On Sunday, the music biz made a major leap in easing the longstanding strain between the U.S. and Cuba when Major Lazer became one of the first big American acts to perform in Cuba since the countries reinstated diplomatic relations in December 2014.
More than 50 years have passed since the U.S. established an embargo against the communist nation and tensions have begun to soften. Obama’s visit to the country on March 21 will likely kick the burgeoning partnership into high gear; he’ll be the the first sitting U.S. President to visit Cuba in 88 years.
Musicians, too, are starting to embrace the newly invigorated ties. The Rolling Stones announced an upcoming show earlier this month, nabbing claim as the first British rock band to play an open air concert in the country. But a Cuban gig struck a personal note for Major Lazer, who have been pushing to perform there for more than three years.
Comprised of DJ trio Diplo, Walshy Fire, and Jillionaire, the dance hall-fueled electro group has deep-seated bonds with the area. Fire’s family is from Jamaica, and Jillionaire hails from Trinidad. Both Diplo and Fire grew up in southern Florida, where large Cuban and Caribbean communities thrives. When they finally linked up with a Cuban contact who could bring the show to fruition, they seized the chance. “When the [Minister of Culture] found out I was Jamaican and that there was a Trinidadian in the group, he was like ‘Let’s do this,’” Fire tells EW. “It wasn’t so much an American act coming to Cuba as it was a global entity, something that kind of represents the world, which is what we try to push for.”
After a lengthy 14 months of planning, the show took place March 6, bringing a mammoth 400,000-strong audience to the oceanside city of Havana. Footage from the set sees Major Lazer leading the charge, a Cuban flag hiked over Diplo’s head as a fervent crowd roars on. “You can see that [the country] still has a long way to go, but the people? Man, you’ll never feel love like that,” Fire says of the show.
For more on the landmark performance, EW spoke with Fire about what it was like on the ground, why it hit home with Major Lazer, and what else is on the horizon for the group.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Take us through the process of setting up this show. How long was it in the works?
It took about 14 months. There’s a guy, Fabien Pisani [co-founder of Musicabana] in Cuba that was the guy that really wanted to make it happen. He was connected to all of the government officials and sounds guys, anything that we needed in Cuba he was the connection. It’s just been something that we were talking about for three or four years, so when we finally met someone that was there and interested in doing it and very passionate about it happening, our management flew down.
What gave you the initial push to set it up?
I’m from Miami and Diplo is from Fort Lauderdale. We grew up with a lot of Cuban and Haitian friends. I have the desire and push to do the same thing in Haiti, it just so happens that we found somebody in Cuba that was just as proactive, and everything as far as the government in Cuba seems to be pushing very fast in the direction of allowing these things to happen, so we just focused on Cuba first.
Logistically, how tricky was it to pull off?
I wasn’t in those meetings or the one flying down, but from what they’re saying, it was very tricky. There were a lot of do’s and don’ts. But at the end of the day, that warm welcome feeling was 100 percent there.
Was it important to you to be the first group to do this?
Absolutely. It was already in the process two years ago, but if somebody else had come and done it, it would have stopped us. We like to be the people who go can go out into the world and say we’re the people seeking places that need bridges built and need the kind of energy that we bring, and then actively doing the show. We will pay for it ourselves. We just want to bring the kind of enjoyment that we know we can bring.
Would you go back? How would you feel about doing a music festival there?
No question. I’m not too familiar with what concerts they have, but we do a show called Major Lazer Presents where we bring all of our favorite global acts of the year to Jamaica and Trinidad. It would be a natural step.
You mentioned there are a number of places you’re looking to build ties through music. What other locales are on the list?
For me personally, I’d say Haiti. That’s my surroundings, that’s my environment, those are my friends, those are my people, just like Cuba is my environment, my friends, my people. I’d also say the Congo, Syria—just places that you know the impact of what you’re doing is going to be huge.
What did you learn about Cuba’s music scene while you were on the ground?
Well, I learned a lot about Cuba in general. I learned a lot about Afro-Cuban music, and I learned a lot about the reggaeton artists and the rappers. A lot of them are shooting high definition videos and have their music playing all over the place. It’s kind of weird. You’ll always get Puerto Rican reggaeton, or you’ll get Panamanian music. I’d never really heard too many Cuban acts that were young and urban, so I learned a lot about those.
How are you feeling coming away from the performance? Were you nervous about any lingering political tension?
Amazing. Inspired. We definitely got lots of negative messages from Cuban Americans, just like we did when we went to Venezuela. All of the Venezuelans in Miami were sending these hateful messages, saying we were supporting the government. When you get there, you don’t want to say that they’re completely wrong, you just want to say they might be holding on to something that their grandparents or barely their parents even remember. For the ones that do go to Cuba, usually they’ll say something like, ‘You know what, it’s still messed up, but the people are great. The culture’s great.’ That’s what I experienced. You can see that they still have a long way to go, but the people? Man, you’ll never feel love like that. I’ve been everywhere in the world, and I’ve never felt that much love from the people.
Would you say that’s the biggest takeaway when you look at the shows you’ve done in other countries?
Yeah, no question. I’m walking away with this feeling like, I can’t believe how great my job is, how awesome my life is, how inspired I feel right now to continue to do this throughout the world. If there’s anything that would unite the world, it would be music. I have a saying: I try to make the world smaller by making the party bigger. I just feel like I did that. I don’t know the exact number of people that were there, but if you look at the video it looks like the entire city came to the show. It for sure felt like a million people, and there was only a handful of police out there. It was just everybody in the street partying. I’m still on a high. I’m still riding that wave and riding that energy because it was strictly love.[facebook url="https://www.facebook.com/majorlazer/videos/10153493219333932/" /]
Did you have an existing fan base in Cuba?
How would we know, right? If that many people came out, I’d assume we did. Some people might have just been curious because there’s a big show, but they knew “Lean On” and the knew “Light It Up,” and “Light It Up” is our newest song. For “Light It Up” to be bigger than “Lean On” in Cuba, I’d say there was a fan base for sure.
The Rolling Stones are also set to do a show in Cuba later this month. What’s behind this larger effort to play the country?
There’s not really a larger effort. We don’t really have a game plan. There was no long-term concept. We just wanted to get this done and show complete love, complete unity. There haven’t been any larger conversations. We have our circle of musicians, and there’s for sure that conversation has happened there. We love Rolling Stones but we’ve never spoken to them. I’m sure that every musician that goes there will feel the same love that we did, and we encourage every musician to do a show there.
Why do you feel music is a significant step for softening the relationship between the U.S. and Cuba?
I wouldn’t just say U.S. and Cuba, I would say anywhere in the world. Music is a major part of everything. Conversation stops ignorance, and music is the bridge for that conversation.