The Puerto Rican rapper, writer, producer and co-founder of the rap duo Calle 13 has campaigned for presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders, supported the release of Puerto Rican political prisoner Oscar López Rivera, mobilized with fellow Puerto Ricans to call for the resignation of former governor Ricardo Rosselló, and defended education rights of indigenous peoples across Latin America, all while making music and performing around the globe.
Earlier in the month, Residente took the stage at the L.A. Philharmonic's Walt Disney Concert Hall as part of the organization’s “Power to the People!” festival. The performance marked another career milestone for the recording artist.
“It was nice to see a mixed crowd,” Residente told ET. “Most of the people were my crowd, but I have a mixed crowd. Different genres and different ages. There were a lot of people [there] that don’t go to the [Wall Disney Concert] Hall. That was the first time for them. It was nice to see them and also feel the energy. The Philharmonic was a new energy because they were standing up and singing and cheering. Usually people stay quiet and listen. They were listening but they couldn’t resist dancing!”
Residente is no stranger to moving a crowd, and having trekked around the world to make his 2017 self-titled solo debut, he’s not above going the extra mile for his music. “I always create concept albums. The first album was based on my DNA. We come from everywhere, so I went to Ghana, Burkina Faso, Niger, Siberia, China, Serbia, and Russia,” he said.
“I know that it sounds like a cliche, but it’s nice to pass through different countries and see yourself. Musically speaking, when I went to Africa, I was able to detect the Afro-Caribbean beats to understand where they came from. The rhythm and the tempos, sounds like salsa music, I was able to understand it better. Sometimes I felt like I was super small, like, ‘Wow, the world is huge!’ Sometimes I felt like the world is so small.”
With his latest album, Residente opted against following the same blueprint as its predecessor, namely because of timing. “I started to create concept albums like that but then I stopped because it was very hard. It was going to take me, like, two years, so I started to work with what I was feeling and what I have in my head. You have a different kind of freedom on the album, it’s nice."
The project features guest appearances from artists that he “admires,” including Busta Rhymes, Jessie Reyez, and his good friend, Bad Bunny. Residente's friendship with the reggaeton star is “based out of respect and admiration,” which makes it easy to work together, he explained.
“I’m older, so he knew my music from before. [Bad Bunny] came to my concerts when he wasn’t known and I have seen him grow so fast. I know what he’s doing. I understand what he’s doing. Even though some people may not understand him yet, they will, because that same thing happened to me, in terms of understanding. We have a really good relationship. He’s a great guy, very creative, and I’m happy for him.”
If there’s one main creative component connecting Residente and Bad Bunny, it's their flair for the unorthodox. On his single, “El Pecador” (“The Sinner”), Residente converted brain waves from a Muslim man praying into music that he commissioned a Christian choir to perform. As unconventional as it may seem, his fascination with the science of music is an example of his free-spirited creative technique.
Born René Juan Pérez Joglar in the Hato Rey ward of San Juan, Puerto Rico, the 42-year-old performer grew up surrounded by art. He taught himself to play guitar as a child, took drum and saxophone lessons and joined his school band at age 12. In high school, he split his time between playing baseball and indulging in the arts. He went on to graduate with a B.A. in Fine Arts from the Escuela de Artest Plásticas before earning a Masters in Fine Arts from the Savannah College of Art and Design. In 2004, Residente and his stepbrother, Visitante, founded Calle 13. The alternative rap duo released five albums together, garnered worldwide recognition, and became the most decorated group in Latin GRAMMY history.
In 2015, Residente announced work on his solo project. As his solo career began to take off, he started to feel detached from his old life. Two years ago, he hit a breaking point.
“I had a really dark moment. I felt that I didn’t want to be here anymore. It was a moment that I’ve never felt before. I called my mom, I had a stadium full of people in Mexico waiting for me to perform, and I didn’t want to perform.”
He channeled those emotions into his new single, “René.” The music video, which was filmed in Puerto Rico, has racked up more than 72 million views on YouTube in less than a month.
”In the song, I talk about that, about missing who I am, or who I was, since I first started 15 years ago. You kind of feel disconnected from who you are. You don’t talk with your friends anymore and the people who grew up with you. I lost contact with them, so now since a year or two ago, I started to get connected with them. For my birthday, my friends from high school and college, I connected with them, the people that knew me before I got famous. And that’s what I do all the time when I go back [to Puerto Rico]. I try to do things that connect me with the past.”
With nearly 10 million combined followers on Twitter and Instagram, Residente stays connected with his fans, but he also uses social media to highlight social and political issues, and he encourages the Latinx community to embrace activism.
“I think that protests are our bargaining power,” he explained. “If you’re negotiating, you have to have power. Otherwise you’re not going to have that power to tell the government what to do and what you want. People say, 'We’re going to wait for elections.’ Really? Most of the time, people steal elections, so it’s important to go to the streets and protest. You always need that bargaining power on your side. I think it’s something that you have to do as a human being, to express yourself and your country, because your country is part of your family. For me, it’s a necessity. Like eating and sleeping. If something wrong happens, you go and do your duty and protest.”
Activism has already proven to be a successful tactic for Puerto Rico, mostly recently seen with Rosselló’s resignation last year.
“I think we proved that we can make changes like when we took down the governor, but I think we still need more of that energy. It has to start from inside, from people’s heart. And that’s what I want, for people to start understanding and educating themselves. Someday maybe Puerto Rico will be a country that will make their own decisions because right now, we can’t even vote for the president.”
A longtime Sanders supporter, Residente called the Vermont senator the “best option” for president against Democratic contender Joe Biden, whom Residente views as more of the same political establishment. He also hopes that former presidential hopeful Sen. Elizabeth Warren throws her support behind Sanders.
“[Bernie] needs that,” he said of a potential Warren endorsement. “He’s the real thing. People want something different. Biden is the same, it’s not new. You need change, but in a good way, and Bernie is 100 percent that change.”
Regardless of Puerto Rico being shut out from voting in the U.S. presidential election, Residente feels that Sanders “knows a lot about Latin American history,” and Puerto Rico. “That makes me feel like he understands us and he’s going to take care of [us]. The fact that he’s aware of things that are happening, that tells you that at least he’s going to work things out for a lot of people.”
Despite being known for political activism and artistry, being a father to his 5-year-old son, Milo, is Residente's most important job. And he doesn’t plan on pressuring his son to follow in his footsteps. “I love what I do and when I start feeling that I don’t like it anymore, I do other things. It doesn’t matter if I’m going to make money or not. You have to like what you do, so whatever he wants to do in his life, he really has to feel happy about it and do it. As long as he’s not hurting anyone.”
Milo is also teaching Residente lessons on love and selflessness.
“I learn every day,” the proud dad said. “I never thought that I was going to be a father. He teaches me how to love someone more than myself. I’m a Pisces, I’m very chill, I have a lot of good [qualities] I think, but one bad thing is sometimes you get self-centered. Being with him, I don’t think about myself anymore, I think about him. And that’s a beautiful thing to feel. Because I was alone all the time, I thought about my family, I thought about a lot of people, but I don’t care about me when I’m with him, and I like that.”