Published: Oct. 12, 2021 By

Music has always had a powerful influence on Cuban culture. Its unique blend of West African and European styles has made Cuba one of the richest and most influential music regions in the world. But Cuban music has also acted as a vehicle for social and political critique. 

Run by a socialist government since 1959, Cuba has faced political dissent from its citizens throughout history. Cuban musicians have used their voices to critique their government and speak out against political, social and economic injustices. As a result, many musicians have been censured, arrested and detained for their political expression. 

On July 11, 2021, Cuban citizens erupted into a series of protests against the Cuban government and the ruling Communist Party of Cuba. Thousands took to the streets in various parts of the island to protest the failing economy, the ongoing food and medicine shortage and the government's response, or lack thereof, to the resurgent COVID-19 pandemic in Cuba. 

The 11-J protests (as referred to by Cubans) are considered one of the country's largest anti-government demonstrations in decades, resulting in hundreds of arrests and calls for U.S. intervention by some Cuban Americans.

Susan Thomas, a musicology professor and director of the College of Music’s American Music Research Center, studies popular music and arts culture both in Cuba and in the wider Cuban diaspora and their relationship to state policy and political change. She spoke with CU Boulder Today about the role musicians and artists played in the 11-J demonstrations and in Cuban protests throughout history. 

Susan Thomas

Susan Thomas, director of CU Boulder's American Music Research Center

Historically, what role has music played in Cuban protest culture? 

Musicians, especially singer-songwriters, have been a voice for public consciousness since the 1960s, pushing back against restrictions and abuses while continuing to work within the system. Artists positioned themselves as mouthpieces for the people, for the goal of free expression and better opportunity. But musicians have historically been supportive of socialist ideology. So while they wrote songs that might be critical of the way things were playing out, they always expressed that criticism within a strong support of socialist values.  

But artists’ commitment to socialist ideals was not always enough. Censorship and blacklisting kept many artists from having access to venues or recording studios, and some were even imprisoned for their perceived deviance from ideological norms. In more recent years, some artists have used music to voice more direct criticisms of the government and faced severe censure from the state and even arrest and detention. 

What is behind the recent rising tensions in Cuba, and why are they significant?

The kind of widespread eruption of dissatisfaction in the 11-J protests hadn’t been seen since before the 1959 Revolution. People on the island are fed up with shortages of food, medicine, housing and other basic necessities. They’re fed up with the government’s response to the economic and health impacts of COVID-19, and with the general lack of opportunities and government restrictions on information and freedom of expression. 

What is interesting about the 11-J protests, compared to other Cuban protests in recent years, is that the demonstrations took place across the country. Even looking back just six months prior, a series of demonstrations in support of the San Isidro Movement––which protested government censorship in the arts––were mostly held in Cuba’s capital city of Havana. 

The San Isidro Movement was also led largely by Cuba’s artistic elite: intellectuals, filmmakers, visual artists and musicians drawn from jazz and alternative music––genres viewed with relative favor by state institutions. In contrast, the 11-J protests stemmed from Cuba’s poor and working class––those without a voice, who neither identify as intellectuals or artists and whose musical tastes lean more toward the institutionally disdained, but incredibly popular, reggaetón genre. 

What tactics did Cuban musicians use to contribute to the 11-J protests? 

The 11-J protests were quickly identified with a reggaetón song, “Patria y Vida” (“homeland and life”) that was created in early 2021 to criticize the government’s restrictions on artistic expression. It takes the revolutionary slogan “Patria o muerte” (“homeland or death”) and turns it on its head to illustrate Cubans’ desires for a life of possibility.

The accompanying music video directly attacks government oppression, depicting scenes of police detention and abuse. When the protests erupted in July, “Patria y Vida” filled the air and its title appeared on makeshift signs all over the island.

How has Cuban music changed in the last 60 years?

Cuba has always been home to a wide variety of musical practices, some of which have been embraced by state and commercial institutions, and some of which have not. This tension really exploded over the last two decades as reggaetón became increasingly popular across the country.

Reggaetón was associated with marginalized communities, especially with darker-skinned Cubans from the eastern side of the island. It was viewed disdainfully by some music and institutional elites, who perceived its deep Caribbean roots as “foreign,” and who pointed to the amatuer status of disenfranchised musicians as proof of the music’s artistic deficit. It has been roundly criticized as “marginal,” vulgar, misogynistic and foreign, and efforts were even made by state institutions to ban the playing of reggaetón in public spaces. 

In the 11-J protests, thousands of marginalized Cubans––people who are often invisible in state discourse––took to the streets. So the fact that a reggaetón song, “Patria y Vida,” became the anthem for the protests is very significant.