Latino Rapper Pitbull, Blending Politics and Hip-Hop

Taylor-Brittany Ford profiles Latino rapper Pitbull. The 25-year-old made it a high priority to register young Latino voters this year. His new album, El Mariel, hits stores this week.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

Okay. So no one really hits the club to talk politics, but who says beats and votes have to be mutually exclusive. NPR's Taylor-Brittany Ford profiles a Latino rapper who's dropped a hot new album and is dropping knowledge on voting too.

TAYLOR-BRITTANY FORD: Twenty-five-year-old Cuban-American Armando Perez was born and bred out of the same stuff movie scripts are made of.

(Soundbite of movie, “Scarface”)

Mr. AL PACINO (Actor) (As Tony Montana): Antonio Montana. And you? What you call yourself?

FORD: The opening scenes of the film Scarface show boatloads of Cuban refugees sailing to the ports of Miami in what would be known as the Mariel boatlift.

Mr. ARMANDO PEREZ (Rapper, aka Pitbull): And that's when Castro was like, oh, you guys want to leave my country. Okay. No problem. And the United States is going to accept you? Oh, okay, not problem. Bam. That's when he opened the floodgates. And he was going to prisons and telling cats, hey, you want to leave, (unintelligible).

My father brought three boats over. And in Mariel you had Tiffany, the Inspector and Shadow. So he went back to Cuba and brought people over - 547 people - to freedom. And that's where you got, you know, they call it (Spanish spoken). (Spanish spoken) was like the bottom of the barrel or, you know, the scum.

With that, yeah, you had your criminals that came, you had your mentally ill. Bu with that you also had people that came over and made something of their life.

FORD: This, in essence, is where Perez's story begins. Although he was born a year after the event, he was heavily influenced by the crime, hope and culture that came along with the almost 125,000 refugees.

(Soundbite of song from album “El Mariel”)

Mr. PEREZ: (Singing) (Spanish spoken)

FORD: Rap fans know him as Pitbull. And MySpace.com would tell you he's the most popular Latin artist on their Web site.

(Soundbite of song from album “El Mariel”)

Mr. PEREZ: (Singing) Not me no more, want to holler at a Latin bro, come see me…

FORD: It comes as little surprise that Pitbull named his new album El Mariel, or that the album is a combination of his Cuban heritage and his American upbringing.

Mr. PEREZ: My album is basically a bilingual album. To me it's not only entertaining but it's educating at the same time. When somebody's sitting next to each other and one speaks Spanish and he hears it and he's like oh.

(Soundbite of song from album “El Mariel”)

Mr. PEREZ: (Singing) (Spanish spoken)

Mr. PEREZ: And then the other one is curious. Oh, what did he say, what did he say? And that's where a bond is created, you know, through fans.

(Soundbite of song from album “El Mariel”)

Mr. PEREZ: (Singing) (Spanish spoken)

Mr. PEREZ: That, to me, that's the best part of this music thing right now. That somehow, someway, I've stumbled across a movement where I'm allowed to unify people. You know, and I think that's what's going to be bigger than my music.

FORD: And just like he doesn't limit his music to one specific language, he doesn't limit himself to specific musical styles. He's been labeled crunk, reggaeton and written off as nothing but a gangster rapper. But you can't put this Latino emcee in a box.

Even though you may have never heard of Pitbull, chances are you've heard his music. He was one of the orchestrators, along with Wyclef Jean, behind Nuestro Himno, the controversial Spanish-language version of the National Anthem.

(Soundbite of song “Nuestro Himno”)

Unidentified Woman: (Singing) (Spanish spoken)

FORD: And with his previous album, Money is a Major Issue, he combined hip-hop music with reggaeton, working alongside the likes of rapper Lil' John.

(Soundbite of song from album “El Mariel”)

Mr. PEREZ: (Singing) (Spanish spoken)

FORD: With the release of El Mariel he wants to do more than unify his fans, he wants to transform their lives. Pitbull says one of the first steps toward that transformation is getting Americans to know their history.

Mr. PEREZ: As Americans, which I suffer from myself, we have ADD. You know, it's like, okay, what's next? People are constantly getting thrown everything at us. And I noticed this when I went to Europe. When I went to Europe, everybody knew everything about the (unintelligible).

FORD: So he wants people to know about the Mariel boatlift for two reasons. Number one.

Mr. PEREZ: If you look at El Mariel, it was something that's a part of American history and identity. Only thing was it had to do with Cubans. You know, oh no they're Cubans, they're not Americans. They're Cubans. Cuban refugees.

FORD: Number two, it's an example in American history that Pitbull says chillingly parallels more recent events.

Mr. PEREZ: We went from the El Mariel boatlift to the Katrina buslift. You had people that were living in the United States of America and the minute that that went down with the Hurricane Katrina, first thing that they were calling those people were refugees. Oh the refugees are all over the place. How the (beep) are they refugees? Their papers got tooken(ph) away with the storm, too?

Refugees, why? Cause it was a bunch of black folks? Why? Cause they were poor? Same thing that happened in the Mariel boatlift when they came through. When the Cubans came through they had absolutely nothing (unintelligible).

FORD: Now he's getting his audience to be a proactive part of their own future but getting them to vote.

(Soundbite of song from album “El Mariel”)

Mr. PEREZ: (Singing) (Spanish spoken)

FORD: He recently partnered with Vota Latino, an organization aimed at getting out the vote to American Latino youth.

Mr. PEREZ: What is U.S. statement? Change you entire lifetime. Make your time count. Register to vote. That's where the real power lies. Now is the time. Remember, this is your country. Represent.

FORD: Pitbull is part of a landmark effort to register voters for this upcoming election via text messaging. Potential voters were told to text the word Pitbull or 305, the Miami area code, to 75444. It's how Pitbull registered this year, and he hopes his listeners will follow his message.

Mr. PEREZ: I was very discouraged as far as voting. Number one, I had a felony that I thought was expunged. But when I went to go, you know, vote, they told me no you can't vote because you got a felony. Sure enough it was expunged. I got my voter registration, I got my voting rights back.

And the reason that I say it can be discouraging is because, for one, how many people in this country do you have that are felons or that had - not felons, that have had felony charges. I don't want to, you know, label them like that. So you're telling me you can't vote but you can pay taxes. That don't make no sense to me.

So that's the same way I'm taking Vota Latino. Like, look, I got my rights back. I'm going to vote and I want everybody out there to know it. I know it can be discouraging, but due to the population that we are and due to the people that can't vote because of their status in this country, you have to step up and put your voice up for them. Not only for them but for our whole culture, because that one little vote could change everybody, the whole country's life.

(Soundbite of song from album “El Mariel”)

Mr. PEREZ: (Singing) Turn that thing around, turn that thing around…

FORD: Taylor-Brittany Ford, NPR News.

CHIDEYA: Rapper Pitbull's new album, El Mariel, hits stores this week.

(Soundbite of song from album “El Mariel”)

Mr. PEREZ: (Singing) (Spanish spoken) Turn that thing around, turn that thing around…

CHIDEYA: Thanks for sharing your time with us. We'll be back on Monday.

To listen to the show, visit npr.org. NEWS & NOTES was created by NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium.

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