One day after Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, Lin-Manuel Miranda, a son of the Puerto Rican diaspora, sat down to write a song to benefit his father’s homeland. For Miranda, born and raised in New York City with close links to the island, it became all about identity, but not in the way you’d expect. “Almost Like Praying” is a mix of reggaeton, salsa, son and rap that riffs off “Maria,” Miranda’s favorite song from West Side Story. The track features a long list of Latin stars representing all styles and eras of music — from Marc Anthony to Rita Moreno, Camila Cabello and Fat Joe (full list below) and its lyrics are a listing of the 78 towns in Puerto Rico, a remembrance of origin and sense of place.
“Almost Like Praying” is out today on Atlantic, and all proceeds will go to benefit hurricane relief efforts through the Hispanic Federation’s Unidos Disaster Relief Fund. Release of the track will be accompanied by a special with behind-the-scenes footage that will air Saturday on Telemundo.
Billboard spoke with Miranda hours before “Almost Like Praying” went wide.
Billboard: You’ve been quite vocal on social media regarding getting lack of aid to Puerto Rico, yet there is nothing political about this track. Why?
I don’t know that I agree with you. I wrote this song the day after the hurricane hit Puerto Rico. And one, we realized this storm was the worst storm to hit the island in modern history, and its name was Maria. And that’s the name of my favorite song from West Side Story. So I thought, how can I flip that negative connotation into something [positive] for Puerto Rico?
And the other thing that happened was in the wake of the hurricane, there was this terrible silence where we [Puerto Ricans who live off the island] just didn’t hear anything. The power grid was destroyed, there was no cell service. And what I saw most on Facebook or Twitter were my friends and my family listing the names of towns: “My godmother is in Hatillo; My uncle is in Isabela.” These towns that I know so well because our island is not that big. I thought I could work all 78 towns in Puerto Rico into the lyrics of this song and if we did our job right, these towns will never be forgotten again. It’s the shared ancestry. Whenever you meet somebody from Puerto Rico, you go, “De dónde eres? (Where are you from?) Your town is your identifier. I thought of lyrics that would unite us.
So, that was your political statement: We are all united by our little towns in this island?
Absolutely. And the diaspora — at this point, there are more Puerto Ricans living outside of Puerto Rico than in it — we are all descendants of these towns. That’s where we come from.
What do you think of the government response to Puerto Rico? What could they have done differently?
Here’s the reality: This is an unprecedented disaster and that requires an unprecedented response. I’m hopeful. If you look at my Twitter feed you’ll see little kids breaking their piggy banks and donating to Puerto Rico. You’ll see companies matching donations from their employees. You’ll see teenagers packing supplies. I’ve been so overwhelmed by how giving the American people and people all over the world, have been. If the government could only match the response of its people towards our recovery, we’d be all right. I think it’s been well documented that it’s been slow and it’s been insufficient commensurate to the challenge ahead.
Do you think the government’s relationship with Puerto Rico has changed with this administration, or is it the same as ever?
I know this was the worst natural disaster in 100 years and we still received a fraction of the troops that Irma or Harvey received. Even though there are the additional challenges of being an island, [there’s] all the more reason to be prepared and have a response. Anything short of that is the humanitarian crisis you’re seeing.
Latins are living a particularly visible moment in the arts. As someone who grew up here, do you see a change in the last 12 months in terms of arts and culture Hispanics’ role in them?
It’s hard to gauge culture in short bursts. These trends take a long time. Shows on Broadway can take at least seven years to get there. I can tell you from personal experience that when I reached out to these artists to be on this track, they all said yes within seconds without having heard the track. So there is a growing awareness of the power of Latin artists. And the hurricanes, and the earthquake in Mexico have mobilized artists like never before because there is a growing awareness of our collective power, and that is encouraging.
Going back to culture in bursts, could this attention to Latin culture happened four years ago?
I was listening to Luis Fonsi in college. Luis Fonsi is no overnight sensation to me or to any Puerto Rican on the island. It’s the rest of the world that has caught up. At the same time I do have to acknowledge el paso (the step) that “Despacito” opens. Because it has been the greatest hit in the world, and most of the people don’t even know what the words mean. And that allows for a song like “Almost Like Praying” to travel beyond the Latin community. If a song is good it doesn’t matter what language it’s in.
“Almost Like Praying” seems to me a song that can work in any language. When you crafted it, did you think, this song, anybody, anywhere can relate to it?
I think the construction of the song is just a function of how my brain works. I’m a guy who listens to show tunes and hip-hop and Latin music. And this song is all those things mashed together. There was a time when theater music and popular music were the same thing. You would go listen to Gershwin on the radio and you would go see Gershwin in the theater that night. My little side mission has been to get pop music and theater music to be friends again. And even subconsciously when I wrote this track as fast as I could to help Puerto Rico, that little side mission is present.
There are so many Latin artists on this track from all genres and styles..
What I’m so proud of in this track is everybody on it cares so much for Puerto Rico and they all said yes. You have Pedro Capo and Luis Fonsi sitting on the same track as Tommy Torres and Odessa, who I don’t know that a lot of people even know is Latin. What I always try to do in my work is make sure everybody has a way in. And I think everybody has a way in on this track.
Do you feel there is a new pride in being Latin now and even second, third generation Latins are wearing that badge more proudly than before?
You’re talking to the wrong guy about that because there was never a moment in my life where that wasn’t a thing worth celebrating. There are two responses when you are coming to this country from another country. Assimilation or you put your bandera (your flag) around your neck and you get a whistle and go to the Puerto Rican day parade. My family was with bandera, always, even though I went to a school where I was one of the only Latino kids there. But I think that experience is very personal. I know Latinos who don’t speak a word of Spanish and could school me on Puerto Rican history. And I also know Latinos who speak fluent Spanish and couldn’t tell you the first thing. Every journey is personal.
“Almost Like Praying” features Marc Anthony, Ruben Blades, Camila Cabello, Pedro Capo, Dessa, Gloria Estefan, Fat Joe, Luis Fonsi, Juan Luis Guerra, Alex Lacamoire, John Leguizamo, Jennifer Lopez, Rita Moreno, Ednita Nazario, Joell Ortiz, Anthony Ramos, Gina Rodriguez, Gilberto Santa Rosa, PJ Sin Suela, Tommy Torres and Ana Villafañe.
The extraordinary all-star single is available at all digital music retailers and streaming services from today, Oct. 6. For more information or to make a donation, please visit hispanicfederation.org/unidos.
Listen to “Almost Like Praying” here: