Words are things, like ink / falling like dew on rhymes / making thousands, even millions think.
My freestyle paraphrase of Don Juan, Canto III, by 19th-century rapper George Gordon Byron, aka Lord Byron, these words contain the seeds of every protest verse ever sung or uttered since. To the canon of heart-stoppers like Reverend Charles Tindley’s “We Shall Overcome,” Dylan’s “Masters of War,” and Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” we can now add another anthem: the Spanish-language rap and reggaeton number “Patria y Vida.” Translated as “Homeland and Life,” the song’s viral catchiness and free-speech message has little uniformed men around the world quaking in their black lace-up boots.
Written and performed by an all-star lineup of Cuban rappers Yotuel Romero, Gente de Zona, Descemer Bueno, El Funky, and Maykel “El Osorbo” Castillo, “Homeland and Life” flips the script on late Cuban dictator Fidel Castro’s morbid mantra “Patria o Muerte”—in yanqui English, “homeland or death.” Instead of merely rejecting the 1960s Cold War-era slogan, the song turns its necrophilic message on its head, while blasting the desperate economic, human rights, and free-speech situation on the island. Directed by Cuban filmmaker Asiel Babastro, the video has spread to Cuba’s remotest hamlets—aided by hand-distributed flash drives and a recent expansion of nationwide internet coverage—and racked up more than 4.8 million views to date on YouTube.
“Homeland and Life” brings together artists from the U.S., Spain, and Cuba for the first time. Bueno, a Miami resident, is a Grammy winner; ditto for Romero, a Spanish resident and member of the platinum-selling group Orishas. El Osorbo, notably, lives in Havana, along with Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara, the leader of the artist-activist coalition the San Isidro Movement, a civic group on the front lines of protest against Cuba’s 349 Decree (another prominent free-speech group, 27N, is led by Tania Bruguera, New York’s Office of Immigrant Affairs first artist-in-residence). Under the draconian decree, “all artists, including collectives, musicians and performers, are prohibited from operating in public or private spaces without prior approval by the Ministry of Culture,” and must refrain from activities the government might find “obscene,” “vulgar,” or “harmful to ethical and cultural values.”
Otero Alcántara, the young Black face of a protest movement that has gone global, makes a cameo in one scene in the video, holding a Cuban flag behind El Osorbo and El Funky. Photographer Anyel Troya secretly filmed all three in Havana, then sent the material to Babastro in Miami. The director combined their footage with takes of the other singers while adding documentary clips from recent artist protests. Were Babastro to remake the video, he might feature recent footage of Otero Alcántara and El Osorbo leading an inspired impromptu street rendition of “Homeland and Life” while evading police.
Images of El Osorbo pumping his fist in the air, handcuffs dangling from one wrist, have gone viral—this after hundreds of friends and neighbors intervened to help him avoid arrest on April 6. The lyrics to the new Spanish-language scorcher have hit the streets and are making millions inside and outside Cuba think: “No more lies! My people demand freedom. No more doctrines! / Let us no longer shout ‘Homeland or Death’ but ‘Homeland and Life.’ ” An anthem is born. ❖