Early on the morning of January 11th — at roughly 2 a.m. in San Juan, Puerto Rico — an unusual broadcast aired live from Bad Bunny’s Instagram account. Instead of their beloved Benito, fans of the Latin trap singer were greeted by his friend and mentor René Pérez Joglar, AKA Residente, the rapper of Calle 13 fame. “This is Benito,” said Pérez in the video. “But, uh, much older. We want to talk to the governor about crime in Puerto Rico.”
Two of the biggest stars in Latin urban music spent the next hour circling La Fortaleza in San Juan, where Governor Ricardo Rosselló resides. While Pérez and Bad Bunny managed to placate security guards by posing for fan photos, they would not be allowed inside without the governor’s authorization. “Around 5 a.m. I sent Rosselló a message on Twitter,” Pérez tells Rolling Stone over the phone. “I asked if me and Benito [could] go there and drink a coffee with him. Then he answered, ‘I was gonna run, but it’s okay.'” By sunrise, the two had shared a photograph from inside the governor’s office, littered with miscellaneous documents and folders.
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Acá listos pa Gobernar 🍺 Sin dormir logramos entrar a fortaleza para hablar sobre opciones de como resolver el crimen en la isla, educación, la junta de control fiscal, la auditoría, la deuda y nos ganamos un café ☕️ Gracias @ricardorossello por abrirnos las puertas pa escucharnos. 🇵🇷 @badbunnypr 🙏 Without any sleep we managed to get inside the house of the governor of Puerto Rico to talk about options for how to solve crime on the island, education, The Financial Oversight and Management Board, auditing the debt and we won a coffee ☕️ Thank you @ricardorossello for being accessible and for listening to us 🇵🇷 @badbunnypr 🙏
This was not Pérez’s first meeting at La Fortaleza; in 2014, he paid a visit to the previous Governor Alejandro García Padilla, along with two schoolchildren and their parents, to discuss the needs of working-class families on the island. The rapper returned to the governor’s mansion in 2019 with a similar objective, but under more dire circumstances. Last week, the New York Times reported that the rate of homicide in Puerto Rico is four times that of the contiguous United States. Multiple videos have emerged of shootings in broad daylight; the murder of Kevin Fret, a 24-year-old trap musician who openly identified as gay, became one of the island’s most widely publicized fatalities.
“What’s happening with crime in Puerto Rico is bad, and it’s huge,” said Pérez. “It’s been happening for a long time — but now they’re doing it in daylight, in the middle of the streets, in front of everyone. The kids don’t care, they just shoot people. [Fret’s murder] adds to the whole situation… We were hanging [near] La Fortaleza and I thought it was important to go see the governor that night and have a talk.
“I started a conversation like if it was talking to a friend,” continues Pérez. “It was funny. We’re around the same age, just talking like human beings. I was like, ‘Cabrón… if you want to make huge changes, you have to break the rules and take risks. That’s what I do in music. If you don’t take that risk? That change doesn’t happen.'”
While Governor Rosselló sympathized greatly with the artist, this is far from an easy issue to address. When Rosselló was sworn into office in 2017, he inherited an island locked down by a controversial federal law called PROMESA — the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act. Passed by U.S. Congress in 2016 during Governor García Padilla’s time in office, the measure was introduced to manage debt relief for the island — which, as of May 2017, owed $74 billion to an assortment of hedge funds, creditors and bond insurers, a situation that worsened following Hurricane María that fall. In addition, the island owes over $53 billion in unfunded pensions for government employees. Under PROMESA, President Obama put in place a fiscal oversight board, locally known as La Junta, comprised of seven unelected appointees. “[With] us being a colony,” says Pérez, “It’s like asking your dad for money, but he controls what you use it for.”
Since its implementation, the fiscal board has issued a strict austerity plan on the U.S. territory, slashing vital funds for healthcare, pensions and education — which has contributed to massive school closures, a shrunken police force, and an influx of Puerto Rican youth with idle time on their hands. Pérez argues that with fewer schools and educational programs, young people become more liable to turn to crime and violence. “The government needs to be more creative,” he suggests. “Create camps in different barrios so the kids have somewhere safe to go and study.”
This has proved difficult, especially in the aftermath of the cataclysmic Hurricane María — which put additional strains on the island’s infrastructure, killed nearly 3,000 people and prompted a mass exodus of an estimated 200,000 Puerto Ricans, greatly reducing the territory’s fiscal revenue. President Trump, who had previously floated the idea of clearing Puerto Rico’s debt in 2017, has more recently threatened to take disaster relief funds from Puerto Rico and into the border wall between U.S. and Mexico.
Governor Rosselló has referred to the debt crisis as “a big Ponzi scheme,” and filed a lawsuit against the Junta in July 2018. “We have focused our cuts not on services, but rather on reducing the size of government,” explained Rosselló in a 2018 interview with Rolling Stone. “As soon as I came in, I put in an executive order to reduce 10 percent of the current year’s budget. I put another executive order to slash political-appointment spending by 20 percent, and we’ve actually gone above that. The real problem with the Financial Oversight Board is not necessarily the fact that we have to make changes, but rather certain policy measures [such as school closings] that the board doesn’t have the power to implement but want to thrust upon us anyway. That’s where the conflict lies.”
“If we have all this debt from back in the day, why can’t we make the audit?” counterpoints Pérez, referring to a government audit commission quashed by Rosselló in 2017 — and now in the process of being recouped by citizens. “[Rosselló told me] the papers are public, anyone can look at them and make an audit. We weren’t fighting, it was a good conversation. But I said we need to make an audit. I think that’s the first step, just to understand what’s happening — and then to show the country, be transparent with your people.”
The art of dissent comes naturally to Pérez, who spent his youth attending union rallies with his father, a labor lawyer. As for 24-year-old Bad Bunny, this was the first time he’d ever stormed La Fortaleza in protest; still, he’s managed to remain politically engaged with his island while his music climbs the Billboard Latin and pop charts. He’s taken to social media to criticize Puerto Rico’s education system, condemned Trump on live television, and decried violence against women in his own music. “It was good for Benito to be at [the governor’s office],” says Pérez. “He’s connecting with a lot of young people. But he’s also a guy who questions things, who’s open to new information. Sometimes [artists] have to be like that and say things — and they won’t lose their crowd. They just have to maintain a balance. I’ll say something hardcore, something about violence in the streets, and then I’ll do a song with Shakira. That’s the balance.”
As for questions of a potential artistic collaboration with Bad Bunny, Pérez wouldn’t say. He did, however, tease a future solo album: “I don’t wanna call it hip-hop, but I want to do something more like straight rap,” he explains. “I think that I’ve been doing rap all my career, but people don’t understand rap if you don’t have the usual beat, and if you don’t rap the same way.”
“Every time that I come to Puerto Rico, I try to do as much as I can,” adds Pérez. “Socially speaking, even though I’m with the family. I wanna come back and be a family man and spend more time in Puerto Rico. The thing is when I’m on tour, it’s very difficult to control that. I’ve been touring for two years since I did my DNA album. December 1st was my last show, and now I’m free.”
He mentions another goal: “I wanna help out with the feminist movement,” he says, referring to the Colectiva Feminista en Construcción, who have been holding demonstrations against violent misogyny in Puerto Rico in recent months. Yet after their weekend-long occupation of La Fortaleza last fall, they were beaten and chased out by police. “They were trying to talk with the governor and they couldn’t,” says Pérez. “So I sent a text to [Rosselló] and told him, ‘Bro, I think you have to let these people in and talk to them, it’s super important what’s happening with violence against women around the world and in Puerto Rico.’ There’s a protest on the 16th. I’m gonna check out and see what it’s about.” (Following additional pressure from the group on social media, Rosselló did meet with Colectiva Feminista on Tuesday afternoon. The group’s protest against taxes imposed by the Junta, held in front of the Federal Court, still took place on Wednesday morning.)
“Be transparent,” says Pérez, indirectly addressing Rosselló. “Make this a U.N. thing. A huge, international thing. If you stand in front of the government of the U.S. and say, ‘I’m not gonna pay the debt,’ I’m gonna support you. And a lot of people are gonna support you.”