You could swear that the end of Latin music as we know it is near at hand after Calle 13’s record-breaking sweep at this year’s Latin Grammy. Well, at least if you ask some of my relatives and Facebook friends in Puerto Rico. “That’s not music!” “He can’t sing!” “How could the Grammys reward such coarse, vulgar music?” And on and on and on.
And they are not the only ones. Just read the comments on any recent story about Calle 13 published by Puerto Rico’s two leading dailies, El Nuevo Día and Primera Hora. Why so much animosity against them and not against other Latino rappers and hip-hop artists like Pitbull?
There is no doubt that the Puerto Rican alternative/hip-hop duo’s first two albums –the self-titled “Calle 13” and “Residente o Visitante”– were extremely raunchy and potty-mouthed. They stretched the limits of what could and could not be said to a breaking point. But let’s be honest: they are and won’t be the first ones to do so. Yet, you could tell there was something special about Calle 13. Here was a lyricist/vocalist (René Pérez Joglar “Residente”) who could actually rhyme (unlike so many reggaetón stars) and could use the tools of poetry to create vivid images in the listener’s imagination, and a musician (Eduardo Cabra “Visitante”) who is as much a musical omnivore as David Byrne.
Their debut album was released at a time when reggaetón was beginning to show signs of fatigue. The duo, though, wanted to spread their musical wings. A trip to South America did the trick. There, they not only came face to face with the continent’s social and political inequalities that would later feed their lyrics but the trip also opened their ears to South America’s rich cultural heritage.
Calle 13 took their first step in their musical evolution with “Residente o Visitante,” an album that featured René’s first truly politically committed song (“Pa’l Norte”) as well as the group’s first fusions of global rhythms (tangos and cumbias) with hip-hop. The album also featured their first collaborations with artists outside reggaetón’s realm: Argentinean producer, composer and founder of Bajofondo, Gustavo Santaolalla; Vicentico, lead vocalist of Argentinean ska band Los Fabulosos Cadillacs; Cuban hip-hop group Orishas; and Spanish rapper Mala Rodríguez.
“Residente o Visitante” set the stage for the next two albums: the more mature (musically, politically and socially) “Los de Atrás Vienen Conmigo” (featuring collaborations with Café Tacvba and Rubén Blades) and the Latin Grammy record-breaking “Entren Los Que Quieran” (featuring a who’s who of Latin and world music artists, including Perú’s culture minister Susana Baca; Nigerian musician –and the youngest son of Fela Kuti–, Seun Kuti; and one of the co-founders of Puerto Rican Afro-Caribbean Jazz band Batacumbele, trumpeter and sonero Jerry Medina.
“Los de Atrás Vienen Conmigo” takes on the hypocrisy of those hip-hop and reggaetón artists who claim to identify with the poor and downtrodden (“Que Lloren”), and those Latinos who turn their back on their heritage and culture in an attempt to fit into the mainstream (“Gringo Latin Funk”) while celebrating one of Puerto Rico’s most marginalized neighborhoods, La Perla.
Calle 13 further pumped up their critical volume with “Entre Los Que Quieran” by taking on every single Puerto Rican politician and religious institution like the Vatican (“Calma Pueblo”); by describing the deadly path of a bullet as he criticizes a society that puts more value on the availability of weapons over food (the highly cinematic “La Bala,” featuring a magnificent spaghetti-western style guitar riff that would make Ennio Morricone proud), and by praising the courage and contributions of Latino immigrants (“El Hormiguero”) and Latin America in general (“Latinoamérica”).
An Easy Target
With these four albums, René Pérez is following the lyrical and musical footsteps of such Nuyorican poets as Mikey Piñero, Miguel Algarín and Pedro Pietri. But, he also finds inspiration in the shrewd social and political observations that characterized Rubén Blades’ best salsa songs and the anger and indignation of such “Nueva Canción” singer-songwriters like Roy Brown and Silvio Rodríguez. His songs can also be pretty damn funny.
As the face and voice of Calle 13, René is an easy target—and there is no doubt that he enjoys being an easy target. The more he is criticized, the more he realizes his songs are having an impact in society. In fact, René retweets some of the most outrageous comments against his persona on his Twitter account.
His critics deliberately leave his stepbrother out of the equation. To acknowledge Eduardo’s brilliant fusions would be to acknowledge that the group, after all, isn’t that bad, really. Eduardo belongs to a new generation of Puerto Rican musicians like Superaquello’s Eduardo Alegría and Balún’s Angélica Negrón who are breaking away from Puerto Rican musical tradition by seeking inspiration outside of the island’s limited confines.
So, why does Calle 13 rub so many people in the island the wrong way? One reason may be René’s outspokenness in interviews and press conferences about such issues as the island’s political status (René is a passionate defender of Puerto Rican independence) and immigration. But also, by using Puerto Rico’s street lingo to press so many sexual, political and social red buttons, Calle 13 is confronting listeners with a reality they may otherwise ignore. In a society as conformist as Puerto Rico’s where the middle class would much rather complain about the island’s rampant corruption and crime rates over a cup of coffee (or shop on Black Friday) than take action, Calle 13’s songs are a not-so-friendly call to action.
Come to think of it: THE reason why Calle 13 rubs so many among Puerto Rico’s middle class (particularly those belonging to my generation and the one immediately before and after) the wrong way is that they are airing too much of our dirty laundry in public. By using the soapbox his world tours provide, René, Eduardo and the rest of the Calle 13 crew are pouring salt into the psychic wounds of an island that sees no way out of its quagmire.