‘Candyman’ reggaeton star isn’t sweet on Cuban government

Cuban dissidents and popular reggaeton artists Ruben Cuesta Palomo aka "Candyman"(far left) and Jose Manuel Berlo, known as "Mucho Manolo," are joined by singer Liettys Rachel Reyes. All three members of UNPACU, an opposition group, visited Miami.
Cuban dissidents and popular reggaeton artists Ruben Cuesta Palomo aka "Candyman"(far left) and Jose Manuel Berlo, known as "Mucho Manolo," are joined by singer Liettys Rachel Reyes. All three members of UNPACU, an opposition group, visited Miami.

The so-called “father” of Cuban reggaeton — known by his fans simply as “Candyman” — has nothing sweet to say about the Cuban government.

The Santiago de Cuba artist, whose music was silenced in official government media outlets, is now an openly critical voice of the Raúl Castro government as an active member of the opposition group Unión Patriótica de Cuba (UNPACU).

How Rubén Cuesta Palomo — an artist with sexually explicit songs like El pru that generated a wave of moral panic among the island’s cultural elites — came to be the pioneer of confrontational reggaeton, shares a common thread among those who clash with the system in Cuba.

After recording a version of a song titled Señor oficial by Puerto Rican singer Eddy D, which criticizes "the police siege of the youth in Santiago de Cuba," the Cuban musician said he was censored for eight years, but never received an official notice of the ban.

"They never tell you but you come to realize it because you are no longer hired to perform; you get vetoed,” Cuesta said earlier this week during a visit to Miami, his first in the United States. “The censorship was lifted after eight years but I continue dragging that chain.”

Cuesta believes the government and state cultural institutions are engaged in a battle against the genre, particularly in Santiago de Cuba, with precise instructions to music promoters on how much local reggaeton can be played at their events, just two percent per night. An official with the Cuban Institute of Music publicly stated that “Santiago de Cuba is the capital of son, not reggaeton,” during a meeting with local artists.

Why would the Cuban government declare war against this musical genre?

"Because reggaeton is liberal, it says what it wants, what it thinks. Reggaeton does not keep its mouth shut," said Cuesta. "They know that culture, the arts, is the most dangerous weapon they can have in their own yard, because they can’t take an artist and beat him up for singing.

“They can do it with a dissident, or a homosexual, if they do something, like making a scandal in the streets,” he said. “But if an artist makes a scandal in the streets they treat him differently.”

The moral crusade against reggaeton, which has kept cultural policy makers busy for the past 15 years (with the support of middle-class professionals worried about the impact this music might have on their children) shrouds the real issue, Cuesta said: intolerance.

"People are not prepared for tolerance of anything,” he said. “We're not used to anything; in Cuba there are many taboos."

This is not the first time that the Cuban government has waged battle against genres it considers to be "ideological deformations," "pro-imperialist," "vulgar" or even exudes a feeling of, "little enthusiasm."

But reggaeton has symbolized a greater threat to socialism on the island; not only because of lyrics classified as obscene but, above all, because of its massive popularity and messages that revolve around consumption and material desires. Those topics are far removed from revolutionary ideals and dangerously subversive in the context of scarcity Cubans are experiencing.

As an artist, Candyman admits he was "indignant" about being censored and wants to use reggaeton as a vehicle to issue radical messages against the government. That in is line with the UNPACU strategy, an organization he came to know through a relative who has been an active member for years.

"Our goal is to show the youth of Cuba, who are dreaming of coming to the United States and abandoning their homeland, that they don’t need to leave and forget about the problems in Cuba. Rather, we have to fight from within. We must change Cuba,” he said.

The musician recently resigned his membership from Santiago’s Provincial Music Center to protest what he considers political discrimination.

"They demoralize you,” Cuesta said, referring to government officials. “During carnival festivities I got contracted for a single concert for a measly 4,000 pesos (about $145).”

Other reggaeton artists with professional stature can charge as much as 20,000 pesos (about $725) per concert, even though all performers must pay a 30 percent tax on their income.

With an artistic career that spans 24 years, the 40 year-old father of two girls stands out for fighting against what he calls "geographic fatalism."

"The artists of Santiago de Cuba have always been vetted by a regionalism that strengthens the regime,” Cuesta said. “It’s a diabolical strategy."

According to his own observations, the Cuban government is more tolerant of nightlife in the capital city of Havana, but the same is not true for the city that has been dubbed as “the cradle” of the revolution.

“In Santiago de Cuba it is not because it is the capital of communism, the last bastion they have,” he said, adding that as with “every cultural trend that is liberal...they try to extinguish the willingness of artists so that they either abandon the art or leave to the capital.”

With few spaces to perform and limited outlets for promotion, the Santiago artists who define themselves as “underground” find it more difficult to compete with the nationally recognized reggaeton stars, the majority of whom operate from the capital. In Havana, tourism has generated discos and nightclubs where this music has proliferated, and that city is also where the major record labels and home recording studios are found.

From the musical point of view, Candyman does not distinguish between hip hop and reggaeton, although many rappers have been critical of the latter.

“Rap, reggae and reggaeton are the same thing, what changes is the compass but they all have the same essence,” the musician explained, referring to the influence of Caribbean music in Cuba’s eastern region on reggaeton.

UNPACU, the dissident organization, has tapped into the popularity of the genre to spread government opposition messages via recordings distributed by supporters. Having a popular reggaeton artist like Candyman take part could contribute to the emergence of a subgenre within Cuba.

"Every day more and more Cuban youth get together to express their true feelings; they are realizing that time is running out for the regime," said Liettys Rachel Reyes, another young artist and UNPACU activist who has joined the confrontational urban music scene with the son Hay un pueblo.

Reggaeton artist José Manuel Berlo, better known as "Mucho Manolo" has also joined this trend.

"I've always been an advocate for the roots of the genre. Reggaeton and urban music rise from the barrios and its essence is to touch on these issues, too; to highlight the problems that are around you,” said the 27 year-old singer. “Why, if I can make a song talking about love, can’t I make a song talking, for example, about a man who is collaborating [with the government]?”

Both Liettys and Mucho Manolo, who were visiting Miami with Candyman, said their aspirations are to enjoy the same freedoms experienced in the U.S. in their own country.

With the typical nonchalant attitude of many artists of this genre, Mucho Manolo summarized Cuban cultural policies in relation to reggaeton this way: “We are in 2016 and these people are still saying, ‘Let's ban reggaeton.’

“Look at the world we’re living in, a world where people are figuring out how to get to Mars and you are concerned about banning a musical genre?” he questioned, referring to the Cuban government. “You guys are burned out.”

Reporter Mario J. Pentón contributed to this story.