No other American musician is bigger right now than Bad Bunny.
The widespread popularity of the Puerto Rican star prompted Bloomberg to declare this month that “no one even comes close to Bad Bunny’s stardom” at the moment. He has had “the best-selling album of the last two months and was the most-streamed act on both Spotify and YouTube, the world’s two largest music services,” according to Bloomberg, which ranks the world’s most influential pop stars using criteria that also include gross revenues from live shows.
In the United States alone, Bad Bunny’s fourth album, “Un Verano Sin Ti,” has amassed 2 billion streams since it dropped nearly three months ago. And for the last two years, Bad Bunny has been Spotify’s most-streamed artist, surpassing Taylor Swift, Justin Bieber, and Adele.
But the young Puerto Rican rapper embodies more than those pop music milestones, impressive as they are. Bad Bunny, born Benito Antonio Martínez Ocasio 28 years ago, also represents an impressive cultural phenomenon. Bad Bunny has consistently articulated, and thus elevated, the Caribbean island’s many socioeconomic troubles and political conundrums, exploring displacement and gender-based violence in his songs and rallying against “la junta,” as many Puerto Ricans call the unelected management board that controls the finances of the island, a US territory.
In fact, America’s biggest pop star right now symbolizes some of Puerto Rico’s most urgent problems.
Take one of his album’s songs, “El Apagón,” which means the blackout. The song is a reference to Puerto Rico’s ongoing electricity issues and its ailing power grid, which hasn’t recovered from the vast damage inflicted by Hurricane Maria in 2017. Last year, in an effort to improve services, the island privatized the operation of its electric power transmission and distribution system to LUMA energy, a Canadian-American corporation. Despite the continued power outages, the company has increased prices seven times this year. It’s why hundreds of Puerto Ricans took to the streets last week to call for LUMA’s contract to be rescinded.
Apparently nobody is safe from the power outages that affect the island’s 3.2 million residents, not even Bad Bunny. In May, the musician was hanging out in a local bar when the power went out. In a TikTok he posted that has been viewed more than 15 million times, he wrote: “This is my country’s electric system, useless.” In the first of his three concerts in Puerto Rico on Thursday night, the rapper told the massive crowd that his own homeland is the only place where he performs where he has to get “like 15 industrial power generators because I can’t trust Puerto Rico’s electric system.” Then he said, “LUMA pa’l carajo” (LUMA, go to hell), and the crowd went wild.
If constant blackouts happened anywhere else in the United States, they would be major news events. Why isn’t the troubling status quo in Puerto Rico treated as an ongoing tragedy that belies America’s complicity?
Which brings me to the other famous Ocasio in America: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the Democratic US representative from New York. Ocasio-Cortez and US Representative Nydia Velázquez, both of Puerto Rican descent, have been pushing Congress to solve the underlying question that Puerto Ricans have grappled with for more than 100 years: Should it become the 51st state or be independent? To that end, Velázquez filed a bill last year that provides a mechanism for Puerto Ricans to determine the governance question once and for all. That legislation and a second competing bill resulted in a compromise: The Puerto Rico Status Act, which was released earlier this month.
For far too long, Puerto Ricans have been treated as second-class citizens. The Puerto Rico Status Act establishes a process in which Puerto Ricans would decide, via a binding referendum in November of 2023, whether they want statehood, independence, or something in between (sovereignty in free association with the United States.) The bill has seemingly lost momentum, according to reporter Pablo Manríquez, Capitol Hill correspondent for Latino Rebels. The bill already has faced some criticism and Ocasio-Cortez has not said whether she supports it or not.
Meanwhile, Bad Bunny, arguably the most influential Puerto Rican personality, has not expressed his views on statehood vs. independence for his beloved island. But he is using his stardom to amplify what’s obvious to Puerto Ricans but lost on almost everybody else: Its infrastructure is in shambles almost five years after Hurricane Maria and not nearly enough is being done to help island residents, who are indeed full-fledged US citizens but have a diminished, undefined status in terms of receiving resources and respect from the mainland.