Patria y Vida: The Newest Rhythm Of Revolution: Panel Highlights Cuba’s Protest Song Leading To Rapper’s Jail – Music
Yotuel Romero on the Sound of Change: Patria y Vida and Cuba’s Uprising panel during SXSW. (Photo by John Anderson)
Quick quiz on the history of music; What do NWA’s songs “Yankee Doodle Dandy” and “Fuck The Police” have in common? To give up? They are both protest songs.
“Yankee Doodle” was originally a British song mocking Americans as mere simpletons who didn’t know the difference between a horse and a pony – a bunch of worthless dirty scoundrels who thought that putting a feather in their hat would raise their status.
When the American Revolution began to turn against our royal rulers, the song became popular, ironically, with American soldiers who began singing it on the battlefield for the retreating Red Coats. In this unique act of wartime snarkiness, “Yankee Doodle” went from a satirical smack-down, created by an overwhelmingly large oppressive force, to an anthem of strength, resilience and, eventually, national pride, to a budding nation.
Hence why it is still known to this day.
In the same renegade spirit, Cuban musician Yotuel Romero began crafting last year’s hit, “Patria y Vida,” with help from his wife, Beatriz Luengo, and Maykel “Osorbo” Castillo Perez, Descemer Bueno, Eliecer “el Funky” Márquez Duany and the reggaeton duo Gente de Zona.
“It’s classic David and Goliath, but this time David has a song instead of a stone.” – Yotuel Romero, talking about the song “Patria y Vida” at SXSW
The title stands for “Homeland and Life”, which would seem a fairly innocuous phrase were it not for the fact that it pulls a jump rope to Fidel Castro’s revolutionary 1959 slogan, “Patria O Muerte” – meaning ” fatherland or death”. This, of course, is the same subtle but powerful style of pun that NWA deftly wielded when they took a common pejorative historically uttered by racist whites to African Americans who ‘didn’t know their place’ – and made it not only a badge of honor, but also an incredible band name.
One stark difference: None of the NWA members have been exiled from their home countries or sent to a maximum-security prison for their artistic expression, a fate that befell rapper Maykel Osorbo, one of the singers of ” Patria y Vida”, who was arrested on May 18 while at home having lunch, taken away without a shirt or shoes. According to international reports, he was held for 13 days in what Amnesty International calls an “enforced disappearance” – a state-sanctioned kidnapping. Osorbo still languishes in the provincial prison of Pinar del Río, west of Havana, once again deprived of any contact with family, friends or lawyers, let alone due process.
“It’s classic David and Goliath,” Romero said during the South by Southwest panel he and Luengo spoke about last Thursday, “but this time David has a song instead of a stone.”
The featured SXSW session, titled Sound of Change: Patria y Vida and the Cuban Uprising, was hosted by Billboard Vice President Leila Cobo, who did a wonderful job as an interviewer and translator for the couple. Although Romero and Luengo are both bilingual, they felt more comfortable expressing some responses in Spanish, due to the passionate nature of the subject matter.
“What do you want from this song?” Cobo asked Romero at one point during the discussion. After a clearly eloquent response in Spanish that I would have given anything to be able to understand because it sounded so well worded, his English translation summed it up in simpler terms: “We just want to be.”
A fair request for any artist as for any human.
Leila Cobo (l), Yotuel Romero and Beatriz Luengo on the Sound of Change: Patria y Vida and Cuba’s Uprising panel during SXSW (Photo by John Anderson)
Over the summer of 2021, the song — which the Cuban regime banned after it was released last February — became a popular rallying cry at the biggest anti-government protests in decades. Cuba, which has a poverty rate more than twice as high as the United States, has been hit very hard by the pandemic. With food shortages, blackouts, improper COVID testing and a loss of tourism slashing the already desperate economy by 11%, the island was like a gunpowder keg in a burning barn. Ready to explode at any time.
When “Patria y Vida” was released, anti-government protests quickly spread across the country, growing into the thousands, despite the song’s subject matter being more about artistic freedom than economic depression. It didn’t seem to matter, as the shared message for all was always about the hypocrisy, repression, and brutality of living under an authoritarian, authoritarian government.
“You talk about beaches, but you don’t talk about what happens to your people,” Luengo said, mirroring the lyrics her husband wrote and sang, “You announce the paradise of Varadero, while the mother cries for their children who perished.” A line that would unfortunately turn into a prophecy for their collaborator Osorbo.
Not only has the song been banned, but anyone caught listening to it in Cuba can be fined the equivalent of one month’s salary. Think about it for a second – the equivalent of a month’s income for a poor household. A ridiculously devastating financial blow just for listening to a popular song.
Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel blames the United States for the recent unrest, citing both the embargo and social media – even going so far as to call it “genocidal”, and continues to publicly urge pro-Cubans -governments to counter-protest.
With the Diaz-Canel administration holding its own rallies in reaction to pro-democracy protests, it could be difficult for onlookers to tell which protest is which. Both sides carry signs proudly stating that they are the real revolutionaries. Whatever the motive of anyone involved, be it cultural, political, generational or even just out of desperation and fear, the stakes are just as high.
“It’s not a political movement, it’s a human rights movement,” Luengo stressed during the SXSW panel.
When the conversation returned to their imprisoned friend, Osorbo, the depth of their frustration became visible in their eyes as well as their posture. After a participant asked, “What else can be done for Maykel?” they looked at each other helplessly. You feel like they ask themselves this same question, countless times, every day. After taking a moment to collect his thoughts, Romero simply replied, “I don’t know, but we won’t stop.”
With so-called “legal channels” locked down by the state, Romero and Luengo will once again have to rely on their talents, friends, and creative energy for any sense of hope or relief. They recently announced that “Patria y Vida” will be getting a full documentary through a partnership with Exile Content Studio. Although no release date has been given, they are doing everything possible to get this urgent message out to a wider audience quickly.
At the risk of sounding flippant, I think the situation in Cuba is an interesting combination of almost every popular revolution since the sixties. It’s Pussy Riot, the Arab Spring, the Summer of Love, and even a little hamiltonall in one – artists in jail for their art, citizens on the streets using social media to override an authoritarian government, and all to a soundtrack heavily influenced by American hip-hop.
We can only hope that with enough blood, sweat and empathy from the international community, this story can find a happy ending reminiscent of a Broadway play.