Since the 1990s, when it emerged as an “underground” musical form, rappers used their lyrics to denounce social inequality, racism, police violence, marginalization and the hypocrisy of the Puerto Rican elite. Underground rap often took aim at the abuses and corruption of the government and exposed the harsh realities of vulnerable young people, especially those living in public housing. For instance, songs like Eddie Dee’s “Señor oficial” (Mr. Police Officer), Ivy Queen’s “Somos raperos pero no delincuentes” (We are rappers but not criminals) and Daddy Yankee’s “Abuso oficial” (Police abuse) criticized associations between underground music and criminality, as well as the stigmatization of poor Afro-Puerto Ricans. Unsurprisingly, this, along with sexually suggestive lyrics, made underground music a target of police and government officials.
Indeed, it is deeply ironic that Ricardo Rosselló could not withstand the power of the people’s perreo intenso, given that his father, former governor Pedro Rosselló, played a major role in criminalizing underground rap as part of his anti-crime initiative, mano dura contra el crimen (iron fist against crime). From 1993-2000, as part of that initiative, Rosselló deployed the Puerto Rican police department and National Guard to raid and occupy public housing and other marginalized communities as part of the fight against drugs and violence.
Through both rhetoric and practice associated with mano dura, people living in economically and racially marginalized communities were conceived as dangerous and in need of state intervention. Poor dark-skinned young men who dressed with an urban diasporic aesthetic were presumed to be violent criminals or drug dealers and encountered constant police surveillance and harassment. As a musical and cultural expression born from the experiences of low-income communities, which were framed as criminal by Pedro Rosselló’s administration, underground rap came to be regarded as one more node in a vast criminal enterprise threatening the “decent and hard-working” people of Puerto Rico.