How Puerto Rican Artist Lester Rey is Fighting PROMESA Through Music

How Puerto Rican Artist Lester Rey is Fighting PROMESA Through Music
Mike Rivera

Over the summer, amid financial and humanitarian crises in Puerto Rico, Congress passed PROMESA, the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act, which established a control board made up of seven unelected members from the U.S. to run the island’s governmental finances and restructure its $70 billion debt for the next five years.

MORE: Meet Tania León, an Afro-Latina Composer Creating Change Through Music

The act, despite its promising name, has the people of Puerto Rico concerned, as the board will essentially be the island's governor, banker and pawnbroker, issuing debt and spending money while la isla del encanto pays the bill.

Protestors have taken to the street en masse since the bill was passed, fighting the latest effect of U.S. colonialism in Puerto Rico. Chicago-based artist Lester Rey joins the opposition en la isla and in the diaspora with “Promesa,” a mixtape revealing unsettling facts about the U.S.’ treatment of the territory and providing healing through the songs’ eclectic rhythms.

Ahead, the puertorriqueño talks with Latina about the mixtape, his own criticisms of PROMESA, Donald Trump’s election win and music as resistance and healing.

Why did you name this mixtape "Promesa?"

It’s twofold: first, it’s a slam to the PROMESA act, which has many on the island and in the diaspora upset. I felt the need to do something more political. I’ve had politically charged music in the past, but I wanted to address the PROMESA act, the treatment of the diaspora and the increase in migration because of the BS happening on the island. The second reason: I could have called it Se Acabaron Las Promesas, like the movement, or anti-PROMESA, which is what it is, but this was also my promise as a musician to always keep Puerto Rico and la gente de Puerto Rico en la música.

How does this act fail the Puerto Rican people?

It has no Puerto Rican voices on the board. It’s a complete insult on what America believes the Puerto Rican people can do for themselves. It rejects the notion that Puerto Ricans can take care of their own problems. That’s one of the main issues. Also, they meet in secret; there’s no transparency. Even the debt itself is a problem. Before the PROMESA act was initiated, we had to look at where that debt came from.  Why is Wall Street allowed to close down hospitals and schools and, basically, get paid over the services that humans need?

You actually have a song called "Promesa" on this mixtape. What are some false promises the U.S. has made to Puerto Ricans?

The song “Promesa” itself alludes to some of them. My verse talks about an epidemic in Chicago. People in Puerto Rico come here and are told there are rehab centers to help for addiction. Some were doing well in programs in Puerto Rico, but they were halted and sent to rehab centers in Chicago, which often didn’t know they were coming, don’t have the proper staff and don’t know the cases. As a result, many are rejected and pushed into the streets, where they are homeless and fall back into addiction. So it shows while the U.S. made many false promises to Puerto Ricans in history, from birth control to Vieques, this is still happening today.

"Coquí " is a really powerful track that imagines a dystopia where Puerto Ricans are extinct from the island and all that's left is the sound of the coquí. Why make this track?

I feel like it’s my weirdest track, message wise and lyrically. When I first heard the beat, the title didn’t come to me, but the beat sounded sad, and I just started thinking about what to write to it. I came to this idea of what humans are doing to the world, in general, with islands disappearing because water levels are rising.  I thought about all of the experimentation in Puerto Rico and even the rumors about the Zika virus (when it comes to Puerto Ricans and conspiracy theories, they are usually proven correct 20 years later), so I started to think of the worst possible situation. I used to be a storywriter and really enjoyed comic books, and so this dystopian fairytale came to me where coquís turn into radioactive badasses to protect the island. I just felt the need to go to that exaggeration, the need to use a story that is exaggerated to capture attention and show that this is possible if we don’t stand up – not necessarily extinction but to be forgotten and pushed to the side further.

While the mixtape is primarily about the Puerto Rican people, there's a message for Latinxs and people of color in general. Why is this solidarity essential for you?

I feel as a Latino, there are several struggles in the U.S. that bring us together, and those struggles sometimes pertain to people’s homelands, not just the cities they occupy but where their ancestors are from. Beyond being Puerto Rican, there’s a Latinx struggle, and we support each other. G1 from Rebel Diaz is from Chile. Deuce Eclipse is Nicaraguan. These individuals see the need for humanitarian rights, for Puerto Ricans being treated as humans and for spreading kindness. Solidarity work is hard enough just to get the people impacted to come together and rise up, but solidarity work is important. We have a common struggle.

The mixtape dropped after Donald Trump was named the president-elect, a moment you allude to in "Depre." Can you discuss that fear and how you turned it into song?

“Depre,” shortened for depresión, was written the morning after the results of the election. I had the beat for a while, but I didn’t know if I would use it for this mixtape. I really liked the beat and I played it in the morning, when I was receiving Facebook messages, phone calls and texts from people and groups wanting to get together. They were emergency alerts in all capital letters, urging us to meet, organize and come up with a plan. That made me anxious. I didn’t want to get out of my bed. I didn’t want to go outside into this racist America. It was an America I always knew existed but one that really showed its ugly face. Depression sunk in hard. I didn’t answer my phone, and I got off Facebook. I put the music on and the words started flowing from the dome. I was supposed to go to the studio to finish the mixtape that night but I ended up recording that track. Right now, it’s really important for artists to step up. Resistance through art will be key for the next four years.

What role do you think music plays in political and social activism?

I think music doesn’t always have to be very clearly politically and socially active in its content; the music and movement and dance can be. A lot of the music I had before this was Boogaloo; it was more danceable. This mixtape is more hip-hop. It’s important to inspire Black and brown bodies to come together, to dance and share space and to heal. I don’t think the artist always has to educate.

How can music also be used as a source for healing during times like these?

This weekend, I performed at CumbiaSazo, which is a monthly tropical-based party led by people of color. It’s a moment to be among strangers that feel like friends because you are getting together through music and dancing. I feel like the healing happens in the dance, in the sharing of music, in learning a coro, singing along and yelling parts of a song, in being active in the music and interpreting it as you want at the moment, being lost in the song. It provides healing. There’s also space for the content. This mixtape has both. You can listen to the lyrics or you can dance to the rumba, electronica and reggaeton beats.

The mixtape was dropped on Black Friday. What was the significance of that?

Every Black Friday, corporate America is in everyone’s face. It’s a great day for anti-consumerism, to support local artists with the free download. Also, la bandera puertorriqueña was just made black, so I thought it was an interesting play on words, interesting symbolism to use Black Friday to drop the mixtape while the flag was just made black.

PLUS: Meet the Latina Fighting Mass Incarceration Through Music, Taína Asili

Where can folks cop the mixtape?

It can be downloaded for free on SoundCloud or through my website