It's a genre of music that's making history.
In May, for the first time ever, two songs from the Mexican Regional genre made their way into the Billboard Hot 100 Top Five: Grupo Frontera's collaboration with Bad Bunny, titled "Un Porciento" (or One Percent), and Peso Pluma's "Ella Baila Sola" (She Dances Alone).
For Grupo Frontera, social media has served as the driving force behind their rise in profile, in large part thanks to TikTok.
But in the case of Peso Pluma, it's the song content that's been catching the most attention. While his song that cracked the Top 100 is about love at first sight, some of his other work is much darker. One of his newer songs titled after the cartel-troubled Mexican state of Tamaulipas has the following lyrics: "They see us pass through Tamaulipas, all of us ready and well-equipped in case we have to fight."
While Peso Pluma is charting under the Mexican Regional genre, it's this style of music—Corridos Tumbados—that has brought him the most attention. Corridos Tumbados, an extension of Narcocorridos, takes on the genre's principles with an influence of rap and trap, touching on topics like drug violence, social issues, and sexualization. And according to Chartmetric Data, the 2nd and 3rd most followed playlists of Mexican music fall under the Corridos Tumbados genre.
"As we speak right now at this very moment, there's got to be a number of Corridos being uploaded onto YouTube and some other platforms," Dr. Juan Carlos Ramírez-Pimienta said.
"Corridos" themselves are a centuries-old form of storytelling with deep roots in Mexico, serving as a way to preserve history and celebrate the accomplishments of "folk heroes."
"The notion of heroism has changed over time. Corridos in general did not used to be so much about criminals or traffickers as they are today," Ramírez-Pimienta said.
Dr. Juan Carlos Ramírez-Pimienta is a professor of Border and Mexican studies at the Imperial Valley Campus of San Diego State University. For years, he has been studying the evolution of Corridos and Narcocorridos, specifically from the 1930s onward to what is now being streamed today. He says one of the key factors driving the popularity of this genre has been economics.
"Since the 1970s, with the devaluation of the peso and the economic problems in Mexico, these types of songs reemerged. And to me, that is not coincidence," Ramírez-Pimienta said. "If somebody is providing the jobs, people tend to not forget but perhaps overlook certain moral or criminal characteristics of the provider."
And while some may not agree with the violence in these songs, Ramírez-Pimienta says it's easy to see how the songs can be a source of empowerment.
"Most of the listeners of these songs are the Mexican population in the United States," Ramírez-Pimienta said. "For that person going to work back and forth for half an hour, it's dangerous because he or she would know that if he gets stopped over because of a light or any little thing, it could not only mean a ticket but deportation and the end of their family. So, for a person under those circumstances, sometimes a fantasy of powerful Mexicans, a musical fantasy, could be intoxicating."
Part of what makes Narcocorridos so unique is how the songs are created.
"A lot of the real-life drug runners would be commissioning Corridos for themselves. And these Corridos would be sort of propaganda for their organizations," Rafael Acosta Morales said.
Rafael Acosta Morales is an associate professor of Spanish and Portuguese at the University of Kansas. He says while some artists choose to write about drug trafficking on their own accord, it's actually quite common for them to be written as a request, with the artist being hired to pay homage to groups like the Sinaloa, Tijuana, and Gulf cartels. Some songs reportedly celebrate the battles of specific drug traffickers with authorities, often with other competing cartels.
"Some music producers and some of the interpreters and composers, they are relatives of drug dealers," Acosta Morales said.
With some artists more open than others about the inspiration behind the songs.
"Just about every performer will have different takes. On how that relationship works," Acosta Morales said.
For example, in May, Peso Pluma hung up on a reporter during an interview with the L.A. Times when he was asked about some of his songs, some of which have left Mexican media questioning his connections to drug organizations.
The rise of this genre hasn't come without backlash.
"There have been several attempts to ban public performances," Acosta Morales said. "They were banned from the radio. They were banned from being sold in music stores."
In recent decades, lawmakers in Mexico have made multiple attempts to block Narcocorridos from being performed or even played, with legal battles being fought in the country's Supreme Court and Mexican states and cities issuing fines for brands that perform the music.
In 2017, the band Los Tigres Del Norte were fined $25,000 for playing songs considered Narcocorridos during a concert in the Mexican state of Chihuahua.
The concern is that this kind of music promotes violence and cartel activity, and not just in Mexico. According to the Council on Foreign Relations, cartels dominate the U.S. market for cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine, and fentanyl, feeding an appetite estimated to be more than $150 billion annually.
But would there be a potential crackdown on Narcocorridos being played in the U.S.?
"There has never been much crackdown on Corridos in the U.S. Mostly because the people doing the crackdowns don't speak Spanish," Elijah Wald said.
Elijah Wald is a journalist and author of the book The Narcocorrido: A Journey into the Music of Drugs, Guns, and Guerrillas.
"They want to be able to play you a track of gangster rap or a track of punk rock that parents will go, 'Oh my God, my kids are listening to that.' And if the lyrics are in Spanish, they're not going to get that reaction," Wald said.
Wald says those looking to curb the influence of drugs and violence will need to look beyond Narcocorridos if they are to ultimately find success.
"Particularly if you go into the rooms of the teenage boys who are listening to this, the poster on the wall is likely to be Al Pacino in Scarface. And nobody ever asks Al Pacino, or Martin Scorsese, or Francis Ford Coppola whether they don't feel bad about encouraging violence and making it look romantic and exciting. And God knows they have done so much more to do that than all the Corridos on Earth," Wald said.
As for the future of Narcocorridos, the clicks, downloads, and ticket sales don't appear to be slowing down. And as for the source of inspiration for so many of these songs...
"A lot of the conversation about the dangers of this stuff acts as if this is a problem coming from Mexico to the U.S. And I just think it's really important to point out that this whole drug world is a problem the U.S. has created for Mexico," Wald said.
For now, artists like Peso Pluma, Natanael Cano, and others create and cash in.
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