A Puerto Rico Protest Song: 'Afilando Los Cuchillos'

Jul 28, 2019
Originally published on July 28, 2019 8:23 pm
Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

During the almost two weeks of massive protests against the embattled Puerto Rican Governor Ricardo Rossello, there was singing and chanting among the tens of thousands of people who jammed the streets of the capital city of San Juan. Then, in the middle of the almost two weeks of demonstrations, another sound seemed to be everywhere. Felix Contreras is the host of the Alt.Latino podcast from NPR Music, and he gives us the story behind a song recorded by three of the biggest names in Latin music and why he thinks it was a game-changer for protest music in Latin America.

FELIX CONTRERAS, BYLINE: The song "Afilando Cuchillos" (ph) starts with a sound that is common throughout Latin America.

(SOUNDBITE OF RESIDENTE, ILE AND BAD BUNNY'S "AFILANDO LOS CUCHILLOS")

CONTRERAS: That high-pitched whistle announces the arrival of the traveling knife sharpener into the neighborhood. It was a creatively brilliant move by one of the song's composers, Rene Perez Joglar, who goes by the name Residente, and his producing partner, DJ Trooko, because that common auditory experience is a musical metaphor for the almost unanimous sentiment on the island and beyond that the governor had to go.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AFILANDO LOS CUCHILLOS")

RESIDENTE: (Singing in Spanish).

CONTRERAS: What follows is a modern Latin American protest song set to a reggaeton beat by Residente, his younger sister iLe, or Ileana Cabra Joglar, and the Latin hip-hop artist Bad Bunny, whose real name is Benito Martinez. Right from the start, it's what Residente does best as he captures the spirit of the fight against injustice with a rapper's flow that sounds like someone is standing right in front of you with his finger in your face looking you directly in the eye so he makes sure you get his point.

So why am I talking over it? Because along with references to Puerto Rican history and politics, Residente lets fly words that can't be played on the radio - words and references so intimate they are meant to hurt Rossello personally and leave no doubt about the rapper's meaning or intent. OK. These next 21 seconds are jam-packed and illustrate how Residente loads every word with meaning and context.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AFILANDO LOS COCHILLOS")

RESIDENTE: (Singing in Spanish).

CONTRERAS: There is a reference to how Rossello created a spirit of unity among people around the world that fight against injustice - of how in this moment, Puerto Ricans of completely opposite political persuasions all stand behind the country's flag as a symbol of unity. And there is also a reference to how Latin America and the Caribbean in particular have been ravaged by unbridled greed and corruption for centuries only to have it played out again by the recent arrest of half a dozen Puerto Rican officials and consultants on charges of corruption. Let's hear that part again.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AFILANDO LOS CUCHILLOS")

RESIDENTE: (Singing in Spanish).

CONTRERAS: He says, in part, none of us supposed bandit is accused of fraud, stealing or laundering money. With all that politicians have stolen, we paint the walls of the entire Caribbean. Even though this won't be received well by the people, if I was going to say it in a chat, I might as well say it in your face in the open.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AFILANDO LOS CUCHILLOS")

RESIDENTE: (Singing in Spanish).

CONTRERAS: That line about saying it in a chat is a compact, powerful reference to the almost 900 pages of private chat conversations that were discovered and revealed two weeks ago by the Puerto Rican Center for Investigative Journalism. They exposed the governor and some of his closest associates and cabinet members using homophobic and misogynistic language, joking about the more than 4,000 people who died as a result of the hurricane. And there's even a lighthearted reference to a killing of one of their political opponents. It was this startling revelation that sparked the protest.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AFILANDO LOS CUCHILLOS")

RESIDENTE: (Singing in Spanish).

ILE: (Singing in Spanish).

CONTRERAS: His younger sister iLe adds poetry and symbolism in the words of the chorus. Let's be sharp, like the knives making sparks, until you reach the edge. We must clear the weeds after the planning so no one takes advantage of me.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AFILANDO LOS CUCHILLOS")

ILE: (Singing in Spanish)

CONTRERAS: Bad Bunny is at the moment probably the biggest name in Latin music, and at almost 20 years younger than Residente, he represents a new generation of Latin music artists who do not shy away from speaking truth to power. He says, I want all continents to find out Ricardo Rossello is an incompetent, homophobic liar and crook. Nobody loves you, not even your own people. There is a long history of protest music in Latin America. But what made this different is that by writing, recording and then releasing the song for free on YouTube all within 24 hours, "Afilando Los Cuchillos" both reflected the fury of this unprecedented moment in Puerto Rican history and also inspired the people who made it happen.

Felix Contreras, NPR News.

MCCAMMON: You can hear an interview with Residente about the song on the latest Alt.Latino podcast. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.