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Puerto Rican rapper Residente is challenging the definition of America

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Puerto Rican rap star Residente dazzles audiences with songs that push them to sing and dance and to shout about their social and political frustrations. The Latin music legend has just finished a slew of concerts across the Spanish-speaking world, and NPR's Enrique Rivera caught up with Residente to talk about his music and his message.

(CHEERING)

ENRIQUE RIVERA, BYLINE: I'm at a concert in Lyon, the largest city in the Mexican state of Guanajuato, a region with a rich but tragic history. The land surrounding this concert was once the epicenter of global silver production, when tens of thousands of Indigenous families were forced to toil in its deadly mines. Fast-forward a couple of centuries, and the descendants of those people that kept the global economy churning for so long are on hand to watch the performance of an icon.

(CHEERING)

RIVERA: The Puerto Rican rapper Residente is recognized across the Spanish-speaking world for being a groundbreaking, genre-bending musician. But he's also known as a leader in Latin American political thought who knows the region's history.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Through translator) He has a little bit of everything - fun lyrics and a more political side, but he's able to combine them very well.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ATREVETE TE TE")

CALLE 13: (Rapping in Spanish).

RIVERA: Formerly the vocalist of the world-renowned hip-hop group Calle 13, Residente has been making hits for over 15 years. He sold millions of albums, and he holds the record for most Latin Grammy Awards with 27. His dedicated fans know the lyrics to his biggest hits, as well as his most obscure songs.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Singing in non-English language).

RIVERA: Residente's cult-like following keeps him on the concert trail even during what is a lull in his career. He hasn't dropped an album since he came out with his solo debut in 2017. Where does Residente to see himself right now?

RESIDENTE: I'm 44. I'm writing for fun. I'm tired of touring. You know, I like the people. I hate flying. And sometimes I enjoy the concerts. Sometimes I don't enjoy them at all.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RENE")

RESIDENTE: (Singing in Spanish).

RIVERA: Residente says he's reached a reflective point in his life. This shines through in his 2020 single, "Rene," named after Residente's legal first name. In it, he discusses the killing of his childhood best friend at the hands of Puerto Rican police, his struggles with depression and alcohol, his recent divorce and his emotional rollercoaster as an artist. The song begins with a recording of Flor Joglar, Residente's mother, teaching a young Rene a lesson on Puerto Rican history through song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RENE")

FLOR JOGLAR: (Speaking Spanish).

RIVERA: Flor asked the child, Rene, how the Indigenous Arawak (ph) speaking people of the island, a people known as Tainos since the conquest, hit the ball while playing their native sport.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RENE")

JOGLAR: (Speaking Spanish).

RIVERA: Head, knees, legs and hips. Head, knees, legs and hips.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RENE")

RESIDENTE: (Singing in Spanish).

Nobody believed that it was going to be, you know, that it was going to be a hit because it's eight minutes. And it went viral. And everyone liked it. And everyone was listening to it. And it was eight minutes. And it's just me over a piano.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RENE")

RESIDENTE: (Singing in Spanish).

RIVERA: "Rene" became a surprise smash for Residente. The song's music video has over 260 million views on YouTube. It was supposed to be the first song off of his new album, but then the pandemic hit and things slowed down. His most recent release, "This Is Not America," continues his tradition of tackling social issues in Latin America, namely economic inequities, political persecution, and the often hostile role that the United States has played in the region.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THIS IS NOT AMERICA")

RESIDENTE: (Singing in Spanish).

Everyone is American in this continent, and it's how they took the word and made it for them. You know, it's like another way of colonization.

RIVERA: The video for "This Is Not America" gorily depicts the violence inflicted by U.S.-backed regimes in Argentina, Chile and Colombia, as well as the CIA-directed death squads who massacred entire communities throughout Central America.

RESIDENTE: So this is what you say, that this is not America. And all of the things that I'm presenting are the collateral damages that the U.S. created in Latin America.

RIVERA: Puerto Rico, Residente's home country, is always at the forefront of his mind when he writes and performs his critical commentary. Take Calle 13's 2005 hit, "Querido FBI" - "Dear FBI" - released the day after Puerto Rican nationalist leader Filiberto Ojeda Rios was gunned down by agents in a raid that many on the island felt was designed to kill.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "QUERIDO FBI")

CALLE 13: (Singing in Spanish).

RIVERA: Residente says he's received death threats and other forms of negative blowback for voicing his political views, and that he was even banned from performing in Puerto Rico.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RENE")

RESIDENTE: (Singing in Spanish).

I know I opened a door for artists to say things, and the perfect example is me and Benito. Again, like, I said Luis Fortuno is a motherf******. I got censored, four years. He said the same thing a week ago or two, he was a hero. But at the time that I said it, maybe people weren't ready for that, you know.

RIVERA: But today, it appears that Puerto Rico is ready. As an example, Residente pointed to his sometimes collaborator, the pop superstar Bad Bunny, whose legal first name is Benito. Last month, Bad Bunny threw a much-talked-about concert in San Juan, where he denounced Puerto Rico's government and he received much praise for it. Other signs are also signaling a turn of the tide in Puerto Rico. After decades of registering just 5% or less of gubernatorial votes, the two independent-minded parties on the island combined to reach nearly a third of votes in the 2020 election. And if recent viral videos of protests on the island are any indication, the nationalist movement only seems to be gaining momentum. I asked Residente whether or not he thinks he'll see the day when Puerto Rico is an independent country.

RESIDENTE: I think so. Right now, more than ever, it's there. It's right there and knocking on the door.

RIVERA: Whether or not that day does come. President seems determined to keep pushing for it. In the meantime, his fans will continue to sing along.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Singing in Spanish).

RIVERA: Enrique Rivera, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LA VUELTA AL MUNDO")

CALLE 13: (Singing in Spanish). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Enrique Rivera