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Singer and songwriter iLe's third album, 'Nacarile,' finds a world deeply in flux

Eric Rojas
Courtesy of the artist

From the war in Vietnam to the fight for civil rights, musicians have always provided a voice for change. That's exactly what happened in 2019 in San Juan, where massive protests followed a government corruption scandal and the botched rebuilding after Hurricane Maria. Those same protestors would eventually force Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rosselló to resign.

Singer and songwriter iLe was right in the middle of it – and together with Bad Bunny and Residente, she made a song, "Afilando los cuchillos," that became a rallying cry.

"That was our moment, where we showed how much power [we have]," iLe recalls. It was a time when "the whole country [went] to the street demanding something and expressing their anger towards the government."

iLe speaks to Morning Edition about her new album, Nacarile, which continues along her deep, and deeply politically engaged, artistic path.

The following interview has been edited and condensed. To listen to the broadcast version of this story, use the audio player at the top of this page.

Leila Fadel, Morning Edition: There's a song on the album that became an anthem in Puerto Rico in the aftermath of those protests – "Donde nadie más respira" – and it's about corrupt governments, colonizers.

"Se veían a lo lejos / con aires de salvadores / se disfrazaron de dioses / y les regalamos flores / pero yo no veo vida / yo veo una muerte lenta / un silencio que aniquila / sin que nadie se de cuenta." ("They were seen from afar / with airs of saviors / they disguised themselves as gods / and we gave them flowers. But I don't see life / I see a slow death / a silence that annihilates / without anybody realizing it.")

And at the time, you said that you wrote it for people in the world who might feel like they don't have the power to fix broken governments. And I heard frustration. Has Puerto Rico changed since 2019, when those protests showed the power of the people?

iLe: Well, it was a change in the elections, even though we are still with the same party in the government – but you could see a change in the voting numbers. But at the same time, I feel that we are so used to feeling like we're not worthy enough, we're not capable enough. It is frustrating. But at the same time, I keep feeling hopeful. And in Puerto Rico I feel that we show things in subtle ways – for example now in Hurricane Fiona, everyone in social media were saying "Do not trust government funds, just send the funds to these organizations." And people were organized; we learned a lot from Hurricane Maria. But it seemed that the government didn't learn anything.

I wondered about the song "Cuando te miro" – and depending on how you listen to the song you could hear lyrics that might be about a toxic relationship or a ravaged planet. Dry riverbeds, hurricanes.

"Soy yo / el furacán que te debasta / soy yo / esa energía que te aplasta / soy tu fuente de alegría / tu alimento / soy yo quien te ceba hasta decir basta." ("I am / the hurricane that devastates you / I am / the energy that crushes you / I am your source of joy / your nourishment / I am the one that primes you until you say 'Enough.' ")

What is this song about?

[Laughs] I was thinking about a toxic relationship – I love that song. I wrote it with Rodrigo Cuevas, from Spain. I always try to get into these feelings that we go through a lot as human beings, and especially as women, in this world where toxic relationships are so normalized. For me, it was a way of expressing that toxicity. How we, as women especially, tend to be saviors of the relationship. And also from a man's perspective, that society tells them not to cry, not to manage their emotions – and how toxic society has made us relate to each other as men and women in a relationship.

We have to talk about "Algo bonito." Ivy Queen raps: "Nunca he creído que callaíta / me veo mas linda / cuando escupo / es como fuego y ácido." ("I've never thought that I looked prettier / quiet / when I spit / it's like fire and acid.")

It's a way of trying to redefine what something bonito, something pretty, is for us ... this cliché [for women], flowers, chocolates and everything. It's so silly that we have been treated like that – as if that is going to calm us down or whatever. It's just saying "What is something pretty for us?" Something pretty for me is that we have our own rights, and that we should be treated respectfully and that no one can say anything about what we can or can't do with our own bodies.

And yet, so much of the world tells women what to do with their own bodies. When I was listening to this I was thinking about right now, in this moment, women dying and protesting in Iran for the choice not to wear the hijab. Women in India asking for the choice to wear it. Women in the United States no longer able to access abortion care in parts of the country. Femicides — among the highest in Latin America.

Exactly. The protests are happening, which is difficult – but at the same time, it's empowering and it's necessary. These things were happening still, this oppression towards women, because patriarchy says so.

Is it why you put politics in your music, to have these conversations?

Yeah, definitely. It's my way of letting things go for a while, and just having more energy to want to keep talking about this in a better way every time. There is a lot of social ignorance in this world – it can be cleared out in just a single conversation. That's why it shouldn't be underestimated, the power of communication, of speaking things out in a respectful way. And that's what I try to do.

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Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
Lilly Quiroz
Lilly Quiroz (she/her/ella) is a production assistant for Morning Edition and Up First. She pitches and produces interviews for Morning Edition, and occasionally goes to the dark side to produce the podcast Up First on the overnights.