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Sunday, April 21, 2024

Latin Americanisms: The Narcocorrido

How many times have hip-hop aficionados been characterized as lovers of thug music? Answer: many times. There is an undeniable racialization of the rap scene in the U.S. that has been an ongoing project for certain media and political entities since Rapper’s Delight first hit the airwaves and flooded the music world with its inner-city funk.

The flip side to this this dominant criminal narrativization of rap as a musical medium has been its popularity exploding in parts of the country which by their very makeup seem antithetical to its urban soul. White suburban kids have become a prime consumer base for the latest in hip-hop, almost single-handedly (have you been to a hip-hop concert lately?) spurring on new artists like Danny Brown, Action Bronson and Freddie “Gangsta” Gibbs, among others, to the forefront of 2014 hip-hop.

Now you might ask yourself what if anything does this has to do with Latin America? After all, it is the focus of this column. I’d like to let Trap artist Gucci Mane answer that question:

“All I wanna be is El Chapo/ Fully automatic slice your auto/ All I wanna be is El Chapo/ Three billion dollars in pesos/ All I wanna be is El Chapo/ And when I meet him I’mma tell him bravo.”

This song is one of Gucci Mane’s most realistic songs, in that, yes, he probably wants nothing more than to be El Chapo (other Gucci Mane fans knowing his personality would agree), and that it captures the sort of ripped-from-the-headlines aesthetic that is the lifeblood of that most Mexican of artforms: the corrido. The corrido is simply stated, a musical ballad which recounts a popular story, often with a criminal tale in mind, at times coupled with the self-effacing swagger you might expect from a rap song, and culminating in what some see as a dangerously subversive message.

One of the newest corridos to hit the Mexican airwaves (not everywhere since certain states have outright banned the airing of corridos) is La Captura del Chapo (El Chapo’s Capture). It is already being heard through booming sound systems on streets in Mexico’s northern states.

The arguments often levied against narcocorridos (to be seen as separate from the more popular, and to a certain extent more benign category of corrodes — think rap vs. gangsta rap) by certain sectors of Mexican society closely resemble the charges against gangsta rap in the U.S. This critique finds its basis in what can only be described as a misdirected moral panic. The main issue many have with narcocorridos as a subgenre of Mexican music is the idea that they do one of two things: they either glorify the violence that is found in their lyrics, or they directly participate in perpetuating this violence in Mexican society.

There does however seem to be a racial — or national for that matter — double standard at work in the pop culture sphere. Criminally inclined songs, be they murder ballads or heist tunes, have been part and parcel of white American music for generations. Many a country artist has staked his career on narrating the criminal exploits of others. Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, George Jones; these, and many other artists, have seen fit to recount the lives and actions of the American underbelly’s inhabitants. And yet, rather than be lambasted as enablers, they have been heralded as storytellers, branded as bards of the little man. All claims to which I sign onto.

The reality is that music as art — and precisely because it is art — is intrinsically tied to the political standing of its social and physical enclosure. What I mean by this is that an artist of any stripe cannot be faulted for creating something that represents the reality of his or her community. In fact, such acts should be applauded in an era of increasingly manufactured corporate pop music which would seem to have no interest in relating to its listeners or the lives they lead.

Life is bleak, dark and murderous. Not all the time but certainly some of the time. Why then seek to hide this ugliest of truths? Why not let our artists confront it as they so choose, and let their listeners and fans decide what does or doesn’t pass the litmus test of musical reality.


If you, like JORGE JUAREZ would also like nothing more than to see Gucci Mane take a stab (not a literal stab moral panickers) at a Corridos-only album, send your ideas for making this a reality to jnjuarez@ucdavis.edu.


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