Between breaking Spotify records, starring in Brad Pitt’s new movie, and landing the role of a Marvel superhero, Bad Bunny is having a hell of a year. No other Latin artist today has achieved such worldwide fame – and yet, the reggaetón rapper only has his eyes on one place: Puerto Rico.
To kick off the tour for his latest album Un Verano Sin Ti, Bad Bunny booked El Choli, the largest indoor arena in San Juan, for three nights in a row. The $15 to $150 tickets weren’t sold online, so people camped outside for hours. That was as planned; the cards were meant to really only be available to those living on the island. Of course, to a record that celebrates the beauty of the island, the girls and the resilience of the people should be properly danced.
The reservation was a sign to outsiders to stay out. Years after Hurricane Maria devastated the island, Puerto Rico is now facing an increase in gentrification and development, especially from Americans who in return receive large tax breaks. But resources for the islanders have not improved. Newcomers claim that the beaches are private property, while by law they are all public. Developers are polluting water and endangering wildlife. This tension comes with power outages, caused by the recent privatization of electricity (tariffs have risen seven times in the past year alone). This is the feeling that Bad Bunny touched on in his song “El Apagón” (literally: “The Blackout”).
So what do Puerto Ricans do? We party. In response to growing tensions among investors, partisan protests have sprung up from coast to coast as an act of reclamation and dissent. In the popular beach town of Rincón, protesters danced on loot while demolishing and cleaning up construction materials abandoned by builders last month. (Courts declared the work illegal in February, after a year of protests.) These protests aren’t just dancing to good beats, though. They are rooted in a long history of direct action and often come with the police.
Notably, the first of these performances aired on Telemundo PR – imagine if, say, ABC had Beyoncé perform on national television for four straight hours. Although Bad Bunny is not a political organizer, he is an amplifier, given his enormous platform. His explicit longing for a better Puerto Rico is clear through his music. His record-breaking performances last weekend exuded a cathartic, collective joy for attendees and streamers alike.
Given Puerto Rico’s rocky relationship with the United States, Bad Bunny’s focus on the country carries some weight. For many islanders, Puerto Rico’s status as a U.S. territory created a sense of inferiority and internalized colonialism, said José A. Laguarta Ramírez, research associate at Hunter College’s Center for Puerto Rican Studies. “There’s often this idea that Puerto Rico is too small to succeed or that big things will come out of here,” he told me. “The side effect of that is that every time a Puerto Rican does something that gets international recognition, it’s a source of national pride, a kind of cultural nationalism.” (I confess: I am guilty of this too, as a diaspora.)
Politically, Puerto Rico is very divided. There are groups that want independence from the US, those that want to remain as a territory and those that want to become a state. But no matter where you fall, people see celebrities like Jennifer Lopez and Daddy Yankee as proof that, yes, Puerto Rico can be a place people can be proud of — despite the bullshit. Bad Bunny, who grew up in Vega Baja’s public housing, is just the latest to be added to the national canon.
As Bad Bunny’s celebrity grows exponentially, these shows were a refreshing reminder of what—and who—reggaetón is for. Bad Bunny didn’t leave Puerto Rico behind as he climbed the charts. He brought it with him.
Bad Bunny’s rise to fame can be partially attributed to his penchant for genre-bending. Sure, it’s reggaetón, but it also has touches of rock, R&B, salsa, dembo, and more. It is daring and experimental, while at the same time referring to the hallmarks of the genre. Un Verano Sin Ti reflects that inclusion. Features range from reggaetón heavyweights like Tony Dize and Chencho Corleone to up-and-coming Puerto Rican indie artists like The Marías and Buscabulla. He could have featured American artists – he’s certainly big enough to do that. But in a May interview with The New York Times’ Isabelia Herrera, Bad Bunny said he’d rather put “the whole world underground from Puerto Rico, you know? It makes me proud of what I represent.”
Fans agree. As concertgoer Carlos Nagovitch told me in Spanish, “He never stopped making music from Puerto Rico.”
Certainly, the international popularity of reggaetón is skyrocketing, and not all hits come from Puerto Rico (think Rosalie’s “La Fama” or J Balvin’s “Mi Gente”). So really getting involved with island or diaspora artists is the ultimate power play. The world may be able to consume and produce reggaeton, but separating the music from its history and its context won’t happen if Bad Bunny has anything to say about it. “Everybody wants to be Latin, but they miss the beat, the drums and the reggaeton,” he sings in “El Apagon.”
But qué emoción to have an artist who cares more about being accessible to Puerto Ricans than about American perception. If you weren’t at El Choli, you were watching the Telemundo PR broadcast or streaming live at the party in the nearby plazas. Each night there were more than 18,000 people at these shows, and that doesn’t include people watching from home. The performances were an event for all Puerto Ricans, even those in the diaspora watching from TikTok or Twitch.
There was a special, once-in-a-lifetime quality to these performances. “It was just us and him,” concert attendee Alisa M. Alejandro Soto said. “I feel like that’s what he wanted to achieve: a special, intimate moment with PR.” During all three shows, Bad Bunny talked about the privatization of the electricity grid, gender-based violence experienced by women and beach pollution. Since Bad Bunny’s music already lends itself to issues on the island — “El Apagón,” “Andrea” and “Yo Perreo Sola” are prime examples — he was expected to have something to say about the collective experiences facing Puerto Ricans. . “We have a government over us that is ruining our lives day by day,” he said before telling the private power company and the governor to go “pal el carajo.”
“He asked the audience how many of us wanted to make our dreams come true while living in Puerto Rico,” added Alejandro Soto. “It made me very emotional because I currently live far away from PR for academic reasons and I miss him every day. He very wisely uses his platform to raise awareness of issues affecting Puerto Rico and to break down many stereotypes.”
The energy at the shows, according to Raquel Berrios of the indie band Buscabulla and Luis Alfredo Del Valle, was “absolutely overwhelming” and like “a portal to another dimension.” The duo, who appear on the song “Andrea,” performed alongside Bad Bunny at 2 a.m. For Berrios, it was the biggest show she’s ever done, and probably one of the most emotional.
“The show was a special show made for Puerto Rico,” Berrios told me. “I just hope it inspires people. I hope it will encourage more people to be more involved in PR issues and maybe bigger artists will be more aware and do more for Puerto Rico.”
Buscabulla were not the only ones brought to the scene. In addition to Un Verano artist Sin Ti and some fans with great dance moves, Bad Bunny also invited queer musicians such as Young Miko and Villano Antillano, the first prominent trans Latin rap artist. Misogyny and transphobia are pervasive on the island, so to see these artists on stage, who are often marginalized within the genre, in the biggest concert in Puerto Rico’s history on national television is astounding.
“I’m a queer woman and growing up we never had songs about women loving women,” said Alejandro Soto. “We’ve always had to adapt urban music made by heterosexual men because that’s what we had.” Young Miko, Villano and other queer artists are doing something very important and I am so proud that they are from PR.”
For Marisol LeBrón, an associate professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, she enjoyed how “mundane” the performances were.
“I was on Twitter and I saw things that were like, ‘I feel so sorry for people who aren’t Puerto Rican,'” she said. “There’s something really powerful about that – to affirm this sense of incredible pride every day. The fact that the shows gave people an outlet to challenge the overwhelming dominance of that [inferiority] narrative and the kind of things that rule people’s everyday lives is actually amazing.”
It would be wrong to say that Bad Bunny is at the heart of the changes on the island, or that he is the ultimate ally. But damn, he can throw a party.
“She’s bigger than Bad Bunny,” LeBron said. “It’s about this energy and this connection. It’s that sense of unification.”