When people become marginalized from the society at large, it is made clear that they do not belong to the dominant discourse. Thus, they are boxed into a category (or categories) that functions to distinguish them from the center. In such situations, people tend to rely on the performing arts, especially music, as a medium to exhibit and archive the struggles and triumphs of their artists and the people they represent—voluntarily or not. Two genres of music that have, in the last few decades, managed to become mainstream, despite their perceived otherness, are: narcocorridos (drug ballads) and the subsequent development of narcocultura; and rap music and the development of hip-hop culture—both of which undertook major formation in the 1980s and early 1990s.
Narcocorridos, and the so-called narcocultura that developed as a result of its inception, were formed to document people’s experiences in the United States and Mexico, especially surrounding the heightened illicit drug activity on both sides of the border (Schwarz 2013). On the other hand, slavery and its consequent de jure racism, in the United States, helped to create a Black other; rap music and the hip-hop culture that formed around it that has, for the last several decades, aided in the expression of this African American discourse (Howard 1999).
Niggz Witt Attitudes (N.W.A.)
In citing Bonnie Mitchell and Joe Feagin, sociologist Theresa Martinez (1999) writes: “oppositional culture can mean . . . finding expression in artistic and cultural mediums that voice or visualize either cultural pride or protest and critique of dominant culture” (268)—both of which narcocorridos and rap music highlight. The aforementioned degrees of otherness direct us again to Mitchell and Feagin, who Martinez quotes as follows: “their non-European groups . . . draw on their own cultures to resist oppression under dominant ideologies and, in turn, influence the dominant culture. Their families, their spirituality, their music, another other cherished aspects of culture, become viable forms of oppositional culture” (Martinez 1999:265). In the cases of either the narcocorrido or rap music, the artist draws connections to what the listener will comprehend when ingesting the content. The only thing that either genre of music promises is the fact that they document the reality of the life along the margins of society.
My intention with this paper is to show how these experiences of otherness within the Mexican, Mexican American, and African American subcultures have led to the increased popularity of these two particular genres of music and their highlighting of: widespread poverty and drug activity, which typically work hand-in-hand; desires for wealth among children and adults alike, who view the musical artists as symbols for success; and desensitization of violence amongst all members of the community via music videos and news reports. In analyzing the lyrics of one song from each of these two genres—the BuKnas de Culiacán’s interpretation of “Sanguinarios del M1” and N.W.A.’s “Fuck Tha Police”—I seek to show how, although originating from different cultures, narcocorridos and rap music share a great deal of similarities with one another.
BuKnas de Culiacán
Inception, Poverty, and Desires for Wealth
Both narcocorridos and rap seem to emerge as a means to somewhat legitimize the plights of marginalized peoples. In Poetry and Violence, folklorist John H. McDowell (2000) has a conversation with the daughter of narcotraficante (drug dealer) Meche Vargas. Vargas worked for her father, a corrido singer, to archive his songs. When asked why people even write corridos, she says:
“‘Porque estas son cosas que la gente ha presenciado, lo ve y de allí les llega la idea, especialmente cuando la persona es respetado [sic] en el pueblo, les hacen su corrido para que quede en la mente, para recordar a una persona que fue importante para ellos, de allí nace el corrido’ (Because these are things that the people have witnessed, they see them and that’s where they get the idea, especially when the person is well respected in the town, they make them a corrido that will stay in people’s minds, to recall a person who was important to them, so that’s how the corridos come about).” (McDowell 2000:56)
When it comes to rap music and hip-hop culture’s inception, it
“emerged out of the social dislocations and structural changes that formed the postindustrial climate of the South Bronx—one of the poorest communities in New York and the national facing ‘social isolation, economic fragility, truncated communications media, and shrinking social service organizations.’” (Martinez 1999:272)
That is to say that both genres of music are heavily based on observation—what the people actually witness, they report. This allows them to be viewed through the lens of reality; it is believed that they do not tell the stories of fictionalized happenings. It is this sense of reality that allows narcocorridos and rap music to serve as the bridge between the dominant, mainstream culture and that of the everyday laypeople and others existing outside of the mainstream culture.
In both cases, the lack of money and other resources has led people to protest their societal positions in relation to the dominant discourse. Without these resources, members of communities have to resort to other means to provide for themselves and their families. This may include the trafficking of drugs, the laundering of money, and senseless violence against one another in competition for resources. In any case, for both narcocorridos and rap, when someone who comes from a similar background achieves fame and notoriety, they then look to them as symbols for success. They understand that if they follow the example of the artists, they, too, can reach their status.
In the documentary Narco Cultura (directed by Shaul Schwarz and released in 2013), a journalist from Ciudad Juarez, Sandra Rodriguez, affirms that: “These songs are a symptom of how defeated we are as a society. Kids want to look like narcos. They represent and idea of success and power and impunity, limitless power—if you can kill a person, that is limitless power.” The exact same thing can be said about rap music and hip-hop culture. Jonathan Tummons (2008) writes in that “the hyper masculine male’s quest for excess wealth is a quest for excess power, and it is only when his wealth is perceived by others that his power becomes manifest[ed], i.e. real. Thus, rap lyrics are rife with references to enormous wealth and material possessions.” This ever-present desire for wealth and the desire to leave poverty is but a dream for most. Because of that, many people are willing to do whatever it takes to leave such unlivable conditions.
Drug Activity (trafficking, use)
A fairly large amount of narcocorridos has a great deal of content regarding drugs and the activities that come along with them (i.e. kidnapping, murders for hire, or torturing). The same can be said about rap. As Jeffery Ogbar (2007) argues, “oversexed black men and women, nihilistic violence, impulsive, vulgar, and criminal behavior have marked all but a handful of platinum hip-hop albums since the early 1990s” (12). These images are what are selling these records. Likewise, the corridos are becoming more of a way of life, especially in the United States, to the point that some bands and individual acts, like Los Tigres del Norte and El Komander, have begun to achieve stardom in the Californian music scene.
What I find interesting, though, is that in both genres there are people who come from within to extensively critique it as malicious and a distraction from the main point, which, for conscious rappers, was to bring to light the mishaps of people of color in the United States in their interactions with the police. As Ogbar points out, “the conscious rapper came to be not just critical of corrupt police, the drug trade, prisons, and duplicitous politicians but also hostile to the thugs who had come to dominate hip-hop through tales of violence, misogyny, hypermaterialism, and drug use” (Ogbar 2007:110).
In “Sanguinarios del M1” (The Bloodthirsty Men of the M1), interpreted by BuKnas de Culiacán, we can see how violence is represented in a way that encourages drug activity and desensitization of the society at large. They sing: “Con un cuerno de chivo y la bazuca en la nuca/Volando cabezas a quien se atraviesa/somos sanguinarios, locos bien ondeados/Nos gusta matar” (With an AK-47 [in hand] and Bazookas on our shoulders/Blowing up the heads of anyone who tries us/We’re bloodthirsty, very crazy, and/We like to kill). This gives us the notion that what is being said is truly representative of what actually goes on in these communities. People are used to, and even celebrate, the use of arms and violence to get points across.
In the same song they say, “Van y hacen pedazos, a gente a balazos/ráfagas continuas, que no se terminan/cuchillo afilado, cuerno atravesado/Para degollar” (They go and shred people to pieces with gunfire/Continuous bursts of gunfire that don’t stop/AK-47 drawn, knife sharpened/to slit their throats). Again here, we see very graphic images presented; a very desensitized notion of reality.
Similarly, in N.W.A.’s “Fuck Tha Police” violence against the police, as well members of the community, is suggested. “Smoke any ‘muthafucka’ that sweats me/Or any ‘assho’ that threatens me/I'm a sniper with a hell of a scope/Takin’ out a cop or two, they can't cope with me.” Later in the song Easy-E (one of N.W.A. members) puts in context what would happen if he were confronted by the police, “I kick ass, or maybe 'cause I blast/On a stupid assed nigga when I'm playin’ with the ‘trigga’/Of any Uzi or an AK/’cause the police always got somethin’ stupid to say.”
For narcocorrido singers and rappers, this disinterest for the police is deep-seeded. The people look at the police as a symbol for the repressive government—with their policies and their implementation—and, therefore, have a genuine distrust and lack of desire for police officers. These both also clearly address the issue of desensitization of violence in the media, which I will address next.
Desensitization of Violence in the Media
The desensitization of the public’s perception of violence via the media is one of the clearest examples of the effects of the widespread violence that tends to accompany these musical genres. Elijah Wald briefly relays a personal account of reading a newspaper from Culiacán, the largest city in the northwestern Mexican state of Sinaloa, where an elected official positions himself away from the other, by asserting that that’s how they act, suggesting that people from his constituency would never act in such manner:
“A glance through the newspapers in Culiacán or Mazatlán reinforces this stereotype, not only because of the high murder rate, but because of the attitudes expressed by those in positions of authority. For example, I was reading the paper one morning and found a representative of the district of La Noria protesting that his area was being falsely painted as a ‘nest of narcos,’ a slander to his hardworking constituency. He went on to say that the reason there were so many murders in the nearby mountains was not due to drug trafficking, but rather ‘that’s how those people solve their problems,’ that one could not expect Sierrans to resolve their problems by just talking.” (Wald 2012:52)
An example of such desensitization can also be seen in the Narco Cultura documentary (Schwarz 2013) when, during one scene, three prepubescent boys sit on the hood of a broken car and candidly talk about the execution of one of their uncles by cartel members.
When talking about rap music, the same images of high-powered weaponry, drugs, and lawlessness help to create a violently desensitized culture. Charles Pinckney (2007) writes, “emotional and cognitive desensitization to media violence will decrease the likelihood that violent behavior will either be rejected or increase the chances that specific negative behavior will be accepted” (80-81). A desensitized society can be very dangerous; more so because its members become numb to the constant, recurring images of drugs, weapons, and violence (including misogynistic actions). Instead of allowing society to address detrimental behaviors, they then become the norm and continue on into the future causing more damage along the way.
In tying this all together, we can see how marginalization, or otherness, can cause tensions between the so-called ruling class and the general population. Essentially, as Stuart Hall (2003) puts it,
“practices of representation always implicate the positions from which we speak or write—the positions of enunciation. What recent theories of enunciation suggest is that, though we speak, so to say ‘in our own name,’ of ourselves and from our own experience, nevertheless who speaks, and the subject who is spoken of, are never identical, never exactly in the same place.” (222)
When we ingest literature of any form, the first thing we think of, perhaps, is who is telling the story? And whom are they telling it to? With the rise to international fame of narcocorridos and rap music, new groups of people are emerging to tell their stories from their own voices. This could hint to us that, before, the dominant discourse is what recounted history; now, the societally marginalized are claiming their voices—all of which falls along the lines of people maintaining the power they have obtained (legally or not), allowing them to control what kind of history is, in fact, told.
Adaso, Henry. 2015. “Conscious Rap: The Sharpest Double-edged Sword in Hip-Hop.” About Entertainment. http://rap.about.com/od/genresstyles/p/ConsciousRap.htm, accessed April 27, 2016.
Hall, Stuart. 2003. “Cultural Identity and Diaspora.” In Identity: Community, Culture, and Difference, edited by Jonathan Rutherford, 222-237. London: Lawerence and Wishart.
Howard, Willie. 1999. “Rap: The Cry of a Rebuked People.” Poverty & Prejudice: Media and Race. https://web.stanford.edu/class/e297c/poverty_prejudice/mediarace/rap.htm, accessed April 17, 2016.
Martinez, Theresa. 1999. “Storytelling as Oppositional Culture: Race, Class, and Gender in the Borderlands.” Race, Gender, and Class 6(3):33-51.
McDowell, John Holmes. 2000. Poetry and Violence: The Ballad Tradition of Mexico’s Costa Chica. Champaign: University of Illinois Press.
Ogbar, Jeffery Ogbonna Green. 2007. Hip-hop Revolution: The Culture and Politics of Rap. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas.
Pickney, Charles. 2007. “The Influence of Hip-hop Culture on the Perceptions, Attitudes, Values, and Lifestyles of African-American College Students.” Ph.D. dissertation, Walden University.
Schwarz, Shaul, dir. 2013. Narco Cultura. Los Angeles: Cinedigm Entertainment. DVD.
Tummons, Johnathan. 2008. “Cultural Assimilation, Appropriation, and Commercialization: Authenticity in Rap Music, 1997-2004.” M.A. thesis, West Virginia University.
Wald, Elijah. 2012. Narcocorrido: A Journey into the Music of Drugs, Guns, and Guerrillas. New York: Harper Collins.
 Conscious rap is defined as “a sub-genre of hip-hop that focuses on creating awareness and imparting knowledge. Conscious rappers traditionally decry violence, discrimination, and other societal ailments. It's propelled by the conviction that radical social change comes through knowledge of self and personal discovery” (Adaso 2015).
 This and the rest of lyrics translations are mine.
Julian Cook, a Baltimore native, holds his BA in Foreign Language and Literature and a Sociology minor from Frostburg State University. Currently, he is an MA candidate for the University of Connecticut’s (UConn) Spanish Studies program (Spring 2016). In addition to being a student, he is an Instructor and Lecturer of Spanish grammar, conversation, and discussion at UConn. He has since lived in Monterrey, Nuevo León, Mexico where he was an exchange student at Instituto Tecnológico y de Estudios Superiores de Monterrey (ITESM). His research interest includes: The African diaspora, world music, storytelling, “Afrolatinidad,” and disparities in world language education for African-American and Latinx students in the US.
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