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“Sharpening the Knives”: iLe of Calle 13 on Recording the Anthem of the Puerto Rico Protests

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Many of Puerto Rico’s most famous performers have been out in the streets in full force this week to show support for the growing movement calling for the immediate resignation of Governor Ricardo Rosselló. Singers Ricky Martin and Bad Bunny were in the streets of San Juan Monday, along with Grammy-winning artists Residente and iLe of the band Calle 13. They’ve also joined the protest through song. Last week, Residente, iLe and Bad Bunny released the song “Afilando Los Cuchillos,” or “Sharpening the Knives.” It quickly became the anthem of the movement. We speak with iLe, who says, “I’ve been waiting all my life for a moment like this.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: “Sharpening the Knives,” released Wednesday by Residente, iLe and Bad Bunny, in protest of Puerto Rican Governor Ricardo Rosselló and his administration. This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We’re continue to look at Monday’s historic protest in Puerto Rico, where half a million people took to the streets of San Juan. Some of the island’s most famous performers, many of whom were targeted in the leaked text messages that have sparked outrage on the island, have been leading voices in the growing protest movement demanding that Governor Ricardo Rosselló step down. Singers Ricky Martin and Bad Bunny were in the streets of San Juan Monday, along with Grammy-winning artists Residente and iLe of the band Calle 13. Last week, Residente, iLe and Bad Bunny released a song, “Afilando los Cuchillos,” or “Sharpening the Knives,” in protest of Governor Rosselló and his administration. This is part of the song.

RESIDENTE, ILE, BAD BUNNY: …el color de tu partido
Esto salió temprano pa’ que te lo desayunes
La furia es el único partido que nos une

Vamo’ cortante’ como lo’ cuchillo’
Sacando chispa hasta llegar al filo
Hay que arrancar la maleza del plantío

AMY GOODMAN: And that’s iLe, and joining us now is iLe, one of the co-authors of that song, Grammy Award-winning Puerto Rican artist and member of Calle 13, iLe.

Welcome to Democracy Now! You’re in Washington, D.C., right now, but you were on the streets of San Juan yesterday. Describe the scene for us.

ILEANA CABRA: Well, for me, it’s a lot to process. I think I’ve been waiting all my life for a moment like this. It’s been amazing to see so many people in the streets for one same cause, with the energy that we have as Puerto Ricans, that is one that is very intense, very loud, but very firm and very present. And I’ve been waiting so much for us to show our true self. And I think this is happening right now in Puerto Rico, and it’s a very historic moment for us.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And why do you think that these leaks and the governor’s response have created such an outpouring, not only of people who opposed him previously, but also of many people who supported his own party and his election? What do you think? Is this the last drop in terms of what los puertorriqueños can stand anymore?

ILEANA CABRA: I think we’ve been seeking for change unconsciously, but at the same time we’re afraid to change. So I think that’s why most of the people keep voting for the same people that they know that they’re not as much as we should have. But at the same time, they keep telling these stories that people believe in. I don’t know how, but they trust in these people, that, for me, they seem not trustworthy at all. For me, I can see in their promises that—I can see they’re not true. And I can see there’s not a real honest interest or love for the island, but rather an interest in taking advantage of our money, of our funds.

And that’s what is happening right now. I think we’ve been so humiliated and we’ve received so much abuse throughout the years, that we’ve had enough. And we had maybe—it had to be this extreme for us to realize how disgusting is everything and how these people really think about us and how they underestimate our capabilities as a country. And now we’re showing them that they’re wrong. And for me, that’s the important part.

AMY GOODMAN: iLe, can you tell us about your song “Sharpening the Knives”?

ILEANA CABRA: Well, it was an initiative of my brother René and Bad Bunny, and they invited me to be part of the song. I think we, as Puerto Ricans, are very angry, as well, and we’re just expressing our anger through music. And for us, it’s important also to tell the story, expressing it in our own different ways, but telling the story about the moment we are living right now. And I think that is very important to do. And music is our tool to express ourselves. So, for us, it’s like our way of feeling everything like as a whole, like together. So, it’s like—

AMY GOODMAN: And tell us the words of “Sharpening the Knives.”

ILEANA CABRA: Well, my brother René is speaking more directly toward the governor, Ricardo Rosselló. Benito is speaking also to the governor, but, as well, he’s including his team. And my chorus is just a way to include the people. And it’s just a way to say to sharpen our machetes, sharpen our knives, as a symbolic way of reaction, and take action to protect our country.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And of all the text messages that you’ve read that were released by the Center for Investigative Journalism, what were the remarks by the governor or his people that most shocked you and that most angered you?

ILEANA CABRA: I think it’s a combination of so many things. It shocks me in a way that you can see it with your own eyes, but at the same time it doesn’t surprise me as much, because I can see that like that was always his way of thinking. So, I think the majority of people who voted for him are more shocked than I am.

But the thing that I probably never expected to read was the part about the cadavers of Hurricane Maria. I think that was one of the strongest things that they wrote on the chat. And how they make fun of people that died, about the struggle that we went through—by that time, Hurricane Maria, that was one of the biggest struggles we’ve had—I think, is something that—I don’t know. It’s like a burn you feel inside you, that you need to get out somehow. And I think that this day needed to happen, that day, that awakening, that Puerto Ricans just, as a whole, made a stand to respect themselves.

So, for me, there’s a combination of things. I also think the strategies of corruption are also disgusting, as well. And it’s something that we should be very aware of, because there’s a lot of people that can take advantage of our island, and I think we should do something about it. But we’re working it out little by little. Right now the main goal is to make the governor, Ricardo Rosselló, resign.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to your brother, René Pérez, also known as Residente. He addressed a crowd of protesters in the streets of Old San Juan last week.

RENÉ PÉREZ: [translated] We have to defend ourselves. The only ideal that is present tonight is the distrust and that we want to be respected as a country. This government needs to begin respecting the country. And this country has never been respected. This is historic. We are making history. Tonight we are making history. Puerto Rico doesn’t stand up, because we’ve always been standing.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s Residente of Calle 13, of which iLe is a part, the youngest member. You used to be PG-13; now you’re called iLe. If you can talk about the role of music in resistance, iLe?

ILEANA CABRA: Well, for me, it seems natural, because, luckily, I come from a family that taught me well to love my country and to be present in society. And for me, music has been my life, and it is my life. So, it’s just a way of working myself out in this world, of expressing my perceptions in life, and society has a lot to do with it. So, I think it’s like something—it’s not a responsibility. It’s like something that I need to do to understand my own feelings and then expressing them to the people, but, obviously, from my perspective. And I think Puerto Rico is a country that deserves to be heard. And we’ve been silent for so many years. And for me, well, through the songs, it’s my best way to express my frustration and my indignation and my pains about society that I feel. So, it’s something that I do naturally.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And also, the remarks in some of these messages of the governor, the extreme homophobia of his circle, attacking not only Ricky Martin, but other journalists in Puerto Rico, and constantly resorting to homophobic remarks, what impression did that leave you with?

ILEANA CABRA: Obviously, it shocks me, you know, that we are still living in a homophobic world and we are still, unconsciously maybe, some, promoting hatred and violence towards people that seem different for society, instead of finding ways to understand one another. I think what’s most beautiful about this world is that we’re all different and diverse, and we can learn from that and keep growing, you know, and keep finding our own ways to be happy. I think we are all seeking happiness and to be loved in this world. And I don’t understand how can that be so complicated for us. It shouldn’t be.

But at the same time, I understand, I know, that there are a lot of people that cannot channel their own pains and their own fears. And that’s why people like Trump and people like Rosselló are like that, you know? I think they’re a child that needs to work their psychological part that they never could when they were kids. I don’t know why. I don’t know so much about their backgrounds. But they’ve been treated maybe in a way that they didn’t learn how to be loved enough to love the other.

AMY GOODMAN: iLe, let’s end with the words of President Trump and get your comment. These are his comments yesterday.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I’m the best thing that ever happened to Puerto Rico, because we did a great job in Puerto Rico. They don’t like to give me the credit for it, but we did a great job. I have many Puerto Rican friends.

AMY GOODMAN: So, there is President Trump saying, “I’m the best thing that ever happened to Puerto Rico.” iLe, your response?

ILEANA CABRA: I really think, in a way, that the only good thing about Trump is that he showed—he has shown us his carelessness about the country. And I think, in a way—I don’t want to sound cold, but I think that is something that we needed. We needed to receive a clear mistreatment that we could interpret clearly. And I think Trump has showed that since the beginning. So, that gives us more strength as a country, and less dependency, I hope.

AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you so much, iLe, for being with us. We’re going to do Part 2 of a conversation with you; we’re going to post it online at That is iLe, Puerto Rican Grammy Award-winning artist, member of the Grammy Award-winning band Calle 13. iLe, Residente and Bad Bunny co-wrote and recorded the new song “Sharpening the Knives,” the anthem for the Puerto Rican resistance demanding Governor Rosselló resign. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

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