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Cuban Duo Gente de Zona Are Transforming Urbano And Making Latinx Music History

Their roses might've arrived 15 years later, but Gente de Zona want to spread the power of reggaetón cubano. 

Gente de Zona is revolutionizing Latinx music like no other Cuban artist has in modern history.

The Grammy award-winning Havana duo, made up of director Alexander Delgado and Randy Malcom, captured international attention in 2014 with the release of their mega-hit “Bailando” with Enrique Iglesias, a tropical earworm that landed at the No. 12 spot of Billboard’s Top 100 chart, signaling the return of Latin urban music three years before Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee’s “Despacito” guaranteed the explosive comeback.

Since then, the group, which was the first act signed to Marc Anthony’s entertainment company Magnus Media, has continued to churn out massive successes. There’s “La Gozadera,” the Anthony-assisted, upbeat love letter to Latin America that picked up an award for "La Combinación Perfecta" at the 2016 Premios Juventud; the Latin AMAs-nominated “Traidora,” also featuring the Puerto Rican salsero; the Billboard Hot Latin Songs chart-landing "3 A.M," another banger collaboration, this time with Mexican duo Jesse & Joy; and the Latin pop jam “Ni Tú Ni Yo" with Jennifer Lopez– just to name a few.

With each global hit, Gente de Zona has helped introduce new audiences to reggaetón cubano, a style of the urban genre that’s unique from the more popular riddims of Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Panama and now Colombia. Cubatón, as it has been dubbed on the Caribbean island, blends classic reggaetón beats with Cuba's traditional musical styles, like son, timba and guaguancó, and pairs the joyous soundscapes with more family-friendly lyrics than the grime of old-school reggaetón and new-wave Latin trap.

Gente de Zona’s addictive strains, recorded and performed with a live band, has torn through geographical and political barriers in ways previously unseen. While Latinxs and Latin Americans alike agree that cubanas Celia Cruz and Gloria Estefan are reinas of salsa and Latin pop, respectively, both women reached worldwide renown after their exile from Fidel Castro-controlled Cuba to the U.S.

But with easing political tensions between the two nations and talent capable of energizing the planet whole, Gente de Zona has been able to achieve superstardom that extended outside of the Antilles, into the 50 states and beyond– all while initially residing in Cuba. The feat, alone exceptional, is made all the more astounding for fellas creating music in the oft-condemned and devalued urbano genres.

VIBE VIVA chatted with Delgado and Malcom at the Sony Music Entertainment office in San Juan, Puerto Rico, where the pair was preparing to give their first solo concert on the island. Walking in singing Gomba Jahbari's reggae en español knockout "Acho Puñeta," just like every other Boricua this fall, we had a lively conversation on the duo’s rise to global fame, creating space for cubatón in the urbano musical takeover, gaining inspiration from the genuine joy that lives in the pulse of the Cuban people and their forthcoming album, Otra Cosa, among so much more.

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Gente de Zona has been around for more than 15 years, but you really started gaining global success in about 2014, with the smash hit “Bailando.” How do you think you were able to break into the international scene in a way many Cuban artists haven’t been able to in the past?

Randy Malcom: “Bailando” is a really good song, but I think what it did was give us the opportunity to really express what Gente de Zona is, right? It helped us get out of anonymity because it was a great song and it showed the identity of who is Gente de Zona. Our magic, the sealing of our style of music with our distinct voices, is what attracted an international audience.

I had the pleasure of visiting Cuba several times this year and was immediately drawn to the style of reggaetón being made there because it's much different from what we hear coming out of Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Panama and now Colombia. It’s been described as cubatón, but what exactly is that? How would you describe it?

Alexander Delgado: When reggaetón came to Cuba from Panama, back when El General was making music, we called what we were creating cubatón because we maintained our roots. Cuban artists mixed Cuban music with the reggaetón base and created something organic.

Randy: We mixed urban elements with Cuban rhythms, like son, the timba and the guaguancó, and that's where the cubatón identity is.

I loved the artists I heard while in Cuba, but unfortunately, they’re not getting the same mainstream, international attention as other reggaetóneros. Who are some of your favorite less-known cubatón artists and acts that you think people should keep on their radar?

Randy: Many! Well, from our generation, I believe that El Micha is now expanding to the rest of the world. El Chacal and Jacob Forever, too. There are a lot of us from this generation doing it.

Alexander: I think that Gente de Zona entering the international market has allowed other artists to create a space for themselves there, too. For example, in Miami, there is now a radio station that promotes reggaetón from Cuba. Through that, we have been able to participate in a lot of events and shows, and I think in the next year we will have a bigger position in the international audience.

You were recently the focus of an HBO special, Gente de Zona: En Letra de Otro, where you had the opportunity to return to Alamar, a community in Havana where you grew up, to perform classic Latin hits. What was this like for you, being back where everything started?

Randy: Oh, it was incredible. It was a lot of songs we heard as kids. And the good thing is that HBO and Sony allowed us to choose the songs we wanted. It wasn't strict. It was very free: we pick the songs and perform them in the manner that we want. Alexander chose five songs and I chose five songs, and we brought these classics to 2018.

But it was still very cubano, with us putting in all of the elements that we just talked about, the son, the guaguancó, the bolero, and it was an incredible experience. And to film it in Cuba with HBO made it even better. That made it everything, all the memories we had there in that place growing up.

I know when you first started off in Havana, some people were confused about your style, rapping over classic Cuban rhythms. Why did you keep doing this style of music despite the pushback?

Alexander: The early critics showed us that we were capable of doing this but that it was just a matter of time. When we first started, we didn’t have a lot of time to work and only had about three or four songs, and I never felt that was sufficient for the people to understand the potency of the artists that we were.

I think that with time, well, really, I think that because of the first initial experience where no one had faith in us, we had the opportunity of time, to sit in the studio and dedicate our time to this. We always maintained the faith in our chemistry and that we can do this, and we did.

And being back recently, how is it received there now?

Alexander: It’s a huge difference. Everyone who said no to us is feeling it. [Laughs]

Randy: You can really feel the change, and we felt it, too. We made our music, and in the past, it was just Cubans singing along to it, but now in every concert we have people in every country who are singing, dancing and enjoying it, too. It’s incredible.

Being in Cuba, I witnessed joy as I had never seen it before, and I also feel and see it in your music. Where do you think this genuine happiness and zest for life comes from?

Alexander: This is just our culture. We have a culture that is very family-oriented, very traditional, very much about living together. That idea where children leave the home at 18 years old doesn’t exist in Cuba. You stay living there until you die. [Laughs] It’s true even in relationships.

You can get a divorce and still live together. [Laughs] So that’s our culture. We can say these things and laugh at ourselves for them. And it’s very difficult to be Cuban. It’s not like how it is in other parts of the world. Everywhere has its problems, but in Cuba, we know problems and we know how short life is, so you have to enjoy yourself. If you’re not laughing, life will slip by you without you even realizing it.

Last year, you embarked on your first U.S. tour. While Cuban exiles have done this in the past, it’s definitely not as common for expats like yourselves. What does this mean to you, understanding the history of political conflict between these two nations and yet the vast Latinx community in the U.S. that loves you?

Randy: It was incredible. We knew there were a lot of Cubans in the U.S. When we did shows, we’d go to where we knew Cubans had arrived, mostly Florida or New Jersey or New York, areas where there were already established Cuban communities. But after our album Visualízate won a Grammy and “La Gozadera” became one of the most-listened-to songs in the world in 2016, we went on a tour around the U.S. I think we went to more than 20 cities, and it was an amazing feeling. I didn’t know there were so many people in the U.S. who listened to Gente de Zona, that it was more than just Cubans.

In your wildest dreams, did you anticipate touring the U.S.?

Randy: I think so. We knew that the people were aware of who Gente de Zona was and we knew people wanted to see this tour. They were writing us letting us know this is what they wanted. So it was finally time to do this.

And now you'll soon hit the stage in Puerto Rico. As the saying goes, “Cuba y Puerto Rico, de un pajaro las dos alas” (“Cuba and Puerto Rico, from one bird the two wings”). Why did you want to perform here?

Alexander: First, we weren’t satisfied with the three times we were here previously because we were invited for special events with our performances lasting about 10 to 15 minutes, and fans can’t receive the full Gente de Zona experience within that time.

Time is really important to our shows. For an island where people are familiar with our music and who we are, but aren’t familiar with how we can put on a show, we thought it was time for that. And we wanted to be in Puerto Rico because we know that Puerto Rico is one of the strongest countries in music of all Latin America, so we thought it was the moment for them to see us live and really see what we are capable of doing.

I want to switch back to music. You recently dropped “Te Duele,” a song about an ex who hurt you and is now attempting to come back into your life. What do you do when you are in this situation: entertain or ignore her?

Randy: It depends on the person and the situation, and it's a situation that can happen to anyone. It's part of life. It's happened to me, it's happened to him and I'm sure it's happened to you. And what we like to do is convey the stuff that happens in real life in our music, so that people can identify with it and feel good about it, whichever part resonates with them.

Along with “Te Duele,” you also recently released “Lento” with Thalia and “Nadie Como Yo” with Malu Trevejo. What can you tell us about what you are currently working on?

Randy: We just released a song and music video with El Micha, who I consider as one of the best Cuban urban artists right now, called “Hazle Completo el Cuento.” This song is going to be a part of our next album, which is called Otra Cosa.

I can't say much more about it other than it's something we are working on, and there will be more reggaetón and maybe trap, because this is where the industry is right now.

Exciting! Talking about reggaetón and Latin trap, we see a lot of collaborations among these genres. We can have six artists on one song or remix. You’ve worked in the past with a lot of major pop stars and salseros. You just noted that you recently worked with El Micha, but can we expect more of this, collaborations with other reggeatóneros?

Alexander: Yes, yes, definitely! What I think is that we can adapt to what they do, but I sometimes see it’s a little difficult to adapt to what we do, because it’s a little more complicated. But we can do trap or reggaetón. That’s the advantage of having live music.

Urbano music has exploded in recent years, but trends, as we know, often come and go. In 10 to 20 years from now, where do you see Gente de Zona and what do you hope the people are saying about this group?

Randy: In 20 years, I’ll look a lot older and I hope to leave a legacy in music, in Cuban music for the world. I hope they’ll talk about Gente de Zona as something that revolutionized music and the entire world.

Twenty years, that’s a lot of time. My kids will be older, and maybe they’ll be the ones taking over this. I’ll just sit back and drink my coffee while telling them the history of what was and what is Gente de Zona.

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Anuel AA Breaks Free

In 2015, an entourage of close to 30 men drew guns among one another during a traditional Christmas parranda in Puerto Rico. The scene turned into something straight out of a movie when a pair of gangsters clandestinely attempted to kidnap local rapper Anuel AA. After a brief scuffle and flagrant shouting match, however, the man born Emmanuel Gazmey Santiago went on to finish the evening’s holiday spree in the boisterous company of his loyal posse.

Months later, after ushering in the new year on a promising note by featuring on one of Latin trap’s first global hits – De La Ghetto’s sex anthem “La Ocasion” with Arcangel and Ozuna – someone delivered Anuel AA a divine premonition of sorts: “If you keep talking about this stuff in your songs, something really ugly is going to happen to you.”

A Puerto Rican music legend, Hector “El Father” of reggaeton-turned-son of God, paid Anuel a visit to share his foreboding message. “He and I did not know each other,” explained Anuel, who prides himself on waxing poetics about the real-life experiences Hector was concerned with, “but God spoke to him and Hector felt he needed to reach out to me. When he warned me, he said it with so much conviction that he even cried.”

Having forged a legacy of his own as one of the key trailblazing reggaeton entertainers of the ‘90s who later signed a deal with JAY-Z’s Roc-A-Fella Records, Hector – now a devoted Christian – understood life imitated art when it came to Anuel’s lyrics.

“My lyrics talked a lot about God and the devil, so when he told me that,” Anuel continued, “I knew I needed to make some changes. Those themes, good versus evil, they were my mark and what separated me from the rest.”

On April 3, 2016, just two weeks after meeting with Hector, Anuel was arrested and held in Guaynabo’s correctional institution on charges of illegal gun possession. Following his biggest musical break yet, just as he was touching the cusp of international stardom, a court judge sentenced Anuel to 30 months in federal prison without bail.

Raised east of San Juan, in the Puerto Rican city of Carolina, Anuel AA has a lot in common with many of my favorite MCs: he’s charming, resolute, and lyrically gifted, yet marred by a criminal past, complicit misogyny and the constant struggle between right and wrong. “I had no choice but to carry those weapons with me, because of the issues I had on the street,” the rapper said to VIBE Viva over the phone, while quarantined in Miami. “I thought to myself I’d rather be locked up than found dead.”

Indeed, Anuel had evaded his probable demise when he was nearly abducted and landed right behind bars months later, fulfilling a prophecy that cost him both his freedom and a flourishing start at the tipping point of trap music en Español. “I was being forced to reckon with all the bad things I had done for money in the past,” Anuel expressed, regretfully. “I started reading the Bible for the first time and realized that my talent and blessings came from God, not anywhere else.”

Anuel had begun to take music seriously around the same time his father, José Gazmey, was laid off from his coveted A&R position at Sony Music. With his back against the wall, a scrappy Anuel left home at 15 and began to engage in felonious activity to help provide for his family and finance his music endeavors.

Like many rappers on the island, Anuel was influenced by popular culture and trends on the mainland, most discernibly by contemporary trap. Anuel understood the genre’s synonymy with street life and the drug enterprise and immediately took to Messiah El Artista, a Dominican-American rapper VIBE profiled for championing Spanish-language trap music all over New York.

“I figured if Latin trap was doing well in New York, it was for sure going to pop in Puerto Rico,” said Anuel, who had signed with the Latino division of Rick Ross’ Maybach Music Group the year prior to his arrest. “I spent about a month in New York before I returned to Puerto Rico. Then I started to release all the songs I had, one by one, and they began to gain popularity.”

While artists like J. Balvin helped breathe new life into the reggaeton genre in Colombia, Anuel wanted to spearhead a movement in Puerto Rico with a sound all their own. “I recorded the ‘Esclava’ remix with Bryant Myers and it might not have taken off worldwide, but it became a huge trap song in Puerto Rico.”

Akin to the heydays of reggaeton, an Afro-Caribbean genre-fusing hip-hop and reggae that originated in Puerto Rico, trap music was considered lowbrow and was heavily criticized for its vulgarity, violence, and explicit lyrics. Puerto Rican critics and artists alike had very little faith in the music’s potential and therefore denounced it. “DJ Luian, who is like a brother to me, couldn’t understand why I wanted to put all my energy into music that none of our artists wanted to sing.”

“Reggaeton went dormant for years,” he continued. “It was necessary to make trap music, because it felt like reggaeton was stuck in another era.” A self-described student of the late and oft-controversial Tupac Shakur, Anuel thought reggaeton had reached its pinnacle and believed Latin trap would be its successor.

Songs like “Nunca Sapo,” where Anuel channels Rick Ross’ Teflon Don ethos and spits a grimy slow-tempo flow over a sinister 808-laden instrumental, helped put a face to Anuel’s little-known name in the US. On cuts like Farruko’s “Liberace,” Anuel speeds up his delivery for fun and plays on the “Versace” rhythm popularized by Migos, who all hail from Atlanta—the widely credited birthplace of trap music.

For Anuel, whose life mantra “real hasta la muerte” is now a famous hashtag, music aspirations had little to do with radio play. Anuel, 27, was largely concerned with dominating the digital space, especially while incarcerated. Despite his arrest, he continued to release music from behind prison walls while his team fed his massive following up-to-date content.

Hear This Music CEO, DJ Luian heeded what Anuel was trying to accomplish and began to work with Bad Bunny, the Latin Grammy-winning artist and star voice of the current Latin trap movement. “When I was locked up, Luian helped develop Bad Bunny and he basically became in charge of keeping trap alive while I was away,” said Anuel, who ironically came under fire recently and was accused of throwing shade at Bad Bunny for the video treatment of “Yo Perreo Sola,” in which the rapper-singer dresses in drag as a stance against toxic masculinity.

“I couldn’t believe something like this was going viral,” Anuel interrupted anxiously before I could expound on a question concerning their relationship. “It looked like it was something that was edited or put together to make my Instagram posts read that way. I immediately texted Bad Bunny about it and he was like, ‘Don’t worry, people are always going to be talking sh*t.’”

Anuel considers Bad Bunny a genius at what he does and maintains that despite not knowing each other very well, he and his fellow compatriot are friendly collaborators with a working rapport: “When he and I do a new song together, what will people say then?”

Today, the collective jury will reach a verdict upon listening to Anuel’s newly-released sophomore studio album Emmanuel, where fans will find a track titled “Hasta Que Dios Diga,” a sultry, mid-tempo reggaeton number. Fans can expect to hear a star-studded project riddled with guest features, including Tego Calderón, Daddy Yankee, Enrique Iglesias, J. Balvin, Ozuna, and Karol G, to name a few.

Discussing life during a global pandemic, Anuel spoke fondly of his partner-in-rhyme, Colombian singer-songwriter Karol G. “She’s the love of my life. She’s been there with me through the good and bad. People who really love you are the ones who stand firm by you when things are bleak. In my toughest moments, Karol was there. She’s shown me how to be a better man,” he gushed.

“Karol comes off as super feminine—which she is, but Karol also has a really tough masculine side,” Anuel laughed heartily on the other end of the line. “She rides motorcycles and likes taking them up these crazy hills. She rides jet skis too! She’s like a dude, haha. We work well together and we give each other advice all the time.”

The pair are making the most of quarantine life in South Florida, releasing a self-directed and self-shot music video for their joint single “Follow,” a reference to flirting over social media in the era of social-distancing, the idea that shooting one’s proverbial shot can lead to a budding romance.

On July 17, 2018, Anuel dropped his debut studio album, Real Hasta La Muerte, hours before he was released from jail. By September, the RIAA certified his introduction to the game platinum, garnering the attention of Roc Nation artist Meek Mill. When the Philly wordsmith released his fourth studio LP in November of the same year, followers were geeked to learn Anuel had earned himself a place on Meek’s highly anticipated Championships album with “Uptown Vibes.”

I always wanted you and anuel aa to make a track together bc i feel like he’s the meek mill of spanish trap , how was it working with him ?

— Nagga (@naggareports) December 17, 2018

“Recording with Meek Mill for me was like when Allen Iverson played with Michael Jordan for the first time,” Anuel said, singing praises about their first-ever partnership. “I’m a huge fan of Meek; when his music took off I was still in the streets, so I related and identified with a lot of the things he was saying.”

“Meek doesn’t understand a lick of Spanish,” he mused in jest, “but he’s always with a bunch of Latinos. When I speak to him he says, ‘I don’t know what you’re saying, but my Spanish [speaking] ni**as tell me you be talking that sh*t!’”

Anuel leveraged his knack for storytelling and released “3 de Abril” earlier this year, an emotional freestyle about the day he was arrested and a graphic snapshot of his trials and tribulations.

“I did things without caring about the consequences. I thought I was a man because I was street smart. Now I know what it’s like to lose everything, so I wanted to talk more about my life and the experiences of me and my family,” Anuel described the inspiration behind the song.

Following the release of “3 de Abril,” Anuel again turned hip-hop heads when he and Lil Pump shared a fiery audiovisual for their collaborative effort “Illuminati,” stamping Pump's first new song since summer 2019. This year, Anuel also has songs with Colombian pop empress Shakira (“Me Gusta”) and with the late Juice WRLD (“No Me Ames”).

Albeit Anuel and Juice WRLD never got to meet in person, Anuel learned about the Chicago rapper from listening to his singles on the radio in jail. “The same year I won Billboard Latin’s Artist of The Year award, Juice WRLD won New Artist at the American Billboard Awards. We ended up recording the song after that but held off on releasing it for a bit because he and I had respective singles coming out at the same time,” Anuel explained.

“By the time we were finally ready to premiere it, Juice WRLD had passed away. We were never able to record together in person, but at least we got to feature him on the video. I know the tribute gave his fans and family some needed strength.”

Less than 30 minutes have gone by and already I am forced to wrap my conversation with Boricua’s burgeoning superstar:

Anuel, explain “real hasta la muerte” for me. Why exactly is this mantra of yours so important? 

“I can’t betray anyone. I don’t know what it’s like to really betray someone. I’m very loyal to my circle, my family, and those I hold close to me. Being real is what keeps me humble. It doesn’t matter how much money I make or how much I accomplish. What’s critical is staying real to myself and keeping my feet on the ground. That’s what helps keep me going.”

This interview was translated from Spanish to English and has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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Planes belonging to Delta Air Lines sit idle at Kansas City International Airport on April 03, 2020 in Kansas City, Missouri. U.S. carriers reported an enormous drop in bookings amid the spread of the coronavirus and are waiting for a government bailout to fight the impact. Delta lost almost $2 billion in March and parked half of its fleet in order to save money.
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Puerto Rico Calls For Ban On Flights From Coronavirus Hot Spots

To reduce the spread of COVID-19 in Puerto Rico, Gov. Wanda Vázquez has inquired a possible ban on flights from popular cities in the United States due to the high number of confirmed cases of the coronavirus.

Associated Press reports Gov. Vázquez launched the petition to the Federal Aviation Administration this week after officials accused tourists of taking medication to reduce their fevers and failing to adhere to the self-isolation rules. The incidents were later confirmed by GNPR general aide, General José Reyes.

The FAA reportedly granted a request for all flights to arrive at Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport (LMM), so that Puerto Rico National Guard (GNPR) could screen passengers arriving at the island.

“Now we want people from the areas most affected by Covid-19 not to arrive," Vázquez said. "This as part of the necessary measures to prevent this virus from spreading and affecting the health of the people of Puerto Rico."

As part of the proposal, Vázquez has listed flights from New York, Florida, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, and Illinois as "hot spots" of the coronavirus.

Meanwhile, cases in Puerto Rico have sadly risen. The island has reported at least 24 deaths and 620 confirmed cases. Much like in cites like New York, a curfew was imposed on March 15 that closed non-essential businesses and ordered people to stay in their homes with the exception of grocery shopping or picking up medication.

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Cardi B attends "The Road to F9" Global Fan Extravaganza at Maurice A. Ferre Park on January 31, 2020 in Miami, Florida.
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Cardi B Assures Fans She Doesn't Have Coronavirus After Hospitalization

Cardi B has clarified her recent hospitalization had nothing to do with the current coronavirus outbreak.

The rapper took to Instagram Live to clear up the rumors after she shared a photo of her with an identity band from a hospital. “I’ve been very f***ing sick these past five days–not corona,” she said Thursday (April 2). “I have really bad stomach issues. I started throwing up; I took a pregnancy test cuz a b***h never f***ing knows.”

As she tried to find out what was wrong, fans went into a frenzy with claims of coronavirus. “I threw up seven times," she said. "I didn’t want to go to the hospital, I went to the hospital. I was sick and [press] ran with it, then my publicist hit me up and it ain’t nothing coronavirus-related, thank God!”

The possible stomachache may be connected to the singer's first world problems of finding a perfect chef. “I don’t have nobody to cook for me. I hired a chef two times and they were nasty and expensive,” she said.

In lighter news, the rapper confirmed proceeds of her viral "Coronavirus" track will benefit those in need during the COVID-19 outbreak.

"Yes! That's what [we're] going to do!" Cardi B tweeted last week. "Keep in mind you don’t get your money right away...but even months from now there would be families with financial issues for getting laid off due to the virus. We will donate!"

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