Mexico's Narco Rappers Are Here to Stay
Despite getting tortured by the army and tangled up with murderous drugs gangs.
Cano and Blunt are two young Mexican rappers who live in Reynosa, a border town controlled by the Gulf Cartel, the country's oldest organised crime gang. Like the drug smuggler serenading narcocorridos that came before them, the songs of Cano and Blunt relay the seemingly hopeless and desolate state of Mexico’s ongoing drug war – the only life they have ever known.
The duo’s lyrics frequently refer to Reynosa as a “mean town", and they've got plenty of justification. In 2010, this North-Eastern region drew constant comparisons to hell as it became one in a series of ever-shifting front lines in the violent struggle between the Gulf Cartel and their former allies, the Zetas. Cano and Blunt’s friendship began 18 years ago, and since then they have lived close to each other and bonded over a deep love of music. When they were kids they listened to cumbia (a beat-heavy Colombian genre) and those narcocorridos with their Mexican ballads telling tales of bandits, drug dealers and local gunmen. In their teens, the pair became interested in American rap and at some point began experimenting with beats and lyrics based on a potent amalgam of the disparate noises floating around their heads.
As they honed their sound, Reynosa crumbled. Devastating unemployment, a lack of opportunity, a never-ending pile of dead bodies and the desire to mean something within all the criminal and military encounters inspired Cano and Blunt to simply write about what was happening around them on a daily basis. And then, four years ago, they released “Reynosa la Maldosa”, one of their earliest and most popular singles. Its lyrics depict a hostile environment from which there is no escape: “Welcome to my kingdom, Reynosa, my dear/ Where every day everyone gambles on their life/ People who matter will blow your head off/ Better be careful or bullets will rip you apart/ Mutilated bodies floating in the canal/ Too much evil to fit in a jail cell.”
Cano and Blunt soon began landing gigs and earning more money than would’ve been possible working for the exploitative factory maquiladoras that had a stranglehold on the neighbourhood. Their popularity continued to grow, and now their music blasts out of the speakers of every local mobster’s stereo – the mobsters’ egos stroked by knowing that the lyrics they are listening to are directly based on their infamous lives and actions, especially those of famous cartel members like Metro 3 (killed in 2011), Comandante Aguililla and Comandante R1.
It’s not all fame and fortune for these two young men, though. The military have made it very apparent that they are listening closely and that they will not tolerate what they view as the duo’s glorification of the country’s most notorious criminals much longer.
Recently, Cano and Blunt applied for a US visa, not because working conditions are unbearable in Mexico, but because local record labels seem to have no interest in releasing their music. They hope to travel to Texas, where they have preliminary offers to record an album. But for now they wait in Reynosa, stockpiling songs about the nefarious characters who inhabit their daily lives.
I spoke to them.
VICE: What are your main musical influences?
Blunt: When I was a kid, I listened to cumbia and drug ballads, but I also listened to American hip-hop like Dr. Dre, Lil Wayne and Eminem. Then came Tego Calderón, one of the greatest examples of gangsta rap and someone I am personally inspired by.
What’s the hip-hop scene like in Reynosa? Who is your biggest competition?
Cano: Here in Reynosa basically anybody can go out and perform rap ever since Cano and Blunt came along. There are many who’ve done this, and some of them are even well-off. I don’t know their names, but I’ve heard some of them. Hip-hop is growing, and it’s all thanks to us.
Has the subject matter of your songs – particularly those about the Gulf Cartel – brought you any trouble?
Cano: In Mexico everyone lives in fear, but these are the means for us to make a living. We’ve never received threats, thank God. I think people know that our business is just music. If they ask me for a song, I’ll do it. Anyway, I wouldn’t worry as much about the drug dealers as I would about the government.
Have the authorities harassed you?
Blunt: Yes, actually. They’ve come around bothering me, stealing equipment, I’ve been tortured… they asked me why I sing about these things, and I’ve told them it’s the only way I know of making a living. Our music has been a big hit. One day, military personnel came knocking on our door, accusing us of working with the drug cartels. We were beaten for about two hours! The government has harassed us, and I consider it a total abuse on their part. I don’t know why they pick on us instead of going after the actual drug dealers. Why don’t they pick on the Tucanes de Tijuana or [popular narcocorrido singer] Larry Hernandez? They screw with us because they think we work for those people. We just sing for them and anyone else who is listening. We sing for the people.
Do you mind being classified as narco rappers?
Cano: That’s the name they coined for our style: Reynosa narco rap. It became a thing because the songs are dedicated to certain subjects. We have a song called “Largimas en Mi Cuaderno” (“Tears in My Notebook”) that had half a million views on YouTube in less than five days. We want a record deal so badly.
Was it easier writing songs about what’s going on in Reynosa when the Zetas and Gulf Cartel were working together as a single entity? Now that they are enemies isn’t it very dangerous to be singing about just one side?
Blunt: We all know it’s dangerous. Everyone knows you’re either on one side or the other. Still, we need to get our checks and we love what we do. Shit, man, there isn’t any other way of earning a living here in Reynosa. Just try to find a job around here; you’ll see it’s better to sing than to work for the maquiladoras.
Where do you play shows in Reynosa?
Blunt: Hip-hop gigs are scarce in Reynosa. They’re done in public squares, mostly. I don’t really go, though. Our presentations are always private events.
Do you feel any guilt or remorse because you make money by singing about people who kill, kidnap, and deal drugs for a living?
Blunt: No. Remorse is for people who are doing bad things; we just make music. We get paid to sing. Everyone gets what he or she deserves, and he who does wrong will get what’s coming to him in the end.
Can you see any sort of positive future for narco rap? It all seems pretty dark.
Blunt: I’d ask you: Do you see a positive future for Mexico? No one will ever dedicate songs to those who work in maquiladoras or make an honest living. In that sense, narco rap is here to stay.