By Elda Cantú
In many Mexican towns where wars between drug cartels continue to wreak havoc, the sight of a young man at night dressed in black and donning a balaclava would be terrifying. On a recent Saturday in Mexico City, Peso Pluma strutted across the stage in the same outfit, to excited cheers: It was time for the corrido tumbado concert.
The 24-year-old breakout star, who makes a modern take on traditional Mexican music, wore a glamorous Fendi version of a sicario (or hit man) uniform. He faced a stadium full of fans and shouted, “Are you ready to witness the most warlike concert of your life?”
The crowd roared back: It was ready. Later, during “El Gavilán,” the audience sang in unison, “I’m of the people of Chapo Guzmán,” a reference to one of Mexico’s most notorious drug lords.
Peso Pluma — along with acts like Natanael Cano, Grupo Firme, Eslabon Armado and Banda MS — is at the forefront of a musical movement that has found growing audiences this year in the United States and beyond. The artists perform corridos tumbados (or trap corridos), which combine singing and rapping familiar to fans of hip-hop and reggaeton with instrumentation and melodies common to traditional Mexican music, along with lyrics inspired by narcocorridos — songs that tell stories of the drug trade.
But even as Peso Pluma racks up millions of streams and Grupo Firme tours arenas in the United States, these artists often find themselves in contested territory at home, where the drug war isn’t a dramatic fantasy but a bloody daily reality.
“They are striking a nerve of Mexican culture,” said Camilo Lara, 48, a music producer, composer and former label executive with extensive film credits. He cited how the artists have tapped into “the relationship with violence, the relationship with the street, with politics, with what’s happening with fashion,” and added, “It’s the most exciting moment in Mexican music in 20 or 30 years.”
Peso Pluma’s stadium show at Foro Sol, a venue that holds more than 60,000 people, was the last of his concerts in his home country after several cancellations over security threats. Days earlier, authorities in Tijuana had banned corridos tumbados in all public spaces, with fines of up to $70,000.
While the sounds and the faces may be fresh, these artists are heirs of a musical tradition that has long attracted controversy. In 1987, the governor of Sinaloa asked local news media to stop the broadcast of music that made reference to drug trafficking. In 2002, radio stations in the border state of Baja California agreed not to play songs that exalted narcos and asked their U.S. counterparts to do the same. In 2010, conservative Mexican lawmakers presented a bill that would have sent artists who glorified criminals to prison.
“The decision to ban these corridos tumbados is to protect the mental health of Tijuana’s children,” the city’s mayor, Montserrat Caballero Ramírez, said last month through a spokesperson. In May, Cancun banned public shows “that foster violence,” saying such events contradicted the pursuit of peace and security; Grupo Firme canceled a concert there shortly after. Two months later, Chihuahua’s City Council voted unanimously to fine public shows promoting violence.
Officials contend it is not censorship. “They can sing whatever they want,” Mexico’s president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, said this summer, “but we are not going to keep quiet when they say that ecstasy is good, that they have a .50-caliber gun and the most famous narcos are their idols.” A month later, perhaps in tacit recognition of the influence of corridos tumbados, the government released its own kind of tumbado: a song warning of the dangers of fentanyl.
The artists have pointed out that their lyrics aren’t aimed at children. “I know sometimes it’s not OK for kids to see or hear this,” Peso Pluma said in an interview, “but it’s a reality.”
The reality is also that this type of music, once very locally rooted and associated with an older generation, is attracting global attention for its catchiness and cachet. The songs are not only fixtures of radio stations in Los Angeles but are also draws for concertgoers in Lima, Peru, and Madrid and have made fans of celebrities like Mike Tyson and the band Maneskin.
“I heard it at a wedding,” said Javier Nuño, a partner at Indice, a company that has licensed Peso Pluma’s and Cano’s songs for HBO. Once you cross over into wedding DJ playlists, “you are at another level,” he added.
At Peso Pluma’s Mexico City show, kids arrived in droves — mostly teenage boys dressed in Air Jordans, oversize hoodies and outfits featuring Nike, Gucci, Fendi and Burberry logos in models, colors and materials Nike, Gucci, Fendi and Burberry have probably never manufactured. Some dared to sport Peso Pluma’s signature mullet.
Oliver Medrano, 35, said his 9-year-old, Sofía, had asked for tickets. The two gave up their seats close to the stage and watched instead from the bleachers after the girl’s mother protested. “They say the songs are too war-driven,” Medrano said. Sofía said she had become hooked on “El Belicón” (“The Belligerent”), Peso Pluma’s song about a man who boasts of owning sports cars, bazookas and Kalashnikovs.
“I was a bit worried about security,” Medrano said. But midconcert, he felt confident enough to ask the couple next to him to watch his daughter while he made a quick bathroom run.
The excitement and controversy surrounding the lyrical content of corridos tumbados in Mexico in many ways mirrors decades of debate in the United States over the real-life implications of rap lyrics. From N.W.A to Jay-Z and Rick Ross, many of the most popular hip-hop artists have relied on the imagery of drug kingpins for both glitz and grit. Beginning with the gangster rap of the 1980s and ’90s and continuing through the 21st-century hip-hop subgenres of trap and drill, lyrics that document — and some say glorify — the drug trade, its attendant violence and its spoils have remained a cultural and political battleground. Currently in Atlanta, music by rapper Young Thug is being used in court as evidence of his membership in a criminal street gang.
“You see these guys partying with these luxuries, and suddenly, it’s, ‘How can I get this?’ especially in this country, our country, which has some very strong social limitations,” said Graciela Flores, a professor at the Universidad Autónoma de Coahuila.
Flores, who specializes in 19th-century crime and justice in the Mexican borderlands, organized a series of events this past fall at the university focused on corridos tumbados at the behest of one of her students. She was overwhelmed by the attendance. “People were eager to talk about what they had seen” in terms of daily violence in their communities, she explained. The songs had moved people to share their experiences, something that Flores found “valuable, but at the same time very disturbing.”