Meet Anuel AA, the Viral Boricua MC Building a Hip-Hop Empire From Prison

Anuel AA. Courtesy of Maybach Music Group

Since we last visited Trilligan’s Island in our 2014 documentary, the trap movement in Puerto Rico has evolved with a raunchier, more unapologetic, and powerfully viral sound. Álvaro Díaz‘s luxury rap sensibilities are still very much part of the vibrant scene, but we’ve seen new trends emerge over the past few years. If he was channeling A$AP Rocky, new players are emulating Future, Migos, and Gucci Mane – more unfiltered and uncensored than ever before.

This new class of Boricua rappers isn’t riding the airwaves (hell, they’d be lucky to get an invite) like their less controversial colleagues in el género urbano. Instead, they’re racking up millions and millions of plays per track in the digital space. Somehow, the island’s taboo seems to be working in their favor.

So who exactly are they?

Anuel AA, Courtesy of Maybach Music Group
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Meet Anuel AA. Bryant Myers. Larry Over. Almighty. Unless you live on the island or closely follow the Puerto Rican rap scene, chances are you may not recognize the names of this new wave of trapstars. One name that’s garnered visibility over the rest is Anuel AA, whose digital popularity extends further than Puerto Rico. Anuel boasts one million followers across all social platforms (Facebook, Instagram and Twitter). His videos on YouTube have reached upwards of 20 million views, while features on tracks like De La Ghetto’s sex jam “La Ocasión” have racked up nearly 200 million hits. You may not have heard his name, but the numbers don’t lie.

While the recognition isn’t one hundred percent positive, it’s still igniting the curiosity of many, especially those who have seen the #FreeAnuel hashtag emblazoned across their timelines.

So why the criticism? On April 3, 2016, Anuel AA was arrested with two others on gun charges while leaving a nightclub in San Juan after agents found three guns, a dozen clips, and 152 rounds of ammunition in the car Anuel was traveling in. His arrest sparked the #FreeAnuel movement. Spearheaded by his fans, the hashtag and its subsequent virality began to fuel hype around the Anuel AA brand. Fans have even taken action and requested permission to start a peaceful rally outside the Metropolitan Detention Center, the federal prison where Anuel is incarcerated. While behind bars, Anuel’s team continues releasing music from the vault and constantly feeds fans content on social media, ensuring the island’s hip-hop heads won’t forget his name.

Somehow, the island’s taboo seems to be working in Anuel’s favor.

In the United States, “Free ______” movements are often a form of solidarity – even a political statement against incarceration when fellow rappers show their support for friends facing unfair sentences. Though these campaigns have roots in the 1960s civil rights movement, in the hip-hop world, the phenomenon dates back to the early 2000s with UGK member Pimp C. The rapper was arrested and sentenced to eight years in prison for a parole violation, and bandmate Bun B spawned the “Free Pimp C” movement in response.

Since then, the majority of rappers who end up in jail become part of a “Free” movement, no matter how long or short their stint in prison is. Most recently, Atlanta rapper Gucci Mane was released in May after having served almost three years. #FreeGucci became a lifestyle for Guwop fans who contributed to the $1.3 million he made in 2013 through album and merchandise sales (just search “Free Gucci tees” on Google). Sure, he was behind bars, but that didn’t stop him from putting out music and maintaining a high-profile career. Tweets were sent out daily from Gucci’s Twitter page, and he released over 20 projects from prison.

Anuel’s team also sells #FreeAnuel merch ($30 a shirt) and has consistently released new music. His fans were given a movement to get behind, and they did.

Courtesy of Maybach Music Group
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Yet little is known about Anuel’s personal life. Of course, it’s hard to imagine someone with a million accumulated followers having any sort of privacy. The lack of information could be a result of his arrest, which took place about a year after he signed with the Latino division of Maybach Music Group (MMG) in 2015, under Latin America-U.S. trap relations liaison Spiff TV. He was at a point in his career where he was about to take off. So who exactly is Anuel AA?

Twenty-three-year-old Emmanuel Gazmey Santiago hails from the Puerto Rican city of Carolina, just east of San Juan. He hasn’t confirmed details about his childhood in Carolina, but media outlets speculate that he grew up in a middle-class home in the city. His father, bassist and Berklee College of Music graduate Jose Gazmey, was Vice President of the A&R department at Sony Music Entertainment, according to his LinkedIn. It’s safe to say music runs deep in his blood, though critics might think the family business has boosted the Boricua rapper’s career.

In an interview with El Lenguero TV, the rapper shared that he makes music about what he sees in the world – themes including drugs, violence, murder and sex – and everything he’s lived through. Speaking with the Dominican Republic’s go-to música urbana site, he credited Tupac Shakur as one of his musical inspirations. “I studied him a lot.” Just like ‘Pac, Gazmey argues that “the themes in [his] music are a lot like [his] real life.”

Like many rappers on the island, Anuel was influenced by current trends on the mainland and most noticeably, by modern trap music. In “Nunca Sapo,” he kicks a gritty slow-tempo flow over a booming 808-heavy beat, channeling Rick Ross in Teflon Don. The video matches the track’s grimy, grandiose atmosphere, showing Anuel donning fur-trimmed everything as he shows off his stacks of cash and gold chains deep into the night. On Farruko’s “Liberace,” he puts his flow in hyper-drive, mimicking the playful and unmissable “Versace” flow popularized by Migos in their 2013 song of the same name.

Trap music in Puerto Rico isn’t new, but the novelty comes from the consistent sound, flow, and output of tracks coming from artists like Anuel AA – complete with a mass digital following and an IDGAF attitude when it comes to lyrical content. Anuel’s music isn’t radio-friendly. He never meant it to be. It’s on a different mission, especially in a place that was once dubbed “reggaeton island” by Álvaro Díaz.

Puerto Rican critics (well, pretty much anyone who has access to the internet) have been vocal about their disdain for the genre, and specifically Anuel. Infórmate published a scathing open letter denouncing the rapper. The author argues that Anuel should go back to kindergarten to learn how to speak Spanish properly; he even perceives him as “a cancer” on música urbana.

Even in English, trap music faces criticism. Snoop Dogg poked fun at Future and Migos for what he sees as their cookie cutter flow and supposed unintelligibility in his web show. What Snoop didn’t poke fun at was the genre’s lyrical content, since his music encompasses many of the same themes. In the popular imagination, vulgarity is nearly synonymous with American hip-hop culture. Listeners become desensitized to the music’s violent and often misogynistic realism – or in most cases, fantasy. On the other hand, many hip-hop artists in Puerto Rico are aware of the island’s old school conservatism and commitment to traditional values, particularly surrounding sex and drugs. After all, Puerto Rico is an island with a long history of Catholicism. Still, artists like Anuel AA and Bryant Myers continue rapping about sex, violence, and drugs without caring much about pleasing the mainstream. Check this video of a mom freaking out over Anuel’s lyrics for proof.

Along with critics, there are defenders of Anuel and his movement. El Polakan, one-half of the OG hip-hop duo Lito & Polaco, endorsed Anuel AA and thanked him for breaking up the monotony of the genre with something new and fresh. He goes on to show support for Anuel’s lyrics and flow, urging other Boricuas to be open-minded, stay up to date with the music style, and advocate for their own. “It’s the best thing that could happen to Boricua rap,” said El Polakan in a video on Facebook. Similarly, in an article posted on urban music site Rapetón, the author writes, “Anuel’s name is synonymous with virality. [Even] if they say good things, [even] if they say bad things – they’re still talking about him.”

“When Daddy Yankee retires, the one who will sit on the throne is me.”

According to his songs and posts, Anuel lives by one motto (or one hashtag, if you will): “Real hasta la muerte.” He refuses to steer away from explicit content to make anyone feel comfortable. He’s going to remain true to himself. “We’re either with God or with the Devil, and I don’t make Christian music,” he told El Lenguero TV.

“I’m the only one making money without having songs on the radio,” he told El Lenguero TV confidently. And even though he isn’t one hundred percent mainstream or even one hundred percent loved in Puerto Rico, he assures the host, “When Daddy Yankee retires, the one who will sit on the throne is me.”