Renowned Panamanian Singer Discusses Music and Politics with Spanish Students

While he is flexible when it comes to the pronunciation of his last name, Rubén Blades made sure to correct his audience when he came to speak at the William Mack Library on April 4th, 2014. After the students welcomed him in unison in Spanish, he reminded them that he was not named after the famous Reuben sandwich and emphasized the accent over the “e” in his first name.

Blades’ lecture was driven by questions from the students. The first of which was about his involvement in politics. Although Blades is known for his music, he has spent much of his career focusing on both global and national socioeconomic issues.

Rubén Blades visits Brooklyn Tech to talk to students about his career. Photo Courtesy of Maria Santana.
Rubén Blades visits Brooklyn Tech to talk to students about his career. Photo Courtesy of Maria Santana.

The student asked Blades about his run for the Panamanian presidency in 1994. Blades explained that he felt and still feels a sense of responsibility to his country, which led him to establish the Movimiento Papa Egoró in 1991. The party and Blades focused on improving social issues in Panama.

Although Blades mostly discussed politics in Panama, he did not fail to emphasize his multinational heritage, with family from all over Latin America and the United States.

Blades also explained his musical roots. Coming from a working class family in Panama City, Blades grew up listening to a wide variety of music, including salsa and rock-and-roll. Although he admitted that when he was younger he saw his talent as a way to talk to women, Blades has used his music to communicate social issues he sees in the world.

Despite his musical aspirations as a teenager, Blades decided to pursue a law degree from the University of Panama. Later on, after years of success as a musician and actor, Blades also received a law degree from Harvard University. However, after political conflict forced Blades and his family to leave Panama, he ended up in Miami.

Blades then moved to New York City, where he got a job at Fania Records as a mailroom worker. Through this entry-level position, Blades told students that he was eventually given the opportunity to record music with the company.

In addition to explaining his path to  success, which resulted in many awards and honors, Blades discussed his perspective on fame. Throughout the presentation, Blades mentioned various individuals who he has worked with, including Robert De Niro and Michael Jackson. However, he was not dropping these big names to make a point about his own greatness.

In fact, he recalled that when he worked with Michael Jackson to record “Todo Mi Amor Eres Tú,” he never even took a photo with the singer. For Blades, the focus is the work and the message, not the resulting success.

Although Blades told the student audience many anecdotes about his life and career, one of the most insightful stories was about his abuela. He said that his grandmother could only afford to send some of her children to school, so she sent her daughters and home schooled her sons, because she felt it was important for women to be educated and receive the same opportunities as men.

Blades’ social activism was greatly influenced by individuals like his grandmother, and the culture and time in which he was raised. Throughout the presentation, he emphasized the importance of equality and the need to change the status quo.

Not only did Blades talk to the students, but he also sang segments of a couple songs, including “Pedro Navaja,” his interpretation of “Mack the Knife.”

Teresita Martínez, a Puerto Rican playwright, was also at the presentation. She introduced Blades and discussed his influence on her work.

Rubén Blades and Teresita Martínez speak to students in the library. Photo Courtesy of Maria Santana.
Rubén Blades and Teresita Martínez speak to students in the library. Photo Courtesy of Maria Santana.

Many teachers from various departments were at the library to hear Blades speak, including Spanish teacher Tena Cohen, who was responsible for bringing Blades to Brooklyn Tech.

“I was at Instituto Cervantes to hear him speak, and during the Q&A, I got up to thank him for his music, that I have used in class for 18 years. I told him his music was literature at Brooklyn Tech, and lo and behold he said, ‘I will visit your school!’ I couldn’t believe it,” said Cohen.

After he concluded his presentation, students had the opportunity to talk to Blades one-on-one.

According to Cohen, her students were very excited about the event. They were particularly impressed “that he [Blades] became a politician to fight corruption, how he believes that they should always follow their hearts and never give up on their dreams, and how he believes that when we keep people in our memories, or, in his case, in his songs, they do not die. They were also impressed with his humility — despite the fact that he has won nine Grammys, and has worked with many famous people, he was willing to come speak with them, sign photos, LPs, even marble notebooks!”

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