ask any kid Puerto Rican where they were and who they were with when Bad Bunny released his first album in 2018. It was Christmas Eve and for many it was a gift to his island.
I was in a car in Puerto Rico when I first listened to “X 100PRE”, trembling with childish excitement. Within seconds, my friend who was driving stopped in a parking lot so we could fully enjoy the rhythm of each song, and dived into the lyrics encoded especially for those from the island.
Since then it has become a ritual to listen to his albums on the night they are released. I only listened to “Un Verano Sin Ti” in bed. “YHLQMDLG” was more of a community event; I hosted a listening party in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, so my Puerto Rican friends and I could devour the album together and evaluate all the songs in detail. Despite Bad Bunny’s colossal transition to the mainstream, these memories resonate because his work will always mean something different to our community.
“For those of us in the diaspora, his music is a way to connect with home. It’s comforting to hear him refer to places I went to when I lived on the island,” said Aurora Santiago Ortiz, assistant professor of Latinx studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Both scholars and teenage TikTokers express a sense of intimacy with the music, which speaks to us as only a local can.
One line in particular from one of his early hits, “Tú No Metes Cabra,” serves as a prophecy of sorts: “la nueva religión, yo soy la nueva era” (the new religion, I am the new age). For Puerto Ricans, Bad Bunny has served as a cultural touchstone, but to the world he is now a ubiquitous pop icon. The man is everywhere you look: billboards, awards shows, magazine covers and Hollywood. Hundreds of fans of all ethnicities inked his signature heart on their body to celebrate a new album.
For the past year, while the whole world has been captivated by Bad Bunny, he has been streaming incredible numbers – all while using only P . speaksuerto Rican Spanish, retaining a crucial part of its identity.
“I always knew I could become a huge artist without changing my culture, my jargon and my language. I’m Benito Antonio Martínez Ocasio, from Puerto Rico to the world,” Bad Bunny said after being named Artist of the Year at MTV’s Video Music Awards.
Growing up, I was made to feel like Puerto Rican Spanish – notable for the combination of Taíno (indigenous) and Spanish sounds with African pronunciations such as “Rs” often pronounced “Ls” – was inferior to those of other Spanish-speaking countries. It is huge to witness a Caribbean dialect once stigmatized by Latinos and non-Latinos alike and becoming part of the mainstream cultural fabric. It’s a sign to the younger generations that you don’t really have to change who you are to fit in, like other artists have done in the past.
For us, Bad Bunny will never be pop. He is a cultural storyteller, a contemporary folk artist who tells the complexity of la puertorriqueñidad. Look, the Boricua culture is seen as too American for the rest of Latin America and too Latino to be considered part of American society, a dichotomy that makes it challenging to navigate life both inside and outside the island. The mixed identity is often seen as too much and too little at the same time, which negatively affects our self-esteem. Bad Bunny’s words and swagger makes us feel seen at our strongest and most vulnerable. AAlthough his music resonates worldwide, hWe are talking about la brega, something only Boricuas can really understand because we have experienced it.
For me, the lyrics of the songs “Como Antes” and “Estamos Bien” are undeniably Boricua and evoke a certain nostalgia in those who grew up in the 90s. Lyrics of the latter – “La Mercedes en PR cogiendo boquete” – describe the myriad potholes Puerto Rico’s roads are notorious for. The line is a reminder of the island’s shoddy infrastructure, a sign of neglect by the larger American system.
Also in ‘Estamos Bien’ he raps ‘Pa’ casa no ha llega’o la luz’, in which he describes the everyday reality of unreliable electricity, which is regarded by those in power as a luxury rather than a basic need. The text feels particularly poignant this week, as the island, which is currently without power, is The Wrath of Hurricane Fiona.
In the same song – a song that spans anger and joy – Bad Bunny raps about “Las peleas de boxeo, to’ los party de perreo.” Raised in Puerto Rico, three events were treated as a national celebration and cause for unity, regardless of one’s circumstances: every sporting event where it represented our la isla – in this case, boxer Tito Trinidad; the Miss Universe pageant; and of course the marquesina parties. For us, despite the circumstances, partying is a radical act of resistance.
For us, Bad Bunny will never be pop. He is a cultural storyteller, a contemporary folk artist who tells the complexity of la puertorriqueñidad.
While Bad Bunny tells the world about our struggles and successes, we Puerto Ricans are the ones who can digest the nuance of his stories.
“He’s one of the few artists who brazenly speaks of his culture and identity in his music, regardless of whether others can understand him or his credentials,” said David Hernández, director of the music industry in Miami. “The world cannot understand most of it, but huh?it doesn’t matter. Plus, people actually teach them to understand him.”
In this way Bad Bunny is our ambassador in the world.
Bad Bunny’s recent ode to the island, “El Apagón,” written amid constant power outages in Puerto Rico, serves as the anthem of a generation fed up with the difficulties of coping with crumbling infrastructure and incompetent government while living in a tropical paradise. That is the duality of “Puerto Rico está bien cabron,” a great example of this balance between enjoying life’s simplest pleasures – love, sex, going to the beach, partying – and balancing on the brink of social collapse.
The lyrics of this song are not just a rallying cry to defend the patria; it’s folk music. In addition to being the voice of a generation, Bad Bunny amplifies the conversation of a particular community in Latin America, a community that has experienced economic collapse, survived Hurricane Maria, earthquakes and political corruption. It is a generation denied opportunity, and often a united voice.
“When we think of folk music, we often think of ‘El Topo’ or ‘La Canción Protesta.’ Those were examples of folk music at the time they were made,” said Jorell A. Meléndez-Badillo, assistant professor of Latin American and Caribbean history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “Bad Bunny is Puerto Rico’s music from after 2006, when the current economic crisis started. [He’s a] reflection of Puerto Rico’s reality, and his music a sonic archive of what Puerto Ricans are going through today – even if he talks about ‘dar tabla’.
The artist himself apparently agrees. “I never made a song thinking, ‘Man, this is for the world. This is to catch the gringo crowd.’ Never. Rather, I make songs like only Puerto Ricans would listen to,” Bad Bunny told writer Carina Chocano in a recent interview with GQ. “I still think I make music there, and it’s for Puerto Ricans. I forget that the whole world is listening to me.”
Throughout the island’s history, Puerto Ricans have used a variety of music genres to express their frustration at the systems that oppress them. Salsa highlighted discrimination and poverty within the Nuyorican community, bomba has historically played a role in the island’s protest movements, as has plena, which originated as a way to recite daily news and often denounce local politicians . Later it developed into an essential part of the expression of the community, better known today as ‘our people’s newspaper’. Reggaetón, many may argue, has been a political tool since the beginning.
Bad Bunny may not use the traditional instruments of güiro and cuatro or recite decimas. But he writes a historical account of what we feel and see today. When I grew up as a child and la islamy parents took me to festivals in the local squares to witness our trovadores. For the same purpose, I know I will play “Andrea” from Bad Bunny for my future children.
Like pleneros, Bad Bunny, the eldest son of a truck driver father and a teacher mother, is a jíbaro from Vega Baja. And that chamaquito is now recording – and exporting – our culture worldwide.