In the wake of catastrophic destruction in Puerto Rico Lin-Manuel Miranda, the force behind Hamilton, has used theological rhetoric, declaring that Trump was “going straight to hell” for his lack of basic human compassion and his dismissal of the suffering of American citizens he was elected to represent.
A week later Miranda produced a song: “Almost Like Praying,” a charity single from which all proceeds go to the Hispanic Federation’s Unidos Disaster Relief Fund. [Scroll down for video.] The Top 40 track and top-selling song of the week deserves attention for religious engagement that goes well beyond the title. It is, indeed, a sort of prayer, and a prophetic cry and rebuke. But most importantly, it’s a vision of community rooted in Puerto Rico and the Puerto Rican people.
An invocation of place, its lyrics primarily consist of the names of the 78 towns of Puerto Rico, the words laid down over a beat established by the trill of the coquí—the iconic and ubiquitous Puerto Rican frog. Sung, screamed out, spit in rap stanza, this recitation becomes hypnotic, an insistent reiteration of an idea, Puerto Rico as more than geography. In an interview with Billboard, Miranda said the political message of the song was unity, not only within Puerto Rico, but also in the diaspora. There are, as he pointed out, “more Puerto Ricans living outside of Puerto Rico than in it,” including himself. As the son of immigrants, Miranda makes clear he has skin in the game when he says, “We are all descendants of these towns. That’s where we come from.”
Yet “Almost Like Praying” goes farther, urging identification of people with nation. As Hamilton, perhaps more than anything, is a bid at defining the “We” in “We the People,” so this song exemplifies the visceral sense of the “Somos” of “Somos Boricua”—Puerto Rico as an identity, a mode of being.
The song is clearly also a prophetic cry against the injustice of the government’s attitude toward Puerto Rico. President Trump alternates between treating the suffering of Puerto Ricans as a kind of reality television spectacle (tossing towels to masses he insists were adoring and in on the game), and tweeting threats of pulling FEMA out of the island, even though, in the absence of any aid, Puerto Ricans are resorting to drinking water from hazardous waste sites.
Despite claiming that he is “allergic” to the work of politics, Miranda has nonetheless used his celebrity (and his unique role, via Hamilton, as a keeper of America’s myths and a representative of American ideals) to call attention to the financial crisis of Puerto Rico, whose residents are merely semi-citizens of the United States, able to serve in the military but unable to vote and lacking elected representation in Congress. It is impossible not to hear a mournful cry in “Almost Like Praying,” the voice of a people oppressed and neglected.
Like another pop-musical political intervention making headlines—Eminem’s “The Storm”—Miranda’s piece, while rooted in words, reiterates a sense that language isn’t enough to convey the emotions at play. Eminem’s freestyle, meanwhile, folds back on itself in a series of attempts and frustrated verbal gestures that always fall short, such that it can end only with inchoate rage and a middle finger. Similarly, Miranda, weaving a texture out of geographical markers, gives us the signifier more than the signified, an anthem compiled from the scrolling lists of locales he saw repeated, over and over, on news reports in the initial days after the storm, when the fate of his relatives and friends on the island remained unknown.
Miranda also speaks, through this song, to his specific context, offering a rebuke of previous Broadway portrayals of his homeland. The title comes from a sample of “Maria,” Miranda’s “favorite song from West Side Story, from a desire, in the wake of a storm of the same name, “to flip it. To literally flip the sample the same way we’re trying to flip the natural disaster into something positive.” As Hamilton reframes the Founding not as a white supremacist venture built on slavery but as a celebration of pluralism and the possibility of freedom, “Almost Like Praying” inverts the sounds associated with West Side Story’s portrayal of Puerto Ricans as street criminals and primitives.
Swiping lines from “Maria,” not to sing about an exotic and untouchable female object of desire but about the inimitable and unconquerable Puerto Rican culture, Miranda also implicitly critiques another famous number from that musical. “America” famously features dueling visions of the exceptional imperial state and the far-flung colony: the “ugly island,” “Island of tropic diseases./ Always the hurricanes blowing, / Always the population growing . . . / And the money owing, / And the babies crying, / And the bullets flying.” That song goes on to cast doubt on the reliability of both electricity and roads in San Juan, bitterly ironic in the current catastrophic moment but nasty enough in the original to read like Kipling, but with a quicker rhyme-scheme.
As a project, “Almost Like Praying” is a motley collection of styles and voices, in true “puerto” fashion, the hybridity and default cosmopolitanism of port culture. But it’s also an exemplification of a model of community valued by Puerto Ricans as one of the foremost markers of their cultural identity. Just as Boricuas have come together since the storm, here celebrity-stand-ins join in rough harmony, taking turns at the mic. As Andrew Boryga wrote in the The New Yorker:
“At a time when it’s hard for Puerto Ricans not to feel like the entirety of their island is being forgotten by the federal government and by parts of the media, the song rings with pride, and the haste in which it was put together by big-name artists speaks to the efforts of public figures—Puerto Rican and not—using their large following and influence to fill in where officials aren’t.”
Recorded in less than a week, the track features an assortment of voices, from Marc Anthony to Gina Rodriguez, Jennifer Lopez to Rita Moreno (who co-starred in the 1961 production of West Side Story for the big screen), but their assemblage, especially as presented in the song’s video, reflects the causal collaboration and mingling of the parranda, the Puerto Rican holiday tradition of coming together—friends, relatives, neighbors, and strangers—over music, singing aguinaldos, sharing food and drink. The “Almost Like Praying” video culminates in a series of shots of the performers laughing and dancing, posing for selfies, which is key to the project of the song, an exemplification of the kind of community necessary for the survival of Puerto Rico.
Indeed, in interviews, Miranda has spoken explicitly of his “faith” in such models of community, in the connections between humans—predicated on a basic emotional ability which, in turn, he claims Trump lacks. “If the government was commensurate with the response of the American people we would be on the road to recovery,” Miranda told Billboard. “I’ve got little kids breaking their piggy banks or families delaying their vacations because they’re donating money, or even people saying instead of presents for my birthday send them to Puerto Rico. My faith in our country is stronger than ever despite our challenges.” He similarly reads the response to the song not as a reflection of his skills as a producer (or the tune’s catchy beat) but as a manifestation of compassion: “I’ve been so overwhelmed by how giving the American people and people all over the world, have been.”
Surely the underlying prayer of “Almost Like Praying” is not just for Americans to empty their piggy banks in order to help their brothers and sisters in Puerto Rico, but for this song to prompt American citizens to realize that the catastrophe in Puerto Rico predated the storm, and is, indeed, the result of American policy; policy rooted in imperialism and its corollary racism; policy inconsistent with the basic legal ideals of democracy; and policy the result of which is radical injustice.
Yet critique—like prayer—is not enough. What is required in the future is political action, both on the mainland and on the island, in Washington and in San Juan, to imagine a just, equal, and sustainable community for Puerto Rico.