The Brief Cuban-American “Gozadera”

   By Stefanie Fernández | Nov 14th, 2019

    Artwork by Alonso Ayala (@ouchal)

The ‘10s was the decade of “Despacito” and “Mi Gente” – the decade when Latin music broke streaming platforms and finally didn’t need a translation to be taken seriously by a white American audience. For Cuba and Cubatón, the island’s unique subgenre of reggaetón influenced by traditional Cuban genres, this was the decade that saw the first significant thaw of Cuban-American relations in half a century, which had its own theme song: Gente de Zona’s “La Gozadera.”

The first single from the group’s third album, Visualízate, was released in April 2015, only five months after Raúl Castro and Barack Obama announced a formal thawing of diplomatic relations between Cuba and the United States that would begin with the reopening of embassies in both countries that summer. In fact, “La Gozadera” dropped just two weeks after President Obama announced that Cuba would be removed from the U.S. State Department’s “State Sponsors of Terrorism” list.

But despite the long freeze in diplomatic relations, Cuban music continued to journey across the stretch of sea to a new audience. Cubatón, in particular, was born in the 1990s, a decade that saw Cuba undergo the período especial or “special period” of unique economic strain, a byproduct of the Soviet Union’s dissolution. Marked by drastic shortages of food, medicine, and petroleum, this era and its sound reflected the fervor of the Cuban protest spirit and its native genres. In 1999, Carlos Manuel y su Clan created a prototype and precursor of Cuban reggaetón with their hit “Agua Fría” that blended timba, salsa, and zouk. Artists like Máxima Alerta, formed in 1999, fused son cubano, salsa, and rumba with rap and reggaetón, then gaining prominence via Puerto Rico (via Panama), while Cubanito 20.02, formed in 2002 by members of the rap group Primera Base, experimented with dembow, dancehall, calypso, and soca. Both groups are widely considered the pioneers of Cuban reggaeton. Many others then finessed the sound of Cubatón, including Eddy-K, Clan 537 and Chacal y Yakarta.

Alexander Delgado and Michel Delgado (no relation) formed Gente de Zona in 2000. Rappers Jacob Forever and Nando Pro replaced Michel after his 2005 departure, and eventually each of them left to pursue their own projects. Gente de Zona songs of this era such as “Le Gustan Los Artistas” and their “Homenaje Al Beny” tribute to Beny Moré’s “Que Bueno Baila Usted” included on the Chef soundtrack celebrate the brass and dance of Cuban timba and mambo, the first major Cuban genre to draw American attention in the early 20th century.

It was after the addition of Randy Malcom in 2013 that Gente de Zona became global stars, and not entirely by chance. In 2014, the group, along with Cuban singer Descemer Bueno, featured on Enrique Iglesias’ “Bailando,” which ricocheted in clubs internationally, including in the U.S. With the co-sign of Marc Anthony’s entertainment company Magnus Media LLC and Sony Music Latin, the group and Anthony released “La Gozadera,” which has since gone 12x multi-platinum.

It begins: “Y se formó la gozadera / ¡Miami me lo confirmó!” From its first line, “La Gozadera” takes the pan-Latinx diaspora around the world and the microcosm of Miami as its starting points and sets them to a buoyant salsa. It shouts out a handful of Latin American countries and their collective uplift. The third verse ends: “El mundo se está sumando a la fiesta de los Latinos!” For the Latin music industry in the United States, this was a literal statement.

Often the U.S. epicenter of the fraught dialogue between Cuba and the United States, Miami is nothing if not loyal to its convictions, many times to its own detriment. Yet despite long-standing pressures to enforce the embargo, the exchange of music and art between Miami and Havana always seemed to circumvent it. For Miamians, the combination of the Cuban radio machine and new generations with strong ties to the island allowed Cubatón to thrive naturally (just tune into Ritmo 95.7 FM, “Cubatón y Más”). In Cuba, organic content distribution networks like el paquete semanal and the hustle of resolviendo keep even restricted music circulating. And with the loosening of restrictions on travel and trade, formal channels of communication opened across the Straits of Florida that seemed levied for good.

2015 also saw the unforgettable proliferation of Osmani García’s “El Taxi” featuring Pitbull. And Jacob Forever’s 2016 hit “Hasta Que Se Seque El Malecón” has not ceased playing in every club, nail salon, and Lyft on Calle Ocho since its release. But not all Cubatón artists have historically been able to broadcast their sound so widely.

The state-operated music industry in Cuba controls the recording (see EGREM, the main national label since 1964), production, sale, and distribution of music. Only genres cosigned by the Ministry of Culture, like jazz or salsa, receive industry support. In 2012, the Ministry’s Cuban Music Institute announced that it would heavily censor reggaetón in public spaces, on television, and on the radio due to its “vulgarity.” Tracks like “Hasta Que Se Seque El Malecón” succeeded in spite of these restrictions via paquete.

In December of 2018, current Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel’s Decree 349 went into effect, “[prohibiting] artists from operating in public or private spaces without prior approval by the Ministry of Culture” (Article 1) according to Amnesty International, and allowing the Ministry jurisdiction over art containing “sexist, vulgar or obscene language” (Article 3d) or “content harmful to ethical and cultural values” (Article 4f). Like rap and hip-hop before it, which were (unlike reggaetón) scrutinized for expressly political messaging, reggaetón was a genre de la calle that remains heavily kept at the gates despite its global embrace and subsequent softening.

As a result, some Cubatón artists have defected to the United States. In 2003, Carlos Manuel of Carlos Manuel y su Clan famously defected by walking across the U.S.-Mexico border. In 2011, Osmani García’s particularly raunchy song “Chupi Chupi” was denounced and banned from the airwaves by the Cuban Music Institute and the Ministry of Culture. “¿Cómo pudo un ministro de la cultura ir en contra de lo que quiere y prefiere su país?” García responded in a letter to the Minister of Culture. García was supportive of the thaw and has lived in Miami since 2016.

Efforts on the part of the United States have sometimes undermined local resistance. In 2014, for example, an Associated Press report uncovered USAID’s failed two-year attempt to infiltrate youth hip-hop scenes critical of the Cuban government. This resulted in a slew of artist detentions and greater scrutiny on rap groups like Los Aldeanos, whose frontman Aldo Rodriguez was detained in 2009 for illegal possession of a computer after appearing with Juanes at his USAID-supported concert in Havana. Los Aldeanos’ Bian “El B” Rodriguez sought political asylum in Miami in 2014, explaining that it had become impossible to create their music freely in Cuba.

And in Miami, the debate over which Cuban artists get to perform for Cuban crowds in the city continues under old-guard exile pressures. Just this summer, the majority-Cuban City of Hialeah canceled performances by Señorita Dayana, El Micha, and Jacob Forever at a Fourth of July concert – to the disappointment of a lot of Cuban concertgoers.

The “normalizing” of relations felt anything but normal. Yet “La Gozadera” helped many Cubans excluding only the most hardline hope a little easier.

It helped that Gente de Zona doesn’t make expressly political music. Yet even if “La Gozadera” isn’t strictly a political song, it assumed a world in which the Cuban people’s voices were as loud as those of any Latin American country. Which is really what we wanted.

Delgado sums it up in the bridge: “Yo canto desde Cuba y el mundo se entera / ¡Si tú eres Latino, saca tu bandera!”

Since President Trump rolled back many of the Obama-era reforms and reinstated restrictions on travel and business in 2017, the thaw has slowed significantly. The brief window of normalization allowed Cuban artists to travel more easily to the United States and set the gears of the Sony Latin machine in motion. Now, even though it set an industry precedent for larger artists like Gente de Zona to be embraced, artists with fewer state resources have a harder time reaching audiences abroad.

Yet the Cubatón exchange continues to thrive. Well-loved Cubatón artists like El Chacal, El Micha, Jacob Forever, Yomil y El Dany and more continue to perform in Miami (like at this month’s annual Cubatonazo in Coral Gables) and New York. Cubans stay experts in resolviendo.

When Delgado was asked about Marc Anthony filming his scenes for the “Gozadera” music video in the Dominican Republic in a 2015 Billboard interview, he demurred in the way Cuban artists of his fame are really good at: “Marc Anthony hasn’t gone to Cuba yet, but he will. Everyone will.”

I hope he’s right.

Stefanie Clara Fernández is a Cuban American writer from Miami, Florida. Her work has appeared in NPR, Pitchfork, No Depression, and Miami New Times, among others. She currently lives in Washington, D.C., where she is a producer at The Atlantic and co-curates NPR Music's Alt.Latino weekly playlist of new Latin music. You can find her on Twitter @matervamami.