New wave of Latin singers spins politics in a different direction
The punk band Guajiro performs at a club in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, in September 2006. (Lilly Echeverria/Miami Herald/MCT)
The son of Venezuelan immigrants raps against Bush and for the common man, and gives his band the name of a communist holiday.
The Cuban-American songwriter with hip-length dreadlocks spreads the gospel of the movement for Jah people.
A new crop of South Florida music-makers is singing about issues and ideas that are sometimes shocking to their parents but that represent the changing global awareness and politics of a younger generation of Hispanic-Americans. In their efforts to project new and powerful images, some acts are even appropriating the leftist iconography of guerrilla rebels and socialist artists.
Such acts as Guajiro, Mayday!, Seven Star, Jorge Correa, Locos por Juana, and Johnny Dread, along with record labels including Beta Bodega and Counterflow, are working mostly in American and Caribbean genres that often voice progressive political views: hip-hop, reggae, and punk. By tapping sounds and experiences from their distinct backgrounds, these acts are simultaneously broadening the scope of and challenging the sometimes kneejerk postures of artists within those genres.
"We decided if we're going to do this, we're going to incorporate our culture," says Will Lopez, singer and guitarist for the punk band Guajiro. "Damn right we're going to have something to say, and damn right we're going to be passionate about it."
The sons (unfortunately, there are no daughters in this movement -- yet) of exiles, the musicians are well aware of the sensitive nature of political expression in South Florida. "It's only a generation away, the pain our parents felt and grandparents felt," says the Venezuelan-American Bernbiz (born Bernardo Garcia), MC for the hip-hop duo Mayday!, whose summer YouTube hit "Groundhog Day" featured constructivist graphics.
"Trying to propagate this in Miami is like trying to sow seeds in water," says Kike Posada, editor/founder of Boom! Magazine. "Miami is first of all the capital of Cuban exiles, then it's the capital of (the Latin American) right wing all over. It's hard to express something different than what the standard is."
But a handful of musicians feel strongly that the new Miami voices must be heard, as part of a rising international tide of protest singers.
"There's a new blood," says Cuban-American reggae artist Johnny Dread, "a new dawning."
Second-generation immigrants typically pull away from their parents and adopt the language, styles, tastes, and sounds of the dominant culture. For Johnny Dread, Bernbiz, and the members of Guajiro, it was music made by non-Latin artists that changed their lives -- and made them reevaluate the belief systems in which they were raised.
Love of classic English punk band the Clash binds the three main members of Guajiro. Guajiro's incendiary merchandising, with its guerrilla lettering and red stars, is lifted straight from such albums as "Combat Rock." "I think they were trying to do great things, in their politics, in the things they said, in the risks they took in the music they made," says bassist Jorge Gonzalez.
The Clash sang frequently about Latin American political movements; they named an album "Sandinista!," after Nicaraguan rebel forces. Singing in both Spanish and English, Guajiro similarly go where few Latin or punk bands have gone before. "Mantanzero" is about an immigrant who, disappointed in "the land of opportunity," heads to his "homeland" to liberate it. "Los Dos Principes" puts an old Jose Marti poem to a 4/4 beat, and provides timely discussion of the merits of regime change.
The band, which is in the final stages of negotiating a deal with a major label, gets its name from the Cuban term for peasant or farm worker. The moniker captures both the members' connection with their heritage and their punk-rock affinity for the underclass.
Lopez's parents fled Cuba in 1961 and are staunch Republicans. Gonzalez left the island at age 8, in 1980; he says he has fond childhood memories and does not connect to the "reactionary stuff" that happens in Miami. Drummer Doug MacKinnon is an Irish-American from Boston (and a veteran of punk bands Slapshot and the Vandals) who has studied Afro-Cuban drumming in Cuba.
Guajiro's songs are portraits rather than manifestos. Still, they depict a more complicated view of Cuban experience than is presented by the traditionally vocal members of the exile community. They realize that could get them in trouble. "The irony is that ambiguous to me means ambiguous, and ambiguous in some fronts might mean not really taking a stand," says Lopez.
The band members say their politics vary, but their lyrical concerns and conversation frequently veer left of center. Still, they're no fans of Fidel Castro, and they get offended when they see uneducated punk fans wearing Che Guevara shirts. "If he's wearing it because it's kind of a cool-looking shirt, or he thinks that by wearing a Che shirt he's liberal, then I have a problem with that," says Lopez.
So far, Guajiro has been embraced by both the punk-rock community and some right-wing Web sites. When a friend tried to bring their CDs and apparel into Cuba, an official took one look at the packaging and banned it as "Material Subversivo."
Guajiro promptly decided that would be the name of their first album.
When Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez recently took to the United Nations floor and slammed President Bush, Bernbiz called his conservative father. 'I told my parents, 'that's a gangster right there,"' the 28-year-old rapper says, using hip-hop slang for someone with guts.
But Bernbiz also knows the situation is more complicated. "My parents say nobody's eating over there. The sense of security is gone. It's a Catch-22. Me personally, I'm for the rebel and the guy who wants to make it happen. But I know I don't have the knowledge yet, the wisdom of life."
That nuanced stance is evident on Mayday!'s recently released debut album. On the one hand, the song "Groundhog Day" quotes an old Russian saying: "We pretend to work and they pretend to pay." The song and the video, which got millions of hits on YouTube.com, portray the anxious drudgery of office life. May Day is the international worker's day.
Yet "Mayday" is also a call for distress. Bernbiz and his bandmate Plex say they purposely steer clear of soapboxing, that the album is mostly about what it's like to be in your 20s. Bernbiz does admit that the situation in Iraq has galvanized him, as it has many musicians: "The war is a big inspiration for me in terms of my writing. I'm a pacifist if I'm anything."
Mayday! is part of a community of hip-hop acts, including Seven Star and Garcia, who emulate the activist agendas of conscious hip-hop groups. "We were just a certain little section in the Miami scene that was inspired by Public Enemy," says Bernbiz.
At Mayday!'s recent CD-release party in Miami, an audience member stood in the back of the room wearing a beret and a black bandanna covering most of his face, looking like Zapatista leader Subcomandante Marcos. This underground hip-hop scene includes the collective labels Beta Bodega and Botanica del Jibaro, whose releases often include information about global resistance movements, like the Sandinistas, couched in socialist-style propaganda. "I tell people I don't have a record label: What I have is a newsletter that has music and graphics attached to it," label founder Steven Castro told The Miami Herald in 2001.
Bernbiz is less polemical. "Mayday! is more about trying to find the answer than the answer," he says. "I'm trying to figure out what system is going to work. Isms don't work for me."
Johnny Dread says his consciousness was raised slowly, gradually: the more he heard the music of Bob Marley and studied the reggae singer's beliefs, the more he grew away from his suburban roots. Now the 42-year-old man born Juan Carlos Guardiola wears long dreadlocks and preaches Rastafarianism. He seems a son of Jamaica.
But it's Cuba from which his parents and six older siblings immigrated, landing first in Philadelphia and then in South Miami. Guardiola was a basketball player. Then he heard Marley's "Rastaman Vibration." 'Bob said, 'Stand up for your rights,' so I started to stand up for my rights as a human being on earth. I said, 'Let me emancipate myself from this mental slavery Europe has inflicted on me.' "
It was a shocking transformation, from star athlete to counterculture musician, for his family. "My parents are very old-fashioned," he says.
On his two albums, Dread sings mostly about religion, not politics -- but in the tradition of Marley, the two realms are never far apart. "For we come to teach the youths/About the truths and rights," he sings on "When the Work Is Done," from his 2003 album "Magnificent People."
"Marley was a prophet," Dread says. "We're in Armageddon and we're not doing anything about it."
Music has helped take Dread around the world. In Europe and Latin America, he has gotten a different view of Cuba than the one he was shown in Miami.
"The Cuba story's a small story," he says. "It's happening everywhere. Miami is very close-minded. I love my Cuban people, but we have a lot to learn. We're stuck with this Castro thing, it's not helping us move on."
Dread realizes those are controversial things to say in South Florida. He stopped performing locally for a while, but he hopes now that the growing number of immigrants from Central and South America are changing the social and political climate. Like all Miami musicians, he curses the lack of venues.
"There's no place for music to get loose, nowhere to espouse liberal ideas," says Dread. "And only liberal ideas liberate the soul, people and world."
Johnny Dread: www.johnnydreadmusic.com
Miami Herald critic Jordan Levin contributed to this story.