YOU CAN’T VISIT Cuba and not hear reggaetón. The eclectic mix of salsa, hip-hop and electronica blasts from shops, cars and bike taxis. And despite government censorship and limited internet access, the genre exploded in popularity thanks to “el paquete,” a grassroots distribution system that relies on nothing more than hard drives, thumb drives, and old-fashioned hand delivery.
“My neighbor has some kid who rides by on his bike and drops off this hard drive,” says Cuban-American photographer Lisette Poole, who lives in Havana. “She copies whatever she wants, then he comes and picks it up two hours later.”
Poole celebrates this vibrant movement in Reggaetón. Her colorful, energetic photos show superstarreggaetóneros like Jacob Forever and Chacal y Yakarta in the studio, meeting fans, and singing for thousands of people at county fairs and elite nightclubs. “Cubans love to express themselves and have fun and really dance,” Poole says. “The reggaetón scene is part of that self-expression.”
Reggaetón started in Panama in the 1970s, and spread to Cuba in the early 2000s with the release of albums like Cubanito 20.02’sSoy Cubanito. The government found the entire genre, with its overtly sexual lyrics, vulgar and demeaning and banned it in 2012. It eased up a bit in the years since, but still prohibits reggaetón artists from appearing on most state-run TV and radio or recording in state-run studios. El Paquete (“the packet”) became the only way for reggaetóneros to reach adoring fans. “That’s how this music has been able to gain such popularity without having access to TV or radio,” Poole says.
Or much access to the internet. Less than 30 percent of Cubans are online, and those who are usually surf the web at public hotspots in parks. They pay about $1.50 an hour—a hefty sum in a nation where most people earn around $25 a month, and the government monitors online activity. El paquete started in Havana in 2008. Each Saturday, one terabyte of music, TV shows, and even commercials hits the street. A network of 300 vendors pays $20 apiece to copy the data onto hard drives. Couriers deliver the drives to hundreds of customers, who pay anywhere from $5 to $15 to download the content, which they sell to some three million people throughout the country.
Poole moved to Cuba in 2014 and noticed reggaetón’s influence everywhere. Young people sport similar haircuts (long on top, shaved on the sides), tight pants, and oversized t-shirts just like their favorite reggaetóneros. The music even infects the language. Lyrics like “hasta se seque el malecon” (“until the seafront dries up”), from a hit song by Jacob Forever, became a common expression on the street. “It kinda means, ‘This party goes all night,’ or, ‘This will go on forever,’” Poole says. She began collecting songs from the packet and shooting concerts in the spring of 2015. By fall, she was following reggaetón bands on tour and visiting them in their homes and studios.
Her magnetic images capture the infectious energy and electricity of reggaetón. Producers hole up in studios laying down the latest track. A music video shoot fills a busy city street. Artists perform on stage, half-illuminated by strobe lights and obscured in smoke while screaming fans claw at their feet. Everyone is lost in the beat. Even Poole is addicted. “Right now I like this new guy Harrison’s song ‘Onaonao,’” she says. “You’d hear it and go, ‘What the heck?’ But it grows on you when you’ve been here for a while.”