FELIX CONTRERAS, HOST:
From NPR Music, this is ALT.LATINO. I'm Felix Contreras.
Puerto Rico is facing an unprecedented political crisis as its embattled governor finally committed to leaving office after almost two weeks of protest by hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans demanding that he do so and as soon as possible. The protesters, the politics and now the uncertain future are the result of a complicated history. But what is very clear is that Governor Ricardo Rosselló's initial defiance to calls that he leave office before his term is complete triggered the largest demonstrations the island has ever seen.
And for a couple of days last week, some of those leading the protests and demonstrations were musicians, very well-known musicians. Ricky Martin was there, and so was rapper Residente from Calle 13, his younger sister known as iLe and the very popular Latin trap artist known as Bad Bunny, whose real name is Benito Martínez. As the protests started to build, on July 17, Residente, Bad Bunny and iLe released a track called "Afilando Los Cuchillos," a politically charged protest song that was essentially the soundtrack to a social movement in real time.
That intersection of music and politics is the subject of our show this week. We're going to take a deeper dive into the story behind a protest song that has seemed to galvanize Puerto Ricans on the island and beyond. We're going to talk to Residente and iLe. We're going to hear from some protesters on the island about the impact the song had on the demonstrations. And we're going to talk to a Latina university professor who teaches popular culture and sociology to find out why this song is an unprecedented game-changer for the Latin American protest song. Lots to talk about, so let's get started.
First, this report from NPR's Adrian Florido on the morning after Rosselló announced his plan to leave on August 2.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
NOEL KING: Puerto Rico's Governor Ricardo Rosselló has finally yielded to massive public protests. In a recorded announcement posted online late last night, Rosselló said he will resign. At the time, thousands of demonstrators were in the streets outside of his executive residence for the 13th straight day of protests.
Here is Adrian Florido of NPR's Code Switch team. He's been covering this from San Juan.
ADRIAN FLORIDO: Rosselló addressed Puerto Ricans from behind his desk in the governor's mansion known as La Fortaleza. After several minutes listing accomplishments, a freshly shaven and somber-faced Rosselló arrived at the line that many thousands of people in the streets had been demanding to hear from him for days.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
RICARDO ROSSELLÓ: A pesar de contar con el mandato del pueblo que democráticamente me eligió...
FLORIDO: "Despite the mandate I have from the people who democratically elected me," Rosselló said, "I feel remaining in this position would hinder the continued success of what's been achieved."
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
ROSSELLÓ: Con desprendimiento, hoy les anuncio que estaré renunciando al puesto del gobernador.
FLORIDO: "Today," he said, "I announce that I'll be resigning the governorship, effective August 2 at 5 p.m." Outside, thousands of people packing the streets of Old San Juan were streaming the address on their cellphones. When they heard that line, they erupted.
REYNALDO CORTES: Brutal, me siento brutal. Era hora que renunciara.
FLORIDO: "It feels amazing," said Reynaldo Cortes (ph). "The time had come for him to resign." Over the last two weeks, Rosselló had seen his political capital evaporate. It started with corruption charges against two former officials in his administration, then the publication of private text messages in which the governor and his top advisers insulted opponents and everyday Puerto Ricans, schemed ways to manipulate the public and joked about dead bodies from Hurricane Maria. Protests against him started small but within days had swelled to thousands and then tens - possibly hundreds - of thousands.
JORGE RIVERA: Mira, el pueblo despertó. Gracias a Dios.
FLORIDO: "The people have woken up," said Jorge Rivera (ph). "Thank God."
RIVERA: Esos chats privados, y gracias a Dios que salieron a la luz pública pues si no hubieran salido...
FLORIDO: He said he was glad the private texts had come out because Puerto Ricans had seen what kind of people their leaders really were. Over days, initial offense over the chats transformed into a broad repudiation of not only the governor but of a political system that Puerto Ricans feel is rife with corruption and responsible for the island's ongoing economic crisis and much of the suffering they endured after Hurricane Maria.
BRENI RODRIGUEZ: Estamos ahora mismo evaluando a cada persona que suba al poder. Así que a la próxima persona que venga que esté consciente de que el pueblo no se va a cansar.
FLORIDO: Breni Rodriguez (ph) said what happened to the governor should be a warning that Puerto Ricans are finally standing up to hold their leaders accountable and that whoever comes next should know that protesters won't let up. Under Puerto Rico's constitution, the next in line to become governor is the island's justice secretary, Wanda Vázquez, because the secretary of state, who would have assumed the role, resigned last week amid the scandal.
Adrian Florido, NPR News, San Juan, Puerto Rico.
(SOUNDBITE OF RODRIGO AND GABRIELA'S "THE SOUNDMAKER")
CONTRERAS: And now the song. It's called "Afilando Los Cuchillos," or sharpening the knives. It's a searing indictment of Governor Rosselló, written by Residente, Bad Bunny and iLe and produced by Puerto Rican DJ, Trooko. It was recorded and mixed within 12 hours and distributed for free on YouTube on Wednesday morning, July 17, just as the number of people demonstrating is starting to climb. It's entirely in Spanish, so I'll translate some of the lyrics after we hear it.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AFILANDO LOS CUCHILLOS")
RESIDENTE: Dale. Estamos afilando las navajas. Dale. Llegó el afilador de navajas. Trooko.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Ha llegado el afilador a su domicilio, a la puerta de su casa. Se afila el cuchillo, el afilador en su propio domicilio.
RESIDENTE: (Rapping) Llegó la hora de un combo de miles en motoras patrullando las 24 horas. Boricua de cora, con el puño arriba a la conquista, no nos va a meter las cabras un pendejo de Marista. Según este compadre, mi mami junto con todas las mujeres son igual de putas que su madre. Tú no eres hijo del cañaveral, escoria. Tú eres hijo del cabrón más corrupto de la historia.
Disculpen mis expresiones. Pero al igual que Ricky, estoy liberando las tensiones. Le doy fuego a La Fortaleza como se supone, y al otro día voy a la iglesia para que me perdonen. Mejor no quieras probar de qué estamos hechos. Aquí en El Monte heredamos el mismo pecho. Tus disculpas se ahogan con el agua de la lluvia en las casas que todavía no tienen techo.
Tú no heredaste pecho. Tú heredaste un patrimonio. Y a ti por la noche te persiguen los demonios. En la familia que mataste, destruiste un matrimonio. Esto va por Lillian y su hijo, Juan Antonio. Esto va para que despiertes. Esto va por los 4,645 muertes. La hipocresía del país en general - tirar piedras en Venezuela está bien, pero en Puerto Rico está mal.
Esto va para los artistas internacionales y las banderitas de Puerto Rico en las redes sociales. Ninguno de nosotros, los supuestos bandoleros, está acusado de fraude, robo o lavado de dinero. Con todo que lo han robado estos politiqueros pintamos las paredes del Caribe entero. Y aunque esto no le caiga bien a la gente para decírtelo en un chat, para eso lo digo de frente.
Se tiran a los caseríos a los puntos de droga. Les rompen las casas, y por ellos nadie aboga. Nosotros hacemos lo mismo sin delicadeza. A estos criminales les hacemos una redada en Fortaleza. Si el pueblo entero quiere que te vayas, caradura, y tú te quedas, entonces estamos en dictadura. Solo te apoya tu esposa, la ex-modelo, la que piensa que “Cien Años De Soledad” la escribió Coelho.
Y así son los pocos que te siguen, brutos. Pero tranqui. Afilar navajas toma un minuto. Somos el rugido de la bandera de Puertorro con todos sus tejidos exigiendo tu renuncia para que nadie salga herido. Todo el mundo unido - no importa el color de tu partido. Esto salió temprano para que te lo desayunes. La furia es el único partido que nos une.
ILE: (Singing) Vamos cortantes, como los cuchillos, sacando chispa hasta llegar al filo. Hay que arrancar la maleza del plantío para que ninguno se aproveche de lo mío.
BAD BUNNY: (Singing) El pueblo no aguanta más injusticia. Se cansó de tus mentiras y de que manipulen las noticias. Ey, ey, todos los combos, los caseríos - somos nuestra milicia. Ya no nos coges de pendejo. Eres un corrupto de que corruptos coges consejos. Arranca para el carajo, y vete lejos. Y denle la bienvenida a la generación del yo no me dejo.
Y quizás tú hablas en tu grupo como yo en el mío, pero yo no tengo fondos públicos escondidos. De la muerte de los puertorriqueños yo no me río. PR está encabronado. Ricky, estás jodido. Y que se enteren todos los continentes que Ricardo Rosselló es un incompetente, homofóbico, embustero, delincuente. A ti nadie te quiere, ni tu propia gente.
Vamos a prender en fuego a tu gabinete. Los títeres, guarden las cortas, y saquen los machetes. La cuna de las crías - con el boricua nadie se mete. Todas las paredes dicen, Ricky, vete, ey. Y no es vandalismo. Vandalismo es que nos tiremos nosotros mismos por defender a los que nos llevaron al abismo. Vandalismo es que siempre voten por los mismos, y se roben todos los chavos de educación mientras cierran escuelas, y los niños no tienen salón.
Ey, es hora de sacar las ratas, que se vaya Ricky, que se vaya el otro, que se vaya Tata. Y no se trata de hablar malo en las conversaciones. Malo hablo yo en mi casa y en todas mis canciones. Se trata de que le has mentido el pueblo con cojones de que escondiste las muertes con todo y los vagones, y te burlaste de nosotros con otros cabrones, e hiciste que el país entero se encojone. Manipulación, corrupción, conspiraciones - Ricky, renuncia, y a tu mami que te perdone - yo no, yo no.
ILE: (Singing) Vamos cortantes, como los cuchillos, sacando chispa hasta llegar al filo. Hay que arrancar la maleza del plantío para que ninguno se aproveche de lo mío. Vamos cortantes, como los cuchillos, sacando chispa hasta llegar al filo. Hay que arrancar la maleza del plantío para que ninguno se aproveche de lo mío.
CONTRERAS: OK, here are some sample lyrics from Residente. He says, if the entire country wants you to leave, and you stay, then it's a dictatorship. He also says, fury is the only political party that unites us.
And now some lyrics from Bad Bunny - he says, all I want is the continents to find out that Ricardo Rosselló is an incompetent, homophobic liar and crook. Nobody loves you, not even your own people. He also says, manipulation, corruption, conspiracy - Ricky, quit and let your mom forgive you.
Residente, or René Pérez Joglar, is no stranger to strong political statements in music. Calle 13 was a critical and popular success based largely on the strength of Residente's very socially conscious lyrics that take on any number of social ills plaguing Latin America, set to music composed by his brother, Eduardo Cabra, while younger sister Ileana Cabra Joglar also sings some of the lyrics. I spoke with Residente by phone from San Juan, hours before Rosselló announced his departure. Here's part of that conversation.
RESIDENTE: We didn't think about it too much, you know? And that's the good thing about this song because it was, like, a really honest expression, you know, very spontaneous, and we were feeling so mad. So I talked to - with Benito. He was in Spain. I was in New York, and I told him, man, let's do a song.
We have a chat together, like, with my brother and Benito. And we were chatting. And he said, like, it would be cool if we have, like, a woman voice. And I was, of course. And he was thinking about iLe, and I was like, of course. I really like when other people suggest my sister instead of me suggesting my sister, you know, because I'm her biggest fan.
So it was crazy because at the same time we were writing, but we didn't know what we were saying. We didn't have that time, you know, to listen to or to read what we were writing about, you know? And it was perfect because what I didn't say, Benito said it. What I told iLe was to write something simple but emotional and to have, like, her voice to sound very old-school but her style.
RESIDENTE: But I'm telling you. It was like a song that we made in one day, you know? And then Trooko - I told him, bro, like, I need a beat. It was like, God, we didn't sleep, like, the whole night. Benito wanted to release it in the morning before the first protest.
CONTRERAS: As you and I have talked about before, and as I've mentioned to you before, I think your work most resembles the work of Eduardo Galeano. And this song seems to flow in that tradition, with mentions of the history of corruption and greed and very strong statements about this politician's lack of moral character, even the anger and the frustration of the people. It's a very powerful statement.
RESIDENTE: It was important to have it, also, as a document of that day, you know? For me, I like to document things via songs - like, moments - because, you know, every song is kind of like a document, and it's documenting something, but with this particular case, is you have that opportunity of documenting, like, the energy of that moment and how people felt.
And also, I think it's not about being right or wrong. It's - feelings can't be wrong, you know? And it was about that, you know? It was about feeling something deep inside, and everyone is feeling the same anger. And this is historic. What's happening in Puerto Rico is the first time that I see so many people all together connected by the same fight and with one flag. Like, there was only one flag. It's the first time that I go to a protest, and I see just one flag, and it's the Puerto Rican flag.
RESIDENTE: And that was amazing.
CONTRERAS: When you talk about the song capturing the energy, from my observation, as someone who looks at history and looks at music at the same time, it's a unique situation where the song captures the energy, but the song also contributes to the energy as well. Because you made it free, because it came out so quickly, because it spread so quickly, it also contributed to the energy, and that's within the context of Latin American protest music.
RESIDENTE: I think it's the song that is what - you know, the way it's written. I think it's the mix of artists that you have there because you have iLe and me that we kind of, like - politically speaking, we're kind of similar. And Benito is, like, in that middle. So I think it has a balance, you know, in between Benito and me. And then you have a song that - angry, but it's maintaining a balance. So that's why I think that people like it. So it's the first time that I put a political song out like that - you know, like, angry - and people dig it and like it, like that, you know, like, unanimous - unanimously, you know?
CONTRERAS: Yeah. Plus, it's a unique - it came out at a unique time in Puerto Rican history where people with - like you said, people with different perspectives - they all are united in, this guy's got to go.
RESIDENTE: Yeah, yeah, yeah, everyone is united for that. And the great thing about it is that it's not only that we're united that we want him out, but that it's kind of like an awakening for Puerto Ricans. And it's a new generation - new kids that are understanding that it's not about being a pro-statehood or a colony. It's not about that. It's about - like, we have to change the system, and we have to change what's happening in Puerto Rico. And we have to start from scratch. Even the independent parties like the party who believes in the independence of Puerto Rico - they have to do something because it's not happening. They have to do something new.
CONTRERAS: OK, unless you have anything else to say, I think we're set.
RESIDENTE: I'm in San Juan till this is finished, and then I can keep going with my album and put out a single that I've been holding for the past two weeks.
CONTRERAS: René, gracias, man. Thank you very much.
RESIDENTE: Thank you.
CONTRERAS: iLe wrote the lyrics for the chorus after consulting with her brother. She sings, let's be sharp, like the knives making sparks until you reach the edge. We must clear the weeds after the planting so that no one else takes advantage of me.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AFILANDO LOS CUCHILLOS")
ILE: (Singing) Vamos cortantes, como los cuchillos, sacando chispas hasta llegar al filo. Hay que arrancar la maleza del plantío para que ninguno se aproveche de lo mío.
CONTRERAS: I spoke with her at her home in Puerto Rico the day after the song came out.
How much of an impact do you think this will have because of - given the popularity of the people involved, with you and René and Benito?
ILE: Well, I think it's already having a big reaction to people. Basically, what we're seeing is just what we are seeing, what we're watching in the streets. Like, we are reflecting - we're telling a story, basically, of the moment that we're in right now. And that is what art is all about, like expressing the moment that you're living at the same time you're in. So we're basically telling a story as if a newspaper, you know, but even better, more - like, more open and more direct and more raw.
Benito was touring in Europe, actually. And he stopped the tour to come here to Puerto Rico. And I think - because the trip is so long, I think he had to record it when he arrived here yesterday. There's very much adrenaline at the same time. So when you're angry, like, sometimes you get out your best words (laughter).
It's a very, very wonderful and weird moment at the same time. Like, I feel ashamed of my government. But at the same time, I feel proud that people are reacting and waking up. It's amazing. I think I've been waiting for this for a long time. I think it's one of the best days of my life. Like, I feel people - Puerto Ricans are waking up in big masses, and I think that is something we needed a long time ago. And for me, it's very, very necessary to express that anger that we've been accumulating for so long. And that's basically the reaction we've been expressing and also in the song. And I'm glad that people are feeling identified with this song, as well.
CONTRERAS: This is NPR's ALT.LATINO with a look at a song that was part of the unprecedented political showdown that has been taking place in Puerto Rico over the last few weeks. The day after "Afilando Los Cuchillos" was released, NPR'S Adrian Florido told me he heard the song everywhere as he covered the mass demonstrations on the island.
The three musicians, Residente, iLe and Bad Bunny, made the strategic decision to give the song away through YouTube. They deliberately avoided streaming services and thus any monetary gain. At the moment, the song has been streamed over 5 million times.
To get an idea of the song's impact among demonstrators, freelance Puerto Rican journalist Sadot Santana spoke to protesters three days after the song's release.
MARIANA MARTINEZ: Yo pienso que es...
CONTRERAS: Mariana Martinez (ph) says, the song put into words what many people feel inside but didn't know how to say it. And it was also important, she says, to have a female voice singing the image of a knife or sharpening of it.
MIGUEL COLON: Pues les repito...
CONTRERAS: Miguel Colon (ph) says he was proud to hear mainstream artists saying the very things he has felt for years. The song completely captured the feeling of the streets, he says - the anger, the frustration, the hatred for the governor and his actions. He also says putting the song for free on social media was very important.
This is Carissa Casañía (ph).
CARISSA CASAÑÍA: There are a lot of Americans that don't know Puerto Rico's in a colony. There are a lot of Americans they - that don't know that you don't need a passport to come over here. In fact, I've been asked. I was in a - in an internship last month, and I was asked how much did I spent traveling while driving from Puerto Rico to Texas.
JOSEAN CRUZ: Yo vengo luchando...
CONTRERAS: Josean Cruz (ph) says he's a university student and has been protesting against the government for years. And he appreciates that the song educates people about the things that have been going on for a long time.
DAPHNE COLÓN: Un poquito más joven...
CONTRERAS: Daphne Colón says the song is very important because it reaches a very young audience that may not have been educated on the issues as much as older folk.
And finally, let's put all these pieces together - this moment in history for Puerto Rico, the fury and the message of the song, the impact on those who hear it, and even the song's place in the history of the Latin American protest song. What does it all mean? To find out, I spoke to Maria Elena Cepeda. She is the director of Latino and Latina studies at Williams College. Here's part of our conversation.
What were your first impressions of the song when you heard it?
MARIA ELENA CEPEDA: Literally, when I heard the song for the first time, the hair on my arms stood on end. It's a very profound experience to hear the song for the first time. If you'll notice, it was released on YouTube and not on any of the streaming services. I can't find it on any of them. So this is a not-for-profit venture, and I think that makes it - that's just one of the things that makes the song very unique.
You know, it opens up with a very specific reference to the sound of, you know, walking knife sharpeners as they walk through the streets of Latin America or Spain, that sort of whistling sound. It's a very everyday reference. And the song, just like the crisis and people's reaction to the crisis on the island and in the diaspora right now, is very much about the everyday, everyday revolution.
CONTRERAS: Talk to me a little bit about some of the details that made it powerful for you.
CEPEDA: Well, I think the one line that stands out - right? - is la furia es el único partido que nos une, right? Fury is the only political party that unites us. This is a song that goes beyond political divisions. It's a common text.
iLe is singing more, I think, to the Puerto Rican people. But I think Residente and Bad Bunny are very pointedly speaking directly to Rosselló, disrespecting him, I think, in a way that reflects the amount of disrespect that they feel has been leveled at the Puerto Rican people by the Rosselló government and also the Trump government in the U.S.. It was a very quick production, but the song actually references experiences, sensations, situations that are much more long-standing and that are historical.
CONTRERAS: It feels like - and I think I've heard people say, it's like, this is 100 years of frustration and fury.
CEPEDA: Absolutely. And the way he says Ricky, with sort of, like - the way that, you know, directly - it's a first word, you know, very informal you addressed to Rosselló. And it is. It's very cutting. I mean, and I know the word cutting is kind of, you know, cliche to use because the song is about - right? - sharpening the knives. But it is a very cutting delivery, not just in terms of the content but also the form, the way in which they're rapping, the way in which they're singing.
And for me, it's all about, too, in a way - it's sort of like, who has the weapons here? This is a response to Puerto Ricans' death by a thousand cuts, so we're going to take our own knives and turn them on you, the ones who have been cutting us for all of this time. It's really profound for me, and listening to it - I listened to it several times, and every time I listen to it, it really hits me in my bones.
CONTRERAS: Is it more powerful because it comes from the biggest music stars in contemporary Puerto Rican music?
CEPEDA: I think that's part of it, right? They have the name recognition and the renown. But at the same time, I think there's another level of power that's going around. And when you think about the broader context of reggaeton, its history and its development, it's been going through a really interesting shift for the last few years, a shift that not everybody's entirely happy about in the sense that the genre - because it originally emerged in the - you know, in the broader Caribbean as a form of music - was very much grounded in race and class-based critique. And a lot of people think the genre has been moving away from that. It's been sort of moving out of Puerto Rico - well, Bad Bunny has sort of contested a little bit of that in his emergence - but that it's been shifting more towards Medellin and much more of a pop-oriented sound, much more of a depoliticized sound.
However, I don't want to suggest that pop music is apolitical. But at the same time, this very overt race and class critique has been sort of filtered out of reggaeton. But you're seeing that that's not the case at all right now. This is a really biting critique. And it really gives the lie to anybody who's going to say that popular music isn't political and that reggaeton has lost its edge.
CONTRERAS: OK, now let's put this song in the context of other forms of protest music in Latin America, if we can. How is this the same? And how is it different?
CEPEDA: Well, I think it's the same in the sense that - right? - musical newspapers are nothing new in Latin American music - Latin American popular music, I should say - you know, very topical. This is very much rooted in oral culture and the idea that, you know, one person learns a song, travels to the next town or city, teaches it to somebody else, and it's very much a reflection of local concerns, local events. I'm thinking of genres like the plena in Puerto Rico, the corrido in Mexico, the Colombian vallenato. Those are all forms that are musical newspapers.
But what's different here is we're seeing a combination of that topicality, along with 21st century technology, which is the rapid production, the rapid circulation, the wide reach of the song. I mean, literally hours after it was produced, it was released on YouTube. And then there's also - another element that's really unique is the participatory character of the spread of the song, right? The listeners also get to participate in the production in their own way. The listeners get to participate in their - in the meaning-making that gets attached to and associated with the song. And that's very unique.
That's different from the Chilean, you know, nueva canción protest music of the early '70s that the Pinochet government tries - you know, really does - tries their best to stamp out. I would love to know - I mean, if I were a fly on the wall, I'd love to know what Rosselló's government, you know, and the people associated with are saying about the song.
CONTRERAS: You and me both.
CEPEDA: (Laughter) Yeah, because you think about it, I mean, people - one of the, you know, authoritarian states, and I - you know, I've even heard Rosselló referred to as a dictator on the web - right? - lately. They seek to eliminate artists often, you know, because these are very powerful figures. Music becomes a very unifying text. It becomes a form of social glue, something people can rally about, rally around, something that allows them to express emotions and experiences that they otherwise can't articulate. And so that renders it a very powerful weapon. And here we have - right? - "Afilando Los Cuchillos," sharpening the knives. The music is the weapon.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AFILANDO LOS CUCHILLOS")
BAD BUNNY: Yo no, yo no.
CONTRERAS: You have been listening to a special edition of NPR Music's ALT.LATINO. Special thanks to Sadot Santana, based in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and NPR's Adrian Florido and Luis Clemens. I'm Felix Contreras. As always, thank you so much for listening.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AFILANDO LOS CUCHILLOS")
ILE: (Singing) Para que ninguno se aproveche de lo mío. Vamos cortantes, como los cuchillos, sacando chispa hasta llegar al filo. Hay que arrancar la maleza del plantío para que ninguno se aproveche de lo mío.
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