Ema in Havana: Reacting to Reggaeton

Ema in Havana: Reacting to Reggaeton

by Dunja Fehimovic*

Having attended a screening of Ema (Pablo Larraín 2019) during the Festival internacional de Nuevo Cine Latinoamericano, I left Havana with Nicolas Jaar’s hypnotic beats resounding in my head and Sergio Armstrong’s luminous frames burned onto my retinas. However, the audience’s response to the film – particularly their vocal approval of Gastón’s anti-reggaeton tirade – proved just as memorable. But how to make sense of this? The morning of the screening, I had awoken to the sounds of reggaeton coming through the open windows and doors of multiple neighbours’ houses. I had passed by vendors blasting it from portable radios, circumnavigated teenagers playing it on their phones, even driven to the cinema in a colectivo (shared taxi) playing it at a level that may have slightly deafened me to the full auditory experience of Larraín’s film. But, in fact, reggaeton’s ubiquity in Cuba covers over – and contributes to – the kinds of perceptions and beliefs expressed by the audience, via Gastón, that day. We need only look to the ‘Palón divino’ phenomenon to expose how the genre’s popularity coexists with widespread disdain. The runaway success of Chocolate’s 2017 song led to not one but two sequels (imaginatively entitled ‘Palón divino 2’ and ‘Palón divino 3’), and triggered both parodies and public outrage. It was even taken up by Alexis Valdés, a Miami-based Cuban comedian beloved by Cubans inside and outside the island alike. In this video, Valdés uses one of his well-known stock characters, Nereida, to place the hit within a longer trajectory of increasingly outrageous innuendo in popular music:

‘Es una música de cárcel’

Nereida’s closing comment – ‘me voy a recoger a mi aposento, porque esta vulgaridad no comulga con mis intereses sociales’ – hints at the coincidence of issues of space, class, and race in Cuban attitudes towards the genre. Just as the roots of reggaeton have most often been traced to the working class, largely black ‘caseríos’ of Puerto Rico, the music and its style continue to be associated with ‘marginal’ areas or living situations in Cuba, which, despite the advancements made by the Revolution, are still disproportionately inhabited by Afro-Cubans. Both ‘repartos’ – housing projects built since 1960 for lower-income citizens, often far from city centres – and inner city ‘solares’ – older tenement buildings of frequently tenuous structural integrity – have served as sites for the reproduction of racialised inequalities in the post-Revolutionary context.

‘Es un ritmo hipnótico que te apendeja’

The genre’s foregrounding of rhythm sets it up to inherit prejudices that can be traced back to colonial Cuba. The spiritual and cultural practices brought to the island by enslaved Africans, as well as those that were formed in the new context, harnessed the communicative and cathartic power of rhythm, and became associated with rebellion – provoking fears of a second Haiti among the landowning white criollos. Drumming was first banned and then contained through popular celebrations such as the Día de los Reyes. These fears merged with racist practices – such as the fetishisation of black bodies – and perceptions – such as those that labelled black people as savage. The result was an enduring antinomy between rhythm and civilisation, which in itself drew on the existing (Christian) binary of mind and (/over) body. The post-Revolutionary context has seen a revalorisation of rhythm, particularly as expressed in national musical forms such as the ‘son’ or ‘rumba’[i] but, as we will soon see, the primacy of body over mind remains problematic.

‘No te rebeles […] dame, dame, dame…’

The genre’s association with spatial marginality and racial marginalisation coincides with a condemnation of its aesthetics, characterised by ‘la guapería del solar’. In a 2017 CiberCuba article, Ernesto Morales identifies this ‘solar’ aesthetic with ‘bling bling’, pointing to the perception of the genre as not only commercial but also preoccupied with consumption. Artists’ personal styles and music videos often feature spectacular consumption that is readily associated neither with a socialist state nor with the ‘good taste’ of intellectuals and cultural arbiters. The music itself is most often produced ‘independently’, using computers necessarily obtained, via informal channels, outside the island. Without the need for live instrumentation, the usual markers of both cultural value and conduits for official recognition – musical virtuosity and formal training – are bypassed. Reggaetoneros quickly sink to the bottom of the cultural hierarchy, whilst their fans are perceived as mindless ‘consumers’ rather than discerning ‘appreciators’ of the genre.

However, although reggaeton is frequently consumed via informal circuits such as the paquete,[ii] it is also played in state-owned venues ranging from hotels and tourist resorts to fast food restaurants (e.g. the El Rápido chain). If the genre is indeed part of a recent ‘cultura del Rápido’ that ‘desdeña el funcionamiento neuronal, la diferencia, la diversidad cultural’, then this is perhaps not be attributable to the failings of Cuba’s cultural institutions, as one delegate of the state cultural association Hermanos Saíz (AHS) claimed. Rather, it can be viewed as part of a consistent but unspoken effort to eliminate the wrong kind of ‘rebellious’ music, spreading the message of ‘no te rebeles’. 

‘Es para que la gente no piense’

If rap – a genre similarly associated with racialised and marginalised populations – has been able find a niche within the Revolutionary system (as evidenced by the creation of the Agencia cubana de rap), this is because of its perceived greater intellectual value and ideological engagement. Conversely, this political potential has also led to the marginalisation and censorship of certain groups, including those based in Alamar, an area of ‘repartos’ in eastern Havana.[iii] Reggaeton, on the other hand, has been defined in terms of its ‘conscious refusal to engage at the level of ideas or lyrical discourse’ (Baker 2009: 169). A 2005 investigation carried out by the Centro de Investigación y Desarrollo de la Música Cubana (CIDMUC) expressed regret at the replacement, in reggaeton, of Cuban ‘picardía’ with vulgarity, describing the genre’s lyrics in terms of ‘lexical violence’ and aesthetic ‘impoverishment’. The genre’s supposed lyrical vulgarity reinforces its low status as a ‘body’ genre, which also supposedly limits its potential threat; whilst rap – particularly the kind of ideologically-engaged rap promoted by the Cuban state – is made to be listened to, reggaeton is made for dancing. And if you’re dancing, you’re not thinking – or so the reasoning goes.

‘A ustedes alguien les convenció de que si mueven las caderitas, son mucho más libres’

From Che Guevara’s ‘New Man’, engaged in a continual ‘conscious process of self-education’, to the ‘Batalla de ideas’ declared to combat the ideological, social and economic crises of the Special Period, the Revolution has long been configured as an individual and collective struggle primarily of the mind. The body, meanwhile, has been valorised only in relation to collective labour and armed struggle. We need only remember the controversy surrounding P.M. (Orlando Jiménez Leal & Saba Cabrera Infante 1961) to understand this; its fly-on-the-wall observation of a predominantly Afro-Cuban population drinking and dancing in a marginal part of town was an uncomfortable testament to an ideologically ‘unengaged’ sector of the population whose lives and loves seemed to have been unchanged by the Revolution.

If ‘the musical power of the disenfranchised… more often resides in their ability to articulate different ways of construing the body’ (McClary 1994: 34), and the body can serve as a source of subaltern self-empowerment (see, for example, Mimi Sheller’s Citizenship from Below [2012]), then to actively acknowledge the power of the body and bodily pleasures – including dancing – in Revolutionary Cuba is somehow to admit that there are still disenfranchised, subaltern sectors of the population. Moreover, to find, in perreo, a kind of freedom for the woman, especially from the traditional couple formation characteristic of most other styles of popular dancing (Fairley 2009), is to foreground the ambivalence and contradictions of embodied experience over the long record of official struggles for gender equality. In short, to deliberately value the bodily and sensorial pleasures derived from a heavily rhythmic genre that often uses misogynist lyrics and objectifying music videos is to undermine hegemonic understandings of politics and – ultimately – power.   

‘Todo lo que estudiamos, […] todas las pinches luchas que hicimos…’

The aforementioned article by Ernesto Morales was tellingly entitled ‘Algún día contaré a mi hijo que fui testigo del principio del fin de la música cubana’, showing the continued relevance, years later, of the sentiments so succinctly summed up by this 2009 Juventud Rebelde cartoon. Despite the perceived marginal, racialised, low-class, low-quality nature of reggaeton, it pervades public and private spaces, not least of which are state-run leisure venues and cultural institutions, such as Casas de la Música. Meanwhile, official discourse and cultural commentators repeatedly denounce it as ‘damaging to the broader panorama of Cuban popular music, eroding traditional genres, and betraying [musicians’] high professional standards with amateurish yet addictive creations’ (Baker, 2009: 166).

Juventud Rebelde (2009)

But reggaeton is not only detrimental to national culture; it also threatens the gains of the Revolutionary ‘lucha’ itself. Chocolate’s shocking claim that ‘soy negro, soy feo, pero soy tu asesino’ may be overshadowed by the “metaphorical” ‘palón divino’ that follows it, but it certainly exposes the internalisation and reproduction of racist stereotypes in all sectors of society. Thus, reggaeton ends up falling foul of both racist and anti-racist attitudes and discourses. Similarly, both official and public commentary has denounced the misogyny of the genre’s lyrics and music videos, which sit uncomfortably against the legislative and cultural battles repeatedly waged against machismo over the years. Finally, the emphasis on appearance and consumption in lyrics, music videos, and in artists’ images makes painfully visible the inequalities associated with post-Special Period economic reforms.

Sitting in the Chaplin

With each of these expressions of Gastón’s disgust came new roars of approval and peals of laughter. Soon, approbation was met with signs of protest among other parts of the crowd, which grew louder when Ema’s friend began to make her case for reggaeton as the ‘orgasmo que se puede bailar’. Ultimately, though, it seemed that the audience was siding with Gastón – the manipulative and childlike, dictatorial and vulnerable, impotent yet prepotente Gastón.

In many ways, this is hardly surprising. The Chaplin cinema, located immediately next door to the national film institute (Instituto Cubano de la Industria Cinematografica – ICAIC) and used for premieres throughout the year, not only possesses an official prestige that might attract a certain kind of audience, but is also likely – for purely practical reasons – to hold more than its fair share of filmmakers, critics, students, and writers in any given screening. Such viewers are, still, disproportionately whiter than the rest of the population, and have almost always received higher education and/or training in – if not formal employment or recognition by – state institutions. ICAIC and the Chaplin cinema are located in Vedado, a historically middle-class and still largely well-to-do area of Havana, relatively close to its centre. Whilst cinema tickets remain astoundingly affordable in Cuba, the precarity of public transportation and prohibitive price of alternatives such as the colectivo mean that people were unlikely to have travelled from marginal communities to attend. In other words, much of the audience likely found common ground with the objections of a formally-trained intellectual/artist who sees his creativity and control threatened by the hyper-sexualised stylings of an informal, non-hierarchical group of ‘malas bailarinas’. However, unlike Gastón, Cuban viewers are just as likely to listen to the latest denunciation of reggaeton on an official TV debate as they are to have it played to them at a state-owned cultural venue, whilst waiting for the start of a concert or, indeed, a contemporary dance performance.

Although the booing, cheering and laughter soon dissolved into ‘shushes’ all round as the audience returned their attention from the drama in the auditorium to the one on screen, Larraín’s film had already exposed the fissures between a societal super-ego and id, inadvertently proving the contextual significance of reggaeton as ‘an apt and revealing signifier’ (Boudreault-Fournier 2008: 354) of the contradictions of 21st-century Revolutionary Cuba. 

Acknowledgements: I am grateful to Yissel Arce Padrón for her insightful comments on this piece.

Works cited

Baker, G. 2009. ‘The Politics of Dancing: Rap and Reggaetón in Havana, Cuba.’ In Reggaeton, edited by Raquel Z. Rivera, Wayne Marshall, and Deborah Pacini Hernandez, 165-196. Durham [NC]: Duke University Press.

Boudreault-Fournier, A., 2008. Positioning the New Reggaetón Stars in Cuba: From Home-Based Recording Studios to Alternative Narratives. The Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Anthropology, 13(2): 336-360.

Fairley, J. 2009. “How to Make Love with Your Clothes On: Dancing ‘Regeton’, Gender, and Sexuality in Cuba.” In Reggaeton, edited by Raquel Z. Rivera, Wayne Marshall, and Deborah Pacini Hernandez, 280–94. Durham [NC]: Duke University Press.

McClary, S. 1994. “Same as It Ever Was: Youth Culture and Music.” In Microphone Fiends: Youth Music & Youth Culture, edited by Andrew Ross and Tricia Rose, 29–40. New York: Psychology Press.

[i] See, for example, Bodenheimer, Rebecca M. 2018 “National Symbol or ‘a Black Thing’?: Rumba and Racial Politics in Cuba in the Era of Cultural Tourism.” Black Music Research Journal 33(2): 177–205.

[ii] The paquete or paquete semanal is a weekly package of primarily audiovisual content (films, television shows, music) that is distributed offline, via hard-drives and USBs, through a grey market network.

[iii] The passing of the Decreto Ley 349 in 2018 has been instrumental in this, and has been widely interpreted by artists and intellectuals as an institutionalisation of censorship.



Dunja Fehimović is Lecturer in Hispanic Studies at Newcastle University. She is the author of National Identity in 21st-Century Cuban Cinema: Screening the Repeating Island (Palgrave Macmillan 2018), the co-editor of Branding Latin America: Strategies, Aims, Resistance (Lexington 2018), and co-editor of the annual Screen Arts issue of the Hispanic Research Journal. Her current research explores the contours of a relational (Glissant) Caribbean cinema via commonalities and repeating patterns in terms of film history, production, thematics, and aesthetics.