In a global musical realm

In a global musical realm

Rapper Residente believes there are no borders when it comes to tunes. Currently on a lifelong mission to create his musical identity through his roots, he talks to Jon Pareles about what drives him every day

René Pérez Joglar — better known as the rapper Residente — chose complete autonomy when he dissolved Calle 13, the Puerto Rican group that conquered the Americas as it moved from hip-hop and reggaeton into a global musical realm all its own. He also chose a futuristic way to investigate and reimagine his own identity.

For his first solo album, still untitled and due in March, Residente found inspiration in the scientific analysis of his own genome.

Tracing his ancestry
A few years ago, Residente had been persuaded to test his DNA to trace his ancestry. It turned out to be an international brew: African, European, Asian, Middle Eastern, Native American. He set the information aside while Calle 13 continued to tour and record. But over the past two years, working on his own, Residente decided to embrace his molecular identity: to make music guided by those DNA test results, recording with local musicians where his roots were. The resulting album uses one man’s individual chemistry to affirm global kinship.

“There are no borders,” he said when he announced the album. Residente conceptualised and edited much of the album — words, music, videos, images, ideas — in a work space at the Loisaida Center in downtown Manhattan, USA. There, more than a year ago, he immersed himself in reading history, collecting images and plotting transcontinental travels.

The room, like his songs, was still a welter of information a few days ago as Residente showed a visitor around. He was fashionably dressed down with an olive-drab Maharishi T-shirt, black cargo pants, and tan ankle boots. Tables were strewn with books, votive candles, tubes of paint and photos. On one wall was a world map with large territories circled: sources of his DNA. It was flanked by homemade collages of images: one with Chinese sages, opera characters and an emperor, another with child soldiers brandishing guns. They were images that had catalysed Residente’s latest songs and their thoughts of apocalypse, war, exploitation, resistance and evolution.

He recorded songs for the album with Tuareg electric guitarist Bombino, originally from Niger, in Burkina Faso; with Chinese opera musicians in Beijing; with Goran Bregovic’s brass band in Serbia; with actress and chanteuse SoKo in France; and with Dagomba tribal singers in Ghana.

Residente spent more than a decade as the voice of Calle 13, the genre-splicing Puerto Rican duo of Residente and Visitante — his half brother Eduardo José Cabra Martinez — who composed and produced the music. Calle 13 started out close to reggaeton and socially conscious hip-hop, like a Puerto Rican Public Enemy, but its ideas advanced exponentially through its five albums.

Eventually, Calle 13’s songs dipped into hip-hop, salsa, klezmer, Native American chants, hard rock, even Irish jigs, while Residente’s lyrics offered sociopolitical commentary, raunch, science fiction and solidarity with a worldwide underclass. On tour, the group sometimes collected admission prices in food, to be distributed to the local poor or disaster victims. Residente often displayed political slogans on his T-shirt or his painted chest.

Calle 13 quickly reached the arena circuit across Latin America, and its recordings have won more Latin Grammy Awards — 22 — than any other act. Its 2011 song ‘Latinoamérica’, featuring celebrated singers from Peru, Brazil and Colombia, became something like a hemispheric anthem. After the tour that followed Calle 13’s remarkable 2014 album, ‘Multi_Viral’, an embrace and critique of internet culture, Residente and Visitante went separate ways, and Residente became the architect of his own music.

Hard & unflinching
As in Calle 13, Residente’s new lyrics are hard-nosed and unflinching. He wrote many of them in his destinations, where he stayed for weeks at a time. “I didn’t visit tourist places,” he said. “I went to some very dark places.”

In Beijing, he said, the choking pollution and the juxtaposition of modern buildings and a crumbling past led him to write ‘China Apocalipsis’. The laughing, upbeat bounce of the Balkan brass band on ‘Futuro’ has him sardonically envisioning a future where cockroaches are food and terrorists have blown up the moon. But he does have a hopeful song for his son, and one recorded in Ghana that celebrates the spirit of the penniless: “Who needs a radio when there are drums?”

His itinerary also included both sides of the tense border between South Ossetia and Georgia, where there is a ceasefire after a 2008 war but no resolution. He recorded parts of one song, ‘War’, in a church that had bullet holes in its walls. Later, back in New York, he built a track that combined children from South Ossetia playing drums, a Georgian bandura (a stringed instrument) and a Chechen choir. “You have all of these people that have conflict performing together in the song,” he said. But there’s no illusion of reconciliation; the lyrics are about perpetual warfare.

Residente’s solo album will arrive with a documentary on the making of it, as well as an instructive website that’s already partly online, and more. With the Puerto Rican poet Urayoán Noel, an associate professor at New York University, Residente has also made elegantly rhymed English translations of his new lyrics and is pondering whether to follow his solo debut with an English version.

“There’s no way I can be as good as I am rapping in Spanish,” he said. “Maybe I’m going to sing a little bit and rap in between. If I do it and it sounds credible, if you believe in what I’m saying, then it’s fine and I’ll put it out. If not, I’m not going to do it.”

Core thoughts on DNA
The projects were underwritten by Residente’s new five-year production deal with the Fusion Media Group division of the Hispanic-oriented Univision Communications. He is to create multimedia content, including music, video and web material, as well as performing on tour.

The first release from the album is ‘Somos Anormales’ (‘We Are Abnormal’), a raucous affirmation of the imperfect and deformed that’s also tied to the album’s core thoughts on DNA. The rugged but foot-stomping music comes from Tuva, a region of Siberia that has a tradition of throat singers who can produce multiple tones at once: low and high, growling and whistling.

On another wall at the Loisaida Center was a long manifesto in Spanish that Perez had handwritten one night, he said, when he was drunk. In it, he wrote about music’s potential for transformation — changing personal emotions, changing the world — and about his compulsion to push further. “Why do I write?” it concludes.

“Because I don’t want to be a story. I want to be history.”

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