Staying Negative

Josh Kun tracks the history and the present incarnations of the narcocorrido at American Prospect: "Death Rattle: A new musical movement turns Mexican drug violence into catchy sing-alongs." Not sure who wrote the title, since Kun is pretty clear there is nothing "new" about this musical form. And catchy sing-alongs? This ain't Kreayshawn. Narcobanda's multiple beats, conflicting rhythms and general dissonance make it pretty damn hard to sing along. But something tells me Kun didn't select the title. The rest of the essay is full of interesting analysis.

Kun makes clear that the cartels are only following the lead of the larger society, a more extreme version of what's happening all around; as he writes, "If cartels live by impunity, they are only following the example of corrupt politicians, soldiers, and CEOs." Like the Movimiento Alterado says in their song "Sanguinarios de M1:" "La gente se asusta, nunca se pregunta."

Kun also points out the important fact that many of the biggest stars in the field - the Velasquez brothers, Gerardo Ortiz, etc - have U.S. citizenship, either because they were born in the U.S. or because they've spent a lot of time north of the border line. What does this fact mean for the glamorization of violence in the genre? And the fact that most of the narcobanda acts are singing in the first-person like they're members of the cartels themselves? Kun has an opinion:

The Valenzuela brothers were born in Sinaloa but have lived most of their lives in Southern California, where they have been both omnipresent producers and sharp entrepreneurs, at the center of shaping Mexican musical tastes from within the United States. They originally worked in straight-ahead banda, or brass-band, music (their father was a member of one of the biggest bands back in Sinaloa), helped pioneer “banda hood,” or the banda hip-hop craze, of the early 2000s, and last year launched a reality show on NBC’s Mun2 channel that followed them everywhere from a spa day in Phoenix to a meeting with Snoop Dogg. It’s hard not to see Movimiento Alterado as anything but a shrewd business decision, a carefully plotted attempt to cash in on Mexican drug violence as if it were a new dance craze and to do so at a distance—from within the relative safety of the United States. As Adolfo Valenzuela recently told a reporter, “It’s a market, and I’m in the music industry. If I don’t do it, someone else is doing it.” 

It's a lot easier to perform narco-chic killer if you get to back to your palace in SoCal and don't have to risk your life every day on the other side.

At the end of the story, Kun finds something hopeful in narcobanda star Gerardo Ortiz's latest album and specifically the song, "Cara a la muerte." The song is first person, telling the story of narco who's been gunned down and then sings about his lack of hope from his coffin: "Con dolor no descansa mi alma / Solo queda perder la esperanza / Dentro de mi caja." Last year, Ortiz was almost killed himself in Colima when he was attacked; his cousin, Ramiro Caro, and his driver didn't make it out alive. Kun still sees the song as more of a lamentation about all the mistakes and failures of a life badly-lived. And therein, he finds some hope:

As a rejoinder to violence, “Cara A La Muerte” is only one song—a meek offering considering the scope of Mexico’s social crisis—but it’s closer than any narcocorrido has come to joining the protesters and the poets and the bereaved thousands in saying ya basta, enough already, no más sangre, no more blood. It holds out a sliver of hope that as Mexico’s body count continues to grow, there might be a new song to sing.

I want to believe Kun. I listen to this music a lot on the radio (Houston's La Raza 98.5FM right now) and I actually love the multilayered beats, the chaotic pull of its accordion and the nasal strangeness of Ortiz's voice. The sound is refreshing and different from the majority of more traditional norteño music. But I can't find much hope in Ortiz. When he's asked in an interview about tracking down the people who murdered his cousin and his driver, he says he'd rather focus on the positive then think about impunity. And then there's a video of him defending narcos as doing good for the Mexican people; he makes a huge jump after that and starts to defend Hitler. His argument: narcos and Nazis, they get such a bad rap, but they've done some good for people, they've got a positive side.

Yeah, defending narcos and Hitler? Ay, Gerardo, I don't think so. If being "positive" means supporting impunity and defending Hitler, I'll just stay negative, thanks.