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Mike Levine sits smiling on a bench outside Person Hall
Mike Levine, Ph.D. Candidate

Congratulations to Ph.D. Candidate Mike Levine, who won the Latin American Studies Association’s Best Student Paper Award in February for his paper titled, “‘Exchanging Cuba for 1 Million YouTube Views’: Piracy, Virality, and ‘Patria y Vida.’”

Levine’s research centers on the Cuban music scene, specifically on how artists and fans gain access to and share music with one another despite the scarcity of traditional internet access, instead utilizing Cuba’s offline internet (called el paquete semanal). This article pulls directly from research for his dissertation titled, “Lo Encontré en El Paquete’: Reparto Music, Media Piracy and Cultural Exchange in Cuba’s Offline Internet.”

Per their website, the Latin American Studies Association (LASA) is “the largest professional association in the world for individuals and institutions engaged in the study of Latin America. With over 13,000 members, over 60% of whom reside outside the United States, LASA is the one association that brings together experts on Latin America from all disciplines and diverse occupational endeavors, across the globe.”

We reached out to Levine about this award and what it meant to him to receive this honor, where it fits into his research and dissertation work, and more.

UNC Music: Tell us a little bit about your paper. How does it fit into your research and dissertation work? 
Mike Levine: This paper is largely based on work included in the fifth and final chapter of my dissertation. It centers on the creative methods that music fans in Havana, who have little access to the internet, use to share songs with one another. Despite their technological precarity, they created a viral event in 2021 by widely sharing the politically controversial song “Patria y Vida” through USB sticks. Their efforts were crucial in moving this anthem of political dissent across Cuba. In part due to these efforts, the song grew to become a centerpiece in the J-11 protests that took over the streets of Cuba and Miami last summer.

UNC Music: How were you selected to present your paper at LASA’s conference? 
Levine: I was invited by Dr. Iraida López to join a workshop sponsored by LASA’s Cuba Section at the society’s conference in May of this year. I decided to speak on a topic where my work on Cuban reggaetón intersected with both COVID-19 and the J-11 protests, as these are important issues to the Havana-based group of artists and fans that I work with. 

UNC Music: What does it mean to you to win this award? 
Levine: This award reflects the pivot I made in my dissertation research as COVID-19 shut down the borders between the US and Cuba over 2020 and 2021. Instead of exclusively writing about how people use USB sticks to gain access to the internet, I decided to shift focus and write about the difficult situation that my Havana-based friends were going through at that time. Many of them faced (and continue to face) enormous obstacles economically and politically, and of course, technologically. At the same time, it is truly inspiring to see how music fans use digital virality to bring representation back to their communities, even when passing songs to one another through USB drives.

The recognition extended from such an important organization means the world to me. This was an unexpected honor and I feel indebted to the fantastic team at LASA, and especially the Cuba Section, for making it possible. I also look forward to presenting the paper in May during LASA’s virtual congress.

by Catherine Zachary ’10

Read more about Levine’s research in this feature from 2019 titled, “Cuba’s USB-driven music scene.”

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