By Lucas Villa
In Puerto Rico, emotions are running high: Over the past few weeks, thousands of people on the island have channeled their frustrations into assembling mass protests that resulted in Governor Ricardo Rosselló resigning from office. It’s a movement that received support from some of the island’s biggest superstars, as local artists joined protestors in the streets and aired their grievances with Rosselló's administration through music. Among those translating their anger into song were rappers Bad Bunny and Residente, who teamed up with singer-songwriter iLe to create “Afilando Los Cuchillos,” a pointed acknowledgment of the power of the people that have earmarked this revolutionary moment.
The 5-minute track tears into Rosselló and his cabinet, who came under fire after 889 pages of damning chats were leaked by the press. Page after page of the chat transcript showed officials using homophobic and misogynistic language to talk about the people of Puerto Rico and joke about the bodies that amassed in the Office of the Medical Examiner in the aftermath Hurricane Maria. But the song goes further than that — it brings up the corruption and unrest facing the island decades before the disgraced governor’s appointment. iLe, whose full name is Ileana Mercedes Cabra Joglar, passes judgment on the chorus, singing, “We must pluck the weed from the patch / so that no one takes advantage of mine.”
For iLe, the revolution encapsulates the tenacity of the Puerto Rican people. The former member of the politically-charged group Calle 13 uses her music to call out injustice and unrest. In May, she released the album Almadura, which touches on crises plaguing Puerto Rico that precedes Rosselló's rule and Hurricane Maria. She’s not alone in her natural gravitation towards making a statement, either: As #RickyRenuncia raged on, artists like Jennifer Lopez, Marc Anthony, and Anthony Ramos all voiced their support for protestors via social media, while Daddy Yankee and Ricky Martin joined protestors in the streets of San Juan. For Martin, the cause was especially personal: He was directly named in the leaked chats by Puerto Rico’s former chief financial officer Christian Sobrino, who stepped down from his post after trying to say the singer is gay because he is sexist. Martin challenged the homophobic messages by posting Instagram videos to his 12.4 million followers.
While weeks of protests eventually led to Rosselló’s resignation, effective August 2, the battle is still far from over: His justice secretary Wanda Vásquez is set to take his spot even though she publicly announced that she would prefer not to. Given that the leaked chats point to possible corruption within the Rosselló administration as a whole, Puerto Ricans are pushing for structural change, rather than more of the same.
And iLe is prepared to continue the fight. The Latin Grammy-winning singer talked with MTV News from the ground in San Juan about joining the #RickyRenuncia movement, an artist's place in the action, and what it meant to create the emblematic song that became both a rallying cry and a soundtrack for a movement.
MTV News: How did "Afilando Los Cuchillos" come together? What was the process of working with Residente and Bad Bunny?
iLe: It was an initiative of my brother, René, and Benito [Bad Bunny]. They invited me to write the chorus and to sing it. The music was made by Trooko, who is from Honduras. We were sharing the same anger as the Puerto Ricans. We were all in the moment of what was going on here. I think it all came naturally expressing in our own way what we were feeling.
MTV News: What was the response to “Afilando Los Cuchillos?”
iLe: I think it's become almost like an anthem for protesting here. When I have been going to the protests, there are people in their cars listening to the song and the volume is very high, people are singing it in the loudspeakers, or someone has a speaker with the song on and repeating. I think it's a song like an energy booster for people.
MTV News: Why do you think it’s important for artists like yourself to get involved with the protests?
iLe: I think it's important as an artist to be present every time, especially with the situations that happen where you were born and raised. People tend to idealize artists. Being present is one of the biggest roles of being an artist, and I think being present as a citizen, as a Puerto Rican in this case, is necessary for people to connect more directly with the same emotion. That solidarity is very important.
MTV News: You and your brother were on the ground for much of the protests in San Juan. What was that experience like?
iLe: It's a very exciting moment for us because we are not used to protesting in big masses. It's a little frustrating to see people take advantage of us and we don't notice it so clearly. We don't realize it. I think what happened with the government this time was so obvious for the people that it was impossible to ignore. In my heart, I was expecting something massive, but I wasn't sure if it was going to be the same few groups of people protesting.
It was very shocking to see so many protesting for one cause with no political parties involved, just with the same intention: To protect our island and our dignity from these people that are making fun of us and taking our money, education, and health for their own benefit. I think it was a very strong and important message that we just accomplished one part of it, but we have a lot of work to do.
MTV News: Young people in particular people led so much of this work — what made that movement unique for you?
iLe: There were people of all ages and genders. [But] a lot of young people who have this energy, and this strength, and this fearlessness that was necessary. It worked like a domino effect. That energy was transmitted to the rest of the people and made everyone more powerful. For me, that made me so proud.
MTV News: What do you hope the future has in store for the people of Puerto Rico?
iLe: We're little by little focusing on what we have to do at the time we have to do it. I feel very confident about my people: They all seem very clear on their goals, to what they want to accomplish. To me, that's the right thing to do — be organized, be very focused, and work peacefully but firmly to make these people who obviously and clearly don't love the country as they should, to not represent us.
MTV News: What do you hope the rest of the world learns about Puerto Rico in light of this revolution? What do you hope other people learn from the revolution itself?
iLe: I think finally we have shown our true selves. I've known since I was little that we've always had that inner strength inside of us. I feel so happy to be alive and to be living in this moment. It's something historic and it's something that should never be forgotten.
MTV News: I think a lot of people are learning that protests get things done and make things happen.
iLe: Exactly. In Puerto Rico, we used to be the opposite. We used to think that going into the streets wouldn't make any change. Now clearly we have done so much. It feels great that this accomplishment was made from the people — from our own people. No one did this for us. We did this ourselves and that's a great gift.
MTV News: What made you want to talk about the political unrest in Puerto Rico on your album Almadura, even before the #RickyRenuncia movement?
iLe: I was seeing the necessity of letting go of a lot of things that I was feeling inside. I think we have always been in crisis, but it has been difficult to acknowledge because we have been sedated throughout the years. It has been very difficult for us to react when we are confused with our own history and about what is actually going on in the island. I think little by little we've understood more of what is actually going on.
I started writing the album before Hurricane Maria because I have always felt frustrated with the situation in Puerto Rico. I know we have so much pride that we don't show. I felt the necessity of expressing how I was feeling, and of recognizing everything that we have suffered and to use that to confront our reality.
MTV News: How does your music inform and inspire your activism?
iLe: I feel fortunate to have grown up in a family that has taught me well to love my own country and taught me things that they weren't teaching me in school]. T me self-aware, and conscious about things that are important. I do not take for granted what I have or what I don't have. I think it's important to speak about how we are feeling and to send a message. It's very necessary, especially nowadays that we're living in a transitional moment worldwide. That's why we need to be very clear with the message that we want to send.
MTV News: On one of your songs, "Odio," you talk about the frustration with the government response to Hurricane Maria while the music video revisits the Cerro Maravilla massacre. Why did you decide to mix the past with the present?
iLe: When I wrote the song, I was thinking about hatred itself. In social media, it's almost like a necessity for people to write things that are destructive instead of things that are more constructive to our society. Even media finds ways to put a headline or something that promotes hatred just to have better ratings.
When we did the video, [director] Cesar Berrios [and I] thought about many possibilities. Cerro Maravilla happened in Puerto Rico in 1978. We thought that had to do a lot with situations that still happen now. It's an example of a situation where hatred was very present. It was a situation that was very painful for Puerto Rico in the '80s, but younger generations don't even know that this happened because they don't talk about that at school. It's not part of the brainwash that they try to do. It was very necessary to find a way to keep our memory alive and finding a way to learn from it, to not repeat it, and to be aware of what can happen with our society.