Miami has long been the gateway from Latin America to the United States. Recently, that has been even more true due to several crises. One is the ongoing political and economic turmoil in Venezuela that is driving people to flee the nation, and the other is the economic crisis in Puerto Rico that was just exacerbated by several devastating hurricanes, most recently Hurricane Maria.
The Miami New Times recently highlighted several Venezuelan musicians who have fled the situation in their country. Crime and lawlessness are increasing problems in the country since collapsing global oil prices devastated their fragile, oil-dependent economy. The subsequent mismanagement by their dictatorial regime led to massive inflation of their currency, essentially rendering it worthless. This has forced the population into starvation and poverty and spurred some people to turn to looting and crime to make ends meet. That combined with the country’s increasing role as traffickers in the global drug trade see a more exploitable political climate in Venezuela rather than Colombia now has spurred many to flee the country.
The destination is often Miami and musicians coming to the city see a newfound freedom to express themselves in ways they couldn’t in their oppressive home country. They incorporate calls for regime change in their home country into their music and continue a strong tradition of rebellions though music. There is also themes of longing for a home they did not necessarily feel they had a choice but to leave, and fear for the people who remain, especially close friends and family.
“I tried to contact my friends [to go out]. I remember it was like 7 PM, and no one wanted to go out. It’s way too dangerous. I was driving there at 6 PM, and there was nobody in the streets. Nobody,” Jose Vinicio Adames, the Venezuelan-American guitarist of the psych-rock band Jaialai, told the Miami New Times.
For Puerto Ricans, the story has some similarities, but also some major differences. For one, Puerto Ricans are already American citizens (something many mainland Americans are inexplicably just learning). Yet because of their island’s strange territorial status, their economy has been plunged into an ongoing depression that has led to a mass migration from Puerto Rico to the mainland where they can find a more stable economy as well as newfound political representation. For Puerto Ricans and their mainland-born family, they’re already finding a voice and a platform to advocate for their devastated island. Music luminaries like Lin-Manuel Miranda and Fat Joe are already speaking out.
All this comes at a time when Spanish language music is seeing unprecedented success on mainstream music charts nationally. Artists are increasingly finding that doing a song exclusively in Spanish is not a barrier to success and that even non-Spanish speaking audiences are consuming the music. Even English speaking artists are getting in on the action, like Canadian artist Justin Bieber’s feature on Puerto Rican singer Luis Fonsi and Puerto Rican rapper Daddy Yankee’s hit single “Despacito” (that song you couldn’t get away from this summer) and Houston native Beyoncé’s feature on Colombian reggaeton star J Balvin’s single “Mi Gente” (that song you can’t get away from right about now). Both songs were incredibly popular already and were sent into another stratosphere with their later additions.
Which brings us back to Miami. With the burgeoning population and the exploding popularity of Spanish language music, Miami is suddenly thrust back into the spotlight as artists seeing successes like “Despacito” and “Mi Gente” are inspired to do music that speak about their homelands in their native languages. That music is increasingly a prominent part of the city’s live music scene, and venues and promoters increasingly cater to it. While Miami certainly has a dance music reputation and a reputation for being attracted to huge names, smaller underground venues and promoters are signaling a shift towards the music of the moment.
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