The most popular solution for a Friday night then is to go to one of the block parties that kids organize all across the island, like the ones I went to in Alamar, just outside of Havana.
As the spontaneous block parties in the suburbs show, raggaeton doesn’t spread through traditional channels. On the contrary: raggaeton videos are rarely seen on national media, as they’re blamed of putting forward ideals that are not in line with the country’s history and identity, particularly when it comes to showing off riches and women.
Nonetheless, piracy is legal in Cuba, so there are plenty of stores selling compilations with the most-wanted songs of the week, video-cds called “El Paquete”. Artists pay to get their songs and videos on them, hoping DJs and clubs will play them and that they’ll be invited to do a live show.
Music production and distribution doesn’t bring any money to artists, so shows are the only way for them to earn money.
While shooting in Cuba I meet some of the best artists around at the moment, like Harrison, Jacob Forever and El Tiger. It’s very hard to talk to Jacob — he arrives a few seconds before his concert, allows me to take a couple of portraits of him and shortly after grabs his phone and starts texting nervously. He lives between Miami and Havana, he’s very well-known outside of the country too and has collaborated with some of the best raggaeton artists in the world. The show is very powerful, it lasts a bit longer than an hour and during the last song security guards take Jacob away. After seeing a few more shows, I realize it’s more of a way of doing things than a necessity: the artist who doesn’t want to give himself to his fans fits right into Cuba’s new narrative, already close to a Western and globalized lifestyle.
“We didn’t go to school, we don’t know anything about music but music makes us live. In my lyrics, there’s only what I live through everyday,” Harrison tells me. A mix of dancehall and rap — according to me, at least — in raggaeton terms, with strong lyrics and an aggressive show, right now make him the future of Cuban repartera music. Talking about his most famous song, “El Rey,” a diss against Chocolate, the artist who invented the repartero genre, he concludes: “The street, the people say that I’m the king. I didn’t decide that myself, they did.”