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For Puerto Rico's Villano Antillano, femininity is a shield — and a superpower

Villano Antillano grew up surrounded by salsa, rock and reggaeton in Puerto Rico. With those influences under her belt, she's become one of the most exciting rappers in the Latin music scene.
Courtesy of La Buena Fortuna
Villano Antillano grew up surrounded by salsa, rock and reggaeton in Puerto Rico. With those influences under her belt, she's become one of the most exciting rappers in the Latin music scene.

Villano Antillano opens her debut LP, La Sustancia X, by casting a spell. "Prende las velas, repite el mantra," she sings — "Light the candles, repeat the mantra."

But this isn't the start of a soft, tranquil meditation. It's the beginning of a party fueled by sex, drugs, love and swagger. Instantly, the 27-year-old Puerto Rican artist — also known as Villana — launches into one of her deepest powers: her exquisite wordplay, which warps English and Spanish in distinctly Caribbean ways. She's confident and venomous, claiming her place in the music industry while also making it clear she's out of your league. "I'm not an artist," she brags toward the end of the first track. "I'm a movement."

Across La Sustancia X's 11 songs Antillano raps over trap, reggaeton, rock and dance beats, seamlessly incorporating a swath of genres into an aural playground that shows off her range while maintaining a cohesive vision: pleasure, perreo and booming percussion. On the album cover, outfitted in neon green and black, she stares unflinchingly forward as one hand clasps over a closed fist. The imagery draws a resemblance to Shego from the animated Disney Channel series Kim Possible; the kind of femme fatale, cool girl villain of the story you can't help but root for.

"It's me giving people access to their own superpower in a sonic format," she explains of the mysterious substance at the heart of the album's title. "I'm hoping that when you hear it, you feel so empowered and so in tune with this raw, creative energy of being able to do anything."

Antillano spent nearly three years working on La Sustancia X, which dropped in December, but she managed to stay in the spotlight while taking her time crafting her magnum opus. She first ascended in the underground rap scene in Puerto Rico, and after releasing the EP Tirania in 2019, she began recording a slew of collaborations with other up-and-coming queer and women artists like Young Miko, paopao and RaiNao. Last summer, she teamed up with rising Argentinian producer Bizarrap for his "BZRP Music Sessions #51," a performance which has racked up over 184 million views on YouTube. Bad Bunny invited her on stage during one of his San Juan shows for the Un Verano Sin Ti tour.

Now, her first full-length record — and the innately magical, spiritual energy at its core — allows her to make a statement fully on her own. As a trans woman, Antillano says much of the album is a testament to the way she's been able to interact with her femininity through her creative process.

"A lot of me as a musician developed when I started HRT [hormone replacement therapy] and when I started to have this closeness to a higher consciousness — taking my body in a direction that is, to me, the ultimate alchemy," she says. "I feel like I really became a better musician once I took steps that closened me to my womanhood and my femininity. Everything just kind of clicked. ... I just felt more in tune with something."

One of the standout tracks on the album, "Mujer," relishes in that connection. Featuring the politically oriented Puerto Rican composer and singer iLe, the song blossomed from a psychedelic trip during which Antillano relied on her notes app to jot down the chorus.

"I was on shrooms and I was losing it at the beach," she says. "I kind of just kept repeating this little mantra. And I wrote it down because I was like, 'Well, I'm going to disintegrate after this, so I don't want to forget this.' I went back, and I built a song around it."

What resulted was a feminist rallying cry, centering women as both powerful and threatening. It's a declaration against interpersonal and systemic violence, making it clear that care and compassion can and will be turned into dominance and aggression if necessary.

"It's very raw and direct. I like it because I also enjoy working from anger, especially in social things that affect us very deeply," says iLe. "You don't want to be angry every day, but you feel that weight on you. So every time I get a chance to work on a song that speaks about these things, it's healing for me at the same time."

The end of "Mujer" draws the transphobic and misogynist femicides plaguing Puerto Rico and much of Latin America into clear focus. In 2020, the Human Rights Campaign reported that Puerto Rico had the highest number of trans deaths of any U.S. state or territory. "Mujer" concludes with an audio clip from a rally where the names of victims killed in recent years are listed off.

"These names feel like names until they're just not. They're someone who you actually knew," says Antillano. "One of my friends was very close with a victim that's in the voice memo. Her name is said. That touched me particularly because it's not just me seeing it as horrible news, it's me having to accompany a person who is going through deep grief as a result of that. It interconnects us all."

Throughout much of the album, Antillano is hardened to the world around her, ready to pick her fights and see them through. She says a big part of that is having to navigate the world as a woman and as a queer person — you get used to being defensive, to constantly looking out for yourself in the face of danger and hostility.

Antillano knows she's breaking new ground as one of the most prominent Latin trans artists making music right now, and especially in a genre and region plagued with homophobia. When she and the Dominican rapper Tokischa shared a kiss onstage in San Juan last summer, the erupting backlash from other artists and the general public was so vicious it included death threats. So it's easy to imagine that representing an entire community — making a social statement with her platform and her artistry — could weigh on her; she might just want to have fun and make music that feels good to her.

But she says if people insist on calling her "the first" — whatever that means — then she's going to see it as liberating above everything else. "If nobody has done what I'm doing, then that means there are no expectations and there is no rulebook. I'm just making it [up] as I go along," she says. "You can't tell me how to bring queerness to the table because it's all I know. So I'm going to do what I'm going to do, and I'm going to do it very excellently."

And she does exactly that on the album's conclusion, "Poli," a tender ode to polyamory and to growing up in a relationship. It's a more vulnerable side of the artist than she's shown before, which adds dimension to the bravado of La Sustancia X. Over a more pop-oriented backdrop, she tells a lover she cares about them so much, she would never try to deprive them of the beauty of connecting with another person.

"Don't you just love being wooed and being pursued? It's a pleasure," she says. "I wouldn't want to take that away from anybody. I'm not going to run out of love. My happiness is my responsibility, and your happiness is your responsibility."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Isabella Gomez Sarmiento is a production assistant with Weekend Edition.