2018 was an incredible year for Bad Bunny.
Notable collaborations with Cardi B, J. Balvin, Ozuna, Drake, and JLo helped the rapper take home the 2018 Latin American Music Award for best artist and Bad Bunny’s using his new-found platform for good. Not only has he called attention to Puerto Rico’s school closures, but when Bad Bunny took to the stage of The Tonight Show, he devoted his performance of “Estamos Bien” to the victims of Hurricane María.
As a screen behind him projected images of Hurricane Maria’s devastation, Bad Bunny said, “On September 20th, 2017 Puerto Rico was exposed to the full force of nature’s ferocity. After one year of the hurricane, there are still people without electricity in their homes. More than 3,000 people died and Trump’s still in denial. Estamos bien y vamos a estar mejor, Puerto Rico! (We’re good and we’ll be better, Puerto Rico!)”
Released nearly a year after Hurricane María, Bad Bunny’s “Estamos Bien” became the anthem for Puerto Ricans in the wake of a tragedy. Even as the song’s title asserts, “We’re fine,” Puerto Ricans continue to suffer at the intersections of climate injustice, austerity measures, colonialism and serious natural disaster.
FEMA’s response to Hurricane María, in many ways, echoed President Trump’s own sentiments that “Puerto Ricans want everything to be done for them.” In addition to failing to distribute desperately needed necessities like food and clean water, contractors for the agency charged the island’s residents exorbitant prices for basic home repairs.
The island’s official government-branded slogan since María, “Puerto Rico se levanta” (Puerto Rico rises up) is nearly a call to pull yourself up by the proverbial bootstraps. The motto puts the onus of repairing the island on Puerto Ricans, absolving the federal government in the process.
The lyrics of “Estamos Bien” make reference to the plight of poor and not-yet-connected to the grid Puerto Ricans post-María:
Aunque pa’ casa no ha llega’o la luz/Gracias a Dios porque tengo salud… No te preocupes, estamos bien/Con o sin billetes de cien/Pero tener no es malo así que estamos bien
(Even if my house has no electricity/I thank God for my good health…Don’t worry, we’re fine/with or without hundred dollar bills/Having nothing is not bad so we’re fine.)
The song operates as a response to the demand —from the President, his administration, and other government officials— for resiliency. Almost as if to say, we’ll break our collar bones and still come up swinging without ever looking to you for help.
At a recent symposium on the state of Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane María, poet, translator and essayist Carina del Valle Schorske asked participants to consider how the lyrics of “Estamos Bien,” particularly as they relate to the resilience forced upon Puerto Ricans, belie governmental negligence and how that forced resiliency is acknowledged, co-opted, and leveraged in music.
Del Valle Schorske drew a line between the co-opting of resilience present in “Estamos Bien” and the assertion that “We gon’ be alright” from Kendrick Lamar’s 2015 single, “Alright.” In the case of each song, there’s a militarized resistance contradicting the idea that things are okay or will be. Lamar wrote “Alright” in 2014, just after the murders of Michael Brown, Eric Garner and Tamir Rice at the hands of police. In 2015, after the song’s release, protesters could be heard chanting the song’s chorus.
I have yet to hear a single story of Puerto Ricans taking to the streets chanting lyrics from “Estamos Bien” or Bad Bunny’s signature call, “Bad Bunny bebebe.” But I think often of activists who braved police brutality to demand a state of emergency be declared to end femicide in Puerto Rico, or of the vigilante electricians who restored power to their neighbors when the wait for government help seemed interminable, and of the grassroots hurricane relief stations operating across the island. When I think of them, what they have had to endure and the lengths they go to take care of Puerto Rico when the federal and local government refuses to, I know Bad Bunny is right—estamos bien y vamos a estar mejor.
It may seem silly and premature to place “Estamos Bien” alongside historical heavy hitters like Lamar’s “Alright,” Billie Holiday’s “Mississippi Goddamn,” and Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power.” At the same time, it’s important to acknowledge all of these songs make the act of being hopeful that things can and must change with radical defiance. The transformative power of these songs is their ability to make you believe, even for just four minutes, in the audacity of your own hope.
It’s a thing Bad Bunny does well in “Estamos Bien,” and something I hope we’ll see more of from him in 2019.
Lauren Lluveras is a postdoctoral fellow at the Institute for Urban Policy Research and Analysis, housed in African and African Diaspora Studies at The University of Texas at Austin. She tweets from @elleelle_koolj.