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Musician iLe condemns colonization and Puerto Rico's political limbo on new album


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Amna Nawaz: As the 2022 Latin Grammys are held tonight, we look at a leading voice in Puerto Rico and beyond.

Jeffrey Brown talks to Latin Grammy winner iLe, who is addressing the challenges of her homeland, still suffering from the recent Hurricane Fiona and lacking true representation in U.S. politics.

It's part of our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Jeffrey Brown: Says in her song "Donde Nadie Mas Respira," "When No One Else Breathes," Ileana Cabra, the Puerto Rican singer and songwriter who goes by the single name iLe, sings of a people long silenced, now awakening.

The language is elusive and poetic, but the targets are clear, political corruption, outside indifference, or worse. It's what she says was exposed for all to see when Hurricane Maria devastated her island in 2017.

ILE, Musician: It was as if they just open a curtain and showed, like, how fragile the country already was. So it was a very, like, wakeup call, a big wakeup call for us.

Even though it was very sad and very terrible, it — in a way, it made us stronger.

Jeffrey Brown: We met recently at the Brooklyn club Public Records, where iLe held a release party for her new album, "Nacarile," a slang term that can be translated as "No way" or "Not at All."

The songs are a mix of the personal and political, also a mix of different genres and rhythms, reflecting the very taste of a now 33-year-old woman who's been surrounded by music her whole life.

ILE: I am the little one from the house that I grew up in. So I kind of absorbed all the musicality that was happening in my family.

Jeffrey Brown: In fact, she was first known as the little sister. She began performing around the world at age 16 with her two older brothers, who founded a hugely successful hip-hop group, Calle 13, 13th Street, winners of three Grammy awards and 21 Latin Grammys, the most in history.

She worked with them for nearly 10 years before going off in her own, very different direction.

ILE: It was so intense for me with Calle 13, I mean, in the best and beautiful way possible. I wanted to start off with something very different, that, for me, it was part of, like, my roots, part of what I knew I have always wanted to play with.

But I know that some people were shocked. They were actually expecting more hip-hop, but I wasn't feeling like that. I was — I really wanted to do something different.

Jeffrey Brown: Her first album feature traditional sounds, including boleros, the style that originated in Cuba in the 19th century, and that she also grew up with.

Her second album, "Almadura," was nominated for a Grammy. The latest was written during the uncertainties of the pandemic, and offers a wider mix of sounds, but all with a more empowered woman's voice, including the boleros.

ILE: Well, I tried to play with finding a way to keep listening to boleros, but more in the world that we're living in today, where the conversations are different, and the mind-set probably has been transforming a little.

So, for me, that's the most challenging part, but also, like, the most necessary, I think.

Jeffrey Brown: Also necessary now, helping bring change to Puerto Rico, the U.S. territory that is neither state nor independent country, its people, U.S. citizens, but without representation in Congress or the right to vote for the presidency.

To iLe and others, it remains a colony, one that's been neglected, as in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, when the response from both the U.S. and Puerto Rican governments was slow and ineffective.

ILE: Even though a lot of people still expect too much from the United States, I feel that we had, like, a very bad treatment from them when we were in the middle of the crisis.

But, also, the government of Puerto Rico has a lot to do with it as well. So, now we are trying to understand and put a lot of broken pieces together to see, where do we want Puerto Rico to go?

Jeffrey Brown: In 2019, iLe and other leading Puerto Rican musicians, including the rapper and singer who goes by the name Bad Bunny, took part in massive protests against political corruption and the botched response to Maria, eventually leading to the resignation of Puerto Rico's governor.

ILE: It was incredible. It was historic. I mean, we don't need to settle for less. And I think that has been our biggest mistake. And I think that we have been settling for tiny pieces for too long, as if that is what we deserve.

Jeffrey Brown: Did it change the way you saw your music and what you wanted your music to do?

ILE: Obviously, my best way to try to understand what I'm feeling is composing and making music. So it heals me. And, at the same time, I share humbly how I see things and how I feel it.

I try to find not necessarily a solution, but an empowerment, in a way, because I feel that, in Puerto Rico, that's what we need the most.

Jeffrey Brown: ILe is scheduled to start a us tour in March.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown in New York.

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