Smack-Talk of the Town

“Worldwide: Pitbull in a Post-Embargo Era”

by Isa Hopkins, editor-in-chief

 

Last spring I was visiting my parents in Cleveland when my Cuban grandmother died, suddenly but not unexpectedly.  My mother flew to Miami immediately but my father and I had two days to wait and in that powerless gap I felt entirely disconnected, until “Give Me Everything” came on the radio as I drove.  Pitbull was a tenuous link to anything in my life except that he, too, was Cuban, so I blared the music and found some tiny measure of solace.

*

Pitbull’s real name is Armando Cristian Perez, and he is thirty-four years old.  He is, as his songs will constantly remind you, from Miami; his first album was entitled “M.I.A.M.I.,” ostensibly an acronym for “Money Is A Major Issue” but — let’s be honest — really just a shoutout to his hometown.  The first track on this album is a collaboration with L’il Jon called “305 Anthem,” 305 being the area code for the Miami-Dade area.  The song, and the album, are not what one expects from Pitbull based on his more recent (“M.I.A.M.I.” dropped in 2004) radio singles; it is not a club-ready Latin/hip-hop fusion, but rather a fairly straightforward Southern rap record with some Latin embellishments.  Pitbull establishes some of his major themes early — Miami, of course, but also his love of booty.  The second track on the album is called “Culo,” which is the Spanish word for “ass” (as in, “she’s got a nice one”).  Lyrical subtlety is not Pitbull’s forte.

The other theme that Pitbull develops even on this first album is that he is Cuban.  His music has yet to truly embrace the fact, but in these earlier rhymes and beats, rapping more ferociously than he ever seems to do today, the word “Cuban” is deployed repeatedly, a feature of his identity as important as his unwavering devotion to the female butt.

*

Coming out Cuban is a dicey conversational gambit.  For most of us second-generation Cuban-Americans — those whose parents emigrated to the United States — it is a crucial and formative element of our self-knowledge, our childhoods awash in anti-Castro correctives to American liberal sentiment, in mythologizing our parents’ lost childhoods, in flan.  Cuba was close at hand the only way it could be, in stories, because the twin pillars of the embargo and the exile community’s reflexive opposition to materially supporting Castro in even the most roundabout fashion made visiting the country itself essentially impossible.  Growing up, Cuba felt, at times, like Narnia or Middle-Earth or Hogwarts: a place I could visualize in eerie precision, a place I wanted desperately to go, but a place I would likely only ever see in my own mind.  The relationship between my family and the country they’d left behind was, like that of so many other Cuban-American families, too complex and traumatized (my mother cannot remember traveling from Cuba to Miami; only my grandmother putting her and her older sister on a plane, and then waking up the next day at their aunt’s house in Florida, and absolutely nothing in between) to ever imagine something like “going back.”

Being Cuban is integral to who I am, but I’ve grown to hate ever bringing it up because of the inevitable response: “Oh! Have you ever been?”

Pitbull doesn’t seem to suffer my same trepidation.

*

Pitbull’s complete discography is nine hours long.  I know this, because I have listened to all of it, an exercise that proved more interesting than I — or the friends who left joking comments on my Facebook post about the endeavor — ever expected.  Pitbull’s songs are not, in themselves, rich with nuance, but to digest the entirety of his ouevre one encounters questions about race, ethnicity, and culture in contemporary America; it’s a long ride from mid-aughts Southern rap to mid-teens Latinpop, but Pitbull manages to make the decade interesting enough.

After “M.I.A.M.I.,” Pitbull’s next two albums were bookends to each other: “El Mariel” and “Boatlift,” referring to the 1980 Mariel Boatlift, a reference point among Cuban-Americans akin to, say, the Vietnam War in broader American culture — even if you’re not quite sure of the details or the outcome, you know it was a big deal.  Both albums, however, remain musically tenuous, forever in-between; L’il Jon makes more appearances and Pitbull’s sampling grows more confident, but while his flow in Spanish takes on the smoothness for which he’s become famous, his English-language rhymes are harder and harsher.  A teenage drug dealer who was kicked out of the house and spent time in foster care as a result, Pitbull mixes his love of asses, oral sex, and the city of Miami (Opa-Locka Boulevard gets multiple name-drops) with references to smoking pot and running coke.  “I’d be saying so many rosaries if he were my kid,” said my housemate, a practicing pagan, as I forced her to endure Pitbull’s repertoire while we painted the living room.

Cubans are everywhere in America, if you know how to find them; we’re a statistically improbable bunch of success stories.  There are three Latino senators in the United States, and all of them are Cuban (Rubio, Cruz, and Menendez, the latter being both the least-known and the most-sane).  Cameron Diaz is Cuban, Soledad O’Brien is Cuban, Ryan Lochte is Cuban.  Gina Torres, Matt Yglesias, Rosario Dawson.  Of course: Gloria Estefan, Andy Garcia, half of the MLB.  Over one hundred thousand Cubans arrived in the Mariel Boatlift.  Some have become notable opera singers.  One turned into a mass murderer.  Measuring his wealth, Pitbull now fits the model minority narrative that is so often used — especially by ourselves — to distinguish Cuban-Americans from other Hispanic groups, but at this stage in the game, Pitbull doesn’t seem to give a fuck.

*

When people ask if I (or my brother, or mother, or aunts or cousins or any other Cuban-American) have visited Cuba, there are, generally speaking, two opinions lurking behind the question, which they will often proceed to share.  The first opinion is that Cuba is a beautiful country that they themselves hope to visit, before excessive tourism turns its preserved-in-Communist-amber beauty to shit.  The second is that, if it weren’t for that damned stupid embargo, they’d have done so already.

There is an obvious irony underlying these two beliefs, for it is that damned stupid embargo which has preserved Cuba’s midcentury architecture and design more than anything else; if American tourism had been flowing for the last sixty years then it is a veritable certainty that McDonald’s and strip malls would have descended long ago.  It is often seen as a stubborn failing of the Cuban-American exile community that we — they — we — should so ardently defend a failed policy across the decades, holding a nation hostage to our pettiness.

But maybe the embargo was never about my grandparents’ generation punishing Cuba for failing them.  Maybe it was just their way to keep their island safe from everything that the rest of you would do it.

It’s one thing to hurt something that you love.  It’s quite another to watch someone else destroy it.

*

Pitbull’s next album, “Rebelution,” is the pinnacle of his identity crisis.  “Too Latin for hip-hop/too hip-hop for Latin,” he raps, and he is not altogether wrong.  Cross-genre fusion is a beautiful thing when done well (look up Gangstagrass for a stunning example) but it’s tricky to pull off, and the tension between Pitbull’s two musical identities seems to come from a tension in himself: he knows he loves booty, but he doesn’t know how best to express that love to the world.

It is the follow-up to “Rebelution” that resolves this clash.  “Armando” is his first exclusively Spanish-language effort (it is also my grandfather’s name), and it drops much of the ATL-style production operating on Pitbull’s first four outings in favor of more definitively Latin-pop beats.  He still samples everything under the sun — this album’s most incongruous musical borrowing is the Beastie Boys’ “Girls” — but the sound is cohering into something unique and recognizable.  His first hit single came from “Rebelution” (“I Know You Want Me (Calle Ocho),” a reference to Little Havana’s main drag) but it is on “Armando” that he is able to replicate and refine the song’s sentiments.

“Armando” also contains the best song of his entire career thus far, the pan-Latin anthem “Orgullo,” or pride.  My Mexican-American housemate and I stop painting to jam out and sing along to the chorus.  We are more than halfway through our nine-hour sonic adventure and can no longer imagine a world outside of Pitbull, but if that world can sound like “Orgullo” then we’re okay with it.

*

 I was in Cleveland again this past December, when Obama announced the end-of-the-embargo-but-not-quite, the papally-negotiated thawing of relations that suddenly makes it possible for my mother to daydream about buying her childhood home.  Christmas in Cleveland is time spent with my father’s (gringo) family and per usual my mother was their Cuban interpreter: what does this mean and what do you think and are you going to visit now, and underneath it all a sadness that my grandmother had not lasted a few more months, that she had died without any closure to her life’s central rupture.

With the possibility more open than ever before non-Cubans expressed their desire to travel to my mother’s birthplace more openly than ever before, and always with the caveat that they wanted to get there before the hordes, before things changed.  But things will change, and that’s not a bad thing: if American tourists want the Old Havana sold to them by Ernest Hemingway and relentless exile nostalgia then maybe their dollars can go not towards tacky resorts or sexy beaches but the preservation of a beauty that is literally crumbling, towards rebuilding and reinforcing buildings which collapse at an alarming rate and kill and injure Cubans regularly.  Spanish, British, Canadian money hasn’t sufficed to address the problem, but maybe American dollars will — if not your dollars then maybe mine, and Soledad O’Brien’s and Ryan Lochte’s and my mother’s and brother’s and aunts’ and cousins’, and maybe even Pitbull’s.

*

By the time we reach “Planet Pit,” Pitbull’s 2011 breakthrough album which featured the number-one single “Give Me Everything,” we have entered into a singularity.  Yellow paint and Pitbull are the only things that exist anymore in the universe.  Six hours down at the record’s start, and still so much more Pitbull left to go.

It’s obvious why this album has sold beyond any of its predecessors.  “Armando” seems to have left Pitbull with a sense of himself as a definitively Latin American rapper, a pan-Western-Hemisphere phenomenon; “My parents from Cuba but I’m an American, baby,” he intones on his monster-hit collaboration with Ne-Yo, Nayer, and Afrojack.  “Give Me Everything” is immediately followed by a track alongside Marc Anthony.  Pitbull is an American, but a very specific one, slinging Latin melodies and Spanish slang over hip-hop-inspired, club-ready beats.

“Planet Pit” also marks the adoption of his “Mr. Worldwide” persona, as if the only way to resolve the conflict between Latin culture and American hip-hop culture is to chuck the whole debate aside and encompass the goddamn world.  New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco: these cities are exceptionally diverse but American at their core.  Miami can feel more foreign than any Chinatown, its ecosystem of Hispanic wealth tied more to Madrid and Mexico City than London or Washington, and Mr. Worldwide might seem like hubris but it is a logical outgrowth of the nexus between North and South America that is Miami, Florida — there are estimated to be three hundred and sixty million native English speakers and over four hundred million native Spanish speakers, and Pitbull can serenade them all.

*

What people really want, when they dream of their Cuban tourist trip, is to visit the Buena Vista Social Club — the album, not the place.  That album, produced and engineered by an American gringo, perfectly encapsulates so much of what America has projected onto its closest island neighbor over the long years of the embargo: musicality, romanticism, the beauty of a lost era.  It is a much easier dream to dwell in than the story of any exile.

But when you are Cuban-American, all you know are the exile stories.  In the second generation we share more reticently, but for my mother and her peers to learn of another’s Cuban-ness is to peek into dark and guarded places; the question is never Have you gone back? but rather How did you get here?, because it is only by hearing other stories like theirs that they might ever find context, identity, community.  Even if they were not officially a part of the program they are commonly known as the Peter Pan generation, or Pedro Pan if you feel generous — not because of their similarity to the feisty and determined fairy-tale character but because they are all, to some extent or another, Lost Boys and Girls.

The biggest hit single from the Buena Vista Social Club is “Chan Chan,” a song in which narrator repeatedly tells us “De Alto Cedro voy para Marcane” (“From Alto Cedro I go to Marcane) — a pleasant phrase to imagine lush tropical mountains or white-sand beaches or bougainvillea or whatever else one thinks Cuba might resemble.  The truth is that Marcane is a sugar-cane town and in those lush tropical mountains around it the brothers Castro fomented revolution while my mother hid from gunfire under the bed, confused and clutching for her dolls, and my grandfather sewed up soldiers for la causa until his newly-powerful friends and neighbors, those same brothers Castro, decided to kill him.

It is not exactly the stuff of vacation fantasy.

*

On 2012’s “Global Warming: the Meltdown,” a deluxe double-album, Pitbull’s penchant for collaboration reaches new heights.  All the usual suspects are in attendance — Nelly, Ne-Yo, L’il Jon, Kelly Rowland, J-Lo, Chris Brown (ugh) — plus newcomers like Ke$ha, who makes her mark with the truly unfortunate single “Timber.”  Pitbull fulfills his Latino obligation by sampling “Macarena,” and continues to emphasize his love of female asses as well as his sexual prowess; but if he goes down on women as readily as he claims in his lyrics, then his reputation might just be well-deserved.  Like his chosen rap moniker, Pitbull has no apparent hesitation when it comes to licking.

Spotify has betrayed me, listing “I Am Armando” (2013) as a separate album from “Armando,” when it is in fact a straightforward reissue.  No matter: by now my entire household has given themselves over to Mr. Worldwide, and besides, we get to listen to “Orgullo” again.  The painting is done but we skitter in from different rooms to raise some nalgas to the track (“This is for/los Latinos/en camino para los Estados Unidos”).

“Globalization” closes out the day around eleven p.m.  There’s a couple distinctive songs but most of the record is club-ready pop, indiscernible as either Latin or Southern rap; “Wild Wild Love,” the first single (with G.R.L., a group that may have come into existence purely for the purpose of featuring on a Pitbull album), betrays nothing unique, and “Sexy Beaches” is exactly what you might expect from its title.  It’s a quiet ending to a long day, a bit of a letdown from the manic sexual energy and musical confusion of Pitbull’s earlier work.  Maybe he’s just old and tired or maybe I am, but maybe the problem with becoming Mr. Worldwide is that it leaves you untethered, culturally homeless, generic.

When the record finishes, my housemates and I relish the silence.  We have made it through a Pitbull wormhole in which even the Spotify ad algorithm failed (we have not heard a single commercial over the entire day), and all I truly know for certain is exactly what I knew at the outset: this is a man who is all about the booty.

*

 Earlier this week, my great-aunt died.  Tia Chichi was ninety-four and sharp until the end.  After my grandmother’s death my mother had been calling her regularly, asking her questions about Cuba, trying to get as much adult information as possible to make sense of her childhood memories.  My mother was close to her aunt — she and her older sister lived with Chichi in Miami until my grandmother was able to leave Cuba and find boarding schools who would take them as scholarship students, my aunt in Connecticut and my mother in Missouri — but there wasn’t much time after all, and some questions have answers on an island ninety miles south of Florida and some questions don’t have any answers at all.

I don’t have much cause to visit Miami, now that the elder generation has left us.  To cruise down Calle Ocho or Opa-Locka I need not visit my grandmother but only fire up Spotify.

Cuba will change, in this new political era, because Cuba has already changed.  The Buena Vista Social Club generation is dying; the man who wrote and composed “Chan Chan” and sang Marcane fantasies into a million gringo souls has been gone for more than a decade.

What we have now is Pitbull, and long may he reign.

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