Between breaking Spotify records, starring in a new Brad Pitt movie, and being cast as a Marvel superhero, Bad Bunny is having one hell of a year. No other Latino artist today has achieved such global stardom – and yet the reggaetón rapper only has eyes for one place: Puerto Rico.
To launch the tour of his latest album, A summer without you Bad Bunny has booked El Choli, the largest indoor arena in San Juan, for three consecutive nights. The $15 to $150 tickets weren’t sold online, so people camped out for hours. It was on purpose; tickets were intended to be available only to those who live on the island. Naturally, a record celebrating the beauty, the girls and the resilience of the island should be properly danced by its inhabitants.
The reservation was a sign for foreigners to stay out. Years after Hurricane María devastated the island, Puerto Rico is now facing increased gentrification and development, especially from mainland Americans who in turn receive significant tax relief. But the resources for the islanders have not improved. The newcomers claim that the beaches are private property, when legally they are all public. Developers pollute water and endanger wildlife. This tension comes on top of blackouts, caused by the recent privatization of electricity (tariffs have increased sevenfold in the last year alone). It’s a feeling that Bad Bunny evoked in his song “El Apagón” (literally: “The Blackout”).
So what do Puerto Ricans do? We celebrate. In response to growing developer tensions, party protests have sprung up from side by side as an act of protest and dissent. In the popular seaside town of Rincón, protesters danced to plena as they demolished and cleaned building materials abandoned by developers last month. (The courts had declared the work illegal in February, after a year of protests.) However, those protests don’t just dance to good beats. They are rooted in a long history of direct action and often come with the police.
It’s significant that the first of these performances aired on Telemundo PR – imagine if, say, ABC had Beyoncé on national TV for four hours straight. While Bad Bunny isn’t a political organizer, he is an amplifier, given his massive platform. Through his music, his explicit desire for a better Puerto Rico is clear. His record-breaking performances this past weekend released cathartic and collective joy for attendees and streamers alike.
Given Puerto Rico’s strained relationship with the United States, Bad Bunny’s spotlight 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, associate scholar at Hunter College’s Center for Puerto Rican Studies. “There’s often this idea that Puerto Rico is too small to get there or for big things to come out of here,” he told me. “A side effect of that is that every time a Puerto Rican does something that’s internationally recognized, it’s a source of national pride, a kind of cultural nationalism.” (I admit: I’m guilty of that too, as a diasporic.)
Politically, Puerto Rico is very divided. There are groups that want independence from the United States, 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 public housing in Vega Baja, is just the latest to be added to the national canon.
As Bad Bunny’s fame grows exponentially, these shows were a refreshing reminder of what — and who — reggaeton is for. Bad Bunny didn’t leave Puerto Rico climbing the charts. He brought it with him.
Bad Bunny’s rise to prominence can be partly attributed to his predilection for the genre. Sure, it’s reggaetón, but there are also touches of rock, R&B, salsa, dembow and more. It is daring and experimental, while simultaneously referring to characteristics of the genre. A summer without you reflects this inclusion. Features range from reggaeton heavyweights like Tony Dize and Chencho Corleone to up-and-coming Puerto Rican indie artists like The Marías and Buscabulla. It could have featured American artists – it’s certainly big enough to do that. But in a May interview with Isabelia Herrera of The New York Times, 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 Carlos Nagovitch, a concertgoer, told me in Spanish, “He never stopped making music from Puerto Rico.”
Admittedly, the international popularity of reggaetón is skyrocketing, and not all the hits come from Puerto Ricans (one thinks in particular of “La Fama” by Rosalía or “Mi Gente” by J Balvin). So really appropriating artists from the island or the diaspora is an ultimate power game. The world may be able to consume and produce reggaeton, but separating the music from its history and context won’t happen if Bad Bunny has anything to say about it. “Everyone wants to be Latino, but they lack rhythm, drums and reggaetón”, he sings in “El Apagón”.
But qué émoción to have an artist who cares more about being accessible to Puerto Ricans than the American perception. If you weren’t in El Choli, you were watching the Telemundo PR broadcast or the live broadcast at a party in nearby plazas. There were over 18,000 people watching these shows each night, and that doesn’t include people watching from home. The performances were an event for all Puerto Ricans, even those in the diaspora who watched from TikTok or Twitch.
There was a special, once-in-a-lifetime quality to these performances. “It was just us and him,” said concert attendee Alysa M. Alejandro Soto. “I feel like that’s something he wanted to achieve: a special, intimate time with PR.” During the three shows, Bad Bunny spoke about the privatization of the electricity grid, the gender-based violence suffered by women and the pollution of beaches. Because Bad Bunny’s music already lends itself to island problems – “El Apagón”, “Andrea” and “Yo Perreo Sola” are all prime examples – it was expected to have something something to say about the collective experiences that Puerto Ricans face. . “We have a government above us that is ruining our lives day after day,” he said before telling the private power company and the governor to go “pal el carajo”.
He also talked about a better PR.
“He asked the crowd how many of us wanted to fulfill our dreams living in Puerto Rico,” added Alejandro Soto. “It made me very emotional as I am currently living away from PR for academic reasons and I miss it every day. He uses his platform very wisely to raise awareness of issues affecting Puerto Rico and break many stereotypes.
The energy of the shows, according to Raquel Berrios and Luis Alfredo Del Valle of the indie band Buscabulla, was “absolutely massive” and like “a portal to another dimension”. The duo, which features on the song “Andrea,” performed alongside Bad Bunny at 2 a.m. each night. For Berrios, it was the greatest show she had ever done, and probably one of the most emotional as well.
“The show was a special show made for Puerto Rico,” Berrios told me. “I just hope it inspires people. I hope it inspires more people to get more involved in PR issues and maybe bigger artists will be more aware and do more for Puerto Rico.
Buscabulla weren’t the only ones on stage. In addition to the artists presented on A summer without you and a few fans with great dance moves, Bad Bunny also featured queer musicians like Young Miko and Villano Antillano, the first prominent Latin trans rap artist. Misogyny and transphobia are rampant on the island, so seeing these artists, often marginalized in the genre, perform at the biggest concert in Puerto Rico’s history on national television is breathtaking.
“I’m a queer woman, and growing up, we never really had songs about women loving women,” Alejandro Soto said. “We 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 it makes me so proud that they come from PR.
For Marisol LeBrón, an associate professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, she appreciated how “ironic” the performances were.
“I was on Twitter and saw things like, ‘I feel so bad for people who aren’t Puerto Rican,'” she said. “There’s something really powerful about that: to affirm that incredible sense of pride every day. The fact that the shows offered people an outlet to counter the overwhelming dominance of this [inferiority] the narrative and the kind of things that govern people’s daily lives are actually amazing.
It would be a misnomer to say that Bad Bunny is at the heart of change on the island, or that he is the ultimate ally. But damn it, he can throw a party.
“It’s bigger than Bad Bunny,” LeBrón said. “It’s about that energy and that connection. It’s that feeling of being united.