Major Lazer & The Rolling Stones’ Concert Films Document the End of Music Censorship in Cuba

Still from 'Give Me Future: Major Lazer in Cuba'

From streaming services like Spotify through the wormholes of Youtube, practically every musical catalogue in the universe seems to be a search bar away. It’s hard to fathom that up until a couple of years ago, it wasn’t parents putting the kibosh on, say, Elvis Presley blasting a little too loudly from the boombox upstairs. For years, citizens in Mexico were banned from listening to rock and roll, for one thing.

Then there’s the Cuban government, which, erm, hasn’t particularly been lauded for upholding their citizens’ right to freedom of expression. Historically, the government has taken measures to disavow critics and other musicians who pose some kind of threat to the government’s agenda. This led to banning Cuba’s own Queen of Salsa, Celia Cruz, on the radio after she became a U.S. citizen and drew the ire of Fidel Castro (she wasn’t even allowed back into Cuba in 1962, for her mother’s funeral).

A slew of other musicians who criticized Cuba and the government—including huge stars like Gloria Estefan, Julio Iglesias and Willie Chirino—were barred from Cuban radio airwaves up until 2012, when the government silently took dozens of artists off the blacklist. But as the BBC notes, the ban and its lifting weren’t formally announced, as that would mean admitting that censorship on the island existed in the first place. Still, that same year, the government warned artists that they would be punished if their music were to “violate ethics” in concerts, particularly where sexually explicit lyrics are concerned. Officials who green-lit said performances would be subject to “severe sanctions” too, according to ABC News.

Yet the tides have been shifting rapidly in Cuba as the United States announced in December 2014 that it would begin taking steps to normalize diplomatic relations between the two nations. Everything—from the first visit from a U.S. President in almost 90 years to the increased installation of wifi hotspots in select public parks—is having a dramatic ripple effect on Cuban life. This goes beyond the traditional forms of musical expression that have been allowed in Cuba, too. Now, international groups are making their way to Havana to perform for citizens.

In Cuba and beyond, young music fans, musicians and producers continue to make the most of their situations, using their resourcefulness to carve out alternative ways for a distinctive musical culture, and expression, to thrive and survive.

Two recently released documentaries, Olé Olé Olé: A Trip Across Latin America and Give Me Future, chart the way in which two groups, the blues-rock mainstays The Rolling Stones and electronic rump-shakers Major Lazer, respectively, came to perform massive free concerts in Havana last year. While they haven’t been the first groups from abroad to perform in Cuba—Audioslave, Manic Street Preachers and Kris Kristofferson have also taken stages in decades past—the fact that the two groups performed the same month, in March 2016, following the reinstatement of diplomatic relationships is significant.

Olé Olé Olé, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival last year, documents the Rolling Stones’ journey through nine Latin American countries. It succeeds through shifting the focus away from the band itself, instead providing a glimpse into each nation’s singular local subcultures that their music spawned (despite the fact that in many of these countries, albums like Sticky Fingers were regarded as forbidden listening). And while the Stones have practically been on a perma-tour for fifty years and show no intentions of letting up yet, they’d never come close to performing in Cuba.

This dates back to the 1960s, when the Rolling Stones—among other groups, including the Beatles—were banned from Cuban radio after being deemed inflammatory. As Al-Jazeera notes in their report from the Stones’ Havana concert, these countercultural British and U.S. groups weren’t specifically outlawed in public, but civilians were discouraged, and even punished, from listening to them anyhow. In the documentary, one concert-goer describes the surreal feeling of being able to see the band itself perform in Cuba, after he spent time in jail for listening to a Stones tune in a park many years ago.

It was different for Major Lazer, a more contemporary group. A huge component of Give Me Future, which recently premiered at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival, details the finer issues that come with putting on a concert in Cuba, from working 14 months in advance to approving every single performer with the government to sourcing every part of the stage setup locally (versus the Stones who, Diplo repeatedly points out, imported all their equipment). Leading up to the concert, the group realizes that while the gears were in motion for the logistical and bureaucratic parts of the concert to happen, one key element was missing: How would people hear the music ahead of the show with limited access to the Internet?

Enter El Paquete Semanal, one of the more remarkable narratives threaded throughout Give Me Future. The system doesn’t require a connection through the web; instead, it relies on passing around flash drives filled with data including T.V. shows, magazines and music. That’s what led to Major Lazer songs like “Lean On” to be disseminated widely before the concert in early March (though it’s curious that while the band collaborated with the government step by step in order to stage the free show in Havana, they went through underground channels to promote their music ahead of time).

But what both documentaries make clear, aside from the collective power of a shared musical experience, is that the first rule of imposing a limitation means that it’ll incite some kind of rebellion. Olé Olé Olé shows how in Argentina, for instance, a dictatorial rule didn’t stop Argentinians from developing a Stones-rooted subculture called Rolingas, and shows how Cubans craftily manufacture parts for their instruments despite not having access to strings, for instance. Cuban producers tell the members of Major Lazer in Give Me Future how they manage to make and distribute their music despite limited resources to discuss and disseminate their music via the Internet.

Olé Olé Olé and Give Me Future also suggest that censorship never truly works, either. A radio ban didn’t stop millions of people from knowing the words to “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” leading up to when the Stones finally performed there. In Cuba and beyond, young music fans, musicians and producers continue to make the most of their situations, using their resourcefulness to carve out alternative ways for a distinctive musical culture, and expression, to thrive and survive. And this scrappiness is something to celebrate.