Calle 13 at the American Airlines Arena October 15
Juan Wayne's black cowboy hat fits tight against his skull, and the paper cutout of the Virgin of Guadalupe taped inside it rubs annoyingly against his head. The 14-year-old grabs a hollow glass tube from the dashboard of his beat-up Chevy, stuffs it with steel wool, taps out two fat yellow chunks of crack rock from a prescription bottle, pushes one in the glass, and lets the acetylene-fueled glow from his pocket torch burn a rotten fog into his lungs. He quickly loads another jumbo, slugs some bitter mezcal straight from the bottle, pushes an extended clip into his AK, and grabs a machete.
Seconds later, Juan is hacking into the screaming necks and faces of the innocent young female factory workers who will soon form another mass grave on the U.S.-Mexico border. And the same day, 15 pounds of white travel into Texas, a junkie millionaire snorts ten dead bodies' worth of powder, and a young Bolivian begins walking north, coca leaf between his teeth.
Hispanics are the fastest growing minority in the United States. Puerto Rico's Calle 13 is the biggest band in Latinoamérica, and its music is political as fuck. But is the U.S. ready for the rhythm of revolt? Only if the motherfuckin' beat rides.
Less Daddy Yankee selling "Gasolina" to the gringos than Rubén Blades having a beer with Uncle Luke in the Tierra del Fuego, Calle 13's René Pérez Joglar (AKA Residente) and Eduardo José Cabra Martínez (AKA Visitante) aren't just another pair of Puerto Ricans making American asses shake. Lead voice René was just a kid in Puerto Rico when he discovered the Wu-Tang Clan, Lords of the Underground, Run-D.M.C., and 2 Live Crew.
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"I didn't know what they were saying. But I knew the word fuck," Resi recalls. "I remember they took my 2 Live Crew away from me and tried to hide it. But I found it."
So American hip-hop made its mark on the kid, and our dirty uncle taught him how to cuss. "That's why I started using bad words." But he cites Blades's Buscando América as having more of an impact. "That album, I connected with the lyrics."
His commitment to the written word, just as much as spoken word, is evident on the group's website, where all the lyrics to the songs from Calle 13's latest album, Entren los Que Quieran, are posted. "It's so great what a group of letters can do when you put them together. That's why I love words and freedom of speech."
Residente proudly invokes his right to rail against the system. In fact, Calle 13's first notoriety came from "Querido FBI," a vitriolic anti-imperialist rap that gained traction because it was released quickly after a Puerto Rican activist was gunned down in San Juan. Next, a couple of sex-soaked party tracks — "A Tre Ve Te Te" and "Vale To To" — put the duo on the map. But the group first hit the scene on the conscious hip-hop tip, and the pair's musical progression is marked by mining deep-rooted musical and cultural elements from Cochabamba to São Paulo and integrating them into tracks, lyrics, videos, and live shows.
Puerto Rico is a long-held U.S. commonwealth that many people call Welfare Island. Our president is the Puertorriqueños' president, our wars are theirs too, we pay their bills, they get to be citizens, our richest corporations get a tax shelter, our military gets a valuable port and a major weapons testing site. Everybody's happy, right?
Wrong. Residente is a member of the small minority (5 percent or less) of Puerto Ricans who want their country to be independent. "It's my way of thinking as a rapper and as a frontman," he says. "But that's not our main thing. What we fight for is free public education everywhere and to create a connection with the rest of Latin America.
"Puerto Rico is disconnected," he continues. "We are a colony for the US. We watch MTV and whatever else you put on TV. In school, the history classes we receive are from the U.S. We don't travel. We save all year and go to Disney and think we've been around the world. The U.S. knows how to maintain a colony, and it's doing a good job."
Last year, when Calle 13 played at Cuba's Anti-Imperialist Square for several hundred thousand screaming fans, three- to six-foot waves slammed against Havana's famous sea wall as Residente proclaimed, "We need to make a bridge from here to Puerto Rico so that cars can pass between and back and forth." The crowd erupted in approval.
But Miami's old-guard Cuban community, notorious for spite and protests against even the smallest sign of interaction with Castro's Cuba, have been less accommodating and even downright hateful. However, Residente isn't worried about exile backlash. "We said more in Havana in one day than they've ever said from their houses in Miami. If you have something to say, you go to the place and say it, not hide and throw rocks from far away," he argues. "I have a lot of Cuban friends in Miami, and I think the new generation doesn't think the same way. I feel sorry for the older people for what they lost. But you have to move on and be open for change."
Calle 13 isn't all politics, though. The duo also talks sex and religion, and even employs a dark sense of humor to combine all three. But in a world full of problems, Residente and Visitante's ideal of American hip-hop, that which is worshipped by kids around the world, has been tarnished by its vapid commercial excess.
"I don't like the elite thing about hip-hop. I'm bored," Resi explains. "They don't talk about anything besides all the shit they have and the way they rhyme. They are always talking about how they come from the ghetto.
"Are you fucking kidding me? The ghetto in your country is like the middle class in mine. A ghetto is a kid in Saudi Arabia with an AK in his hand and one leg, and he's waiting to shoot a Marine 'cause he killed his family. Ghetto is when you wanna steal food from a store but you can't because there is no food in your country. That's a problem. That's fucked up.
"I'm not saying you don't have problems in your country," he concedes. "But there are so many things wrong in the rest of the world. I don't know why hip-hop is not talking about that."
And for a group that has battled reggaeton stereotypes throughout its career, Calle 13 is full of surprises. Like the Alejandro Jodorowsky tribute in the duo's music video for "Pal Norte." Want art film? Watch Jodorowsky's Holy Mountain. Want remix? Watch Calle 13's overhead shots of Inca chicks tribal dancing on the endless cracked earth of the Salar de Uyuni in the Andes.
Then watch the video for "Latinoamérica," Calle 13's most ambitious track to date — a musical, visual, and lyrical exploration of Latin American cultural identity as filtered through the conscience of a country that's deprived of it.
The bottom line: Residente and Visitante are coming, and America better listen. They don't want our government, and they're bringing Latinoamérica with them.
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