The world-renowned Puerto Rican rapper who catapulted to fame with the group Calle 13 is known for articulating his political and humanitarian beliefs. But the truth of his work and his creative mission is more complex than serving simply as a mouthpiece for movements.
A report by Emily Neil for Al Día.
Residente, as he is known by his artistic moniker, or René Pérez Joglar, spoke with AL DÍA from the road on his first solo tour promoting his eponymous album and documentary — a worldwide journey that will bring him to Philadelphia on Sept. 21 for a concert at The Fillmore.
We talked about the future of Puerto Rico, his vision of the role of the artist in social justice struggles, Bernie Sanders — and whether the U.S. can someday become a unified part of “Latinoamérica.” [The interview was originally conducted in Spanish].
The Puerto Rican rapper, singer, songwriter, film producer, and activist has been touted as one of the leading sociopolitical voices of his generation — a label, which, though accurate to the degree that he doesn’t hesitate to speak out on his views, is in some ways fundamentally missing out on the core of his work, said Residente in a phone interview with AL DÍA in mid-July, as he reflected on what the role of the artist is in social justice struggles around the world.
“I think that my role is to be honest. The role of the artist is to be honest with all that he is feeling, with everything that he is seeing as he lives,” said Residente, noting that that is what helps him connect with people.
“With your honest self, you’re not going to talk about a topic and nothing more, and for that reason when they try to label me it annoys me, [and] not just musically speaking — because they say you’re reggaeton, or you’re this — but also at the conceptual level. ‘Ah René is political,’” said Residente. “Or when they try to put you in the box of all that is social. And yes, hermano, if we start from the premise that everything is social, then I fall within everything social.”
“But Madonna is also there, and a whole bunch of other artists, and they don’t say anything sociopolitical — but they fall within all that is social,” he continued. “Sex is social, then.”
Residente has made it clear in his first solo album, “Residente,” that musically speaking he is far beyond any easy definitions or labels. From Peking opera singers to Goran Bregović to Dagomba tribal singers in Ghana, his new album features a range of international artists met and played with on a journey around the world that was guided by a quest for his roots, as revealed by a genealogical test that Residente took several years ago. The trip led him to China, Siberia, Moscow, the Caucasus, France, Spain, Ghana, Burkina Faso, Niger, Antigua, and Puerto Rico.
The lyrics on the new album are also indicative of the inextricable narratives of the most interior of realities as well as those played out on the grandest stages of politics and history. From Residente’s verses, we learn how our intimate selves are borne of those movements and events that churn in the past, beyond our control and often beyond our knowledge.
From the love song of “Desencuentro,” in which the narrator describes the twisting paths that lead two people to just miss one another due to the winds of chance and uncertainty, to the more direct “Apocalíptico” that speaks of wide-scale human conflict and destruction, the delicacy with which Residente depicts the struggles to love, to find one’s path, to work together as a pair, as an entire nation, as a world, attests to his fundamental belief that as human beings those experiences are interwoven, and to separate them into categories like “emotional” and “political” is a kind of false reduction of every aspect of life.
“Since I open my honest self, that obligates me to talk about everything that affects me. And what affects me is everything, like all human beings. War affects me, partying affects me, sex affects me, politics affects me…everything affects me,” Residente said. “And so to speak of all of that has helped me to maintain an interesting balance.”
It is ultimately that kind of honesty that leads to connecting with an audience and making some more conscious than they otherwise would have been of social justice-related struggles, Residente said, pointing out that some of his fans might not have ever before heard a song like “Latinoamérica,” a sweeping but beautifully precise song to an entire continent that implicitly challenges the continued economic imperialism of the United States, Canada, and others as it has taken shape in the region with the chorus [as translated from Spanish]: “You cannot buy the wind, you cannot buy the sun, you cannot buy the rain…you cannot buy my joy, you cannot buy my pain.”
Residente said that sometimes the social consciousness a work of art can open up for someone “is the difference between if that person is going to protest or not against something that is happening in their country. So the artist has an important role.”
One artist who changed Residente’s own life is the famous Panamanian musician Rubén Bládes.
“His music has helped me — it gave me a path. Apart from that I had my mom and my dad, raising me well, his music also guided me on a path. And I hope that I am able to do the same, with the music I make, for other people,” he said.
If there is one common thread throughout all of Residente’s songs, including those written with Calle 13 and his work now on his solo album, it is a persistent hunger to see the world differently – to change things, to play with potential, to upend expectations, to wonder at possibilities as much as we may struggle with the seemingly immovable mountains formed by the struggles we face.
For the artist, that playfulness is not separate from the real, dire work of reenvisioning and reshaping the world — some of which we talked about as it relates to his native Puerto Rico.
Residente is one of the approximately 1.5 percent of the island’s population who advocate for complete independence of the island, according to a referendum held in 2017 — an option which is gaining more traction, he says, after the tragedy of Hurricane Maria.
“For me it’s easy and obvious to understand this. What is best for the island in the future is independence. It’s something that is common sense, even more so after what happened after the hurricane,” said Residente, citing the ways in which “the help was not what many Puerto Ricans were expecting on the part of the U.S.,” and apart from that the help itself was delayed.
Residente also noted that considerable amounts of aid had been sent to the island from other countries around the world but the cargo was not permitted to enter the island due the U.S. Jones Act of 1920, which requires that all ships entering Puerto Rico be American ships with American sailors. On top of that, the island suffered from what Residente called President Trump’s “disdain” for the Puerto Rican people, as he threw paper towels at a crowd and crowed about the success of FEMA’s responses even as the majority of the island continued to struggle.
“The people realized that the colonial situation doesn’t work,” Residente said. “Those that want to be a state still have faith in the idea that statehood would bring us more comfort, and we would be better. Which is totally false. Because just go walk around New Orleans, or Detroit. You will realize that the government doesn’t take care of many of the states that it has. For what reason are they going to take care of an island like Puerto Rico, if historically they have sold us…?”
Residente said that he has hope, because now there is more and more of a movement towards the idea of independence as a “thought transition” that is taking place among Puerto Ricans. But the island’s overall situation is dark.
“The colony is not working anymore, it’s bankrupt…[and] of the few liberties that remain for us, the government is depriving us of them, with a fiscal control board that controls all of the budget that enters the island, and everything that you want to do you have to ask permission from them. It’s a pretty strange thing,” said Residente, adding that, “they [the Puerto Rican government officials] don’t want to be audited, because obviously they’re all going to go to prison because all of them have stolen money. It’s a sad situation, in that sense.”
“What is good, right, is that I do know that in some moment we will be independent…This seed is growing,” said Residente.
The rapper expresses a similar faith in an eventual reconciliation of sorts between Latin America and the United States. When asked about the possibility that the U.S., with a Latino population growing every year, might someday be part of the unified vision of the “Latinoamérica” expressed in his song of the same title, he doesn’t hesitate to say yes.
“Yeah man, you were at the point of having a great president in Bernie Sanders. He had the desire to be connected to the Latin American people throughout the entire continent,” said Residente, who, though like all Puerto Ricans is unable to vote for the federal elected officials that control their island’s budget and fiscal policy, actively campaigned for Bernie Sanders in the 2016 Democratic primary.
“Eventually yes, that will happen, and the people from some cities in the U.S. have a fairly open mentality about what happens in other countries,” Residente continued. “The thing is that there are other states [that don’t have that open mentality] where then it also depends a lot on education, and how the leaders are listening to their country in terms of this wider view — that there is a world outside of the bubble in which they live. Because the life that they live is a total bubble.”
“And so it will happen. It will happen. Not now. But hopefully soon,” he concluded.
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