On Sanctuaries, Justice and Epiphanies: A Conversation with Lester Rey

Photo by Carolina Sanchez

Photo by Carolina Sanchez

Lester Rey’s music will lure you in with its catchy Afro-Caribbean beats, punchy congas layered with vibrant tumbas and other percussions. Lester accompanies socio-political and personal topics with his beats while emoting a gamut of feelings, encouraging the listener to simultaneously want to dance or rally for a cause.

On a briskly Sunday afternoon, I met up with the Puerto Rican Chicagoan artist. I found Lester contemplatively meandering the Horticultural Hall of the Garfield Park Conservatory; he was a week out of performing in that space. His mouth was agape with disbelief, and in his eyes I could see the twinkle of someone who was relishing in the next stages of one’s life and career. 

Life has a way of derailing us from our original paths but it’s how we learn to adapt that allows us to ascend into a futile future. In order for us to continue to fight and thrive, we must often retreat to recharge in our own sanctuaries. For Lester, music was always a place to retreat to for comfort, “My first beat was a Reggaeton beat on a Korg keyboard.” I joked that, “everyone remembers their first love and their first keyboard.” 

Every sanctuary needs a solid foundation in order for something to be built on top of it. This base is almost always going to consist of something that one is passionate about. Although Lester did not study music at his university, that did not deter him from seeking it out, “I did music at [Northern Illinois University] even though I wasn’t part of the music program. I asked if I could join the latin jazz band and I sang a bunch of salsa and latin jazz songs with them. I learned more about Rumba, Bata, Guaguancó, and all these styles that came from Afro-Cuban rhythms. I learned the language, I learned how to describe certain rhythms, and how to talk about the language of music more intelligently. Back in the day I was just rap and beats. I even learned how to sing in Lucumí, which is the language of West African Nigerians who came to Cuba.”

As we progress through life, our personal struggles can be overwhelming, and our sanctuaries which often start as places of self-preservation, often morph into places of self-reflection and self-discovery; sanctuaries can allow for growth and epiphanies.

The Garfield Park Conservatory has become a personal sanctuary when I want to escape the noise of the city and the noise of my personal life. Located in the Chicago neighborhood of Garfield Park, it is on the outskirts of a neighborhood that is rife with gentrification, which is just one of many topics that Lester studied at university. Xenophobia, misogyny, political corruption, are all fuel for his music. Lester reflects, “I chose school first and music second, for a while. I started off [studying] philosophy then switched my major to community leadership and civic engagement. It was cool and I focused on justice within sociology.” 

There’s no doubt that Lester’s sociology background influenced his music. He reclaims spaces that are often neglecting marginalized groups. Reggaeton can often be charged with masculinity, homophobia and misogyny but Lester pushes the boundaries of this aging genre to be a pioneer in other genres like perreo, while delivering some very important messages. In these reclamations, Lester creates a sanctuary for his listeners by providing his voice, which can be oftentimes stifled by the masses. Lester’s single Ni Santa, talks about women reclaiming their sexuality. Women can often be judged as ‘put*s’(bit**es) or ‘santas’(saints). In this collaboration with trans Latina rapper Lila Star, the pair sing about respecting women as they are. Lester says, “Perreo is slower reggaeton. The genre is called juking, grinding. Raunchy, low to the ground, grinding; I think that in the genre of perreo and other sub-genres, there is an emphasis on sexual liberation and queerness being in the center - even though traditionally, reggaeton songs are known as misogynistic and homophobic - so [queer folks] are reclaiming the genre and are slowing it down.”

In another collaboration with Nino Augustine, Amigo, Lester talks about having solidarity through kinship. It was this theme of support, set to the background of a trap-bomba-plena soundscape, that made this track - off of Lester’s newest project, Epifania - a battlecry for Caribbean rallies against the corruption of the former governor of Puerto Rico, Ricardo Rossello. Lester recalls, “The day that Ricky [resigned], there was a perreo in La Fortaleza in Puerto Rico. In solidarity, I hit up Chicago Boricua Resistance and I was like hey, ‘Why don’t we do a perreo, I want to put one together for tomorrow?’. New York was doing it too, and then I made the flyer and a group in [Los Angeles] hit me up, they were like, Yo can we use your flyer? We’re gonna do one too!’. It was super dope to see how connected we all were. And then we threw this perreo party at the Auxiliary Arts Center, here in Chicago. We had these huge projectors and a live feed, so when [Ricardo Rosello] resigned, it turned from an act of solidarity to a party. The whole room went up in roars, everyone was cheering; we’ve been needing a victory for a long time”.   

A week later, I sat down 20 feet from where I had interviewed Lester. This time he was dressed up, accompanied by an eclectic band, and commanded the attention of the room with charismatic bravado. His floral jacket blended in with the soothing richness of the plant life around us. When Lester performed the track Everything, off of Epifania, people got up to dance. There were others like me who bopped in their chairs, or sang along. This track made it evident that Lester had an epiphany that no matter where he was at in the world or in a place in his life, he would create music anywhere. After some interludes, Lester announced to the room that he would be performing outside of the United States, and this would be his first time traveling outside the country. 

When one travels, one can often glean cultural values and ideas to create new belief systems and new realizations about themselves. For an artist, these new epiphanies will often produce new art. In the track Rise, off of Epifania, Lester passionately sings,

“I just wanna, I just wanna rise in love / so, tired of falling, falling / I just want to rise in love / so, good morning, morning.” 

Despite the setbacks and derailments, these are the epiphanies of Lester Rey.

*Sanctuario and Epifania are out now on streaming platforms.

They are a part of a trilogy which which will be capped by a project coming out in the future.