Students who do cool things: Sebastián ( )tero ’18, musician and rap artist

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Sebastián Otero Oliveras ’18, who goes by the stage name Sebastián ( )tero, is a Puerto Rican musician who has made a name for himself as a rap artist on Brown’s campus. Alongside being a Brown student, he wields his music as a tool to create positive impact. Otero’s songs are rooted in his Puerto Rican identity in both their content and rhythmic inspiration, and he interprets this in different ways across genres. In his words: “I see myself first as a musician, then a rapper. I use rap as one tool to make music, to express what I want to say.”

You might recognize Otero’s music from his performances on campus. Otero is part of richard, a soul/hip hop group that he describes as “like a basement, very sweaty, very energetic.” In addition, he is half of a collaborative duo with Francis Torres ’16, who is also from Puerto Rico. The pair performs acoustic music influenced by Cuban and Puerto Rican sounds, and has a more calm and relaxing feel.

He began his music career young, learning the violin at four years old with the Suzuki method. While the violin is still one of his greatest passions, he has since branched from classical music into jazz  and song composition on the guitar. “I try to integrate the violin, singing and rapping,” he says.

Otero’s music will make you think—and, he hopes, think positively. “I try to make music to make a person better,” he says. The lyrics of his songs are intended to make the listener question important aspects of society, while casting these topics in a positive light.

Many of his songs have political overtones that connect to his identity and views as Puerto Rican. “Al brincar el charco” is a reference to “jumping the channel” between Puerto Rico and Florida, which many Puerto Ricans did during an exodus after WWII. Otero wrote the song during his senior year of high school, when he was on his way to Brown the year after. “I’m using that term to explain that I’m starting in the U.S., but the song is about how I feel about Puerto Rico, and personal experiences that I’ve had and how my relationship with Puerto Rico is going to change.”

His song “Laura se va,” which translates to “Laura is leaving,” tells the story of a girl who is moving away, and ends with “I just hope she doesn’t find another girl like me over there.” The song exposes implicit assumptions that the listener might have held, and brings the topic of lesbian relationships into the open. “I think that’s a very present topic right now, in the media and society in general,” Otero says.

As a native Spanish speaker, Otero sings and raps mainly in Spanish. He has a strong grasp on harnessing the feel and particularities of the language for what he wants to convey. In “Pausa,” he takes advantage of the sharp syllables of the Spanish language, letting his verses dictate the rhythms. He succeeds in pulling out the softer vowels sounds of the language in “Laura se va,” lending a sensuality to the song while still maintaining the underlying sense of motion.

Otero realizes that he’s “rapping in Spanish on an Ivy League campus where almost everyone speaks English,” but believes that “we don’t really have to understand the lyrics to appreciate the music.” At the same time, he wants his music to convey a message. “It’s really cool to rap in Spanish, and people really enjoy it and go crazy because it’s kind of exotic, but I also want people to understand what I’m saying—because I feel like I have a lot to say.”

He has recently begun to write songs in English, which he started learning seven years ago. He hopes to mix Spanish and English to preserve the message and music of both languages. In terms of how the language informs his composition, he notes that “the phonetics of English and Spanish are very different, so in terms of writing, it [is] a different approach.”

The first song Otero wrote in English was for a new composition of Brown’s Alma Mater that he performed at Commencement last year alongside other students. He expertly flows between English and Spanish verses, and with this mix, he “recontextualizes the anthem” for Brown in 2015. “It was so beautiful to perform at here Brown being a freshman, being a Puerto Rican rapping in English, at such an important event,” he says.

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Otero is inspired by artists from around the world as well as by his peers at Brown. One of these artists is Anita Tijoux, a 38-year-old Chilean rapper. “She is the best woman rapper, and one of the best rappers,” Otero said. “I love her because of the musicality and content of her lyrics. She’s so down to earth, and she has this connection with indigenous people from Chile.” He dreams of collaborating with Tijoux one day.

Otero integrates his studies at Brown with his work as a musician, concentrating in music with a focus in ethnomusicology. He took an elective course on the topic his first semester at Brown, which “totally blew [his] mind.” He plans on studying abroad in Cuba, and hopes to get involved in the Cuban music scene.

In the long run, Otero intends to continue making an impact through music by pursuing music therapy. He believes that music should make an impact with both its content and its presence. “It’s very satisfying to play to people who are in need. I’m really happy by playing music to them, but I know they’re also really happy to be listening to my music.” He often performs at hospitals, orphanages and nursing homes in Puerto Rico, as well as at fundraisers.

Otero is currently working on a short album that deals with the challenges that Puerto Ricans face as a result of their nation’s relationship with the U.S., also integrating his own thoughts as a “pro-independence” Puerto Rican who “believes in the sovereignty of [the nation].”

In one of the songs on the album, Otero raps about the Puerto Rican nationalist Oscar López Rivera, who has been a political prisoner in the U.S. for 34 years. The song then transforms into an imagined conversation with another nationalist at a cemetery in Old San Juan. “He comes up from the dead and we have this amazing conversation where he invites this generation to do things, to be critics, to work for our country—and not necessarily just for Puerto Rico but for the world, as an inspiration to the youth.”

Otero’s album will feature collaborations with many other Brown students including Torres, DAP and members of richard. Look out for the album in the future, and in the meantime check out Otero’s work on Soundcloud.

Images via Sebastián Oliveras Otero ’18.

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