LEON, Mexico — I'm at a concert in Leon, the largest city in the Mexican state of Guanajuato — a region with a rich, but tragic history. The land surrounding this concert was once the epicenter of global silver production in the 18th century, when tens of thousands of Indigenous families were forced to toil in its deadly mines.
Fast forward a couple of centuries, and the descendants of those people that kept the global economy churning for so long are now gathering to be entertained by a musical legend.
The Puerto Rican rapper, Residente, is recognized for being a groundbreaking, genre-bending artist. But he's also known as a leader in Latin American political thought who is well versed in the region's history.
"He has a little bit of everything: Fun lyrics and a more political side, but he's able to combine them very well," says long-time fan Abraham Morales at the concert.
Residente has been making hits for more than 15 years; first as the vocalist for the hip hop group Calle 13, and now as a solo artist. He's sold millions of albums and holds the record for most Latin Grammy Awards with 27.
At concerts like this one in Leon, Residente's fans sing along to every song, from the biggest hits to the most obscure, middle-of-the-album songs. His cult-like following keeps him on the concert trail, even though he hasn't dropped an album since his solo debut in 2017. I asked Residente where he sees himself right now.
"I'm writing for fun," Residente tells me. "I'm tired of touring. I like the people. I hate flying."
"Sometimes I enjoy the concerts and sometimes I don't enjoy them at all."
Residente, 44, says he's reached a reflective point in his life. This shines through in his 2020 single "René." In it, he discusses the killing of his childhood best friend at the hands of Puerto Rican police, his struggles with depression and alcohol, and his recent divorce.
"Nobody believed that it was going to be a hit because it's eight minutes," Residente says. "And it went viral and everyone liked it and everyone was listening to it, and it's eight minutes — and it's just me over a piano."
"René" became a surprise smash for Residente – its music video has more than 260 million views on YouTube. It was supposed to be the first song off of his new album, but then the pandemic hit, and things got delayed. As of now, he's hoping to release this new album by the end of the year, and to do a proper tour in 2023.
While some of Residente's recent music is autobiographical, he has also begun battling rival rappers in highly publicized duels.
"But then I learned, man, I'm not going to be all my life answering to all these people," Residente says.
But he isn't following his own advice. Just last week, he responded to a diss track by fellow Puerto Rican rapper, Cosculluela, by releasing his response two days later. At time of publication, "Cosquillita" has nearly 8 million listens on YouTube, just three days after the song was released.
Although battling rappers is a scuffle that Residente thoroughly enjoys, most of his energy has been expended on much larger opponents — social phenomena in Latin America, particularly economic inequities, political persecution, and the often hostile role that the United States has played in the region.
"This is Not America" continues in this tradition by questioning the United States' adoption of the word "American."
"Everyone is American on this continent," Residente says. "And it's how they took the word and made it for them," he adds. "It's like another way of colonization."
The video for "This is Not America" gorily depicts the violence inflicted by U.S.-backed regimes in Argentina, Chile, and Colombia, as well as the CIA-directed death squads who massacred entire communities throughout Central America.
Note: This music video includes graphic depictions of violence that some might find objectionable.
"All the things I'm presenting are the collateral damages that the U.S. created in Latin America," Residente says.
Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory and Residente's home country, is always at the forefront of his mind when he writes and performs. As a result, he says he's received death threats and that he was even banned from performing on the island.
"I know I opened a door for artists to say things," Residente states. "I said to Luis Fortuno, 'He's a motherf*****,'" Residente asserts, speaking of Puerto Rico's former governor. "I got censored for four years. (Bad Bunny) said the same thing a week or two ago, and he was a hero. But at the time that I said it, maybe people weren't ready for that."
Today, it appears that Puerto Rico is ready. After decades of registering just 5% or less of gubernatorial votes, the two independence-minded parties on the island combined to reach nearly a third of votes in the 2020 general election.
And if recent viral videos of protests on the island are any indication, the nationalist movement only seems to be gaining momentum. I asked Residente whether he thinks he'll see the day when Puerto Rico is an independent country, something he's yearned for throughout his adult life.
"I think so," Residente says. "Now more than ever, it's right there, knocking at the door."
Whether or not that day does come, Residente seems determined to keep pushing for it. In the meantime, his fans will continue to sing along.