Fidel Castro Dies: The Politics of Music Under the Cuban Leader's Reign

Billboard

The death of Fidel Castro has been prematurely announced many times over the years, but when Cuban president Raul Castro went on state television on Friday night (Nov. 25) to confirm that his 90-year-old revolutionary brother had passed, initial shock very quickly gave way to a mass reaction, with Fidel Castro quickly becoming Twitter's top-trending topic around the world.    

"What I never thought I would ever see: #Black Friday and #Fidel Castro trending worldwide at the same time," tweeted Puerto Rican rapper René Perez, aka Residente.

The ambivalence struck close to home for Residente, who as one-half of irreverent duo Calle 13, played a free massive show in Cuba in 2010, long before travel to the island was popular or accepted.

Added Residente: "Loved, hated, admired, criticized, today what separates us in some ways brings us together because in one way or another his death affects us all."

While Residente was no doubt not referring exclusively to music, Castro's influence on the rhythms and beats of his singularly musical country was deep -- often damaging, but also uplifting.

An entire generation of musicians fled the island to escape the Cuban regime and develop their musical careers unfettered by political constraints. Perhaps the most fabled was the late Celia Cruz, whom Castro didn't allow to return to the island to bury her mother.

The story of Cruz's yearning for Cuba and deep disdain for Castro was told in detail in Celia, the TV series based on her life. The regime's menace was also the basis of For Love or Country, the made-for-TV story of the life of trumpeter Arturo Sandoval, who also fled the country.

On the other hand, another generation of musicians, including troubadour Silvio Rodriguez and celebrated timba group Los Van Van, flourished under a communist regime that fostered their musical development, and the forbidden nature of everything Cuban also elevated the island's music in the eyes of the outside world.

The ambivalence Cuban musicians felt for Castro and his sympathizers and detractors often spilled over into other facets of music. When the Latin Grammys were held in Miami in 2001, for example, they elicited both public protests and public support. And artists like Juanes, and later Calle 13, were heavily criticized for performing on the island even though they didn't profess to be Castro supporters.    

At the time of Castro's death, of course, much water had passed under the bridge. Today, relations between Cuba and the U.S. have thawed, and artists can freely come and go between the two countries. But when it comes to Castro, the conversation is sure to continue.