This is one of my many attempts at taking self-portraits with my computer. San José, Costa Rica. November 2023.
Part V: A 2023 Bien Cabrón in Pursuit of Bad Bunny’s Story
I’m Elizabeth Lang, an award-winning Costa Rican multimedia journalist specializing in arts and culture. In this personal essay, I share my process for the biggest story of my career: how Bad Bunny created his own Puerto Rican cultural empire. It’s been a very intense and overwhelming journey with a gratifying result. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did during the process.
There is so much that I want to say that I don’t even know where to start. If you’re reading this, it means that the story is now published. It’s real. It’s out in the world. It’s not an idea in my mind anymore. It exists in the physical and online realms. Thank you for taking the time to read Bad Bunny’s story and my personal essay for the process.
Things are about to get personal and weird.
To understand where I come from, we must return to December 2020. I obtained my master’s degree in Journalism, specializing in Arts and Culture. I had just completed one of my greatest and proudest achievements. I graduated from the School of Journalism and Mass Communication from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
It was a world full of possibilities during a very complex time because of the COVID-19 pandemic. But it was still a world of possibilities. At the time, I did not see the horrible job-hunting journey coming. Times of frustration were in plain sight. It began a long journey of job applications with an even longer period of constant rejection.
Rejection became the norm for the following three years. Not landing a stable job was the norm. The instability resulted from things I can not control: being Costa Rican, Central American, and Latin American. I needed visa sponsorship because I’m Latina, and that’s the only way I could land a job in the United States.
That rejection turned into frustration, and I started doubting myself. I began thinking there was something wrong with me. Thoughts that I was not made for journalism and got into the wrong career path crept into my mind. I didn’t even understand why I had gone to grad school. The rejections made little sense, especially when accompanied by my experience. I felt like a failure.
It was a draining experience, and at times, I did not know when I’d see the light and when (or if) the issue would get solved. But at that moment, there was something I didn’t think about. The constant rejection was a blessing in disguise and a source of resilience. I can’t thank the people who rejected me enough for so long because it made the path clear for me to get to ArtRKL.
Getting to ArtRKL
In April of this year, 2023, I stumbled upon an arts and culture journalist position for ArtRKL on LinkedIn. Arts and culture are my jam, my beat, so I applied without knowing exactly what I was getting into.
Now, to know me is to know I act on impulse. Whenever I act on impulse, things (usually) turn out great. So when I got called for an interview in May, I engaged my natural strength and impulsively pitched my long-term idea to tell Bad Bunny's story.
During the interview, the ArtRKL interviewers were amazed by the story, but I was amazed that someone finally said yes.
For some strange reason that may or may not include the conditions above, it took me a year and a half to get that story approved. I did not understand why my pitch faced constant rejection if it was a social and academic research profile into the world’s number one artist. But, then again, remember he’s also Latin American, and probably the people I was initially pitching don’t understand reggaeton, Bad Bunny, or what being Latin American truly entails. It’s the same reason why I was rejected for jobs in the U.S.
Anyways, I got the job at ArtRKL, and the story idea was approved. It was the first time I had a stable job in a while. It was also the first time in a long time that being Latina was embraced as a source of strength and power rather than viewed as a limitation or weakness. Knowing that importance created a personal and professional self-imposed responsibility in me.
Since I’ve experienced first-hand how difficult it is to make it as a Latin American in the media industry –one where we're underrepresented and misrepresented– I felt dutiful to create a space to honor Latin American artists. I wanted to support my fellow Latin American artists as much as I could. I wanted to support the people doing an incredible job with their beautiful art. I simply wanted to contribute positively with a narrative that doesn’t negatively stereotype Latin Americans and centers on empowering and elevating them as amazing people.
That philosophy was never seen as an issue at ArtRKL. It’s actually been quite accepted and encouraged as a source of strength and empowerment.
Pursuing Bad Bunny’s Interview: a Success or a Failed Attempt?
Since day one, the team has supported my ambitious multimedia story about Bad Bunny, a story with a wild angle based on my existential and literal pursuits, and inquiries to learn how he created his own Puerto Rican cultural empire. How he disrupted the U.S.’s cultural economy through his music and art in Spanish that comes from the streets of Latin America.
The amount of folders, documents, photos, and videos I gathered for this story is impressive.
Despite the challenge, I was determined to explore a new aspect of his well-known story. International media have extensively covered his narrative, so my aim was to contribute something fresh and unique.
He’s the number one musical artist, so it is clear that he is a high-demand cultural figure sought out by many journalists, and here I was, coming from a small digital magazine. I needed to set myself apart with my stories. I needed to come up with a way in which I could, hopefully, get an interview with him. Somehow, my fantastical ideation birthed an accidental, yet successful, strategy.
In my mind, it made sense to interview artists who were somehow related to reggaeton or close to him. It made sense because he’s obviously an incredibly difficult artist to reach, and during that process, I started questioning myself. Who do I think I am to tell this story? At this point, I still don’t know. I just had an idea bigger than myself that the world needed to hear.
Going Down a Rabbit Hole of Reggaeton
That’s how I landed in a rabbit hole of reggaeton. It all started when I interviewed Humberto Cruz. At the time, I was just interested in understanding his beautiful and colorful art that speaks about mental health and how he landed a collaboration with Karol G for the cover of her album “Mañana Será Bonito.”
It all started there. And then, I just kept going. I became a reggaeton explorer. Tainy had just released his album “DATA,” and I was curious to understand why he created a multimedia masterpiece. So, I researched and found Elliott Muscat was the creative director behind the multimedia art. I contacted him to write a story about how Tainy’s “DATA” album is an iconic multimedia masterpiece.
That was just the beginning of what was coming next. I was intrigued by reggaeton. It’s much more than just a music genre. The way it carries immense cultural, artistic, musical, social, economic, and political significance is noteworthy. I understood this through the simultaneous process of working on Bad Bunny’s story while writing profiles and feature stories on artists who are somehow related to reggaeton.
From July up until now, I’ve interviewed artists such as Gian Rivera, Kacho López Mari, Robinson Rivera, Elliott Powell, Josefina Santos, and Claudia Calderón. They’ve all done art that speaks directly or indirectly about reggaeton. It’s a roster of artists who are film directors, photographers, cinematographers, and colorists. I’ve written so much about reggaeton that the magazine even gave me my own reggaeton section, one of my greatest achievements this year.
While working on these features, I also produced Bad Bunny’s story. The story had a life of its own throughout the process. The initial interviewees were not the same ones by the end of the process. One of my initial interviewees even ghosted me. I wasted three hours with that person during their interview, and at the end of the interview, that person demanded that I pay them for their time. They implied I should compromise my ethics as a journalist, and I obviously didn’t give in to that.
Being ghosted by that person was a blessing because that led me to Jenny Morris, one of the greatest persons I’ve met this year. Jenny added so much to this story. I’m extremely grateful to Jenny for allowing me to tell her story through a compelling documentary.
The Interviewing Process
After I was ghosted and landed Jenny’s story, I had already interviewed my other sources: Felipe Buitrago, Ana Canepa, Petra Rivera-Rideau, and Vanessa Díaz. Their interviews were an essential part of the process of understanding Bad Bunny’s music and art.
Buitrago, Colombia’s former Minister of Culture, explained the concept of the Orange Economy and how Bad Bunny fits in that context. He spoke about how Bad Bunny created an artistic hub around himself and reggaeton, which landed very well with me. It was a great explanation for why I interviewed other artists related to reggaeton. To this day, I’m still impressed that a politician validated reggaeton and Bad Bunny for this story.
Canepa, the founder of Perreo Intelectual, guided my understanding of how Bad Bunny’s work classifies in contemporary music and art. She helped me understand how he creates what I like to call “urban and modern poetry.” Throughout the process, and after I interviewed her for another story about reggaeton, we discovered we have a mutual friend. One of her best friends was my classmate in elementary school here in Costa Rica. Canepa is from Monterrey, Mexico, meaning we live in a really small world.
Then, Rivera-Rideau, a professor at Wellesley College and co-founder of the Bad Bunny syllabus, helped me understand the relationship of reggaeton with Puerto Rico’s history in terms of race, colonialism, and politics. She gave a lot of valuable insight into the story. She also mentioned elements of reggaeton’s evolution, which led me to write a series about the shift in reggaeton’s visuals, which I’ll get to later.
Díaz, a professor at Loyola Marymount University and co-founder of the Bad Bunny syllabus, also helped me understand reggaeton’s relationship with politics, colonialism, and race in Puerto Rico. She added another important component to the story: grasping the role of gender and sexuality in Bad Bunny’s music and art. She helped me comprehend how Bad Bunny is a disruption in every sense of the word.
Lastly, Jenny Morris came through for our documentary “[SPEAKING NON-ENGLISH]” to share her experience as a Costa Rican self-taught artist and model. Her story is impactful and engaging, detailing her experiences as a Black transgender woman in Costa Rica. It focuses on her connection with reggaeton music and the works of artist Bad Bunny. I can’t thank her enough for letting me join her and her friends to document their lives.
I pounced at opportunities to interview some of the most incredible people for this story, and I’m extremely grateful for our connections. Without their insight, this story would not be the monstrous story that it is. Without them, I wouldn’t have produced the biggest and most international piece I've ever worked on.
My Failed Attempts In Getting Bad Bunny’s Interview
While conducting interviews, I also worked on my failed attempts to contact Bad Bunny. I did some intense networking on social media, and many amazing people answered me. They were extremely kind and provided access to a larger network. I also reached out to Pam Garcia-Rivera, my career advisor from UW-Madison. Pam, if you’re reading this, thank you so much for all the help since day one and for accompanying me on this wild adventure.
Pam Garcia-Rivera put me in touch with Jeremy Vuernick, the President of A&R for Capitol Music Group. He kindly reached out to Bad Bunny’s team for me without success. Thank you for that as well.
Everyone told me it was tough, impossible, to get Bad Bunny. Somehow, I fantasized about getting the interview because many artists were receptive and engaging. But everyone was right; I did not get the interview. Yet, in those attempts, I got even deeper into reggaeton.
I grew further invested in reggaeton when I re-read more than 150 pages of interview transcriptions I had devoted specifically to Bad Bunny’s story. While re-reading the material, I found various themes I wanted to explore for other stories.
First image: My chaos with all the notes I took from July to November. Photo taken in San José, Costa Rica in November 2023. Second image: A close-up of some of the notes throughout the process. Photo taken in San José, Costa Rica in November 2023.
That’s why I must tell you about the side processes of two of my greatest pieces for this year. Kacho López Mari’s three-part series allowed me to understand why Puerto Rico’s reggaeton has such a strong global impact. The two-part series about the shift in reggaeton’s visuals allowed me to interpret that this change is due to the visual artists’ upbringings, values, and personal experiences.
Landing an Iconic Interview with Kacho López Mari
Back in August, when I interviewed Kacho, I just remember sitting down in amazement, listening to his impressive journey over the course of our two-and-a-half-hour-long interview. He shared many stories about when he directed music videos for some of the most iconic Latin American musicians. I just kept staring and listening. I could not believe I had such a legend like him sharing his life experiences with me. The conversation was so intense and long that I then decided I needed to separate the story into three parts.
There was no way just one part would be enough. It was the perfect example of the stories that I love where art responds to a nation’s social, political, and economic systems. His beautiful art explores what it means for him to be an artist, his experience of being present in some of Latin American music’s most iconic moments, and why his film direction is a political statement that exposes serious social issues.
Then began a personal realization of why I’m telling these stories. Things that I had earlier questioned, like going to grad school, started to make sense. I went to one of the world’s best journalism schools to tell the stories of some of the world’s best artists. The different pieces of myself and my career were coming together. Everything lined up as it was meant to be.
Since everything made sense, I began to challenge myself by testing my journalism and writing abilities. I always enjoy a great challenge, and clearly, I love complicating my existence for no reason. Just because it’s fun and keeps life interesting, you know.
Playing With The Fire That Provoked an Existential Crisis
That being said, one day, I woke up with the need to play with fire and tell the story about the shift in reggaeton’s visuals. I wanted to explore that more personally since I noticed a trend in my interviewees’ answers. The trend was evident in Elliott Muscat and Gian Rivera’s responses. Both of them made it quite clear that they didn’t want to contribute to reggaeton’s traditional - and toxic - narrative that portrays women as sexual objects. They wanted to create contemporary art with meaningful narratives and aesthetic visuals.
Soon after, my pitch for the story was approved, and I contacted Elliot and Gian to propose a collaboration. Since I had already interviewed them before, I had a bit of an understanding of who they were.
They both said yes, but the tricky part lay ahead of me. I needed to ask very personal questions. What does it mean to be a man? What does a woman mean to them? What are their relationships like with the women in their lives? What role does sexuality play (or not) in their art? How do their upbringings and values influence their art? Why are they doing all of this?
All of these questions generated a sense of discomfort in me. It entailed navigating a new terrain I was not familiar with yet. It meant finding a way to ask these questions without making things uncomfortable. How do I do that? How do I create a safe space for both of them? How do I ask about their feelings if we barely know each other?
As you can imagine, I was nervous while conducting the interviews. I struggled to ask questions because they required uncomfortable and challenging conversations, but I made it through because they delivered big time. I am grateful for how they opened up to me.
Then, the writing process was no easy task at all. It just generated more questions. Why was I asking these questions to people I barely know? Why was I having these intense conversations with them if these are subjects that I don’t even talk about with the men present in my life? Why do people trust me so easily?
It’s been almost ten years since I started in journalism, and to this day, it still impresses me that strangers trust me so much. Over the years, I’ve been able to polish this unusual talent and ability I have. People share their pain and happiness, successes and failures with me. Everything. I find making deeper connections with others quite natural, and I take their stories as gifts that I am responsible for honoring with the rest of the world.
I guess it’s easier to talk to strangers. This particular story impacted me significantly because of how deep and personal it got. It’s one of my favorite stories ever, and thanks to Elliott and Gian, I found the fire I was searching for. It was also refreshing to meet normal, nice men who respect women.
You’d think the existential crisis this story entailed on a human level was one of the most difficult parts of the process. Well, no. There was something out of my control that I didn't see coming. When reaching the editing phase for both parts of the reggaeton visuals story, I noticed I had no editor.
Imagine that. Wild, right?
Well, yes. That also meant that I had no editor for the ending production phase of Bad Bunny’s story. How is it possible that I don’t have an editor for the biggest story of my career? Well, such is life in the tropics, as we say here in Costa Rica. It’s quite on brand with the story of my life. I always do everything upside down; somehow, things always turn out great and even better than expected. If it were easy, anyone would be able to do it.
Diving Into the Discomfort
This meant that all of the final decisions for Bad Bunny's story were left up to Rebecca and myself. From each word and comma to media material and layouts, it was me and Rebecca against the world. What a fantasy. It definitely gives the story a greater value, meaning, and purpose. We’re coming from a small magazine competing against monstrous international media outlets that don’t have our perspective and angle on Bad Bunny’s genius music and art.
Rebecca and I against the world. November 2023.
That all happened in October: the time to put together Bad Bunny’s story. I was in the phase of writing the four-part series, diving deep into difficult subjects. Making myself uncomfortable has always been the norm because if I’m not uncomfortable, I’m not doing the job right.
While editing Jenny’s documentary and absorbing her story, I realized I needed reggaeton beats for the film. I asked Costa Rican artist Nakury if she had a song we could use. She suggested the remix of her song “Mueve” featuring Peruvian singer Lorena Blume, and Argentinian singer Sol Pereyra, and produced by Costa Rican artist Barzo. The music was a great addition to the documentary because the song’s message went along perfectly with what Jenny expressed.
Once that was done, it was time to create the global interactive map portraying Bad Bunny’s Puerto Rican cultural empire. That one was easier. I gathered a list of photos, videos, and locations he’d been around the world or places he mentioned in his songs. It was a fun exercise and a different multimedia component I embedded in the story. The elements were complete.
Gratitude, Love, Fire, and Passion
Everything was lining up perfectly, and now I’m writing this story. I’m sharing with you how intense, overwhelming, and incredible these past few months have been. I’ve been living on a constant adrenaline high. I proved to myself I can do anything I set myself to. I can achieve huge accomplishments if I surround myself with the right people.
No one can stop me from finding the fire and passion in my stories. No one can tell me that dreams can’t come true, even when all odds are against you. I learned that I can achieve anything as long as I am stubborn enough to make it happen.
I feel compelled to share the whirlwind of emotions I've experienced during this journey, as I am immensely fortunate and overwhelmed with immense gratitude, joy, and love.
I want to thank my friends for being there for me through thick and thin. Los reales. You know who you are. I wouldn’t have achieved this without you, and I love you all. I want to thank all the artists I met this year. You’re among the most incredible and inspiring people. My stories are nothing without you.
I want to thank Rebecca and the ArtRKL team for opening a huge door. For believing in me and my work when no one wanted to bet on me. For giving me a platform for my wild and ambitious stories. I want to thank life for all the opportunities it has given me this past year. I want to thank my dog Olafo and his blessed butt that has done huge miracles.
My dog Olafo, his blessed butt that does miracles, and I. San José, Costa Rica. November 2023.
Lastly, reggaeton saved my career in a 2023 bien cabrón in pursuit of Bad Bunny’s story. I’m living the dream and rising from the ashes like a phoenix because yo hago lo que me da la gana. Here I am, trying to make sense of the world through storytelling. And it’s always been de Latinoamérica pal’ mundo.
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