Friday, June 2, 2023

Why Mexican Narcocorridos Are Increasingly Popular In The United States

This music draws on a deep tradition dating back to the Mexican Revolution, but with a language and action whose spirit comes straight from today’s headlines.

To the sound of accordions and trumpets, the ballad “En preparación”, sung by California native Gerardo Ortiz, could be mistaken for a happy polka. But his lyrics are chilling and brutal.

“If you’re not good enough to kill,” Ortiz yells, “you’re good enough to be killed.”

The song further describes a battle-ready gunfighter with a penchant for pickup trucks and his AK-47, and who goes by a “respected” code name: M1.

The man you are referring to is not a fictional character. “M1” was the codename of a notorious Sinaloa Cartel drug trafficker, Manuel Torres Félix, aka “el Loco”, who was killed in a gunfight with Mexican soldiers in 2012.

M1 may be dead, but his infamy, and that of other gang members past and present, lives on in narcocorridos, heard everywhere from small-town carnivals to nightclubs across Mexico.

Old style with today’s headlines

This music draws on a deep tradition dating back to the Mexican Revolution, but with a language and action whose spirit comes straight from today’s headlines.

It is therefore not surprising that amid the grim reality behind the long and for now lost battle against cartel violence, this music genre divides the opinion of listeners in Mexico, as well as the new audience north of the border.

While the style of narcorridos dates back at least to the early 1900s, the genre first gained popularity in the United States in the 1980s, where it was often compared to the gangster rap tradition.

The initial impetus in the United States was largely due to Chalino Sánchez, a Mexican immigrant who is still popularly known as “the king of the narcocorridos.”

In many ways, Sánchez’s life was as violent as the themes in his music.

In 1992, he narrowly escaped death after being shot twice in a shootout at a concert in California. When he was four months old, he was kidnapped and eventually killed within hours of receiving a threatening note while on stage at a concert in Mexico.

In the decades following his death, the genre he popularized continued to appeal to many Mexicans and Mexican-Americans living in the United States, where he has a devoted following.

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Many narcocorridos have targeted the Sinaloa Cartel and Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán.

“I like music to tell real stories from real people,” says Alex Fernández, a first-generation American living in Southern California, just a few miles from the Mexican border. “People like crime movies or gangster rap. It’s the same thing.”

Reliable numbers of narcocorrido listeners in the United States are hard to come by, but the potential audience runs into the millions. Mexican “regional music,” the broad genre that includes corridos, is the top performing format among Hispanic radio consumers, according to Nielsen.

The audience among listeners on online platforms is potentially even larger. Spotify notes that the volume of streams for the genre has more than doubled since 2019 to 5.6 billion, of which 21% are from the United States.

Fernández indicates that one of the songs currently on his corrido playlist is “30 armored”, a song about a convoy of trucks working for the Mexican Sinaloa cartel.

Another song, “Soy el Ratón”, is sung from the perspective of Ovidio Guzmán López, son of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, whose arrest in January led to a series of fierce shootings and dozens of deaths.

“I know no fear,” says the song. “A Guzmán is not intimidated, especially not by the government.”

Content in this genre is often inspired by real people and events, and has recently led to a ban on radio broadcasts or live performances in some parts of Mexico and on events that may be related to drug trafficking.

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Because of their harsh and gory lyrics, narcocorridos have been banned from some radio stations and events in Mexico.

In November, organizers of a week-long cattle festival in the violence-ravaged Mexican state of Sinaloa announced that corridos had been banned because they promote bloodshed.

But for many American listeners, the music’s content, which often depicts drug dealers as anti-government Robin Hood-esque figures, is part of its appeal.

According to Rafael Acosta, a University of Kansas professor who has studied the narcocorrido genre, its popularity in the United States is directly comparable to the rise of gangster rap in the mid-1980s.

“Gangster rap has become established in mainstream culture, and it doesn’t differ much in function and style,” he says.

The narcocorridos tell the stories of “people who, often rightly, feel neglected by the state and the economic apparatus, and they seek opportunities for rebellion and socio-economic advancement,” says Professor Acosta.

And he compares them to films and songs about early 20th-century Italian gangsters or moonshine-smuggling bandits during the Prohibition era of the 1920s.

A reaction?

But critics denouncing the genre point to its relationship to real-life violent incidents and the perceived relationship between musicians and criminals.

In Mexico, more than a dozen narcocorrido singers have been murdered in recent years, while others have been charged by authorities with involvement in crimes.

The violent nature of music is a “complicated” issue, even for fans, Professor Acosta notes.

For some, there are even signs of the fatigue that drug-related violence has brought about in Mexico. And this has turned some fans away from the music.

Howard Campbell, a professor at the University of Texas at El Paso, is researching drug trafficking and culture on the US-Mexico border and found that the popularity of music has declined in the region.

This trend is partly due to the fact that many in El Paso have grown fed up with images of a drug war that has claimed thousands of lives across the border, he argues.

“How many times can you show the same videos of drug traffickers, of people drinking champagne with women and guns? At some point it gets stale and starts to lose its posh and cool aspects. The reality is it’s a horrible situation. ”

“It’s something that will never go away completely,” he continues. “But I don’t think it will regain the meaning it once had.”

Nation World News Desk
Nation World News Desk
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