This is an expanded version of a story that appears in the latest issue of Entertainment Weekly, on stands Friday, or available here. Don’t forget to subscribe for exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.
The island of Puerto Rico is in critical condition following the devastation of Hurricane Maria. Hamilton writer Lin-Manuel Miranda makes his plea for awareness with “Almost Like Praying,” a song (listen below) whose proceeds will aid disaster relief for his second home.
I was on vacation when the hurricane hit. And like every Puerto Rican who does not live in Puerto Rico, we had a terrible few days where we were just waiting for news. The power grid was completely destroyed. Every cell tower was out of service. So there was a period of quiet for every family member of every citizen on that island, and I was restless and in need of something to do. In the calm after the storm, most of my Facebook and Twitter feed was “My grandmother lives in Lares” or “My uncle is in San Juan. Has anyone heard from there?” It was a giant game of internet telephone, and my brain started working in terms of lyrics, because that’s what my brain does, and so I started thinking, “What if we write a relief song, but the lyrics to the song are simply every town in Puerto Rico?” I started thinking about Hurricane Maria — a name that will now forever have a destructive connotation, but prior to two weeks ago, was my favorite song from West Side Story. So my brain started playing with the lyrics “Say it loud and there’s music playing/Say it soft and it’s almost like praying,” and I immediately emailed the Leonard Bernstein estate and Stephen Sondheim to ask for permission to sample it. To their incredible credit, they said yes within the day, and I started writing this tune where the hook is “Almost Like Praying” and the lyrics are the name of every town — 78 towns — in Puerto Rico. And then I pulled up my Rolodex.
I’ve spent the past two days in Miami and Los Angeles recording vocals with all of these artists. I went to L.A. and got Rita Moreno and Gina Rodriguez and Camila Cabello. While we were in the studio, Rita said, “I’m calling Gloria!” and Gloria Estefan meets us the next night in Miami, where we grab Luis Fonsi, Marc Anthony, Pedro Capó, Tommy Torres, Gilberto Santa Rosa, Ednita Nazario. I asked every artist to get on mic and tell me their favorite Puerto Rico memories, and it was one of the most extraordinary things I’ve ever seen, to have my heroes telling these hilarious, sad, incredible stories about this place we all love. It was an amazing reminder of what we’re fighting to protect and lift up.
Here’s what’s nuts: In the face of Puerto Ricans making do with very little right now and literally trying to survive, I have never been more hopeful about the spirit of the American people. I’ve seen kids breaking their piggy banks. And it’s all over the world, too. When I first started posting the Hispanic Federation link online, the only heat I got was from people in Australia saying, “It’s not recognizing my zip code. How can I help?” It’s hard not to be unbelievably moved. The challenge is so real, but at the same time, it’s like the last scene of It’s a Wonderful Life, except it’s an island instead of George Bailey. At least when it comes to the American people. I wish I could say the same for the government’s response, but for people all over the world I could not be more hopeful, and that’s what lifts me up.
The thing that everyone yells at celebrities when they mouth their political opinions is “Hey, stick to entertaining!” And this is my attempt to do that. I want to write songs, I want to do what I do best for a living. But I also recognize the need to do it in service of the worst natural disaster that has hit Puerto Rico in almost a hundred years.
These past few weeks it was brought into stark relief how few people understand Puerto Rico’s relationship to the United States. It’s a weird one, and it’s an awkward one, to be a commonwealth. People saying, “We need the help for Americans! In Florida and Texas!” not understanding that Puerto Rico is home to 3.4 million American citizens. I’m a Puerto Rican who grew up in New York City, but it’s a place that has always felt like home to me and always opened its arms to me, and is the other half of me. And that’s why I pull strength from it.
(Also, I just have to say: The song is dope. I’m not trying to write some sappy anthem. You can dance to this motherf—er. I would be doing a disservice to the people of Puerto Rico if it were not, as the kids say, a f—ing bop.)
100 percent of the proceeds from this album’s sales go to Hispanic Federation’s Hurricane Relief Fund. Please visit HispanicFederation.org to learn more about how you can help the people of Puerto Rico.
As told to Marc Snetiker