We want you: Presidential election rocks to a new Latin beat

[2 July 2008]

By Jordan Levin

McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

MIAMI - They’re not just rocking the vote - they’re salseando, perreando and mariachi-ando it.

Latino musicians, actors and celebrities are getting involved in the U.S. presidential campaign to an unprecedented degree this year, from voter-registration campaigns to online music videos for Barack Obama, the candidate drawing the most support from young Latinos.

Such star action could play a significant role in influencing the 18.2 million Hispanics who the Pew Hispanic Center reports are eligible to vote, especially the 7.3 million under 35 and closely tuned to pop music and online culture.

Stars like Juanes, the Colombian rocker, and Los Tigres del Norte, the godfathers of norteno music, are urging fans at their concerts to register to vote, while Dominican merengue legend Juan Luis Guerra and Mexican rockers Mana played a benefit concert in Miami in March for Ya Es Hora (It’s About Time), a national campaign to increase citizenship and voter registration among Hispanics.

Actors Rosario Dawson (“Men in Black II,” “25th Hour”) and Wilmer Valderrama (“That ‘70s Show”) have made an online telenovela spoof as part of their efforts in spearheading Voto Latino, which seeks to register young Hispanics to vote.

So far, Obama has been the candidate to capture the most attention from Latin stars. There has been no musical or online pop video groundswell for GOP nominee John McCain.

But some political observers caution that just because someone sways to a hip tune online doesn’t mean she’ll swing the same way in the voting booth.

“These videos are watched for the most part by the people who already support you,” says Tico Perez, an Orlando political commentator who appears on several national television and radio shows. “They’re great reinforcers but not educators on the issues. The independents are not going to be swayed by videos chanting Obama. They’re going to be swayed by the issues.”

Yet there’s no denying that this presidential campaign has motivated artists to action.

Producer Andres Levin of the hip Cuban-funk band Yerba Buena and numerous other hot Latin acts pulled together a Latino musical constellation that included pop singers Alejandro Sanz and Paulina Rubio, reggaeton star Don Omar, actors John Leguizamo and George Lopez and “In the Heights” creator Lin-Manuel Miranda for “Podemos Con Obama” (“We Can With Obama”), an online music video that has garnered more than half a million hits since it was posted in early June. Hundreds of thousands more have hit YouTube and other sites to check out other music videos rallying La Raza for the senator from Illinois.

Levin was inspired by “Yes, We Can,” the star-powered Obama music video by the Black Eyed Peas’ will.i.am that became an online phenomenon. “From seeing the power and effect (the will.i.am) video had, I thought this is something I can do,” says Levin, who pulled together a group of 24 artists, all of whom appeared for free. “I’m a producer, an artist, and if there’s any way that I can make a change it’s gonna be this.”

Many artists were driven to get involved by what they see as the failure of immigration reform and the subsequent backlash of stepped-up border enforcement, workplace raids and deportations.

“The whole caustic nature of the immigration debate and the backlash is hitting home and on a very personal level,” says Maria Teresa Peterson, executive director of Voto Latino. “These artists may be successful and achieving their dreams, but they recognize other members of the Latino family who aren’t.”

That situation inspired a number of songs, from the Tigres’ “El Muro” to reggaeton duo Calle 13’s “El Norte.” But some musicians wanted to do more than sing about the problem.

“The only thing that can save the Hispanic community in the United States is that those who can, register and vote,” says Juanes, the multimillion-selling singer who showed voter registration ads on his Web site and during his recent U.S. tour of venues like Miami’s AmericanAirlines Arena and New York’s Madison Square Garden.

“It’s super fundamental. (Voting) is being able to manage the future, the rights they have as Latin Americans in the U.S.”

Up to now, audiences for the likes of Juanes has not paid much attention to managing their voting rights.

According to a University of Maryland study, only one in six Hispanics ages 18 to 29 is registered to vote, compared to one in two for whites and one in three for African Americans. But young Hispanics are a fast-growing and potentially powerful voting bloc; 50,000 Hispanics turn 18 every month, according to UCLA’s School of Public Policy.

That reality has fired up people like Jose Antonio Hernandez, deputy director of Rock the Vote’s invigorated Hispanic initiative, which aims to register 250,000 young Hispanic voters. “We are part of the fabric of this country, and the fact that Hispanics live here and don’t get out and vote is detrimental to this community,” Hernandez says.

Both Voto Latino and Rock the Vote are non-partisan. But their heavy use of pop and online culture and marketing means their efforts dovetail easily with Obama’s campaign, which has been adept at integrating the Internet and appealing to young people.

When Miami Latin-fusion favorites DJ LeSpam and the Spam All-Stars played an Obama rally for 16,000 at the BankAtlantic Center in Sunrise, Fla., in May, the atmosphere was like that of a rock concert.

The Democratic candidate’s mixed race and immigrant father are inspiring to young Hispanics, says Colombian filmmaker Andres Useche, 30, whose song “Si Se Puede Cambiar” (“Yes, We Can Change”) has racked up over 300,000 hits since it was posted on YouTube in February.

“I discovered this strong movement of young people who were never involved ... who now felt part of a movement,” Useche says from his home in Los Angeles.

“He’s a great example of (how) to be an American; it doesn’t matter where you’re from,” says Miguel Orozco, whose videos “Viva Obama,” a mariachi tune, and “Como Se Llama,” a reggaeton song, have garnered more than a million hits on YouTube and Orozco’s Web site, www.amigosdeobama.

Even the Cuban-American community, the Hispanic group most traditionally loyal to Republicans, is seeing a political shift along generational lines that’s coming out in music. Miami-raised Cuban-American Will Lopez, 40, whose punk band Guajiro sings in Spanish and often about Cuban issues, has used the universal soccer chant of “Ole ole ole ole!” for the Obama song “Ole, Latinos for Hope.”

Lopez’s stance has caused a “dinner-table rift” with his extended Cuban family. But he says he knows of other Cuban Americans his age who are frustrated with the cost of the Iraq war and the lack of progress in Cuba and are ready for a change.

“We are extremely excited about this upcoming election and want to push as many people as we can to be aware and come out to vote,” Lopez says. “We personally are for Obama and think it would be a wonderful change for our country.”

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/article/we-want-you-presidential-election-rocks-to-a-new-latin-beat/