Residente Talks Directing a Doc & How Taking a DNA Test Changed His Music

Photo: Krista Schlueter for The New York Times

René Pérez Joglar (aka Residente), Puerto Rican rapper, social activist and frontman for Calle 13, went on the journey of a lifetime to produce his newest album and make his directorial film debut with his self-titled feature documentary Residente. In the film, Residente travels across the globe to examine his complex cultural heritage, which he learned about after taking a DNA test. The result is a narrative-driven manifesto about Rene’s creative process rather than a traditional documentary, but one his fans will enjoy nonetheless. Plus, there are appearances from historical figures like Heriberto Marin, as well as celebrities like Lin-Manuel Miranda (who he just recently discovered is a third cousin).

During his international trip to six countries, including Siberia, China, Spain and Ghana, Residente connects with his roots through the music of the areas he visits and starts piecing together his personal history and uses what he discovers as a fresh way to confront his own work. He explores the throat singing of the Tuvan people in Siberia and the tradition of the Beijing Opera in China. Through this self-exploration, Residente finds we are all linked together—by music.

During an interview with Remezcla at the 2017 SXSW Film Festival, Residente spoke about how his music has changed since his trek around the world, what frustrates him about the industry he is a part of, and how anyone can create social change by speaking out.

On his music evolving during the making of the documentary Residente

It’s completely different than what I used to do in terms of lyrics. I’m the same writer, but now I have different stories to tell. The new music has a world-music kind of vibe, but is very electronic. That doesn’t mean I wasn’t making that music before, but this is [that music] on steroids. The album has a very solid concept. I always had a concept for every song, but I’ve never had a complete concept for the whole album like this one.

On the music industry making music for the wrong reasons

The priority is making money, so [music producers] don’t pay attention to solo artists anymore. They pay less and less attention to them through the years. Part of the guilt falls on the artists, too, because they’re making music that sucks. I can’t listen to the radio anymore. I’m not a hater, but the music sucks. Everyone sounds the same. They just want to be in the Top 20. They want to be accessible and want people to listen to their stuff, but that’s not my priority. I’m not making music for them. I’m making music because I feel it. That’s the way it should be if you want to call yourself an artist. If not, you’re a businessman. The industry is full of businessmen, and I’m not talking about the record label people. I’m talking about the so-called artists.

On what he learned exploring his roots while recording his new album

I learned that we all came from the same place. Everyone came from a black woman. Even [Donald] Trump came from a black woman. We have to understand that. I learned that we are “equally different,” as I say in one of my lyrics. Even though we are different, we are the same. Also, I learned a lot about language barriers and communication. I’ve always been a fan of language. I think it’s the best tool and the best weapon. I think that even more now because it took me a while to connect with these people [during my journey]. Once I connected with them, it changed everything. For me it was a lesson in linguistics.

On the poetic nature of the film’s narration, which he wrote

It took me a while to write. I didn’t want to be too poetic, but I wanted to write something personal. I didn’t want to give too many facts, otherwise I was going to take the chance of committing too many errors and mistakes in history. I didn’t want to have historians arguing with me, so I wanted to make it more personal. It’s my point-of-view of these places. It’s a little bit poetic because that’s the way I write.

On getting his documentary out to the masses

I wish everyone can see the film. I want to make it accessible. I want to put it out in different outlets so people can watch it and see these stories. Even though I am very conscious about what is happening around the world, I didn’t know about some of the stories [in the documentary]. It’s like an open window for everyone, especially in the U.S. In the U.S., everyone lives in a bubble. When you’re from the outside and you come back here, you can see that clearly.

On the first steps people need to take to become social activists and create change

Something that is not expensive and easy to do if you want to create change is to just start talking with whoever you see on the street. People don’t talk anymore. People should talk, even if they don’t know each other. Start communicating with people. It’s an exercise that everyone should do. I live in a building and sometimes I take the same elevator with the same people and they don’t talk or they say something about the weather. We should start talking with each other without any shame.

On his favorite natural sounds

Voices, man. I think the greatest sound we have is our own voice. Everyone should sing. Everyone can sing. The voice is a great instrument. I hear something very particular in every voice I listen to. Even if they are not singers, accents are great to listen to when people talk. It’s part of music and sound.

The last SXSW screening of Residente is on Thursday, March 16 at the Zach Theater.

UPDATE 1/3/2018: The Residente documentary is now streaming on Netflix.