Activist in Residence

By: Judy Cantor-Navas

When Calle 13's front man, René Pérez Joglar, was holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy in London with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange last spring, it may have seemed an unlikely meet up to some.  But the encounter made more sense to the almost five million people who follow the prolific Puerto Rican rapper on Twitter, where he talks about social issues as often as he does his music.

When their first self-titled album released in 2005, Pérez and his stepbrother, Eduardo Cabra, became known as the creators of a new, smarter reggaeton, whose lyrics mattered as much as the rhythm. As Calle 13’s popularity grew and they began to tour Latin America, the group’s music evolved, and so did Pérez’s conscience.

“When I started traveling to Latin America, I started learning more and learning more about the power of Latin America,” Pérez, who supports Puerto Rico’s independence movement, recently said in a bilingual interview conducted by Assange and posted on YouTube. “The students and the workers, the social awareness that exists in Latin America is so big that it was like a viral thing and I just connected paths with that, and I just wanted to write about that, so that is why I’m here writing about those issues.”

Calle 13’s latest single, “Multi_Viral,” features Rage Against the Machine’s Tom Morello on guitar and a spoken segment by Assange. The lyrics criticize “bad media,” the military and corporations, while promoting Occupy-style protests. The track is the first from the group’s new album, which Pérez and Cabra will release independently in 2014, after a split with their former label, Sony Music Latin. Their previous albums have won a total of 19 Latin Grammy Awards, a record unmatched by any other artist.

Pérez has always been a provocateur, and activism has not softened his swagger. While promoting his songs may at times still seem like his most persistent cause, Pérez’s consciousness and his cojones are always admirable.

“[I want to] stimulate other artists to do this kind of work,” he says.

Judy Cantor-Navas is an award-winning journalist, critic and Latin music programmer who most frequently writes about music and its context. She is the Managing Editor of Billboard en Español and a correspondent for Billboard Magazine in Los Angeles.