Cuban-American Freedom? On Pitbull and Guantanamo

This is awkward. The recent success of Miami-based Latino rapper Pitbull should be a cause for celebration. A new Latino figure in hip-hop, especially one that hails from the South, can do some pretty interesting things. Such a figure has the potential to remind listeners of earlier Latino contributions to hip-hop and reemphasize Florida’s role in the development of hip-hop’s Dirty South. Pitbull himself maintains that crunk is slowed down bass and pays appropriate homage to his professional mentor, 2 Live Crew’s Luke Campbell. Chronic idealist that I am, hearing more Spanish on the airwaves generally strikes me as a good thing. (I’d just as soon here music performed in even more languages on “American” radio stations.) Where’s the awkward in all of this? Why the reservations? One word: Guantanamo.

Pitbull has been part of the Miami scene for some time and became a fixture of the Dirty South since being featured on Lil Jon & the Eastside Boyz’ Kings of Crunk. His “oye” popped up on the 2 Fast 2 Furious soundtrack and, more recently, Pitbull released his first album, M.I.A.M.I.: Money Is A Major Issue. By now we’ve all heard clean and dirty versions of “Culo”. (As with so many new hits, we may be feeling that we’ve heard it too much.) We’ll all be hearing a good deal more of “Toma”, the single for which Pitbull is shooting his next video. Unabashedly masculinist and, well, not very risqué, the song’s idea of getting freaky basically boils down to oral sex: “Just blow my mind! / You know what I mean / The one below the waistline! / You know me / Baby I’m freaky!” This can’t possibly be the limit of eroticism for steamy Miami, can it? Silly sex songs aside (and I have nothing against silly sex songs), there are a couple of points, some exciting and encouraging, others potentially troubling, that bear mention when it comes to another aspect of Pitbull’s oeuvre: his explicitly political commentary.

Mixing a variety of musical styles like crunk, reggaeton, dancehall, and merengue, M.I.A.M.I. is certainly catchy. It is also quite thoughtful. Pitbull, who is only 23, comes across as a clever guy, attuned to the interplay of social, political, and economic dynamics. His discussion of Miami’s love affair with money in an article for Vibe (Audra DS Burch, June 2004) is spot on: “I’m trying to pitch the real Miami to the world, not the shit you see in videosÂ…Money makes the world go round. It’s the reason we are in IraqÂ…It is the root of all evil, and yet it’s the first place I saw the phrase, ‘In God We Trust.'” What isn’t clear yet is where Pitbull comes down on the issue. His observation that everything is about money doesn’t exactly suggest that the US should work toward removing troops. Money may be an issue, but what exactly is the nature of that issue? Making more?

Perhaps most fascinating of all, and at the heart of my reservations about this promising young artist, is a song called “Across the Waters”, which predates his album and explores a volatile subject: illegal immigration across the Florida Straits. The track is instantly impressive for dealing with the subject and because it is a collaboration with Haitian rapper Kurse that references US authorities’ divergent responses to immigrants from Haiti and Cuba. What is less appealing about the track is its rather naïve invocation of freedom and the American Dream, extraordinarily powerful ideological constructs, to explain Caribbean immigration to the US. According to “Across the Waters”, people strive to cross the Florida Straits because of the push of political corruption and exploitation in their home countries, terrible poverty and oppression, as well as the pull of hope for a better life. Such people, rap Pitbull and Kurse, seek freedom, and that freedom is a protected American privilege.

Guantanamo Bay Prisoner

The promise of freedom and the ability to pursue US American freedom that motivates “Across the Waters” is compromised, however, by the abuses that we know our country to be carrying out at Guantanamo. On 17 October 2004, the New York Times published an article by Neil A. Lewis on insider reports of prison abuses. According to Lewis, “Many detainees at Guantanamo Bay were regularly subjected to harsh and coercive treatment, several people who worked in the prison said in recent interviews, despite longstanding assertions by military officials that such treatment had not occurred except in some isolated cases.”

In “Waiting for Gitmo”, which appeared in the January/February 2004 issue of Mother Jones, Nicholas M. Horrock and Anwar Iqbal explain that prison facilities that came to be known as Camp Delta were the result of Amnesty International protests against the conditions faced by the hundreds of prisoners that the US detained since its invasion of Afghanistan. “Built by Halliburton subsidiary Kellogg, Brown & Root (KBR) for an estimated $9.7 million,” write Horrock and Iqbal, “Camp Delta now has gun towers, a working hospital, and the telltale sign of military permanency: a PX store. Some 2,100 members of an all-service unit known as Joint Task Force Guantanamo (JFTGTMO) have been assigned to Camp Delta, swelling the total base population to nearly half its Cold War complement. JFTGTMO’S motto is ‘Honor Bound to Defend Freedom’, and in theory enlisted personnel say ‘Honor Bound’ when they salute officers, and the officers reply ‘To Defend Freedom’, though during a press visit in November only the enlisted seemed to remember their part.”

Can the ideal hold up in the face of a practice? In addition to Guantanamo, experiences on the mainland call the relationship between US doctrine and actions into question. Scores of citizens and INS detainees are caught up in the prison-industrial complex. Caribbean immigrants, the very people considered in “Across the Waters”, have experienced their fair share of imprisonment by the US government. Marielitos (Cubans who came over during the Mariel emigration of the 1980s) were held in detention centers all over the US for months. More recently, Haitains attempting to flee a rebel assault on Port-au-Prince were held at sea on Coast Guard cutters amidst fears of a new mass exodus. These days, it’s hard to accept that the US is the world’s shining and noble bearer of freedom.

There are problems with the US, some of which are connected to the way our nation deploys affective concepts like freedom. Hip-hop has long been one of the most powerful venues for criticism of this country’s social and political inequalities and contradictions. A young and promising artist like Pitbull, who insists that he can weave some heavy stuff in among the booty music, can no more risk buying into tarnished catchphrases like “freedom” and “the American Dream” than the capitalist hyperbole of bling bling that has been one of hip-hop’s least enlivening and enlightening turns. Whether Pitbull manages to traverse these risks will depend on how he addresses issues like immigration and materialism, issues that at the very least I laud him for raising.