Threats Against Peso Pluma Reignite Backlash Against Narcocorridos

Peso Pluma gave an electrifying performance onstage during the 2023 MTV Video Music Awards on Sept. 12 and became the first artist to perform a corrido, a Mexican folk ballad, in the show’s 39-year history. The breakout star from Jalisco, who has sung about the cartel lifestyle, recently postponed four shows after banners placed throughout Tijuana threatened the singer ahead of an Oct. 14 concert in Baja California. (Photo by Mike Coppola / Getty Images)

The MTV Video Music Awards may not have the viewership it once had, but with stars such as Selena Gomez and Diddy in attendance, the event still can move the needle in culture, as evidenced by the countless number of memes of Taylor Swift dancing to the live performances.

One of the songs Swift grooved to was “Lady Gaga” from Peso Pluma, with his gravelly, nasal voice backed by 12-string guitars, brass and an upright bass that got everyone on their feet.

Peso Pluma’s performance was the first from a Mexican singer in the 39-year history of the awards show, a fact that should have been the lede in articles that popped up when his name was Googled. Unfortunately, the focus was on something else: Peso Pluma postponing shows after receiving alleged death threats.

Four narcomantas, banners put out by cartels usually containing death threats, were placed throughout Tijuana on Sept. 12, warning the artist that his concert at Estadio Caliente scheduled on Oct. 14 would be his last because of his “disrespect and loose tongue.” The alleged threats were signed with the initials CJNG, which are those of the Jalisco New Generation Cartel. The threats prompted Peso Pluma to postpone four U.S. shows “due to unforeseen circumstances.”

While authorities couldn’t confirm that the banners were indeed messages from the cartel, Peso Pluma ultimately canceled the show in Tijuana. The Guadalajara native, whose real name is Hassan Emilio Kabande Laija and is managed by George Prajin, posted the news on social media saying, “Our objective is to protect the fans and the team. For the security of everyone involved, we canceled our show in Tijuana. Many thanks to our fans for understanding. We love you.”

Peso Pluma has several narcocorridos, folk ballads about Mexican cartels, in his catalog, and a few of his music videos feature him with a machine gun and donning a bulletproof vest. Some Mexican politicians and audiences push back against the popular Mexican music subgenre and have attempted to censor it in the past because of its glorification of narcoculture, but many view narcocorridos as a way for artists to convey and critique contemporary Mexican life.

It has also become a lucrative business in the music industry that generates strong streaming numbers and millions of views on social media. Peso Pluma alone has more than 50 million monthly listeners on Spotify.

It’s not the first time a singer has forgone a trip to Mexico following a threat. Gerardo Ortiz, a Southern California native, canceled a show in Acapulco four years ago after his life was threatened. He was also arrested in 2016 by federal police in Guadalajara on the charges of “criminal exaltation” for his “Fuiste Mía” music video, which depicts graphic violence against women and was condemned by the Mexican government.

The recent threats against Peso Pluma have reignited the debate over narcocorridos as to whether the music is harmful or truthful about the Mexican experience.

Ana Sánchez-Rojo, a music history professor at Tulane University who teaches a course called “Music of the Latin American Outlaws,” said the discourse surrounding narcocorridos is equivalent to that of gangster rap and is a complicated subject that involves not one nation but two.

“Being at the border for musicians has been instrumental because, since the 1930s, they could go into the U.S. to record more easily, so commercialization of music like norteños and corridos is U.S.-based,” Sánchez-Rojo tells Pollstar. “It’s not only Mexican culture. It’s an exchange. There would not be narcocorridos, there would be no Peso Pluma without the U.S. market and recording industry. It pushes the border culture further as we know it.”

Rafael Acosta, an author and professor at Kansas University, studies corridos as a literary device and compares what he refers to as “corridos progresivos” to that of progressive rock, pushing boundaries lyrically and technically.

“They are aiming to do some things like The Who did in producing rock operas or Pink Floyd would do when they produced more complicated rock with more complicated music structures,” said Acosta. “These songs are becoming popular because a lot of music today doesn’t say anything. The last time I listened to Mexican music on FM radio, they sounded like the same things you listen to in Italy, South Africa or Korea – just in a different language. But when you turn to the AM radio, it sounds like nothing you would listen to in those areas. And I think that divide is what makes people turn to these narratives.”

Such narratives may contain a loaded, controversial message with some risk involved for musicians, but it’s one that is sparking a musical revolution in the U.S. and Mexico that has earned Mexican artists a seat at tables they hadn’t been invited to.