iLe’s latest Grammy-nominated album doesn’t shy away from confrontation. The former Calle 13 singer’s second solo album served as a form of music therapy for the artist—she wrote it while her and those around her endured the tragedies following Hurricane Maria in 2017. We sat down with iLe to learn more about the album “Almadura,” her time with her brothers in Calle 13, and to talk about her opinions regarding the recent political uprisings and natural disasters that have hit Puerto Rico.
The following are edited and condensed excerpts from the conversation.
My musical style for me is a little difficult to describe. I am not necessarily so focused [on] my style. I don’t see [it] as something aesthetical, I just do what I feel like. But maybe if I can say something, it can be Carribean-ish because I’m from Puerto Rico. I love our musical history and all the backgrounds we have in music that sometimes I might feel that it’s forgotten. But for me, it’s music that I like to keep a part of me. So, yeah, maybe a Carribean-ish style [of] music.
I grew up listening to different types of music because I’m the little one in the house where I grew up in. So I listen to what my dad, my mom, my brothers and sisters were listening to, and then while I was growing up I started to appreciate more of the details about these singers and these orchestras that I used to listen to. I love Caribbean music and I love African music as well, and everything that takes me back to my roots is what I like, but obviously I like to play with it and see with what that type of music I can mix it with.
I’m not so conscious about it because… we suddenly get accustomed to specific treatment. So I particularly I don’t expect so much. So maybe we as Latinos or whatever, we are used to feeling rejected since the beginning. I think we don’t expect to be embraced by other people. Especially more North Americans or something. We are prepared for rejection. So I think that’s why we work so hard in what we do. I think we just might be programmed to work harder and to do what we feel like it without necessarily doing what we are supposed to do or pretending to be someone that we’re not. And for me, that’s maybe why Latino music and Puerto Ricans also are a big part of music in general because they are not afraid of showing their true selves. They are just who they are, the way they are, and people have to deal with it and for me that’s a good attitude to have.
I think the rejection is towards other people or maybe you feel it more in the U.S. maybe, I think it’s changing in a way. I think there is something cool that is happening that I feel like some U.S. interpreters or singers or whatever are feeling more the necessity of collaborating with Latino artists instead of the other way around, and for me that’s interesting that they are seeking other colors—something different, it doesn’t matter the language differences or anything, it’s just the way you transmit the music at the end. And I think the U.S. maybe and other people are understanding that a little bit more.
Still, maybe industry-wise, I’m not sure if that has changed so much. I still feel like there is something set aside that is not part of one thing… there is still, like, you can feel a little something separated in terms of treatment. Like [how] the U.S. tends to be with other countries. I mean like, yes, we want something from you but limited, this is your line over here. So, I think, I mean, when you see it that way, it translates to how U.S. people tend to be. Maybe [it’s] a fear, I don’t know.
Well, [with] Puerto Rico [there] has always been an issue, like many countries in the world. Obviously the main issue is that we are a colony. We started with Spain and now we are like 100-ish years, we are a colony of the United States. And it’s been, you know, for me a very humiliating treatment, almost like a lab experiment that most of the people are not so aware about and they just idolize North America, the U.S. as something bigger than us and as something we can never reach.
So, for me that’s the most frustrating part.
I mean, one thing is having the struggle of being a colony already, but for me the worst thing is when people think that they are not enough and believe this big lie that they have taught us and the censorship about our own history. They don’t teach us enough in school about who we are or where we actually come from. I feel like I don’t even know enough as I should because [it] is part of this culture of eliminating every background and just believing that we are something that we are not.
So we believe that we are first class, but we are actually second class citizens or maybe fourth. And obviously the U.S. passport that we have was part of like, sort of hypnosis treatment so the U.S. could have more soldiers to go to war. I mean, that’s just one thing, so I can assume like the domino effect that happens after that. But that’s why the moment we are living now is so important, because Puerto Rico is so small and we are not used to protesting in big massive masses. And now suddenly something like detached, I don’t know, something happened and I think it was since Hurricane Maria that people started to wonder what is going on actually and we are still digging little by little and more information is showing up.
So, for me there are, like I said, there are many struggles, but [it] is up to us to start by trusting in ourselves and knowing that we are stronger than we think we are and we can accomplish whatever we want to. Now, for the governor that is now after Rosello, she was also part of his team. So it’s part of the same thing what is going on here. And that’s why we say that we have to clean up the house and send everyone away and put people who are trustworthy. Yeah, there are so many things going on, but for me the main struggle is that low self-esteem that people still have and that big fear of reacting, and that’s why I did this album actually because I know that we are capable. I have always believed in our capacity and I just feel it. I just know that we can make change happen, but we need to be more people and I made this album with that hope in mind.
I started my career as a musician when I was 16 years old with my brothers, Eduardo and René. They created this group called Calle 13 that is basically the name of the street where we grew up in and it was crazy. We didn’t know exactly what we were doing, but it was something very intuitive and we were enjoying everything so much. And it was very intense. A lot of unexpected things happened and it was amazing. Suddenly we were traveling a lot and I was still in school. It was a very weird feeling, but at the same time it was like something that we knew that we were doing what we wanted to do. And well, obviously I felt safe with my family there and it was great. I think I grew up a lot and thanks to that I am here today singing. I started playing the piano when I was little and I thought I was going to be a pianist. I knew I liked singing but it was more like a hobby. But it wasn’t until my brothers invited me to be part of their project that I realized that singing is the best way I can express music, so I feel grateful.
My new album, “Almadura,” is a confrontative album. I was very angry at the moment I was creating it and basically I just went along with my own feelings. So [it] is very personal and I’m just sharing my anger to the people that will listen to it. I mean, I think I learn that [it] is not bad to feel angry, and the tricky part is just how you manage that anger. But I think it’s important to permit yourself to feel angry when you need to, because there are reasons that can make you feel angry and [it] is valid that you feel angry sometimes.
So I basically let myself go and talked about different things about society that bothers me and battles that we are still struggling with that I think we shouldn’t be struggling so much. Basic understanding about our differences, about our places in this world as women, as people, as different races. Different things and so many barriers that we need to demolish. And that’s why the whole almadura concept came along [while] working with my creative team, that is my sister Milena and my brother Gabriel. We worked together [on] all the ideas and while the songs were growing, we thought about the almadura because [it] is all about protection and protecting what you have, who you are and where you’re from. It’s important because some people have other intentions and can take advantage of things that you need to take care of. So that’s basically what the album is all about.
Well, almadura is as if saying ama, but it’s badly written because it’s a play on words and how we Puerto Ricans sometimes tend to substitute the R with the L. But at the same time is as connecting two words of almadura, that means strong soul. So that’s how everything tied up and then having the image of the cover picture. The photography that was made by Christopher Gregory, a Puerto Rican photographer, based on the idea that we already had with the team. So [it] is that. [It] is going on front, [it] is confronting your reality no matter what, and it doesn’t matter if fear gets in the way, you take fear with you and keep going.
I have more than one favorite song. I don’t know, I mean all of these songs are mostly very confrontative, but I think I like “Curandera” because it’s that cleansing part of the album that I wrote it particularly because I needed myself a little cleanse, while writing the songs because every song can seem a little dense and I needed to let go and clean myself up to keep going and keep writing more songs. I like “Curandera” because everything came up so fluently and is very percussive. It plays a little with palo Dominicano. And you can feel a little cumbia from Colombia as well. And you can feel a little Bomba from Puerto Rico. And it has a lot of mixes of different rhythms that are all connected to one same root. And I enjoy that a lot and also when we play it live [it] is very healing. Well, the song is about a healer so I enjoy it a lot. “Curandera” was basically because I needed [to] cleanse myself while I was writing the album. I needed that time for me and I expressed it through this song.
I do think it’s important to be present as artists in social movements or just as human citizens, citizens of the world. So I think part of being an artist is expressing the moment that you are living in, it doesn’t matter how you want to express it, but being honest and authentic about it. And that has to do with many things. You don’t have to be necessarily so literal, but it can be … I mean … or it doesn’t matter if your music doesn’t speak about social things, but if you as an artist separate as a human being want to express something, that is super valuable. It gives you grounding. I don’t like the idea of people seeing artists as something superior… I mean, we are people as well and we are not on top of anything. We are struggling and that’s important for everyone to understand. And we as artists, we are not here [just] to have fame or money or anything, but we are here for more than that. And that’s why it’s important to acknowledge that very deeply and wonder what we can do about it. Having an opportunity that not everyone has, that is basically the microphone and amplifying voices that need to be amplified.
I think [it] is very complex. I’m still trying to understand other things because just recently the citizens discovered a lot of warehouses that were filled with aid since Hurricane Maria. A lot of aid. And a lot of warehouses that are very big. And the whole government knew about it. I don’t know if the United States government knew about it, but they basically know everything that goes on in Puerto Rico, so I don’t know.
But obviously, I know that the government of Puerto Rico has a lot of responsibility about that, but I have no idea how something like that could happen. And people just discovered that recently because we had a lot of [pause] we are still going through a lot of earthquakes in Puerto Rico. That is basically in the south of the Island and a lot of people are without houses, sleeping in the streets.
And there was a lot of aid in those warehouses that were not being sent. It makes me want to vomit to see politicians taking pictures with the people that were affected by the earthquakes as the same that happened in Hurricane Maria. Like they just take the picture and go away and they don’t send enough aid. And I don’t know how they … I mean they knew that this aid was there and there was a lot, I mean is incredible.
That’s why now we are protesting again because we are like every time we get angrier and more offended about how they simply let people die because they were focused on their interest. And that is for me, humanly, is something very difficult to understand and to process, and obviously is more difficult to understand why they are not arrested. I don’t know, there [are] many things going on. But we are finally doing something about it and that’s important.
I see it as something very personal where I’m just sharing what I’m feeling and it’s something almost psychological for me, like therapy. I think I’m more conscious afterwards when people share with me how the albums have affected them in their lives. So I grow with that and I learn from that because when I release the album I just leave it there and wait if something happens, but I don’t expect anything in particular. I just, obviously if something, I expect people to feel connected with the songs and hopefully that people feel less alone in this world and feel more together.