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Poet in Exile: A Conversation with Sebastián ( )tero

BrownxRISD

Poet in Exile: A Conversation with Sebastián ( )tero

Francis Torres

Interview by Francis Torres

There’s a saying amongst Puerto Ricans: “Boricua aunque naciera en la luna.It roughly translates to 'I would be Puerto Rican even if I was born on the moon.’ This appeal to national pride takes on new meaning at a time when a majority of Puerto Ricans doesn’t live on the island, and islanders migrate to the United States in greater droves every year. Puerto Rican-ness is increasingly fluid, contested, and constantly reimagined. It’s by experiencing exile that many of us who study in the mainland gain a greater appreciation our complex culture. Others, like Sebastián ( )tero, arrive at el Norte with the intention of making everybody else pay attention to the Puerto Rican in the room.

Dubbed “Brown’s premier Spanish-speaking rapper” during his freshman year, Sebastián – now a sophomore – would be boricua even if he had been born in another galaxy. He brings a unique sound to the College Hill scene, sourcing from Puerto Rico’s rich musical tradition as well from the hip-hop street poetics that inspire so many of our MCs. Most impressively, Sebastián is using his stage at Brown as an unorthodox entry point into the world of Latin American political rap.  

You can listen to Sebastián on his SoundCloud, like his artist profile on Facebook, and see him gracing the stage at B-SIDE’s launch party last semester here.

***

Who is Sebastián ( )tero?

First of all Sebastián ( )tero was a classical musician, until he was around 14, and then he stared playing jazz and jamming to a lot of songs and stuff. He’s a dude that has a lot of different influences and tries to merge the violin, singing, rap and some Latin American rhythms. I just try to make some new concepts. I identify first as a musician and then as a rapper, cause I’ve been playing music for most of my life and rapping only for the last few years.  So, Sebastián ( )tero is not just a rapper, but a musician who incorporates rap into his musical concepts.

How did you first get into music?

My dad has played guitar since he was 14. He would play it around me ever since I was a little baby. When I was 3 I participated in a Kindermusik program for little kids in the Conservatory of Puerto Rico and the teachers there would show us different musical instruments. I would always choose the violin. I would just go and start exploring the violin. The teachers told my parents that I had very fine motor skills and that the violin could be a good option for me. After that, they enrolled me in the Conservatory’s prep school. So that’s how I started playing music.
I just found the violin attractive. I don’t know why.

It sounds like the scene in Harry Potter when they students get their wands.

Yeah! You’re right. That’s how it started for me, with the Suzuki Method.

How did your father influence you musically?

He plays every day for like an hour. He hasn’t had a formal musical education. He tried in college but the theory courses were very difficult for him so he quit. But he has a schedule of playing every day. I would see him whistling and casually composing very beautiful melodies and stuff. It’s been a great influence.
Most of my years as a performer I’ve performed with him. It’s great to be able to perform with your father. Just to have him around for any type of occasion in which we can play. I really value the nights we would jam and compose music. For sure they’ve inspired and influenced me.

You recently had a rap show back home, your first as Sebastián ( )tero the rapper. Before that, what were the performing experiences that most affected you?

The most impacting one was a fundraising concert for the Haiti earthquake relief effort in 2008. I was 12 and I was like the special guest of the concert. There I was, 12 years old, performing at the Pedrin Zorilla [A coliseum in San Juan, Puerto Rico] and it was packed. 3,000 people, probably.

Were you playing as a violinist?

I was playing as a violinist and singing too.
The last song that I performed was ‘Preciosa.’ I played violin for the first half and then sang the second part, the one that Marc Anthony sings.
That show was the most impacting in terms of the size of the audience. I also have a strong social commitment though. I like to play in orphanages and hospitals and stuff. That’s been very meaningful too.

It’s clear from your songs that you keep the music of Puerto Rico close to you in your creative process. What are your biggest influences from back home?

Well, in terms of rapper influences, Vico C and Tego Calderon.

Tego Calderon had a massive concert during the summer. Did you go?  

Yeah.  It was dope! I had never seen him live. When I saw Eddie Dee, Tego Calderon and Vico C rapping together I actually started crying. It was an amazing show. I was so happy that hip-hop culture could go and perform in the Choliseo [the largest coliseum in Puerto Rico.] He [Tego] was very underground and he made a name for himself. He revolutionized hip-hop in Puerto Rico and Latin America. Tego was the first one to rap in that very laid-back style. It’s similar to what Biggie did in the States. Beyond that, other influences are Cultura Profética and Tito Rodriguez.

In your lyrics you often refer to yourself as a poet and not just a rapper. Do you have any poets you look to for inspiration?

Nach, a Spanish rapper. I think of him as a poet who raps. I’m very influenced by his images and stuff. Miguel Hernandez. The images he creates are so beautiful. I try to emulate his style. Pablo Neruda as well. Jose Maria Heredia. Julia de Burgos.
There’s also Pales Matos. He’s not really an influence but I enjoy reading him.
He’s probably there in my writing somewhere but I’m not conscious of it.

Screenshot of ( )tero performing at B-SIDE's launch party Spring 2015

Screenshot of ( )tero performing at B-SIDE's launch party Spring 2015

There is an image you’ve cultivated for yourself as “el poeta exiliado,” or “the exiled poet.” It shows you as split between two places, but still working to maintain your Puerto Rican-ness in this new space. How do you bridge the gap between the island and Providence?

Music-wise it’s hard, you know. Because shows are really good exposure. In Puerto Rico there are constant shows in the hip-hop scene. Being only listened to through the Internet is kind of a bummer and it’s hard to expand my audience. But at the same time I know people are gonna listen to me, so I just keep doing it no matter how many people know about it now. And here in Providence, I haven’t yet connected with someone from the town who raps in Spanish, but I’m sure there are people who do. There has to be a small community of Spanish-speaking rappers.
But here at Brown I feel isolated. Even though I’m immersed and inserted in the hip-hop scene here, I feel…not excluded, but kind of distanced by the language barrier.

What does it mean for you to rap in Spanish?

I love Spanish. I love my language. I praise the Spanish language. I don’t think I have to change my music concept because of where I am. I strongly identify as a Puerto Rican, from the island, who speaks Spanish. So I just wanna do that, you know, I just want to express myself in my mother tongue. It’s not that I don’t want to adapt myself to where I am but I prefer to keep coming with what I am. So it’s a language choice but also a political choice. It’s definitely a political choice. I want people to say “here we have a Puerto Rican’, you know? That said, I’d like to start mixing English and Spanish in my writing a bit. I want more of the people here to get what I’m trying to say.

You participated in a summer program at the Berklee School of Music in 2011. How did spending time in Berklee shape your style?

I had never been more immersed in music life before that experience. I ate breakfast with music, music was my lunch and dinner. Everything was music. I realize that I really wanted to do music and that it was my greatest passion. I had never taken a group ensemble course or theory course before then, just one-on-one classes. It was a turning point in my musical career, acknowledging that music would be a very important part of my life.

( )tero performing during Brown U's Commencement Spring 2015, courtesy of Brown University

( )tero performing during Brown U's Commencement Spring 2015, courtesy of Brown University

Were you already rapping?

No, I was just a violin player. I was 15 when I went there. It was summer between freshman and sophomore year of high school.

Your violin has a lot of signatures. Whose names are there?

Either I performed with them, or for them, or I just ran into them and they singed my violin. I have autographs from the five members of Cultura Profetica. I got them after playing with the band at San Ignacio [High School] for a fundraising concert. I actually performed ‘Preciosa’ with them. I have MIMA’s autograph, who I met in a Christmas party and we just jammed together. I have [Robbi] Draco’s signature. I have Christian Nieves, he’s a famous cuatro player back home. I played with him in San Ignacio too. I have Stephen Marley’s signature. He was releasing his album when I was at Berklee and he was doing a signing at Best Buy. So I just brought my violin and he made me play for him before he would sign it. So that was dope. Also Gema y Pavel, who are a great Cuban duo. Charlie Sepulveda, a Puerto Rican jazz trumpet player. Rita Indiana, a Dominican musician and writer…
Yeah, that’s about it, but I really wanna keep going with it.

Its interesting cause I don’t think I’ve ever seen a classical instrument all written up like that.

Yeah! It's like, mutilated!

You recently put out a music video. What’s the concept behind the song and video?

The song is about this girl who is leaving, though we don’t know where she’s leaving from. The song is narrating the story of her leaving. I’m describing how she packs and stuff. Throughout the whole song, the listener will think I’m the poetic voice, but at the end when I sing "I hope she doesn’t find another girl like me over there" they understand that the poetic voice is another girl. So obviously it’s a lesbian relationship. I’m bringing out that theme, but I’m also critiquing the Puerto Rican exile, the contemporary Puerto Rican exodus that affects some many on the island. I tie both issues together.

And the video?

The video tries to create the images of the day when Laura is leaving. It was a great experience to work with an amazing photographer, an amazing actress, all for the love of art. And just enjoy those days. It was the first time I directed and edited a short film. That was a great too. While I was directing it I was learning how to direct. It was a very satisfactory experience. And it got a really good feedback. The first three days people were commenting on the video. People that I don’t know, that I have no idea who they are, sharing my video. That was also a new experience. I could see that my music had reached people that I have no relationship with.

Whats next for you?

I wanna put out an album, man. I really wanna do my first full piece of music. Like a coherent project. I want to collaborate with people from Brown, DAP for example. I really want to do a project with him.

What’s the project that you’re thinking of working on with DAP?

I’m thinking of doing like a three-track EP, just us two. Mixing Nigerian influence with Latin American influence, with both of us singing and rapping. Its gonna be very unique, I think. That’s the idea. Do like three tracks together, you know, before he leaves.

What else?

I also want to work on my visuals. I want to create an aesthetic of what Sebastián ( )tero looks like. For the spring semester I’ll also probably do another music video.

With people from back home?

No, with people from here. Just a track off the upcoming album.

When can we expect your album?

I’m gonna work on it over the course of the year and maybe have it out by May or April 2016. Probably late April.

What are you listening to right now?

Umm…Nujabes, who is a Japanese producer. I was listening to Velcro’s new album, called El Nocaut, which is dope. I’ve been listening to a lot to Django Reinhardt and I’ve also been listening to Fela Kuti. He’s a genius. I’ve been listening to Ibeyi as well. Also, preparing myself for Ana Tijoux. Im gonna go see her in New York on October 11. Trying to memorize her lyrics and stuff, so I can sing along. I mean rap along.

Gracias Seba. It was a great chat.

¡Gracias a ti!