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Cuban reggaeton rebels face censorship, prison

Social media helps underground urban music artists on Communist island

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CIENFUEGOS, Cuba – A passion for Cuban underground music gave DJ Unic a career as a music producer and landed Henry Laso in prison. They both love reggaeton, a Puerto Rican fusion of electronic beats and African and Caribbean rhythms that has taken hold in nightclubs worldwide. 

The genre celebrates sensuality, as did Jamaican reggae from the late '60s, and adopts the free rhythmic speech of hip-hop from the Bronx in the '70s. The sensual grinding and the explicit lyrics that come with the beat offended Cuban officials, who control recording studios, radio and television. 

Despite the fear of arrest and harassment that some artists say they experience in Cuba, the musicians and fans use makeshift home recording studios, piracy tactics and social media to defy the ban. Most artists are men and most adopt pseudonyms. 

Laso used his legal name and didn't stay away from politics. In a recent letter to his wife, he said authorities were holding him in isolation "like a terrorist" and he was hospitalized when he started to have trouble with a kidney.  

"I am in the prison of Ariza, better known as the cemetery of the living dead, where hope is lost," Laso wrote  in a letter published on his Facebook account Tuesday    

While Laso's lyrics are brazen, DJ Unic tends to focus on the purely hedonistic. They are different artists, but they both agree that singing and producing reggaeton shouldn't be a crime. 

After the Cuban Music Institute announced the genre ran against the country's revolutionary culture and censored it in 2012, DJ Unic started his YouTube channel. On the Communist-ruled island of about 11.4 million, the music producer has about 14.7 million views  on YouTube and some 38,000 subscribers. He puts the spotlight on other artists.

To feed Cubans' insatiable demand for reggaeton, some fans got internet access through illegally shared authorized connections, and they were able to get the illegal music through a decade-old black market distribution system of thumb drives now known as "el paquete."

The island has already produced stars who are as recognized around the world as the ones from Puerto Rico. In the short documentary "Reggaeton Revolución: Cuba in the Digital Era," Yosdani Jacob Carmenates said the government ban didn't stop the music from spreading like a virus. He is now known around the world as Jacob Forever.

Carmenates understood the power of sharing his music for free to create demand for concerts, and after contributing to the success of Enrique Iglesias' "Bailando," his "Hasta Que Se Seque el Malecon" took off.

The authorized video of the song now has 59.8 million views on YouTube and when it was No. 18 on Billboard's Hot Latin Songs, Sony Music Entertainment Latin signed the 35-year-old artist from Camaguey.

DJ Unic continues to work in the shadows in Havana and in Miami with Urban Latin Records. His YouTube account ranks second in the country, according to Social Blade, which tracks users' statistics and compares data on subscribers, views and growth rate.

DJ Unic's channel is more popular than any of the accounts the Cuban government uses to spread its approved content. DJ Unic is also among the stars in Cuba who remain committed to Cubaton, a fusion of reggaeton and Son Cubano, the most important genre of Cuban popular music.

Laso just started publishing videos on YouTube about four months ago, including one he published in January warning other musicians that there were Cuban artists who were working for the Cuban government to find out how Miami residents were helping musicians on the island. 

Laso has reported being the constant target of threats after he protested at the Cuban Music Institute in 2016. After he published a video of his song "The False King," featuring images of Fidel Castro, in January, officers chased him into the cathedral in Cienfuegos, where priests reportedly negotiated his surrender. 

His access to the internet through a government account was canceled, and he has been harassed for years now, his mother, Carmen Susana Martinez, said, according to El Diario de Cuba.  Laso was arrested Feb. 6 in Cienfuegos over an alleged struggle with a state agent that Martinez said left the artist bleeding.

Laso described the incident to relatives as police brutality, but authorities decided it was an assault on a police officer, which could land Laso in prison for three to eight years. His relatives warned on Facebook that Laso was getting threats in prison and Martinez was filing a complaint. 

"After the trial, when they take him to prison, they are going to kill him," the relative wrote on Facebook on Wednesday. "This is too much. They are going to kill him ... God this is too much! Where is the justice?"


Here is Social Blade's list of the top 10 ranked YouTubers in Cuba: 

1. Radio CFG, who joined in 2007, has about 580,000 subscribers and some 6.8 million video views. 

2. DJ Unic, who joined in 2013, has about 38,000 subscribers and some 14 million video views. Music producer shares raggaeton and Cubaton 

3. Niqui.Bestia, who joined in 2014, has about 15,000 subscribers and some 7 million video views.

4. Kuban4ever, who joined in 2007, has about 35,000 subscribers and some 106 million video views.

5. DJ Conds, who joined in 2012, has about 54,000 subscribers and some 20.2 million video views.

6. CUBA, who joined in 2013, has about 43,000 subscribers and some 24 million video views. This account promotes tourism on the island. 

7. 2Pac to Makaveli, who joined in 2009, has about 74,000 subscribers and some 45.5 million video views. Shares music by Tupac. 

8. elToque, who joined in 2012, has about 4,300 subscribers and some 2.4 million video views. It's the channel of an independent magazine targeting the 15-35 demographic. 

9. D B M Design, who joined in 2010, has about  19.5K subscribers and some 11.3 million video views.

10. Robelinda, who joined in 2006, has about 25.3K subscribers and some 26 million video views.

About the Author:

The Emmy Award-winning journalist joined the Local 10 News team in 2013.