You can say ‘don’t shoot the messenger’ all you want; it won’t exactly make the messenger feel more comfortable. A sub-genre of music coming out of Mexico has been growing more popular over the last two decades, and the artist’s fear for their safety couldn’t be more real as they simultaneously make a living by rhyming for the cartels. In an extensive feature, Buzzfeed reporter Nathaniel Janowitz explores narco rap, the musical byproduct of Mexico’s violent war on drugs.
As South America’s major drug cartels collapsed in the late 90s, a new and especially bloody war developed throughout the 2000s as gangs fought for the best trade routes into the US. The Gulf Cartel, the oldest in the country, grew exponentially by hiring ex-military to act as their death squads. The country formally called for a war against the cartels at the end of 2006. Hundreds of thousands have died in the violence since, with thousands more missing. The violence has been both indiscriminate and vindictive, seeing the blood of civilians, reporters and more recently a Netflix, location scout.
The country’s musicians are by no means protected by celebrity.
In Janowitz’ piece, he meets narco rappers Big Los and 5050, two of the most popular in the country. In their music, they not only write lyrics about the toughness and ferocity of the specific cartels, but they also do it on commission. It’s a practice known as ‘dedications,’ and there’s a market of artists with sliding pricing scales (Janowitz spoke with one of the ‘cheap ones,’ Lirik Dog, who only has a $200 fee). Janowitz says the practice can be traced back to 2009 with a song called El Tigre by MC Babo, a member of the rap group Cartel de Santa, which gave a shout out to a member of the Gulf Cartel.
Big Los has one of the highest rates in the circuit, upwards of $3,000 per song, with an added $3,000 per video, which clock in millions of views on YouTube.
While ravenous comments on a YouTube video are commonplace, the threats in these videos have much more weight. According to a 2007 article in the Washington Post, YouTube quickly became a public forum for the cartels and their supporters to launch death threats against each other.
“The Internet has turned into a toy for Mexican organized crime,” Victor Clark, a lecturer, and drug expert told the Post. “It’s a toy, a toy to have fun with, a toy to scare people.”
YouTube removes videos of the most grotesque violence as fast as they can flag them, but their content enforcement has never been fool proof. The official videos of Big Los and 5050 offer something more innocuous, the imagery of women, weapons and power that are more pedestrian in music videos.
That isn’t to say these rappers success has made them complacent. Narco rappers seem to be prisoners of their climate, fearful of cartels that have been chafed the wrong way by one of their songs and intimidated to travel anywhere outside of their protected territory.
Before Janowitz met him, Big Los had been deported from Texas to Matamoros, a Mexican border city with in-fighting Gulf Cartel groups. In an interview with Vice, narco rappers Cano y Blunt said they have been harassed and tortured by Mexican authorities as well.
“If they ask me for a song, I’ll do it,” Cano told Vice. “Anyway, I wouldn’t worry as much about the drug dealers as I would about the government.”
For 5050, he’s trying to stage a success story similar to rappers in the US. “I’m trying to make other kinds of songs so that I can leave to be a commercial rapper, but it’s really difficult,” 5050 told Janowitz. “They’re always going to see my songs on YouTube, and consider me a narco rapper.”
Pop music as propaganda isn’t a recent phenomenon in Mexico. The cartels and even US immigration have been creating ballads for decades. Janowitz also spoke with rappers singing on behalf of the Mexican army. Shortly before the Mexican war on drugs began, Grammy-nominated singer Valentín Elizalde was assassinated after releasing a song that mocked Los Zetas.
Mexico’s war on drugs has turned into a more grotesque display of violence year after year, with little promise of ending. The US administration’s efforts to deport illegal immigrants and strip DACA policy will only reap more chaos in a worn situation. The country has long hoped California would legalize marijuana in hopes it would damage cartel profits.