You may have already heard that Lana Del Rey loves getting High by the Beach or that Post Malone ‘always be smokin’ like a Rasta’. In 1967, The Beatles proudly announced their favourite past-time of ‘getting high’ With a Little Help from [Their] Friends, and The Notorious B.I.G.’s Ten Crack Commandments have even prompted a following of dedicated disciples.
The romanticising of drug cultures through music is undeniably typical and unexceptional to the 21st century; hip-hop, rock, rap, trap, and reggae are perhaps the genres that immediately come to mind. Logan Freedman, data scientist at Addictions.com, even goes so far as to label rappers ‘lyrical drug peddlers.’ Interestingly, Rolling Stone challenges this, instead suggesting country music as encompassing ‘more lyrical references to drugs than any other genre’.
Nevertheless, the most significant peculiarity surrounding this musical narco-debate is its far-reaching and all-embracing character; it seems that drugs have evolved into an international musical leitmotif.
Mexico provides a fascinating example of this global narco-genre. Loosely translated as ‘drug ballads’, los narcocorridos are contemporarily popular with Mexican radio, films and television.
This subgenre of the Mexican romance ballad originates as early as the 1930s, when corridos (ballads) began to consider the drug trafficking milieu. The development of these melodies is rooted in banda music, the traditional folk music popular in rural Mexico and characterised by wind and metal instruments. Rather bizarrely, parallels have also been drawn between this narco-genre and 1980’s gangster rap. Jasmine Garsd supports this, labelling El Komander as ‘the Jay Z of Mexican drug balladeers.’
Los narcocorridos additionally fulfil a socio-politico function, commenting on current events within communities or moods of the period. This is reflected in G.E. Hernández’s definition: ‘a journey into the complex nuances of Mexican social and cultural history’. Rosalino Sánchez, known better by his narcocorrido pseudonym Chalino, exhibits this with his songs of revolution, romance and socio-economic regrets in the 1980s before his assassination.
The glamourisation of illicit activities is arguably the principle point of identification of los narcocorridos. The genre narrates the hyper-violent narco-lifestyle and criminal means of attaining capital, consequently prompting government attempts to silence the potent social tool. Elijah Wald’s Corrido Censorship recounts the defeat of the former President of Mexico, Vicente Fox no less, in proposing a ban on the narco-genre.
Other individuals in government have taken an alternative viewpoint; former Mexican Foreign Secretary Jorge Castañeda suggested that los narcocorridos are the manifestations of a demoralised Mexican society accepting their reality: ‘You cannot blame narcocorridos for drug violence. Drug violence is to blame for narcocorridos.’
What little official restriction the Mexican musical narcoculture has been subject to has proved insignificant. Specific narcocorridos have been banned, Mexican musicians jailed, and the musical genre as a whole prohibited by the Mexican states of Sinaloa and Coahuila. Nevertheless, the defiant narcocorridos have become mainstream in Mexican popular culture and are now distributed in Guatemala, Colombia and Bolivia. Popularity has also extended north, with BBC’s Chris Summers estimating the US market to value at approximately $300 million per annum.
It has become clear that los narcocorridos are not only linked to crime in their lyrical composition, but also in their wider context. At times, this Mexican regional music is broadcasted in order to launder money sourced from the drug trade; cash in exchange for airtime is used as a cover. In addition, many Mexican narcocorrido musicians were killed during at the height of the Mexican drug war. This 2006-2008 murder spree included the assassination of Valentín Elizalde; his murder has been interpreted as a consequence of his narcocorrido A Mis Enemigos which denounces one of the oldest organised crime groups in Mexico, the Gulf Cartel.
Today there is fear on all sides. Worlfolk and deBree’s investigation discovered narcocorrido musicians limiting their tours in Mexico and hiring extra security when travelling to more volatile urban areas. Some even avoid singing drug ballads for fear of openly criticising cartels. Narcocorrido fans have also been affected by the threatening context in which this genre participates; there is the fear that buying one CD will signal loyalties to one cartel over another.
However, hope still exists for a continuing demand. Outside Mexico, radio broadcasts of los narcocorridos have increased in recent years, especially among US-based hispanohablante stations. They too feature in narcocinema and popular US television series, prime examples being the popular Netflix series, Breaking Bad, as well as NCIS: Los Angeles.
We cannot know how the ongoing Mexican Drug War will affect this narco-genre. Max Fisher of The New York Times does not expect the conflict to be absolved in the near future, with 2017 marking unprecedented levels of drug-driven brutality, surpassing the 20,000+ killings in 2016. Perhaps, the exponentially increasing violence will be voiced with a narcocorrido music revolution? Or will the cartels further dominate Mexican civilian life, forcing drug discourse in popular culture underground for fear of repercussions?