Daddy Yankee and Play-N-Skillz “Not a Crime (No es ilegal)” begins with a phrase that is both mundane and radical. Daddy Yankee sings: “Todo el mundo se puede enamorar/ Esto que sentimos no es ilegal.” That everyone can fall in love is not a very controversial or original idea. But by using the term “ilegal,” the song evokes issues that are driving not only the upcoming presidential election but also major social and political dilemmas that can be seen on the horizon. The movement of people throughout the world in search of a better life has made them “illegals” and by framing love as global phenomenon and claiming that love is not illegal, Daddy Yankee seems to suggest, indirectly and displaced onto safer rhetorical ground, that no one is illegal: “Todo el mundo . . . no es ilegal.” (That being said, someone whose thinking I respect wondered whether the song might be advocating for the legitimacy of same sex desire. I don’t really see it that way, but this was also the same person who pointed out that when Demi Lovato sang “I got a taste for the cherry/I just need to take a bite” in “Cool for the Summer” she was making reference to Lesbian sex, an idea that had NEVER occurred to me, so.)
Associating love and the law has been a common theme in contemporary Latin American pop music. Maná’s “Amor clandestino” figures love in terms of a fugitive. This fugitive love hides, travels in unexpected ways, and is inevitable. If in “Not a Crime” love cannot be illegal, in “Amor Clandestino” love does not need to be sanctioned in order to be. Love is furtive and patient and not bound by conventions. Ricardo Arjona’s “Duele verte” makes a very similar point, though the poetry of the feeling is a little undercut in that song because it’s about fucking a married lady on the sly. My favorite song on this theme is Julieta Venegas’ cover of Los Rodríguez’ “Sin documentos.” The first verse of this song always makes my heart jump: “Let me cross the air without any documents/ I will do it for the time we had/ Because there is no way out/ Because you seem asleep/ Because I would spend all of my life looking for your smile.” Here love must transgress borders in order to fulfill itself. Love depends on performing an illegal act because only by breaking laws can it meet its object. The original of this song is incredible, perfect almost, but I prefer Venegas’ cover because she sounds so resigned to doing what she has to do. In the original the breaking of the law for love sounds like an act of defiance, while in her cover it has to be done simply because there is no other choice.
The historical substratum for these songs is pretty clear. Latin Americans have for generations followed their dreams with or without official sanction. They have crossed borders in the light of day and in the night, with permission and without. Fences and walls have not stopped them and probably never will. I love how these songs take this sociological phenomenon and render it in artistic terms, not as a political issue as such, but as a question of love. These songs are fascinating because they illustrate how art works: art emerges from and responds to social and historical forces without being reducible to them. Love is never illegal and people are never illegal, but love and the law, these songs tell us, are not the same thing.