When massive protests broke out last summer in Puerto Rico calling for the governor’s resignation, Ileana Cabra — or iLe, as she’s known on stage — felt an awakening happen throughout the island.
“Seeing all the people with one flag, without any political party involved – just us; it was an amazing feeling,” says the former backing vocalist of the no-holds-barred alternative rap group Calle 13.
Alongside other Puerto Rican artists, including rapper and brother Residente, pop star Ricky Martin and Latin trap artist Bad Bunny, iLe stood on a platform in the midst of the protests. But none of them were there to perform, only to protest in solidarity with the tens of thousands of islanders who demanded justice.
“We were not afraid of anything,” says iLe, who made her solo debut in 2016. “It just felt like a very powerful energy that I've always known we had (inside) but needed to get out.”
ILe, currently on an extensive U.S. tour that’ll make a stop Feb. 23 at Antone’s, teamed up with Residente and Bad Bunny at the time to create what quickly became a viral protest anthem called “Afilando los Cuchillos” or “Sharpening the Knives.”
Anger and frustration on the island last summer had reached its peak. Hundreds of private group chat messages between the Puerto Rican governor and his inner circle were published by Puerto Rico’s Center for Investigative Journalism. The messages revealed controversial remarks that ranged from insulting the LGBTQ community to mocking hurricane victims. The governor resigned in August.
The leaked chats and protests found an already-hurt community that endured not just the devastation of Hurricane Marķa but the controversy that came with it, including fights over federal aid and death tolls.
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For iLe, releasing that anger meant writing songs that resulted in her Grammy-nominated sophomore album, “Almadura.” The title translates to “strong soul” but serves as a play on words. It gives a nod, she says, to the way some Puerto Ricans pronounce the letter “r.” Armadura means armor. Many of the 12-track album’s songs point to protecting the island, it’s culture and women.
“Even though (the album’s themes) are more rooted in Puerto Rico, I feel that it also connects with different situations outside of the island,” she says. That might mean situations such as getting used to things that are not OK, she says, or not stopping to notice the small things you can do to make your surroundings a better place to live.
Since debuting as a solo artist with her Grammy-winning album “iLevitable,” iLe says she has learned to trust herself more and not to judge herself so harshly. As a private person, she still struggles with sharing the songs she’s written in such a public way but has found the process cleansing for her soul.
“It’s even more beautiful when you see that people are identified with what you have to say, with your story,” she says. “That makes (all of us) feel less alone.”