By now most of us have heard “Patria y Vida,” February’s all-star reggaeton hit by Gente de Zona, Descemer Bueno, El Funky, Yotuel Romero, and Maykel Osorbo. The song – which laments Cuba’s decline and calls for freedom on the island – became so popular that just thirteen days after its release, the Cuban government released “Patria o Muerte por la Vida,” a propagandist counter-single intended to “set the record straight” and bash Patria y Vida’s critical authors.
Since then, the phrase “patria y vida” (“homeland and life”) has transcended the original song to become the battle cry of Cubans on the island and abroad as they call for change, especially an end to government repression of protesters and those labeled as political dissidents. In the artistic community, it’s led to a spate of songs that cleverly subvert well-known Cuban turns of phrase and cultural symbols, transforming them from idyllic island associations to emotionally-charged points of pride and calls for liberty. Included among them is up-and-coming reggaetonero Lenier’s protest anthem “SOS Cuba,” titled after the popular social media hashtag created to raise awareness of Cuba’s current state of crisis.
Written in just one night shortly after historic nationwide protests began on the island on July 11th, two weeks after its release “SOS Cuba” already has over half a million views on YouTube and has garnered thousands of positive comments from Cubans around the world. While it has yet to reach “Patria y Vida” fame, there are a few things that set Lenier’s song apart from the (also good) protest songs being put out by other artists, including a collaboration of the same name by Cuban rappers Navy Pro, David D Omni, Soandri HDC, and Escuadrón Patriota.
Most of the songs being released in this current surge of activism tend to fall into the hip-hop or rap genres, like AL2 “El Aldeano‘s” “HIPHOP CON100CIA” or the other “SOS Cuba” mentioned above. However, despite Lenier’s reggaeton background, his “SOS Cuba” is pure salsa á la Marc Anthony. This not only makes “SOS Cuba” stand out musically, but also creates a particular energy and feel.
While many other protest songs feature raw and powerful lyrics, what makes “SOS Cuba” unique is its combination of lyrical and visual imagery.
Salsa was invented in Cuba, so to choose such a traditional genre to make a protest song is incredibly meaningful. Plus, salsa is a style of music made to get people moving; the beat of “SOS Cuba” energizes listeners, while the lyrics compel them maybe not to dance, but definitely to get up, go out, and call for change.
While many other protest songs feature raw and powerful lyrics, what makes “SOS Cuba” unique is its combination of lyrical and visual imagery. The beginning of the music video shows two women shouting, “There’s repression of the youth” (a nod to who is driving the protests in Cuba). “Cuba belongs to Cubans!” and “Patria y vida!” directly to the camera; this is followed by clips of Cuban president Diaz-Canel’s now infamous July 11th TV broadcast spliced with the footage of the protests, the audio of his speech overlaid with the song.
In the song, Lenier directly and indirectly references being in Miami multiple times. While this might seem irrelevant, it’s actually pretty important.
This chilling introduction – combined with lyrics detailing how Lenier cries for his birth country, feeling that he’s connected to Cuba no matter where he is in the world – makes for a heartbreaking but at the same time highly inspirational anthem that many in the diaspora and on the island can relate to.
It’s Cuban, But Also Cuban-American
In the song, Lenier directly and indirectly references being in Miami multiple times. While this might seem irrelevant, it’s actually pretty important. Many US-based Cuban artists are often criticized by Cubans on the island for “abandoning ship,” producing songs that show support from afar (and gaining from them financially) but failing to stick around to really fight for change alongside their compatriots.
The songs they release also tend to be written as if they were still on the island, probably because, as anyone with Cuban roots can tell you, increased distance from Cuba by no means equals a decreased connection to it. That being said, Lenier’s open acknowledgement that he’s not in Cuba but is still with it is exactly the kind of protest song we need: it shows how this crisis affects all of us, members of the diaspora and Cuban-Americans included, but rightfully centers the suffering and conflict island Cubans are experiencing firsthand.
Do yourself a favor and give Lenier’s “S.O.S Cuba” a listen – just be sure you have your tissue box and/or protest sign ready when you do.