Rene Joglar Perez – better known as the other half of Puerto Rican rap duo Calle 13 – has a strong penchant for intertwining art with left-wing social activism. The new age term “woke” is an understatement for the 39-year-old, but with such radical politics and audacious outspokenness often comes resented consequences from those who fear his profound (and much needed) messages of raw truth.
In 2009, Calle 13 was banned from performing in Puerto Rico at the Roberto Clemente Coliseum because Perez called out then governor Luis G. Fortuño for his plan to lay off 17,000 state employees, according to The New York Times. But that wasn’t an isolated incident. His music videos have also been the subject of much criticism. In the visuals for one of his latest singles, “Somos Anormales,” an enormous black vagina giving birth to adults makes for an unwelcomed entrance, which caused YouTube to place an age restriction on the video.
Yet, there is a method to his madness. In his new film Residente, the 25-time Latin Grammy-wining artist is stirring a new storm. Not the kind his controversial history might suggest, either. After taking a DNA test and discovering where exactly the geographical roots of his genetic make-up are located, Perez decided he was going to make an album that represents those places, and simultaneously document his journey throughout those countries on film.
The 90-minute documentary chronicles his travels to Siberia, Georgia, China, Burkina Faso, Ghana, Armenia and back to Puerto Rico, as he creates art with the help of those he meets along the way. There’s a young African woman who lends her soft breath taking vocals to his collection of war torn musical stories. Similarly, viewers will see a Chinese university grad who performs at a bar to showcase her talent, also contribute to his project.
Visually, the film’s cinematography is gorgeous; it swallows you into a mélange of picturesque scenes of nature. Beneath the beauty, there is also pain with deserted war torn images in countries like Georgia, South Ossetia and Armenia. Residente credits these cold vignettes as inspiration for his new catalogue of politically-charged songs.
“We decided to go to Armenia because there was a war starting,” Residente told a crowd of viewers at Spotify’s headquarters on Tuesday night (May 23). “I was writing about it, so we thought it was a good idea to go to a war zone. It wasn’t a good idea, but it was safe because the war was happening nine hours away by car. So I met these refugees from war and it was hard to listen to their stories. I felt so bad because I knew I was just visiting, and I couldn’t do anything. But then I thought I’m going to do this song, and I’m going to make a video out of it. I don’t care if it doesn’t play on the radio. I’m just going to make this happen.”
In addition to the anecdotal education, Perez also admits he learned about the power of linguistics during his travels, especially in China. Because he didn’t know the language, he had to collaborate closely with the artists he worked with and create a melody. It’s definitely a test to his musicianship, but he pulls it off impressively.
Throughout the film he narrates it in Spanish with English subtitles, and when he speaks it sounds like he is reciting a long poem from start to finish. At the end of his journey he goes back to his homeland, and deconstructs the socio-political turbulent rock the island has been under. His approach at showcasing this is far from coy. There’s footage of government officials and their constituents who are for colonization—and there’s him.
Residente – a staunch supporter of recently liberated political prisoner, Oscar López Rivera – is cemented on the idea of Puerto Rico becoming an independent entity from the U.S. He says during his journey he connected with smaller countries like South Ossetia because it reminds him of the struggles PR goes through being under the colonial grips of the U.S. government.
“I just want to be like you guys with just one flag, imagine you guys having two flags?” he asked rhetorically. “And imagine your national anthem talking about your colonizers in terms of power, it would suck.”
Residente premiered at this year's SXSW. Watch the trailer for it below.