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Puerto Rican star iLe confronts rape culture with defiant new song

Puerto Rican singer iLe said news of the sexual assault and murder of a Puerto Rican woman inspired her to pen the vulnerable "Temes," which unravels the emotional aftermath of a rape
Puerto Rican singer iLe said news of the sexual assault and murder of a Puerto Rican woman inspired her to pen the vulnerable "Temes," which unravels the emotional aftermath of a rape AFP
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New York (AFP)

A rising Puerto Rican star who struck a chord with a song lambasting US oppression of her homeland is back with a provocative track tackling rape culture and society's machismo.

The singer iLe (pronounced EEE-Lay) -- whose career kicked off as a singer for her brothers' renowned reggaeton rap band Calle 13 -- imbues the traditional Latin bolero style that's often reserved for romance yet with dark, poignant lyrics, calling attention to sensitive issues she says society prefers to ignore.

Speaking in New York ahead of her performance at the festival "Migrations: The Making of America" -- put on by the acclaimed Carnegie Hall -- the edgy balladeer said news of the sexual assault and murder of a Puerto Rican woman inspired her to pen the vulnerable "Temes," which unravels the emotional aftermath of a rape.

It's "a song trying to portray so many things that we go through as women that are very unfortunate," iLe, real name Ileana Cabra, told AFP of the song, whose title translates in English to "You're Afraid."

"It's a struggle that I can't believe that we're still going through -- but it's important to talk about," she said.

"My best way of speaking about it is through music."

The 29-year-old singer who began performing with her superstar brothers as a teenager has since stepped into her own, winning a Grammy for her debut solo album "Ilevitable" that saw her riff on Latin standards.

Now she's repurposing her old-school sultry voice to take on contemporary affairs, first with 2018's "Odio" ("Hate"), which unpacks the colonial relationship between the US and Puerto Rico, and now with the striking "Temes."

The disturbing-yet-dreamlike video for the song opens with the shoes of a man leaving a room as a woman, played by iLe, slowly composes herself, pulling up her underwear and removing ropes from her neck and wrists to reveal raw wounds.

- 'A little change' -

As of 2012 Puerto Rico -- a Caribbean island US territory -- had the highest per capita rate in the world of women over 14 killed by intimate partners, according to an American Civil Liberties Union study, with 107 women murdered from 2007 to 2011.

And in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria -- which in 2017 ripped through the island home to approximately three million people -- the problem has only worsened, advocates say, though a lack of telecommunications and bookkeeping infrastructure has made quantifying the problem difficult.

"I always think that these type of situations, like rape and killings -- it's something that could happen to me as well," iLe said of her inspiration for "Temes."

"If you pull out all the air I breathe/And my voice is leaving you without sound/If you believe that I can't survive without you/Why do you fear me?" she sings in her native Spanish.

By the end of the video the woman stands back up, adjusts her sea green dress and boldly leaves the warehouse-esque scene of the crime.

"The song is pretty defiant. It's a song that defies patriarchy," said iLe, whose second album is set for release later this spring.

The idea, she said, is pushing people to stop viewing rampant machismo as a normalized fact of life, an effort she says the #MeToo movement has lent steam to.

"I'm a little hopeful with younger generations," she said. "Things are always slow. Things that we have now, it took time. We still haven't made that much progress."

"But at least we feel a little change."

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