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Puerto Rican musicians iLe, her brother Resident and Bad Bunny are performing during protests in Puerto Rico. Photo credit: Alejandro Pedrosa
Puerto Rican musicians iLe, her brother Resident and Bad Bunny are performing during protests in Puerto Rico. Photo credit: Alejandro Pedrosa

'We did it ourselves': Singer iLe on why she's a voice among Puerto Rico's uprising

Singer Ileana Cabra Joglar, better known as iLe, said she is filled with love and pride for her home country of Puerto Rico, and that is why she was compelled to join thousands of protestors that took to the streets to say, "¡Ricky, renuncia!"

The protests followed charges by the FBI against former administration officials in connection with a corruption scandal in Puerto Rico. This came as more than 800 pages of vulgar and derisive private chat messages between the governor and his inner circle that leaked to the public.

Before Gov. Ricardo Rosselló's resignation, iLe was out riding in caravans, microphone in hand, performing in front of the protest crowds. She sang the 1868 version-known as the "revolutionary" version – of "La Borinqueña," Puerto Rico's anthem, and kept the music going for protesters who stood in the street.

Singer iLe among the protest crowds in San Juan. Photo by Alejandro Pedrosa
Singer iLe among the protest crowds in San Juan. Photo by Alejandro Pedrosa

Puerto Rico is now in a state of political uncertainty as Rosselló resigns Friday. He has chosen former resident commissioner Pedro Pierluisi as his successor. Pierluisi was confirmed by the Puerto Rican House of Representatives on Friday.

"I feel very emotional all of these days. It's very difficult to process because it's something so unexpected [Puerto Rico's uprising], but at the same time you knew this could happen any time, " said iLe, who co-wrote one of the most anthemic songs of the #RickyRenuncia protests along with fellow Puerto Rican musician Bad Bunny, and iLe's brother, Residente.

"Afilando Los Cuchillos," ("Sharpening the Knives") dropped shortly after a trove of Telegram chats leaked, revealing misogynist, homophobic comments, as well as an elaborate web of corruption among Rosselló and his closest advisers. The song starts out an ominous flute melody recognizable to anyone who grew up in a Puerto Rican neighborhood: the song of the "amolador," or the knife sharpener driving around and advertising sharpening services through a loudspeaker. A rap song with punk undertones, "Sharpening the Knives" is a searing takedown of Rosselló's administration and an invitation to "set fire" to his cabinet.

ILe is a singer and composer who started her career as a teenager, performing in her older brother's band, Calle 13, while she was still in high school. iLe sings Latin pop, but also traditional ballads about tortured love. For her latest album album "Almadura" she took a political turn. It is a call to political action, a denunciation of Puerto Rico's colonial status, and also a paean to the strength of women.

The PBS NewsHour spoke to iLe about the role of music in Puerto Rico's most recent uprising, the longing for a political awakening, and the importance of knowing one's history and identity.

"Afilando los Cuchillos" became an anthem for Puerto Rico's uprising, it dropped pretty quickly after the first leaks came out. What was your role in it?

It was an initiative of my brother Rene and Benito (Bad Bunny) and they invited me to write and sing the chorus of the song. So basically, what they're saying is directly toward the government, and chorus is more of the call to action of unifying people to do something and to react and it's expressed in a way, a symbolic way which is "sharpening the knives, the machete" so it's very powerful, and I like that everyone is listening to that song every day when they go to protest, and it's like a boost for preparing ourselves to send the message that we want to send.

More broadly, what role do you think music has in protest in Puerto Rico?

I think it's a very important role, because sometimes music helps us to express what we are feeling and in the process, everyone created a new song that has to do with what we are going through. So that helps us chanting those songs, it helps us to understand how we are feeling and gives us a boost to keep going. For me, music and art have very important roles because it helps us communicate more fluently our emotions. So if we don't speak it, maybe we won't understand it as much and that's why it's very important. And in Puerto Rico, we are very attached to arts and music and for it's a revolutionary way to express ourselves, so I think that's why it's very important.

What role do you think artists have in these protests and what role can they have in a new Puerto Rico?

We admire people like artists, and we see them as a different kind of people, but they're not. They're the same as everyone else and in moments like these, it's important to show that humanity, to show that artists are not robots or machinery or something external to the rest of the people, but they are people as well, and they have emotions like the rest of us and they feel anger as well, so I think it's important to show that. If you, as an artist, as a human being, if you feel angry about what's happening in your country, you should show that to the people, and that helps everyone to feel more connected. For me, that's actually, the role of the artist it's just as loudspeaker, about what we are living, but the emotion is the same.

I noticed that your debut album "iLevitable" explores more themes of love in the format of "bolero" music, or classic Latin American romantic ballads. "Almadura," your latest, is more political. Can you tell me what experience or what decision made you shift to more political music?

I think it's something that I always felt, but not always known how to express it. Sometimes you just have a feeling, "una inquietud," something that just needs to get out of you, and that's what happened when I was doing this album. I've always felt angry and frustrated with the situation in my country, and also how Puerto Rico can translate to other situations in other countries that also feel repressed by the government. It's something that you can choose to ignore, but it's easier, it's still there. The more you want to ignore it, it still affects you in some way.

So I needed to exteriorize everything I was feeling towards my own country, and the rest of the world. So that's how this album comes from that anger, and from that need to recognize that we all have an interior force, an interior strength that helps confront that reality, and that is important to be aware of, that we can use that in our favor. We can use that anger to help build a better country. So I tried to do that when I was working on the songs in this album, and for me that helped me a lot to, to prepare myself for something that I didn't know that was coming, which is what we're living now.

How much is post-Maria Puerto Rico a theme of that album?

I started writing the album before Hurricane Maria, because I think Puerto Rico has always been in a crisis, but we have been ignoring for so many years and we have been trained to ignore that. So, for me, I want Puerto Rico to be an independent country and I feel that I have been a part of a minority. I started the album before Hurricane Maria, but also during and after Hurricane Maria. So I think that anger that I was already feeling became bigger after Hurricane Maria, when everything was even more clear, that lack of responsibility from the government and that shadiness that we all felt after Hurricane Maria. I think Hurricane Maria was like our graduation to know what to do at a time like this, that's where we are now.

You explore fighting for Puerto Rican identity in Almadura. How do you think Maria changed Puerto Rican identity?

Yeah, I think so. We learned so much. I don't want to be negative or anything but, sometimes we learn the most when we are uncomfortable. I think Hurricane Maria taught us that. We obviously, because of our colonial situation, we're always expecting someone else to do the job for us, or someone else to do the job for us. But in Hurricane Maria, we had to do it all by ourselves. And we had to help out people on our own. The weird thing about it is that we did it so naturally because it's in our blood, it's in our way of living. We are humble people and we work in Puerto Rico as a big family and we actually care about each other.

Artist iLe is pictured in Hato Rey, Puerto Rico. Photo by: Mari Lopez
Artist iLe is pictured in Hato Rey, Puerto Rico. Photo by: Mari Lopez

There is a song on "Almadura" called "Sin Masticar" that explores the theme of political passivity? How do you think the protests are going to change how Puerto Ricans see themselves in the future?

I think we've learned so much from one day to another. I have always known that in my heart, we are still people who are doing what we're doing now But it frustrates me that we were not as self-conscious about that. We tend to underestimate our capabilities because we are taught that we cannot be self-sufficient, or that we don't have the capability of doing things on our own, but we've shown right now, and we have shown them in other ways, they might see more subtle so it's difficult to perceive maybe, but now since it's so obvious. I have always known that there is an inner strength that we needed to let out of ourselves. Puerto Rican people are very, very proud of themselves and they have to effectively to show the world that we're here. And now we finally did that on our own. Nobody did that for us. We did it ourselves.

The video of the song "Odio" captures one of the most violent moments in Puerto Rican history: The Cerro Maravilla scandal, in which two Puerto Rican pro-independence activists were ambushed and executed by the police. What are some things general audiences in the United States don't know about Puerto Rico and its history?

About the past, it's something we need to sink into and that's what newer generations are trying to do. I think we are desperate for information. Where is the information about Puerto Rico? Where is our history hidden? When I did the video of "Odio" I had to look for a lot of information, but couldn't find enough. We spoke to one of the lawyers who opened up the investigation of Cerro Maravilla in 1983. He gave us a lot of information and details that we couldn't find anywhere else. Because everything was so confusing and so twisted, that we didn't know what actually happened. So that helped us a lot to show the video in the most accurate way possible, to show a story that we've never seen before.

For me it's very important to maintain our memory alive and to look for information and to look for people who we didn't they even know existed since a long time ago, and to analyze, why did they have this way of thinking. That is very important because something we don't know enough is how much we have suffered throughout the years. I know that a lot of new generations think that we have had everything so comfortable and that we had everything that we needed. But we have not. All our suffering and all our humiliation has been erased from our memory, so we feel more dependent on the United States. But that is not the reality of our history, that is why to keep digging for more information.

What is the struggle that Puerto Rican women have? I know there have been rising cases of gender violence. Is that something that you explore in "Almadura"?

I think it's important to realize that even though you might be one of the lucky ones that haven't gone through a typical, or gone through abuse as woman. It's important to empathize with other women's situation and notice and be aware and that, that person can be you. That's why even though I haven't gone through something so horrific as many other women have gone through, at the same time, I feel the same fear. I don't feel that story apart of distant from me, but I feel it closer as a woman. Because I can be in daylight walking in the street on my own and something might happen to me that I would never expect.

How do you see Puerto Rico's future?

I see it a lot brighter than I was seeing it a few weeks ago. So I think it's important for us to be aware of everything that is going on, but one thing that I saw is to be very organized and prepared, because everything is very complex and we need to work things out little by little. I think the first step was for the governor to resign and we did it, and now we have to work toward our next step, that is the secretary of justice to resign. And then it's making people from the government resign, and then it's the junta de control fiscal (Congress-appointed fiscal control board. So I think it's a lot, but we have to keep going. We have shown that no one would do this ever. We are the only people who can make this happen, and we have to be very conscious about that. No one can do this for us. Only we can do this.

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