M aybe it was the excitement of post-lockdown celebrations or the simple triumph of getting through the worst of the pandemic, but the energy felt different at the 22nd annual Latin Grammys back in November of 2021. Thousands of people, dressed in shimmering gowns and slick suits, had gathered at MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas for the awards ceremony. At the end of the night, when it was time for the anticipated Song of the Year category, the air turned electric as people waited to hear who might take home the trophy — maybe a massive pop name like Camilo or Rauw Alejandro, who were both nominated and sitting in the audience.
Instead, the award went to “Patria Y Vida,” a song that started out in a small studio in Miami and spiraled across the streets of Cuba in 2021. The title, which inverts the popular Fidel Castro-era slogan “patria o muerte,” took on such force that it became a common chant during the unprecedented demonstrations that swept the island that summer. Despite its political impact, no one expected “Patria Y Vida” to win in Las Vegas, particularly because of how traditional the Latin Recording Academy can be. Five of the song’s performers — Yotuel Romero, Descemer Bueno, Eliexer “El Funky” Márquez Duany, Alexander Delgado Hernández, and Randy Malcom Martínez — appeared onstage, shocked and tearful, to accept the award. But there was one artist notably absent: the rapper Maykel Osorbo.
At that precise moment, Osorbo was sitting in Kilo 5 Y Medio, a maximum-security prison in the rural, tobacco-rich region of Pinar del Río, Cuba, far from the glamour and glitterati of the awards show. By then, he’d been jailed for six months, after authorities detained him on accusations that included assault, resistance, public disorder, and “propagating the epidemic,” all of which outside lawyers supporting him say are false charges. His family heard from him only sparingly, and they worried about his health, which had deteriorated since his arrest.
Since the late 2010s, Osorbo — whose real name is Maykel Castillo Pérez — had gained attention on the island as one of the most public figures of Movimiento San Isidro (MSI), a collective made up of dissident artists and intellectuals in Havana. He was also known for his bold, outspoken music, which caught the ear of Romero. Romero had begun working on “Patria Y Vida” in October of 2020, and he’d been collaborating with other artists who, like him, had moved to the U.S. from Cuba. Still, he felt the track — which was inspired by the political anthems of nueva trova legend Silvio Rodríguez — needed the voices of people still living on the island. He asked Osorbo to be part of the song, aware that the music risked provoking the Cuban government; the lyrics call for freedom and mention several activists by name. But Osorbo wasn’t afraid.
He and his close friend El Funky recorded verses in secret, sending them to Romero through WhatsApp. Over the next few months, they watched in awe as the song caught on in Cuba, becoming a rallying cry as unrest started brewing in the country. Frustrations had been mounting as Cubans faced food and supply shortages, something many saw as a direct product of government mismanagement and the effects of the pandemic — though others, including Cuban president Miguel Díaz-Canel, pointed to the effects of the U.S. embargo. Additionally, there was a tightening of restrictions during lockdown that reflected the Cuban government’s broader limits on civil liberties. Osorbo continued working with MSI, often using his platform to speak out and demand justice for people who’d been detained for expressing themselves. His rising popularity and outspokenness made him a frequent police target and, according to the humanitarian organization Prisoners Defenders, he was arrested and beaten multiple times before he was thrown in prison in May 2021.
Meanwhile, tensions in Cuba boiled over in July that year, resulting in rare nationwide protests. Many of them were set to the sound of “Patria Y Vida” — a sign that even if Osorbo was locked away, the messages he’d gotten out were still resonating with people.
After the Latin Grammys that November, there was a faint sense of hope: Perhaps such massive international attention would eventually mean Osorbo’s release. In February 2022, the United Nations Group on Arbitrary Detention responded to a complaint, spearheaded by Prisoners Defenders, and determined that Osorbo had been “persecuted and arbitrarily detained for exercising his fundamental rights to freedom of opinion, expression, assembly, association and participation.” They demanded his release, and Osorbo’s friends organized to fight for him. El Funky, who moved to the U.S. in 2021, released music lambasting Cuban authorities for imprisoning artists, and Osorbo’s partner, the activist Anamely Ramos, spoke out at demonstrations and rallied supporters on social media.
But in June 2022, a court in Havana made its final decision. Osorbo was sentenced to nine years in prison; artist Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara, a close MSI associate, was sentenced to five. Javier Larrondo, the president of Prisoners Defenders, believes some of the recognition Osorbo got for his music did help. In addition to winning Song of the Year, “Patria Y Vida” also secured the award for Best Urban Song, making Osorbo a two-time Latin Grammy winner — and, perhaps, lightening his sentence. “Given the way crimes were fabricated the way they were for Maykel, if he’d been hidden in anonymity, he perhaps could have even had a 12- or 13-year sentence dropped on him,” Larrondo says.
Still, the sentence was a painful one for him and those who’d been following Osorbo’s case. Osorbo will turn 40 this August; he’ll be almost 50 by the time he’s released. People have continued to denounce his imprisonment: Last month on Christmas Eve, the Argentine-Venezuelan singer Ricardo Montaner called for his liberation. Others, like El Funky, want to make sure Osorbo isn’t forgotten. “We’re going to keep making music, keep speaking up, until Maykel is free,” he says.
Maykel Osorbo grew up in Old Havana as an only child. When he was 10 years old, his mother left in the dead of the night, part of a swell of Cubans who left the island after the 1994 Maleconazo protests that led then-president Fidel Castro to briefly allow citizens to leave the island voluntarily. Osorbo was largely on his own after that.
“Maykel had a hard childhood,” says El Funky, who met Osorbo in the neighborhood as a kid. “He had to become a man at a really young age and went through really difficult things.” They stayed friends throughout the years, and they always had a love of music in common. They both wanted to be performers, but El Funky had to put his career ambitions on hold in 2005, after his first child was born, to focus on opening a café with his father.
In 2013, Osorbo came knocking on his door. “He said, ‘Compadre, you have talent, we’ve known each other for years. There are all these music festivals in Cuba with prizes. I have a studio where we can work without a problem,” El Funky remembers. At first, El Funky told Osorbo that he was done with music, but Osorbo had a way of inspiring. Within a few months, they were releasing songs together and independently, building recognition as artists in the neighborhood. They rapped about life in Cuba, and invariably what they were releasing was political. “I’ve always said that anyone who writes songs about everyday realities in Cuba is talking about the situation in Cuba,” he says. “So, without meaning to, we were making protest music.”
Osorbo’s work took on a radical urgency in 2018, when Cuba proposed Decree 349, a law that prohibited any artistic expression in both public and private spaces without approval by the government’s Ministry of Culture. Authorities were also given the power to shut down artistic activity that they deemed as containing “sexist, vulgar or obscene language.” Many artists and poets spoke out against the law, many of them eventually creating the MSI collective. Osorbo took on a central role alongside Otero, who was arrested dozens of times for staging demonstrations and art performances. Osorbo’s music became more direct than ever, filled with lacerating critiques of the government. In late 2020, he teamed up with El Funky for “Diazcarao,” a heated, blistering rap that directly took aim at president Díaz-Canel. El Funky believes that song is what started to rattle the government, just before “Patria Y Vida” exploded into the world.
Once they’d recorded their parts in “Patria Y Vida,” Osorbo and El Funky decided to take a huge risk by shooting a few scenes for a music video Romero was planning. They worked with the video director Anyelo Troya, who pawned off one of his cameras to get better equipment for the shoot, and snuck into an abandoned building in the dead of night. The Cuban government had enforced lockdown curfews, and they’d all face fines and even jail time if they got caught. They had three friends stand watch the entire night, switching off so they could sleep, and featured Otero in the video as well. Once it was finished, the video made an impact quickly, garnering one million views within three days.
“People who know me and my work were like, ‘Now you really went crazy.’ I knew there was going to be a fallout,” El Funky remembers. Ramos says that shortly after the song came out, she heard people starting to use the phrase ‘patria y vida’ casually on the street, and she noticed neighbors playing the song in public. She says that she was stunned by how much other Cubans were connecting to “Patria Y Vida,” but she was concerned about Osorbo. “All of us knew when we saw the reaction it got that there were going to be consequences. We know the authorities weren’t going to forgive something like that.”
Cuba, at the time, had been ramping up arrests on artists in particular. A 2021 report from the international NGO Freemuse, which has been documenting and researching incidents of censorship and suppressing freedom of expression, showed that Cuba’s rappers are some of the most persecuted rap artists in the world. Prisoners Defenders outlined more than 120 “repressive police acts” committed against Osorbo between 2019 and 2021, including beatings and arbitrary detentions. In one incident, he was picked up by police when he was at a park with his two-year-old daughter, who was left alone after authorities took him away.
Clashes that intensified that April ultimately led to his arrest. According to Prisoners Defenders, Osorbo had been walking to MSI headquarters when he saw police harassing a woman on the street. He attempted to intervene, and police moved to arrest him instead, despite not having a reason. By then, Osorbo had become a beloved figure in town, and neighbors quickly jumped in and helped him escape. They surrounded police officers and screaming at them to let Osorbo go, showing the mass support he had from Cubans. (An image of Osorbo holding one handcuffed arm up in the air after evading arrest went viral.) Almost a month later, on May 18, authorities picked him up again, handcuffing him shirtless and without shoes on while he was at home. Like many of the previous arrests, this one was made without an arrest warrant or clear charges against him. He’s been held ever since.
El Funky was detained at one point as well, but ultimately let go. “I’m not the type of person they were going to arrest,” he says. “I’ve done stuff, don’t get me wrong, and I’m a person who has a lot of support, but I don’t have a personality like Maykel and Luis Manuel. These guys are leaders — natural leaders. When they thought of things, what they’d come up with was so ingenious that it was a danger to the state.”
In addition to his work with Prisoners Defenders, Larrondo is a singer who’s played the most renowned venues in Spain and several other parts of the world. He’s performed with the legendary Celia Cruz and sang on an album alongside artists such as Gloria Estefan and Alejandro Sanz. He understands the value of freedom of expression intimately. His interest in Osorbo’s case came from his experiences both as a musician and a defender of human rights, and he’s been working with the hope of finding organized, systematic ways for the artistic community to show solidarity with artists who are oppressed around the world.
“Patria Y Vida” was the main storyline at the 2021 Latin Grammys, and the song’s two wins made headlines around the world. There was some inevitable controversy, with skeptical fans and musicians arguing that “Patria Y Vida” reflected a Western, anti-left political agenda and noting that the government organization USAID has used Cuba’s hip-hop scene in the past as a way to infiltrate the Cuban government. (Some Cuban rappers Rolling Stone spoke to have countered that regardless of what the U.S. has done, Cuba’s artists and hip-hop scenes have their own voice.) But more broadly, the Latin Recording Academy was applauded for swaying from its more risk-averse tendencies and recognizing a song with a strong social message.
And then, as the months passed, Osorbo’s story largely faded from mainstream coverage— and, seemingly, from the Latin industry and Latin Grammy’s consciousness. Osorbo, who remains behind bars, wasn’t mentioned at the 2022 awards ceremony this past November, and El Funky says no one contacted him about other efforts to raise awareness. However, he has kept writing music about Osorbo and other political prisoners in Cuba, refusing to back down. Artists such as Romero have also spoken out; he’s currently working on a documentary about “Patria Y Vida.”
Larrondo believes that cases such as Osorbo’s illustrate a violation of fundamental rights, and that limits on artistic expression — like other human-rights violations — require bigger, broader movements in response. “In the music industry, as well as in the sports industry, there isn’t a systemic process to show solidarity with oppressed artists or athletes,” he says. “I say this thinking of the Iranian case of the athlete sentenced to death. I haven’t seen soccer players, or soccer clubs, express themselves against that sentencing in a big way, doing things like organized moments of silence at stadiums, the same way I haven’t seen artists defending the freedom of Maykel Osorbo in a massive way.”
He adds: “The fact that some artists have stood up for Maykel is good, but without some coordination or a major response from the collective art world to support a Latin Grammy winner, and a constant, permanent message — without that, you can’t have that person set free from prison. Any artist in any regime could suffer things similar to Maykel.”
Ramos worries constantly about Osorbo’s medical condition in prison. She says he went through a critical period in which skin lesions and boils appeared on his skin, perhaps a result of contracting scabies or an infection in prison. Though he’s since stabilized, she wonders if the symptoms could be a sign of cancer, and she believes the Cuban government is actively withholding medical attention — something it has been accused of doing with prisoners in the past. Beyond that, she says Osorbo’s mood has dipped, especially after the holidays “He’s really not doing well, and he’s been that way for a long time,” she says. “Especially these days toward the end of the year, which is a tough time that you typically spend with family.”
Despite all this, Osorbo recently managed to share an audio recording, which was posted on his social media accounts. It’s a message of gratitude to his family, his friends, and above all, those who have supported him. “Those supporters have been there for me at all times, they have made me grow,” Osorbo says. “They have made me leave behind who I was and they’ve made me who I am.”