Peso Pluma: ‘There are people who see the new generations and the new musical waves and are afraid’

The latest Latin music phenomenon is a divisive artist, a Grammy-winner whose lyrics are censored by Spotify and who has been threatened by cartels and asked not to perform in Viña del Mar due to accusations of being ‘a promoter of narco culture’

Peso Pluma
Peso Pluma.Josefina Santos (The New York Times / Contacto)
Fernando Navarro

Four black vans with tinted windows take the Tres Cruces street in Madrid as if a world leader had just arrived. Three burly guys get out of the first vehicle and look concerned about clearing the traffic from the barely six meters that separate the vehicles from the door of the building. The narrow artery of Gran Vía seems, in a matter of seconds, to turn into a scene from a Hollywood thriller. The autumn sun is shining on a Friday in November and a handful of tourists and onlookers stop to stare. “What’s going on?” “Who is it?” Wearing sunglasses and with his hands inside his pants pockets, a thin, pale guy steps out of the car, crowned by a dark cap that almost seems to swallow him. He walks slowly and listlessly behind the bodyguards. He does not smile, does not gesture, does not greet. Under the headgear hides Peso Pluma, the latest Latin music phenomenon. He arrives late — very late — for his guest appearance on a Spanish television show, but he doesn’t seem stressed. He seems to carry no weight and yet everyone is watching his every step.

Peso Pluma won his first Grammy award on February 4, capping a year in which the 24-year-old Mexican has unseated Bad Bunny and Miley Cyrus from the top of the listening charts and garnered billions of views on streaming platforms. He has also turned Mexican regional music into a global fashion. “I am part of the Mexican music revolution, like Pancho Villa or Porfirio Díaz of the Mexican revolution,” he says in an interview with EL PAÍS via videoconference (for which he also makes us wait almost an hour).

To say Peso Pluma is to refer to one of the most inaccessible musicians on the current scene, a young man who has climbed to the top of world music in just three years. His overwhelming success is accompanied by all manner of controversies; the biggest and most complex is the one that relates him to drug trafficking for lyrics that refer to drugs and violence. “If the order is to kill, that is not questioned [...] I depend on the Guzmáns [...] Two guns and a SCAR,” he sings on Gavilán II from his latest album, some verses of which have been censored by Spotify. The Guzmáns — Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán and his sons — are the heads of the Sinaloa Cartel. He had to cancel six concerts in Mexico last October after receiving threats from the Jalisco New Generation Cartel. More recently, neighborhood associations and an extreme right-wing congressman from Viña del Mar asked him not to participate in the Chilean city’s famous festival for being “a promoter of narco culture.” Peso Pluma is in the eye of the storm.

The musician is not only accompanied by bodyguards on the street. He also has them in interviews. Up to four people supervise the videoconference talk with EL PAÍS on a November afternoon. They warn: “No questions about drug traffickers.” A lanky young man, with a cap turned inside out and sitting on a sofa, appears on the screen and appears affable but not expansive with words. When asked about the controversy with drug trafficking, at the risk of ending the interview, one of the four guards intervenes to say that time is running out. The musician, relaxed and smiling, answers carefully: “Everywhere there is corruption and problems, but music is above that. Music has always been a very important part of what happens in the country [Mexico]. Many children see me and many will want to be like me. I see that in part as a responsibility to sow a seed so that more Mexicans fight for their dreams and not for their problems.”

Peso Pluma’s dreams have borne fruit. Last year was enormously successful. A true milestone. His third album, Génesis, debuted last July at number three on the Billboard 200, the highest position ever achieved by a Mexican regional music record on the most important chart in the global pop industry. It remained in the top 10 for weeks. Through these achievements he has been awarded a title: king of the corrido tumbado, a modern version of traditional Mexican music that is born from the combination of traditional corridos and modern urban music. “I don’t know if I’ve put the corridos tumbados on the world map, but I do think I’ve put them in the group of Mexican music,” he says. His successful collaborations, at least, point to the Spanish-speaking map: he has recorded with the Puerto Rican rapper Eladio Carrión, the Dominican star El Alfa, the Argentine superproducer Bizarrap and, recently, the Mexican new mariachi icon Christian Nodal. “It is important that we all help each other and have unity so that Mexican and Latin music continues to move forward,” he says.

Peso Pluma with his ex-partner, Argentine rapper Nicki Nicole, on the red carpet at the Grammy Awards.
Peso Pluma with his ex-partner, Argentine rapper Nicki Nicole, on the red carpet at the Grammy Awards. Gilbert Flores (Getty Images)

His story began 24 years ago in Zapopan, in Jalisco, western Mexico. Peso Pluma, who was born Hassan Emilio Kabande Laija, grew up in a humble family. His father was of Lebanese descent. He began playing guitar with YouTube videos, although it took him a while to write his own songs. At first, he only wrote down random things in his diary as a form of “therapy.” “At 14 and 15, I was a very introverted boy and I didn’t like to talk about what was happening with me and my feelings. My way of getting it out was to write it all down in a journal. Then I realized that some things rhymed and that I could start composing. It was my way of letting go of a weight,” he says. “My classmates at school laughed at me. It was normal. It was always like that because writing in a diary was a girl’s thing. At first, there was a lot of ridicule and criticism, but I was always like that and I didn’t want to change. It helped me to write my things in the diary and ignore the mockery. I liked doing it and that was more important.”

And he began to like the songs, although by then he faced a new challenge: living in the United States. His family moved to San Antonio, where he belonged to a Chicano community. His life was complicated by language, but, as he continued experimenting with his guitar and regional Mexican sounds, the experience allowed him to adopt musical influences from rappers like Drake and Kanye West. “I was never afraid to adopt new sounds and mix cultures,” he says. Shortly after he started to record his first songs, he was looking for a stage name. One was provided for him by former boxer Marco Antonio Barrera, who joked about his physical appearance, telling him that with his scrawny body he would be perfect to compete in the featherweight category. “I like boxing, but there is nothing like the show. Boxing personalities are all very special. But the show is the best,” says the musician, whose stage name, he adds, also refers to the musical project and the band as a whole.

Peso Pluma jumped into the ring with some heavyweight hooks. His first songs, released in 2021, performed very well. They were inspired by the narcocorridos of Chalino Sánchez, who was murdered in 1992. Like him, he included stories in his lyrics that talk about drug trafficking. In less than two years, and with only two albums under his belt, the new boxer of Mexican music reached a massive audience in his native country. In early 2023, that success crossed borders and became international after his collaborations with Natanael Cano and Junior H, the other two young talents who have broken the glass ceiling of Mexican music and reached enormous audiences worldwide. “The corrido tumbado is, ultimately, a branch of the tree of Mexican music,” explains Peso Pluma. “All artists are contributing our specialty to the genre. If you like to listen to tumbados, you can listen to Natanael. If you like the crying thing, as my friend Junior calls it, you can listen to Junior himself. And, if you like a little bit of everything, you can listen to Peso Pluma.” The three form what could be called the golden triad of the corrido tumbado, a genre with many more artists. “We have done nothing more than follow a tradition and contribute to evolution. We are very grateful and happy with what is happening,” he says.

Tradition, precisely, has rebelled against his success and that of his companions in the corridos tumbados. A good part of the older public does not like comparisons to the legendary names of Mexican song, such as Chavela Vargas, José Alfredo Jiménez, Jorge Negrete, Juan Gabriel, Joan Sebastian, Ariel Camacho or Chalino Sánchez. “There are people who see the new generations and the new musical waves and are afraid. Maybe they don’t want to criticize or belittle it, but they are afraid that we have done things so quickly that they couldn’t do,” he explains. “For the first time, we’ve seen a Mexican artist at the MTVs, which are totally American. We’ve seen a Mexican being the most nominated artist and the winner at the Latin Billboard Awards. And we see that Mexican music is now listened to in China. This is all new.” Peso Pluma talks about “purists” when referring to those who are “afraid” of new trends, but ends up giving them other qualifiers: “Old people are people who have always listened to old things. I see it in my family, in Sinaloa: they only listen to Los Tucanes de Tijuana, Los Tigres del Norte and Chalino Sánchez. The old school, as I call them, will always listen to the music from when they were young and will always be loyal to their tastes and ideals. They don’t understand hearing something new with different lyrics and things that don’t talk about what was talked about 20 years ago.” He adds: “But all those previous artists laid the road for us and we were able to get the car moving. We are all part of the same thing.”

“I’m not worried about setting the bar high,” says the artist. “I am very happy for the success we have had and being at number one, but someone else will always come along to break the record that you achieved."
“I’m not worried about setting the bar high,” says the artist. “I am very happy for the success we have had and being at number one, but someone else will always come along to break the record that you achieved." Josefina Santos (The New York Times / Contacto)

The podcast Agushto Papa has been covering the rise of Mexican music for two years and has become a benchmark for the urban genre. All the new stars have spoken on their shows. “The success of Peso Pluma has forced the entire new generation of musicians to demand more of themselves,” said Ángel López, one of the program’s hosts, in one of the episodes. “They can’t just stand in front of a microphone, play their instrument or sing. They have to offer something more. Peso Pluma has the most powerful flow on the scene.”

Peso Pluma’s appearance on the Spanish talk show comes to an end, but first the Mexican musician invites the entire audience to his concert in Madrid. “I’ll pay for the tickets!” he exclaims. It is unknown how many people accepted the invitation to the November gig, and whether the musician kept his promise. “I’m not worried about setting the bar high,” he says. “I am very happy for the success we have had and being at number one, but someone else will always come along to break the record that you achieved. I don’t care where I am. The important thing is to be there. Hitting the sides and seeing that I’m competing with Travis Scott’s album on one hand and Olivia Rodrigo’s on the other. It’s not fulfilling to win over anyone in numbers, but rather to be contributing. As artists, we like to wait for something really badass to happen to motivate us.”

When he goes back out onto the street, the vans wait and the bodyguards surround him again for the few meters to the vehicles. He walks in silence, with his hands in his pants pockets and wearing sunglasses, as if being threatened by cartels, with controversy following wherever he goes and dressed in gold like a millionaire rooster was the most natural thing in the world.

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