The World According to Bad Bunny
The Puerto Rican reggaetonero has come to dominate global pop on his own terms.
By Carina del Valle Schorske
Photographs and videos by Mara Corsino
October 11, 2020
On Jan. 31, 2020, I could hear fireworks from my friend’s terrace in Santurce. All around Puerto Rico, people were celebrating a second New Year. January had been too punishing; we needed a fresh start. The archipelago, still half-broken from the brutal assault of Hurricane Maria several years before, suffered through hundreds of unpredictable tremors — an “earthquake swarm” that left people homeless across the island’s southern region and knocked out power for the rest of us. The government hoarded an enormous warehouse-full of emergency supplies, forcing displaced survivors to spend money they didn’t have at Walmart. I thought I saw a fiery meteor streak overhead — was I hallucinating? — but Twitter validated my apocalyptic vision. President Trump, meanwhile, threatened war with Iran, and Australia’s wildfires raged. We knew it could get worse, but we didn’t dare imagine how much. Instead, we filled our cups with pineapple juice and rum. We danced. We reminded one another that Bad Bunny was supposed to drop a new album soon — any day now — and that it was sure to be back-to-back bangers.
“YHLQMDLG,” the album we’d been waiting for, was finally released on Leap Day — a mystical glitch in the time machine — but at first it didn’t seem to be the nonstop party we were promised. Instead of immediately pounding us with perreo, the opening song, “Si Veo a Tu Mamá,” seduced us plaintively, with a well-worn bossa nova hook. It was “The Girl From Ipanema,” unmistakably, but in digital translation, getting us high — arrebataoooo, choirboy-style — on late-millennial nostalgia. It was the sound of a homebound teenager with nothing but a cheap keyboard, learning to loop the love language of another time over a crispy trap track.
“Si Veo a Tu Mamá” is about the abject aftermath of a breakup. In the world of the song, Bad Bunny never left the old neighborhood, so there’s always the risk he might run into his ex’s mother and find himself asking after the girl who got away: Has she found someone new? Someone who makes her happy? The forced intimacy of island life means no street corner is anonymous. The sounds of others saturate the mind. Behind the beat, urban roosters crow at dawn while Bad Bunny stumbles home from a night of hard drinking. The fireworks I remember from Santurce hiss and pop in the break, but they can’t drown out the deep moan of our collective tropical depression: “Maldito A?o Nuevo,” he curses. Damn New Year. There’s a timelessness to this lament. In the long, low-grade crisis of life in the world’s oldest colony, what year is not cursed?
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Lately, though, the crisis seems like a historical period we can track, improbably, in relation to the career of Benito Antonio Martínez Ocasio. He exploded onto the música urbana scene as Bad Bunny in 2016, when he was just 22, with the emo trap ballad “Soy Peor”: If I was a son of a bitch before, now I’m worse … because of you. That was the year the United States Congress passed PROMESA, the law that subjected Puerto Rico to a pitiless payment plan for its debt crisis. Then, in 2017, Hurricane Maria hit, and nine months later Bad Bunny released “Estamos Bien,” the defiant anthem of battered dreamers: And if tomorrow I die, I’m already used to living in the clouds. In 2018, amid an epidemic of femicides in Latin America, he released “Sólo de Mí,” channeling his voice, in the video, through a woman’s bruised mouth: I’m not yours, I’m not anybody’s, I belong only to myself. Now, in 2020, in this maldito a?o nuevo, he has given us a little something to take the edge off in quarantine: “Las Que No Iban a Salir,” 10 unreleased tracks from the “YHLQMDLG” sessions.
Bad Bunny has a preternatural feel for the needs of the moment, but his interventions very rarely come off as dutiful or didactic. He seems, instead, to be doing whatever he wants — at least, that’s the claim of his album’s title, “YHLQMDLG”: Yo hago lo que me da la gana. He performs the expressive freedom we wish we could, clearing the global stage not only for the charismatic spectacle of our joy but also for the impossible demands of our grief. He paints his nails purple. He talks about depression out loud, in public. He waves the Puerto Rican flag from the back of a flatbed truck in the middle of a massive street protest. He disappears for long stretches from social media — then emerges, looking sullen, to register to vote.
But mostly it’s his unmistakable voice that keeps us company at close range. Even my mother, who has zero tolerance for Bad Bunny’s explicit lyrics, admits there’s something special in his tone. Cecilia Cassandra Pe?a-Govea, who performs a range of Latin music as La Do?a, writes in Stereogum that it’s “like he’s singing underwater,” and for the Mexican magazine Terremoto, the poet-scholar Ren Ellis Neyra describes “sky-ripping, visceral gut-blow vocals that swarm a track.” On every song, he seems to hiccup between verses, as if gasping for air in the middle of a sobbing streak. Maybe it makes us feel less lonely to recognize, in the daily din, a distinctive human sound we’ve heard before — not just in San Juan, now, but in Miami, Mexico City, Los Angeles, London.
When Bad Bunny appeared with J Balvin on Cardi B’s smash hit single “I Like It” in 2018, the New York bugalú sample seemed to signal a major crossover moment. There’s no doubt that feature paved the way for his latest, greatest accolade: “YHLQMDLG” debuted at No. 2 to become the highest-charting Spanish-language album of all time. But this wasn’t really a conventional “crossover”: Bad Bunny cracked “the gringo market” (his words) without assimilating, without making the one concession that seemed unavoidable: his mother tongue. It’s pleasurable, in a recent Billboard video interview, to watch the host ask about the title of the new album. When Bad Bunny responds in Spanish, she smiles blankly, and he flips the script on his own clumsy English by using it to call her out — “you don’t know what I say” — before swooping in to save her with the translation. If language is a power game, then Bad Bunny is winning.
When I finally met Bad Bunny — not Bad Bunny the star, just Benito — he seemed a little haunted by the specter of his significance: “I feel like I’m an athlete representing Puerto Rico in the Olympics. It’s … diablo. …” It turns out the world knows very little about his homeland. The hurricane forced Americans to learn a few basic facts they were never taught in school: Puerto Rico is a so-called commonwealth of the United States, and Puerto Ricans are so-called citizens, even though they can’t vote for president and have no voting representatives in Congress. But when most people think of Puerto Rico, Benito says, “they think of reggaeton.”
Technically, reggaeton isn’t really “from” any one place — Jamaica, Panama and New York City were all crucial sites in its development in the early ’90s — but it established itself as a commercial force in Puerto Rico, which is uniquely positioned to amplify diasporic music. “We’ve always been good bridges because of the colonial situation,” said the rapper Residente, formerly of Calle 13, on a recent Zoom call, “the missing link that’s needed to make the rhythm work.” Despite the packaging of reggaeton as global pop, a palpable tension remains between Puerto Rico’s subjugated political status and its boisterous, filthy, defiant and now world-dominating music. This is especially true of the music Benito makes as Bad Bunny. Earlier this year, the host of the Dominican show “Alofoke Sin Censura” asked him why he is rarely seen stunting in designer logos and chains, and he replied: “My jewels are my songs.” In today’s capricious economy, Benito knows where his true wealth resides.
In mid-August, I was standing in the back of an anonymous office complex in Miramar flanked by boarded-up storefronts. It was the kind of block where I might find parking before a dental appointment. But when I produced my credentials for the woman managing the buzzer system, a garage door rose to reveal a cavern full of luxury cars, including a black Lamborghini I could identify thanks to a lifetime of rap videos. Benito’s manager, Noah Assad, directed me to the back of his S.U.V., thigh to thigh with Sujeylee Solá, his publicist, and before I thought to object to this transgressive proximity, we were on our way. “None of us have seen human beings in months,” Benito marveled, riding shotgun and talking over his shoulder in a mask, “so this is blowing my mind!”
We pulled up on the busiest street in Santurce — Calle Loíza — and ducked into an upscale Japanese restaurant that replaced the cafe where I used to go to La Impresora’s open mics. Once a working-class Black neighborhood that was home to the radical archivist Arturo Schomburg and the salsa legend Ismael Rivera, this particular strip along Ocean Park Beach is now dominated by Airbnbs, boutique smoke shops and perma-tourists in sarongs who’ve relocated for the warm weather and tax breaks. Inside the restaurant — they shut it down for us and lowered the blinds — we could be anywhere.
When Benito took his mask off, I saw that he had been cultivating a handlebar mustache, and I was finally able to appraise the full look: a denim jacket and pants in matching mustard over a gray turtleneck with smiley faces at the collar. He was styling his grown-out curls with a bandanna tied around his forehead. The overall effect was Jimi Hendrix meets “Tokyo Drift.” Soon two more friends from high school crashed the interview. Janthony Olivares’s energy was buoyant, off-kilter, his hair buzzed close and dyed in stripes of blue and purple. He’s a jack-of-all-trades, Benito’s right hand. Ormani Pérez, the tour D.J., was shy, a Raiders cap pulled low over his eyes — “they cut his tongue when he was born,” Janthony said, “so good luck with that one.” All the guys were wearing championship-style rings encrusted with diamonds that spelled out the title of Bad Bunny’s first album, “X100PRE,” online shorthand for por siempre. I was wearing a cocktail ring, too, but Janthony was not impressed: Without diamonds, “it doesn’t dance.”
Almost immediately, it became clear how much of the table’s escalating banter — untranslatable or profane — I would lose on the path to publication. Later, going through the transcripts, I was struck by the care with which my transcriber rendered not just the vernacular vocabulary but the accents: disfrutal instead of disfrutar, encabronao instead of encabronado. That music’s missing here.
Bad Bunny’s dialect — his highly particular Puerto Rican Spanish, as he mirrors, modulates and maximizes it — inspires exultant proprietary feeling in those who understand it instinctively and desperate thirst in those who don’t. Then there are the shamefaced Nuyoricans texting questions to cousins they know will clown them for asking.
To me, this is still ‘the sweetest talk
in the world,’ the stickiest.
I count myself among those who must embark on a program of cultural reclamation to follow his clever flow and hyperlocal allusions. I’m delighted when I can rap my way smoothly through even a few verses on a midtempo track like “Pero Ya No”: “ahora me gusta otra sicaria que vive por Bayamón/a mí ya no me cachas, yo no soy un Pokémon/tengo a otra que me brinca hasta que se joda el camón/no quiero que me llores, no vengas con el dramón.” The pleasure is in the deliberately heavy-handed end rhymes and what they draw into relation: a rough-riding suburb of San Juan, a multidimensional children’s game, a ravaged mattress, an exaggerated performance of remorse.
To me this is still ‘the sweetest talk in the world,’ the stickiest.
I asked Benito what he thinks Caribbean Spanish has that everybody wants to copy — Rosalía, Drake, white kids in the California suburbs. “That’s something I’d like to study and that hasn’t been studied,” he said. “Because yes, there’s something special.” Benito doesn’t have to go to graduate school to practice what the late Bajan poet Kamau Brathwaite called “nation language”: He is well aware of the politics latent in his language choices, and he performs this awareness slyly in his lyrics. In “Otra Noche en Miami,” Bad Bunny has “modelos extranjeras que me dicen papi” and “francesas hablándome en espa?ol” — models from abroad begging papi, French girls speaking Spanish. French especially has long held an unjustifiable position of prestige, but these girls will drop it all on a dime to catch his Puerto Rican ear, on his Puerto Rican terms.
Christopher Columbus noted how the island people he would later slaughter had “the sweetest talk in the world” — the Arawakan language spoken by Taíno people. The grammar is no longer intact. But driving across the island from east to west, I stopped for gas under a giant sign reading TOTAL GUASABARA, a nondescript roadside station bearing the Taíno word for uprising. Even in the deadly grip of the world’s fossil-fuel regime, the vocables of Indigenous revolt stay on the tips of our tongues, and generations of Black speech from Kingston to Brooklyn to Santo Domingo style our interjections. Yales. Demente. Mera woo. To me this is still “the sweetest talk in the world,” the stickiest. Even those who deride it can’t kill their own taste for it. Melaza.
Caribbean languages have long been held in contempt as derivative, adulterated, illiterate. What Puerto Ricans speak is “barely Spanish,” I’ve been told more than once by sophisticated American liberals who read Roberto Bola?o in translation. This is the blame game of diaspora: We’ve cannibalized “too much” English. But Puerto Ricans have fought fiercely to preserve this supposedly cut-rate Spanish as the official language of government, schooling and culture under U.S. colonialism. This syncretic, sidelong way of speaking — celebrated and circulated via popular music — archives histories of migration, resistance and coerced intimacy barely audible elsewhere.
Benito has become famous for his playful code-switching across islands and eras. But none of us, he reminded me, are born with it. We were on our second midday cocktail — the color of blue Gatorade — when he began to reminisce about what went over his head as a kid tuning in to reggaeton: “There were so many songs I sang without knowing what the hell they meant. There’s a Wisin y Yandel song that goes” — he broke into falsetto — “en la disco bailoteo, mezclao con fumeteo, da’l de’o.” He added: “When I was little, I would sing gardeo.” The table fell out laughing. Later, sheepishly, I asked my transcriber:
“I get the part about dancing and smoking … but what’s da’l de’o?”
“You know,” she said, “darle dedo a la tipa.”
Oh. “So … fingering?”
There’s no fluency like lived experience.
Once we were comfortably drunk, we caravaned back to Bad Bunny’s manager’s house in a fancy subdivision on the outskirts of the city. The sun was mellowing a bit when we went out back to the pool and basketball courts, and the horizon wavered in a blue-green haze. This is Benito’s temporary home in San Juan while he considers where to buy land to build his first mansion. He wanted to show me the new portable studio, which was recently towed back from Rincón in the west and lifted by crane over the high wall around Noah’s yard. Benito has never had a go-to studio: He makes music erratically, nomadically, on his phone and laptop in buses and planes and hotel rooms. The trailer was his first gesture toward a dedicated creative space, but it still felt provisional when we piled in: Sujeylee and I on an orange inflatable couch, the three guys draped along the walls and Benito holding court in the only chair as we settled into the cool, pink-lit darkness.
We got to talking about the salsa icon Héctor Lavoe. Benito considers Lavoe “the Michael Jordan of Latin music.The hits! He has too many hits — hymns — it’s ridiculous. Obviously the composers, producers and arrangers all contributed. But his style made such a mark — his voice, his way of singing. Jíbaro, but modern. A jíbaro who wouldn’t let anybody play him.” It’s hard to translate “jíbaro,” a historically loaded word that Puerto Ricans use to describe humble rural people on the island, people who have been both abandoned by the national project and held up as symbolic of its noble essence. My Puerto Rican family on my grandmother’s side are jíbaros, and the same might be said of Benito and his family. In fact, my great-aunt Justicia still lives in Vega Baja, the town where Benito was born. In the Covid-free fantasy version of this story, we all make an enormous platter of arroz con gandules, and I help his mother gather the mangoes she can’t reach from the tree in the yard.
Growing up, Benito felt far from the excitement of the San Juan metro area, even though Vega Baja is only a 45-minute drive away: On a small island, that’s almost provincial. I went to the river in Vega Baja a few days before our interview, the same river where Benito says he used to swim before he became too famous for that kind of public leisure, before the spot was overrun with people like me, driving in from San Juan. It was raining softly when I stumbled in among cascading ferns and rocks streaked with red clay. A little way off, two teenage boys with bright beads of water in their hair crouched on a rock, rolling a joint and then sparking it with a lighter shaped like a gun. They’ll probably never be famous, but who can say?
There wasn’t anything remarkable about how Benito grew up: in a stable lower-middle-class family of observant Catholics, with two parents who worked “to maintain” and two younger brothers, Bernie and Bysael. His father drove trucks, and his mother taught English. At home, they talked about “the light bill, the vieja on the corner who died, cancer diagnoses”; they were “a normal family caught up in the quotidian.” A trip to San Juan was an event: “four, at most five times a year” they’d go to Plaza las Américas, the vast, lavish mall in the capital with a five-level parking garage. “You have to understand that I was just a country kid. I didn’t even know where I was. I was standing there trying to ask someone Where’s Walmart? Where’s GameStop? Whenever I went to Plaza, I went to those little kiosks that had all kinds of candies, with the little bags, and you’d fill them up and weigh them.” Benito and his friends couldn’t afford to buy anything in the big music emporiums — “they were more like museums,” Janthony said — but they “always went in to look, and to dream, like, diablo, look, a whole rack of ‘Simpsons’ DVDs.” Instead, Benito was allowed to choose a few CDs from the catalogs his mother would order — Marc Anthony, maybe the new Vico C after he pledged his life to Jesus — but there wouldn’t be much música urbana. “The new Daddy Yankee album wasn’t going to be there.”
That’s why it was such a thrill to wake up and get in the car to go to school, when reliably, at 7:50 a.m., the Top 40 station’s smooth romantic pop — Ricky Martin, Chayanne — gave way to Tego Calderón’s classic “Pa’ Que Retozen”: más monstruo que los de “Thriller.” Tego was the only reggaetonero his mother let him listen to back then, “because,” she reasoned, “if they play him on the radio, he must be good.” And he was: a polymathic rapper and percussionist who infused Puerto Rican rap with sophisticated Caribbean rhythms — not just dancehall, but bomba — and Black Power consciousness. For baby Benito, Tego was his “favorito full,” and those mornings on the radio were his “moment” to key into the particular pleasures of his own generation.
Benito came into the world with the mainstreaming of reggaeton, when a quirky, introverted kid from the country, with no taste for the streets, had access to the music descended from underground mixtapes once sold at pickup points in the projects and exchanged in San Juan’s high school parking lots. The music was still gritty, but it was everywhere, and it came to seem as though it belonged to everyone. In the early aughts, canny impresarios worked to rebrand reggaeton as reggaeton Latino, shifting away from its intimate associations with the emphatically Black genres of rap and reggae and toward the vague but profitable Pan-American possibilities promised by latinidad. But the genre was changing in other ways too, beyond the machinations of the market. Computer programs like FruityLoops opened the floodgates for those without access to the main circuits of studio production.
Benito began making beats and freestyling in his bedroom as a young teenager with his friends, some of whom remain his closest collaborators. He introduced Ormani to FruityLoops a solid decade before the two of them broke the internet with “Safaera,” a deliciously dirty, densely referential homage to the megamixes Puerto Rican D.J.s used to play at garage parties back in the early aughts, when figures like DJ Nelson were among the island’s biggest stars and mixtapes like “Más Flow” were hotter than single-artist albums. Benito has repeatedly described “YHLQMDLG” as “the album that reggaeton deserves,” and it pays a debt of gratitude by featuring many of the genre’s elder statesmen: Jowell and Randy, Yaviah, the one and only Daddy Yankee. It’s a kind of historical corrective: “Since reggaeton went pop all over the world, I don’t feel like people really know the sound that raised me, that I grew up studying. This is the album I would’ve wanted to release when I was 15 and dreamed of being a singer. But” — here he held my gaze to make sure I got the message — “my next album doesn’t have anything to do with ‘YHLQMDLG.’”
Benito often veers between expressions of reverence for other musicians, past and present, and declarations of creative autonomy. “He doesn’t work like any other artist,” says Tainy, the beloved reggaeton producer who supplied the opening beat for “Safaera.” He never shares the song’s final version with his collaborators until it’s publicly released, preserving the element of surprise in the dramatic beat changes that characterize many of his most memorable songs — not just “Safaera” but “Caro,” “La Romana” and “Bad con Nicky.” Despite the fact that he came up through música urbana — first rap, then trap, then reggaeton — he’s aware that much of his creative and commercial power resides in his fluent genre-crossing, his capacity to move between the nu metal of Slipknot and the ardor of the Mexican balladeer Juan Gabriel, the sly delivery of salseros like Lavoe and the absurdist antics of Lady Gaga.
‘He doesn’t work like any other artist.’
In his freestyle over the beat from the Myke Towers song “Ronca,” Bad Bunny boasts: “Without me the genre would be so monotonous.” Maybe so. But he has been able to take advantage of a much more hospitable pop landscape than the one his predecessors navigated, when the genre was dismissed as hood music. The market still seems to value versatility most highly in white artists. When I say “white,” in the Caribbean context, I’m departing from the rigid “one-drop rule” that still seems to determine most U.S. thinking about race. Many Puerto Ricans, including Benito, are racially mixed. But he consciously identifies as white in recognition of how he’s treated in relation to darker-skinned Puerto Ricans.
‘He doesn’t work like any other artist.’
There are a few prominent Black stars right now in música urbana, including the hugely popular Puerto Rican trapero Ozuna and the Panamanian singer Sech, each of whom has collaborated with Bad Bunny, as well as an exciting surge of newer talent across the Americas. But the biggest international chart-toppers, the ambassadors of the genre, are the Colombian J Balvin and Bad Bunny himself. Given the hierarchies that organize modern society, it’s not surprising that música urbana has become whiter as it has been further subsumed by global capitalism, but this trend is hard to tolerate given the genre’s genesis in Black rhythms and diasporic solidarity. Tainy told me on Zoom: “Some of us have always carried that flag.” Several música urbana stars come from families who sustained older forms of Black music: Arcángel’s mother was in the 1980s merengue girl group “Las Chicas del Can,” and Daddy Yankee’s father played percussion in the bomba ensemble Los Hermanos Ayala.
Latin music has always been contested terrain, even in its most pleasurable manifestations. Benito’s idol Héctor Lavoe made his career as a white emissary of Black Caribbean culture when he sang, “Let’s all dance in the African style, and if you don’t know how, I’ll teach you, my brother.” “Che Che Colé” is an irresistible Willie Colón composition that reworks a Ghanaian children’s song, and Lavoe’s delivery couldn’t be smoother. But other transpositions are less lyrical. Even before Jennifer Lopez, the white Puerto Rican vedette Iris Chacón was celebrated as the exemplar of the totemic Black butt. It’s never been absolute — exceptions exist — but there’s a persistent preference in the entertainment industry for the lightest, whitest conduits of Black aesthetics, perhaps especially as translators between the United States and the islands the Martinican philosopher édouard Glissant called the “Other America.”
It’s also true that many white artists in the Caribbean diaspora really did grow up collaborating closely with Black people, living, loving and working in the same neighborhoods, in multiracial families, under intimately related forms of state violence, so that simple charges of appropriation sound off-key. To quote Audre Lorde, “Who said it was simple?” Who said it was simple to navigate our position as white Puerto Ricans in a market that habitually dismisses and devalues the syncretic culture in which we participate, but privileges our race?
Benito has just begun to think this through. He admitted that he didn’t know how to respond when, at the beginning of his career, journalists would ask him about Tego Calderón, suggesting he might have enjoyed more success if he hadn’t been Black. “That question used to stun me.Like, what do you mean, more success? For me he’s huge, he’s the greatest — so I didn’t understand.” It’s only now, after a little more time in the industry, that he sees that these prejudicial dynamics “are real,” even as he still struggles to articulate them clearly. His rather belated statement in support of the recent Black Lives Matter uprisings did not address racism in the music industry. Instead, he urged his audience not to “wait for artists, or for fictitious heroes.” Fame has exaggerated the tension between Benito’s drive to understand the world and his more hermetic tendencies. He’d wanted to wait on the statement until he reckoned a little more with his own discomfort. He told me: “As a child, for better or worse, I always lived in my bubble. Now, I could say — and people do say — it’s a form of privilege. But it’s always been my way of being. Me, in my house and in my bubble, imagining a better, more magical world.”
Benito has taken advantage of the pandemic’s disruption — the album tour, of course, was canceled — to power down his phone and re-establish contact with his sense of purpose as an artist. This is the longest stretch he’s spent in Puerto Rico since 2017. “Setting foot on the island is really important for me,” he explained to Alofoke earlier this year. When he’s away, he misses it like a sickness. He still can’t forgive or forget that he was elsewhere when the hurricane hit. “Papi, you have no idea,” said Janthony, who survived the storm in his family home in Manatí. “I don’t know if we’ll ever see people come together like that again. It was a crazy, stupid magic.” Janthony made friends — real ones — in the 12-hour line for gasoline. Women bought washboards and learned the old ways to clean clothes in buckets, in river water.
“For the people who weren’t there, it wasn’t the same experience, but it was —” Benito searched for the right words — “I mean, it hurts no matter what.” I thought I recognized not just survivor’s guilt but also survivor’s envy in the way he stammered in the wake of his friend’s recollections. “Estamos Bien,” for me, has always been a song that tracks the eerie distance of diaspora: choirs of angels singing through a digital haze, that haunted flute spiraling in and out, the frantic music of missed connections. Estamos bien. No, really, we’re fine — that’s what they told us, but we knew it wasn’t true. Benito’s parents would not have electricity at home for three months after the storm. Along the shoreline, there are still so many palm trees with missing crowns.
Bad Bunny was away from the island again — on tour in Ibiza — in July 2019 when Puerto Rico’s Center for Investigative Journalism leaked a notorious series of exchanges sent through an encrypted app called Telegram between Ricardo Rosselló, then the governor, and his associates. That same week, the F.B.I. had arrested several government officials — including former Education Secretary Julia Keleher — on counts of fraud.
Mainstream media outlets have portrayed the political cronyism in Puerto Rico as typical third-world shenanigans, obfuscating the role of the United States in fomenting the decade-long financial crisis by offering huge tax breaks to American corporations at the expense of local businesses, defunding public services including utilities and education and triggering a wave of out-migration. In 2016, as a stipulation of PROMESA, the Obama administration installed a seven-member Financial Oversight and Management Board to exercise ultimate authority over Puerto Rico’s budget. Puerto Ricans call this unelected body “La Junta,” to underline its nakedly colonial function.
Benito says he began to recognize Puerto Rico as a colony only three years ago, when he began touring and was forced to regard his homeland through the eyes of others. “Latin America especially sees us like this: Oh, you’re the children, you’re not even in charge of yourselves, you’re some bootlickers.” So he began to ask himself the inevitable questions: “Why the hell are we where we are? Why aren’t we in a better situation? Why do we depend on those people?” Benito’s political awakening has unfolded publicly, and this is part of its power as a model. Many artists are so afraid to face criticism from fans — or censure from the Puerto Rican government, as Residente did as a younger artist — that they never take the risk of a clear position. Bad Bunny has blundered, but he has also participated sincerely in contemporary debates and protest movements.
The demonstrations of July 2019, which successfully demanded Rosselló’s resignation, were the first Benito ever attended. His experience wasn’t unique. What scandalized the public and galvanized an often-complacent middle class was the extremely vulgar language these privileged elites used in their messages to denigrate almost every sector of Puerto Rican society. Political rivals were “whore” and “son of a bitch.” They made snide references to Ricky Martin’s sexuality. They joked about the corpses that piled up after Hurricane Maria. These white-collar thugs doubled down on misogyny and homophobia in the vernacular often associated with the lower classes and blamed on música urbana, including reggaeton. In fact, Rosselló’s father, Pedro Rosselló, presided in his own tenure as governor (from 1993 to 2001) over a major effort to censor reggaeton’s predecessor — underground — as one element in the aggressive policing agenda known as “Mano dura contra el crimen,” the Puerto Rican equivalent of Bill Clinton’s disastrous crime bill.
In February 1995 — when Benito was 11 months old — the police organized showy raids against six record stores, three of them in Plaza las Américas. Underground wasn’t new, but it was newly accessible: The government decided to criminalize the music’s obscenity when it began, from the official perspective, to contaminate the minds of middle-class kids and infiltrate spaces like Plaza, the most prestigious showpiece of capitalist respectability. Benito is alive to this history: “They’ve always scapegoated young people, like diablo, kids these days, but these are the same young people that have this incredible hunger. We’re the future.” In his verse on the protest song he made almost overnight with Residente and iLe — “Afilando los Cuchillos,” or “Sharpening the Knives” — Bad Bunny addresses Rosselló directly: “This doesn’t have anything to do with bad language/I talk dirty in my own home and on all my songs/this is about your shameless lying to the people/about how you hid the dead.”
The Telegram chat revealed what many of us already knew: Urban music was never to blame for the degradation of Puerto Rican society. The real degradation has always been Puerto Rico’s colonial condition and the nihilistic corruption it cultivates among local power brokers. Given this context, there was an air of pleasurable vengeance in the fact that the protests that ousted Ricardo Rosselló were galvanized by what came to be called perreo combativo — militant twerking — set to the driving dembow rhythm of the music his father tried, and failed, to eradicate.
This is not to say there wasn’t, and isn’t still, plenty of misogyny and homophobia to go around in música urbana. But it’s striking to note that the perreo combativo — like the protests more generally — was driven largely by young women and queer people, that sometimes the perreo broke out in ecstatic bouts of vogueing in front of the governor’s mansion. It’s not a stretch to say that Bad Bunny has played some role — however minor — in supporting the genre’s much-needed progressive redirection. But he identifies the limits of his own role in “Más de Una Cita,” from his latest mixtape: Es que los hombres ya no tienen credibilidad — it’s just that men these days have zero credibility.
Benito often condemns gender-based violence on Twitter and live TV, but much of his advocacy takes the form of performance art: grinding in full drag in the “Yo Perreo Sola” video, wearing a skirt on “The Tonight Show” to publicly mourn the murder of Alexa Negrón Luciano, a trans woman in Toa Baja. For Benito, these moments seem to map out a personal journey as much as a political strategy: He uses his body as a tool to explore and challenge the limits of his own desires and the social norms that might discipline them. Like Dennis Rodman and Prince before him, Bad Bunny knows his femme flamboyance serves a disruptive public function, but it emerges from a much more intimate inquiry into his own identity as an artist.
In person, I suggested that he might be interested in embodying a woman’s perspective in his music and videos because men are not always afforded the same emotional range. “Exactly,” he agreed. “When I bathe I’m a little bit feminine,” he explained, and as with “Yo Perreo Sola,” “The idea for ‘Sólo de Mí’ also came to me in the bath.” I asked what he meant by feeling “feminine,” but he wisely sidestepped the potential trap in the question. “I don’t feel good talking about what is or isn’t feminine,” he said. “I could tell you what society thinks, but for me, I don’t know.” Originally, he wanted to write the lyrics for “Sólo de Mí” completely in the woman’s voice, using the feminine form of “yours” — tuya — in the refrain “I’m not yours, I’m not anyone’s, I belong only to myself.” But the speculation gave him a headache, and he scrapped the idea: “The message will get lost, and people will start talking about my sexuality instead of what the song’s actually about.” He didn’t intend to write a political song, exactly: “It wasn’t like I sat down and said” — here he put on a pretentious voice — “I must write a song in defense of women!” Instead, the song defends vulnerability as a sacred principle in all of us that should never be exploited: “Don’t come back calling me baby. You know I’m not for you — not even a little bit.”
I was surprised to learn how few women or queer people occupy Benito’s inner circle. It’s an effect, no doubt, of his fame — he’s had mostly the same skater-boy, SoundCloud crew since high school — and of the fact that the genre in which he has made his name is still heavily male-dominated and inhospitable to queer people of any gender.
Cecilia Cassandra Pe?a-Govea thinks we’ve seized on Bad Bunny as a symbol and extracted more political meaning from him than he can take credit for himself. His flexible attitudes toward gender and sexuality owe a lot to the zeitgeist: He’s emerged as a star very much online, where his generational peers put the X in Latinx and demand accountability from pop stars and politicians alike.
When I interviewed the Puerto Rican rapper Villano Antillano, they acknowledged that Bad Bunny has “brought a lot of important conversations to the table,” but they also admitted that hasn’t made much of a material difference in facilitating the careers of those who lead openly queer lives. Our conversation was haunted by the 2019 killing of the Puerto Rican trapero Kevin Fret. After a perfunctory police investigation that yielded no arrests, many questions still remain about the role of the industry’s own homophobia in failing to protect him. “Everyone knew something bad would happen” to Fret, Villano Antillano said, “and no one did anything.” Later they followed up on our phone call with a long text message that ended like a poem: “We are our own icons and idols. The ones who get chased down with cars and beat up and abused. We save ourselves every day.”
At the end of my time with Benito and his friends, my mind turned back to what we owe superstars (probably nothing) and what they owe us (maybe something). The night was soft. Ormani volunteered to drive me back to the garage where I left my rental car, and it was easy to pretend we were friends on our way out for pizza and a movie. He cued up a freestyle Benito recorded around 2014, when he was just beginning to post on SoundCloud, and I was startled to find his voice much higher, his flow more frantic. He was broke back then, but he knew there was only one way to get where he wanted to go: “Aquí nadie sube sólo, él que te diga eso miente, uno siempre necesita ayuda de la gente.” The verse hit like a prophetic footnote to his future fame — as if Benito knew to warn Bad Bunny against understanding his own rise as an individual triumph.
Even in the terrifying early weeks of the pandemic in New York, I tried to protect my sanity by riding my bike in the evenings from West 113th Street up to the George Washington Bridge at 178th by way of the riverside path. I rapped along to the “Ronca” freestyle, as if it were a spell: “El conejo es la verdadera pandemia” — “The bunny is the real pandemic.” Would that it were so. This stretch of park is intensely Latino, so I’m never the only one listening to Bad Bunny: I hear his music pouring from Bluetooth speakers hooked to handlebars and full sound systems with amps and turntables set up for baby showers and birthday parties. Always a working-class refuge, the park has now become one of the only places to gather, so the scene has leveled up accordingly: bowers of white and blue balloons, elaborate hookah setups with embroidered pillows, steaming trays of plantains and pernil, a salsa combo with a 12-year-old girl on maracas, couples in skintight athleisure and impeccably maintained Nike Huaraches. When Bad Bunny brags about lapping his competition como la vieja en el parque, he’s evoking the plazas of small-town Puerto Rico, where older people have promenaded for centuries, but there are viejas here, too, in lawn chairs, listening to rancheras or shuffling cards at little folding tables with masks dangling from their chins.
Toward the end of August, I couldn’t help wondering who among us had lost a loved one to the virus, who was dancing through deep grief. Many of the people around here are Puerto Ricans, Central Americans, Black Americans — and most of all, Dominicans — who earn livings, often barely, as bike messengers and store clerks and schoolteachers and bus drivers and home health aides. In other words, “essential workers” — as Benito would have been, too, if he never left Vega Baja, never stopped bagging groceries at the Econo supermarket. I wove past little girls in ribbons on scooters and shirtless men on skateboards whose musk had come to seem, in quarantine, like rare perfume. Sometimes I could almost feel my third eye opening up, like the little boy on the cover of “YHLQMDLG,” who flees a blurred and burning world and barrels toward us on his bicycle with his supernatural vision fixed firmly on the future. In Ralph Ellison’s 1955 essay “Living With Music,” he writes: “Perhaps in the swift change of American society in which the meanings of one’s origin are so quickly lost, one of the chief values of living with music lies in its power to give us an orientation in time.”
On Sept. 20, 2020 — the third anniversary of Hurricane Maria’s landfall in Puerto Rico — Bad Bunny descended unexpectedly on my city. On YouTube, I watched him cruise down the Grand Concourse in the Bronx on top of a semi truck styled to look like a graffitied subway car, a stream of exuberant pedestrians running in his wake. “Dreaming is everything,” Benito had told me, and this vision was indeed dreamlike: a larger-than-life enchantment of our quotidian reality here in the uptown corridors where so many Puerto Ricans have become, and refused to become, Americans. He wore all black — sunglasses, a long leather coat — like a true New Yorker, but also like a man in mourning, like the black resistance flag that has dominated street protests in Puerto Rico since the passage of PROMESA. He was in Washington Heights by then, performing “La Romana,” one of his collaborations with the dembow artist El Alfa.
I tracked him coming closer as if I’d summoned this live concert myself: I ran east to Lenox and arrived at Harlem Hospital Center as the last bit of equinox blue left the sky, just before Bad Bunny turned the corner. A buzzing congregation of passers-by joined the essential workers who were gathered by Univision to receive his benediction. He performed exactly one song, directing us to take over the chorus — oh, the ecstasy of singing “Yo Perreo Sola” in a crowd! — then disappeared in a black car, abandoning us to our collective wonderment. We looked at one another and laughed, as if an outsider had posed a question too obvious or too complicated to answer directly. The exhausted technicians descended from the truck, and I glimpsed the elaborate armada of backstage machinery that made the mobile concert possible. Bad Bunny, the phenomenon, had been produced through this tangle of world-spanning wires, this intergenerational labor of call and response. On my way home, I walked through Morningside Park, where dark knots of people stayed after hours to gather around bonfires. Remember? It was a whole season of nights like that, with his music in our headphones and his music at large in the streets. We couldn’t always tell whether we were hearing one voice singing many songs, or many voices singing one.
Carina del Valle Schorske is a writer and translator in New York and San Juan, P.R. Her first book, “The Other Island,” is forthcoming from Riverhead. In 2020, her essay “The Ladder Up,” originally published in Virginia Quarterly Review, was a National Magazine Award finalist. Her last essay for the magazine was a Letter of Recommendation for literary translation as an accessible and radical practice. Mara Corsino is a Brooklyn-based photographer, born and raised in San Juan, Puerto Rico. This is Mara’s first assignment for the magazine.
Styling by Storm Pablo
Design and development by Shannon Lin.