Photo: Eric Rojas

Puerto Rico’s iLe Transforms From Rappers’ Kid Sister to Bolero Warrior

Formerly the sole female vocalist in rap group Calle 13, iLe has turned into a Latin alternative firebrand, pushing her art and her politics in exciting ways.

Sony US Latin
29 September 2022

Most teenage girls would be happy to have their older brothers take them along to see a concert, but the brothers of Ileana Cobra Joglar took her along to perform at a concert.

In 2004, her half-brothers Rene “Residente” Perez Joglar and Eduardo “Visitante” Cabra Martínez formed the Puerto Rican alternative rap group Calle 13. They had begun performing as a fun side gig, but as they became popular, they pulled in their little sister, who was dubbed “PG-13” by a cousin because she was underage for the clubs where they were performing.

After ten years with Calle 13, PG-13 become “iLe” and now has released her third solo album and is embarking on a world tour.

“I try not to be so in my head about [touring] because that’s what I love,” she said. “When you feel the warmth of the people, of the audience, that energy, that connection—it’s something special and unique. With my first album, I used to be more stressed out about it, and I think that affected me, also in my voice … but now I feel a little lighter. I’m just learning to enjoy every process a little more. So I’m very excited to start this tour finally.”

Her latest album, Nacarile, pulls in several genres and guest vocalists, including Mexico’s Natalia Lafourcade and swooning three-part harmony with Flor de Toloache. While the music is often lovely, the lyrics take a steely look at abuses of power, whether political or personal. In a line from “Algo Bonito (Something Pretty)” that could be the theme for the album, iLe sings of a “scream that becomes a song”.

In the song, iLe—who lent her voice to protests in 2021 that led to the resignation of Puerto Rico’s governor—sings: “Everybody who attacks me I devour / Like a lioness hunting / I’m fed up / If I protest, they call me subversive / And I know that my anger makes you uncomfortable / Because I know that you prefer me compassionate.”

The song undermines the flirty connotation of “Tell me something pretty” when iLe and reggaeton’s Ivy Queen look at male domination, whether it is in a romantic relationship or a battlefield. Ivy Queen takes the mic with: “I have never thought that I look prettier quiet / When I spit, it’s like fire and acid / It shows that your verbosity is as flaccid as you are.”

In the sweet-sounding “Traguito”, a duet with singer Mon Laferte, iLe flips the script on the usually romantic bolero style, singing: “He says I’m not easy / And it would be so boring / It is not that I was difficult/It is that I was like I wanted to be.”

“I feel that sometimes I just need to express what things bother me that are part of the reality of the toxic society that we live in,” iLe said. “I feel that working them through songs helped me a lot emotionally and psychologically, but also it’s my way of just sharing how I feel about it. If we keep expanding the conversation more, maybe we can find ways of understanding things a little better. At least, that’s how I see it. But if we don’t talk about it, or if we keep ignoring important things that are unfair in our society, I think that it gets accumulated, and it’s going to explode somehow.”

“I think we get very attached to patterns that become toxic in relationships,” iLe continued. “Just because we are used to seeing other family members, like our parents or grandparents, go through something, it doesn’t mean that we have to repeat that pattern. Music and art are what help me to heal many things that we go through as human beings. We don’t know that they’re there until something or someone exposes them to us. And then we say, ‘oh, yeah,’ and we start questioning ourselves. For me, that’s at least a first step.”

Talking similarly about the personal and the political as she does on the album, iLe recalled the effects of her participation in the 2019 street demonstrations after the devastation of Hurricane Maria that resulted in the resignation of Puerto Rico’s governor.

“It was incredible to feel that connection, where there weren’t any political parties involved,” she recalls. “It was just us, you know, and that felt very powerful, and it was a historic moment for us. It was amazing to see how much power we have as a country. But I feel that we still need to trust each other more and have more confidence when it’s our chance to vote. Because sometimes we get afraid of change, and we keep relying on the same [even though] it’s clearly not working for us. Obviously, that’s part of being a colony. It’s hard to get out of a pattern of abuse and humiliation, and I can understand maybe where it comes from. But still, I feel we need to break with that pattern. If not, we will be even more stuck than we are now. So I still feel hopeful, and it has a lot to do with the summer of 2019.”

While making Nacarile, iLe said she faced unfamiliar challenges because of the stress of going through the pandemic and the volatile political time. “I’m used to having more structure. With this album, I couldn’t be in my comfort zone as much as sometimes I’m used to. I also learned that it’s okay sometimes to feel that way. You know, I have to find a way to transcend it. That’s the hard part. I wasn’t going to get anywhere if I kept ignoring it. I felt that I needed to express myself because I was feeling many different things at the same time. Too many things were happening simultaneously, so I just had to make all that a part of what I was working on.”

“The only thing that kept me going a little were the songs,” iLe said. “It helped me try to understand a little and not be so hard on myself in how uncomfortable I was feeling, but acknowledge it and accept it. When I just let myself flow with whatever I was feeling, everything started to grow a little better, but I didn’t know until the very end that the songs would make sense.”

iLe’s initial musical education and journey began growing up on the now-famous Calle 13, ten years younger than her half-siblings, taking her piano lessons seriously and singing just for fun.

“I was kind of unexpected in my family—I was like a surprise,” she said. “They always joke that I kind of obligated them to see my princess Disney movies when I was a kid. And they always mess around how in control I was of all of them.”

Residente and Visitante had other careers in mind when Calle 13 began to take off, but eventually earned more Latin Grammys than any other performer. Even when she sang La Lupe’s “Puro Teatro” in front of tens of thousands for Calle 13’s first big stadium show, iLe said she was comfortable on stage.

“It was weird because I feel in a way it was a little like what we were used to doing in our home,” she notes. “Because we always messed around doing small talent shows in our house. They were very informal. We are a big family, so we were used to playing around and doing musical things—it wasn’t anything too serious. So when the group happened, it was a big surprise for us. But I mean, it was just so fun. Obviously, I was with my brothers. I wasn’t with this group of people that I know a little. I mean, this was my family. It felt natural.”

“But then, as the group kept growing,” she continued. “I did take more individual singing classes. I felt I needed to prepare myself more, but onstage everything felt so free, so fun, and so energetic. It was beautiful to have that experience with my family.”

While Calle 13 (the name of the street where they moved to after iLe was born) was known as a politically charged alternative rap group, iLe’s first album, iLevitable, took many by surprise because it was a collection of primarily original songs done in retro styles without any snark or irony. From the first song, “Quién Eres Tú”, listeners are transported to the lush, ballroom orchestra sounds of the golden era of mambo and salsa romantica. Critically acclaimed, her debut earned her a Latin Grammy and a Grammy.

“I started to get deeper into boleros and salsa, and I always loved it,” she recalled of her teenage years. “I felt like a big connection, a very passionate connection with it. I liked rap as well, and I was enjoying Calle 13, but I always knew that I was going to explore something different, so I think maybe most of the fans didn’t know that part of me. So it made sense for some, but maybe for the majority, it was a big surprise. I like when it’s unexpected for people, and it’s like a surprise, and then I like the discussion about it.”

The title of her latest album is from the Puerto Rican slang term “Nacarile del Oriente”, meaning roughly “no way in hell.” The title started as a joke because it had the three letters of her name in it, but she said it became more meaningful as the album coalesced.

“I feel that every song connects with the expression of Nacarile,” she said. “That is a very determined ‘no,’ a very sure and, for me, motivating ‘no.’ But also, it sounds like a pretty word that you maybe won’t associate with something negative. I don’t see that word as negative. For me, it has a lot of attitude and determination. It connected with what each song is about, but also with the process of making the whole album that I wasn’t very uncomfortable with and was difficult. Nacarile is that expression of motivation, of not getting stuck, but rather transcending and, and to keep going.”