Chris Pizzello/Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP
When Cuban-born rapper Yotuel went on stage at this year’s Latin Grammys, he couldn’t believe he was getting one of the most coveted awards of the night: Song of the Year.
“I was really surprised because … we were competing against songs that were much more popular than Patria y Vida and artists who are at their peak,” the singer, whose full name is Yotuel Romero, said recently in an interview.
The song, which also won a Latin Grammy for Best Urban Song, beat out Bad Bunny’s hit single Dákiti and J Balvin and Tainy’s Agua.
Patria y Vida, or homeland and life, is a poke at Fidel Castro’s slogan “Patria o Muerte,” which means “homeland or death.”
On a stage full of candles – almost as though it was a vigil, Yotuel sang a live acoustic version of the song with fellow Afro-Cuban singers Descemer Bueno, Eliecer Márquez Duany and the duo Gente de Zona.
Dedicated to political prisoners
During the ceremony, Márquez Duany, who goes by El Funky, dedicated the performance of Patria y Vida to all political prisoners in Cuba, especially Maykel Osorbo, one of the song’s co-writers, who has been languishing in a maximum-security prison since May for helping create the protest anthem.
Over the summer, the song – which the Cuban regime banned after it came out in February – became a rallying cry during largest anti-government protests in decades.
Hundreds of Cubans detained in connection with the demonstrations are still being held as political prisoners, including dozens of artists.
Cuban regime condemned for “harrassing artists”
On Dec. 8, hundreds of prominent figures from the worlds of art, literature and entertainment called on the Cuban government to “stop its unrelenting abuses against artists” in a statement that mentioned the role Patria y Vida played in the protests.
“There is no justification for persecuting artists for peacefully expressing their views,” said the statement, whose signers include Meryl Streep, Khaled Hosseini, Orhan Pamuk, Elena Poniatowska, Isabel Allende and Zadie Smith.
“We call on the Cuban government to respect the fundamental role that art and artists play in society and immediately stop harassing artists for engaging in political and social critiques that are not in line with the government’s rigid ideology.”
Yotuel recently announced that he’s producing a documentary, in partnership with Exile Content Studio and his wife, the Spanish musician Beatriz Luengo, on the regime’s response to the song, especially since the summer’s protests.
Yotuel is one of the pioneers of urbano – a movement of urban genres, like reggaeton, born in Latin America. Yotuel was a trend-setter in the early 2000s for blending Afro-Cuban genres like rumba with hip hop like he did in his debut album A lo Cubano with the group Orishas.
“We have to replace this slogan”
After watching the government crack down on an artistic protest movement last year, Yotuel and other Cuban recording artists collaborated with rappers on the island to produce Patria y Vida. The Cuban rappers – Osorbo and El Funky – recorded their parts clandestinely for fear the government would shut down the production. They filmed the music video in an abandoned building while friends kept watch.
Influenced by the hip hop tradition of “keeping it real,” Patria y Vida is a hopeful but plaintive song that visualizes Cuba’s liberation in the near future. And its protest message is addressed to Cuba’s communist regime.
“This song says: Your time is up. … I was born in this century, and we’re done with your lies and indoctrination,” Yotuel said over Zoom from his home in Miami.
Luengo, who was also on the call, said that the first time she visited Cuba, she was startled to see the slogan Patria o Muerte calling on Cubans to give their lives for the revolution.
“We have to replace this slogan,” she said she told her husband.