Calle 13 Invites Fans To Embrace The Ugly Calle 13 is one of the most popular hip-hop groups to come out of Puerto Rico. The duo has gained the love of its countrymen and the attention of fans all over the world by using its music to talk honestly about the lives of Puerto Ricans.
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Calle 13 Invites Fans To Embrace The Ugly

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Calle 13 Invites Fans To Embrace The Ugly

Calle 13 Invites Fans To Embrace The Ugly

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GUY RAZ, host:

Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

One of the most popular Latin bands in the world right now is a group called Calle 13 from Puerto Rico. The two brothers who make up the band have won six Grammies and sold more than two million records. Calle 13 has struck a sympathetic cord singing about some of the social ills of their island. But not everyone likes their politically-driven lyrics. Enrique Rivera traveled to Puerto Rico and has this profile.

ENRIQUE RIVERA: When you fly into the San Juan Airport, one of the first things you see is La Perla.

Mr. RENE PEREZ (Rapper, Calle 13): La Perla is like a barrio that is protecting all San Juan.

RIVERA: That's Rene Perez or Residente, as he's known. He's one-half of Calle 13, and the Barrio of La Perla is the subject of the duo's latest song, a collaboration with salsa legend, Ruben Blades.

(Soundbite of song, "La Perla")

Mr. PEREZ: (Singing) (Foreign language spoken)

RIVERA: The song describes the barrio. Hundreds of colorful makeshift houses stacked together, one on top of the other. It's mostly known for being a haven for drug dealing and where murder is almost an everyday occurrence.

Mr. PEREZ: You can see it both ways. You can see it like society put out La Perla. Literally, they are outside the wall. But also, you can see La Perla as a barrio that is protecting the old San Juan.

RIVERA: The neighborhood also has a jaw-dropping view of the beach, making it the perfect setting for a video shoot.

(Soundbite of music)

RIVERA: Getting permission to visit the shoot was tough. La Perla is completely governed by the drug dealers and is off limits to almost all outsiders, even the police. I have a guide, but I have to follow strict rules. I must ask permission to take pictures and to interview the residents. All of the people I talked to, like Sonia Miruet, love Calle 13.

Ms. SONIA MIRUET: (Through Translator) They hang out with us like we were family. I really like Calle 13's songs because the messages in their songs are things that are really happening and things that people are living.

RIVERA: Calle 13 is Residente and his half-brother Eduardo Cabra or Visitante. They didn't grow up in a barrio like this, but in a middle-class neighborhood in San Juan. Nevertheless, the group is still very class conscious.

Ed Morales, the author of a book about the roots of Latin music, points to Calle 13's hit "Atrevete," or "I Dare You," as an example.

Mr. ED MORALES (Author, "The Latin Beat: The Rhythms and Roots of Latin Music, from Bossa Nova to Salsa and Beyond"): One of the more famous lines is that, it doesn't matter if you like Coldplay, he says, you know, which is kind of a joke about the identity politics in Puerto Rico, where someone who aspires to be more middle-class might say that they just listen to rock groups and go to the mall and go shopping. And so he's asking the girl in the song, you know, let go with your middle-class pretense and, you know, you're just like me and we're good, essential people on this island, and let's have fun.

(Soundbite of song, "Atrevete")

Mr. PEREZ: (Singing) (Foreign language spoken)

RIVERA: Residente raps and Visitante makes the music. Calle 13's success has put the brothers in rarified company. Residentes is dating Denise Quinones, Puerto Rico's former Miss Universe; something that upset many Puerto Ricans, especially her parents. Residente taunts them in "Tango El Pecado," or "The Tango of Sin," rapping that he's going to date her regardless of what they think.

(Soundbite of song, "Tango El Pecado")

RIVERA: Residentes says the song is dedicated to everyone who criticized the relationship, but Ed Morales explains that it's not just about that.

Mr. MORALES: It's a calling out of the morality of Latin America and just an invitation to turn everything upside down by embracing the ugly, the profane in life, and asking people to go and take that journey.

RIVERA: Calle 13 has also called out the people in Puerto Rico for their apathy. In "Querido FBI," of "Dear FBI," Residentes scolds the barrios for their lack of outrage following the bureau's 2004 killing of 72-year-old Puerto Rican Independent leader Filiberto Ojeda Rios.

(Soundbite of song, "Querido FBI")

Mr. PEREZ: (Singing) (Foreign language spoken)

I was mad because the people in Puerto Rico, they didn't care about the barrios, you know. They have everything to defend themselves more than the army, so I just called them like you fight for a girl in a club and you're not going to fight for this. Then they forget - that happens all the time here -they forget about things.

RIVERA: Calle 13's political stances have made the duo extremely popular in countries like Argentina, Peru, Mexico, Spain, and in Latino communities in the U.S. and around the world. But this success has come without much help from the radio.

Mr. PEREZ: Ruben Blades told me once that if your music is very hot in the radio, you have to be worried because you're doing something wrong.

RIVERA: But with fans from Los Angeles to Egypt, Calle 13 seems to be doing something right.

For NPR News, I'm Enrique Rivera.

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