It’s been two weeks since Hurricane Maria first raged across the island of Puerto Rico, and the crisis has only grown more complex. What first seemed like a natural disaster has also proven to be a long-standing infrastructural one; most of the island remains without electricity and water, putting its residents at a heightened risk of disease and famine. Yet with Puerto Ricans’ pleas meeting inadequate responses from the White House, Tony-winning Hamilton playwright Lin-Manuel Miranda has taken matters into his own hands – and with the help of many friends. Recorded alongside an all-star cast of Latin artists, including Jennifer Lopez, Gina Rodriguez, Fat Joe, Gloria Estefan, Camila Cabello and Marc Anthony, Miranda’s new song “Almost Like Praying” is a love song to Puerto Rico as much as it is a fight song. The song’s proceeds will benefit the Hispanic Federation’s UNIDOS Disaster Relief Fund.
“You know how we always tell artists ‘stay in your lane’ anytime they say something remotely political? I’m trying to use what I do in service of this challenge,” Miranda tells Rolling Stone. “We’re facing a humanitarian crisis right now. And the response from our federal government is not commensurate with the previous two hurricanes, much less up to the unprecedented danger of this disaster itself.”
Miranda began work on the song, an adaptation of “Maria” from 1961 musical West Side Story, two days after the hurricane first made landfall. “I knew the name Maria was forever going to have a destructive connotation to this island,” says Miranda. “It’s also the name of my favorite song from West Side Story. So my brain was already looking for a sample to flip … And that’s what we do in hip-hop, right? We take a sample, we flip it and change the meaning. And so the hook of the song is, ‘Say it soft, and it’s almost like praying.'”
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But first, he sought clearance from Stephen Sondheim and the estate of Leonard Bernstein. “They gave their blessing within a day,” says Miranda. “When there’s a crisis, you call in all the favors – call the gods of musical theater! I have the great fortune to count Sondheim as a mentor and a friend. I worked with him and Bernstein on the 2009 revival of West Side Story and its Spanish translations. Sondheim wrote back immediately and said ‘Yes – and what else can I do?'”
Miranda infused the number with a warm blend of dancehall, reggaeton and steel drum sounds; the result is an incendiary and highly danceable clarion call. (“If you’re gonna write a song for Puerto Rico and you can’t dance to it,” says Miranda, “you fucked up.”) Most moving is how many of Miranda’s childhood heroes, including original West Side Story cast member Rita Moreno, take turns shouting out each of the island’s 78 towns – a move Miranda says was inspired by Puerto Ricans’ heartbreaking calls across social media to find their relatives in the wake of the storm.
“There was a terrible silence,” says Miranda. “For some people days, for some people weeks. My Twitter and my Facebook were filled with friends and family listing the names of their towns. ‘My grandmother is in Vega Alta, my father lives in San Juan, has anyone heard from Isabela?’ I began thinking about the towns as lyrics. What unites us in this tiny island that is 100 miles across and 35 miles north to south … Is that we’re from these towns. We ask, ‘Where are you from?’ It is our link to our roots and our families.”
While enlisting collaborators for the track, Miranda says he made new friends in the process. “I broke my Rolodex and called every Latino artist I know,” he says. “And when I didn’t know them, I got on Twitter. I caused a minor uproar with Camila Cabello’s fans when I tweeted her, ‘Hey I have an idea!’ I also sent a private message to Luis Fonsi, who I never met before. I cold-called and every single person said yes, without even hearing the song.”
— Lin-Manuel Miranda (@Lin_Manuel) October 6, 2017
Within a dizzying 72 hours, Miranda flew from New York to Miami and Los Angeles to be present while the artists recorded their respective verses. Yet some were still recovering in the Caribbean, where resources were scarce and internet access was spotty. “The rapper PJ Sin Suela recorded at home,” says Miranda. “But he didn’t have the bandwidth to email his verse. So he gave a memory stick to Estefan, who was there on a relief mission – she then flew it back to us. When I say ‘all hands on deck,’ I’m really not fucking around!”
Riggs Morales, the executive producer behind the Hamilton Mixtape, mixed and mastered the song in the days that followed. Meanwhile, Miranda harvested stories of Puerto Rico from his collaborators, evoking tears and laughter inside the studios. This behind-the-scenes footage will air as part of a televised benefit, airing commercial-free on Telemundo Saturday, October 7th.
“I asked everyone, ‘What are your favorite memories from Puerto Rico?'” says Miranda. “I will never forget seeing Rubén Blades breaking down about meeting Hector LaVoe for the first time. I’ll never forget Marc Anthony talking about wearing suits before getting on a plane [to the United States] so they’d look white when they landed … And Gilberto Santa Rosa, who sang at my wedding. He was a salsero, but grew up in the same part of town as Daddy Yankee. They could not make two more different genres, but music saved their lives.
“The way music comes out of every frog, every tree, every molecule of the place,” reflects Miranda, “That’s something we share.”