Credit – Elliot & Erick Jiménez for TIME
In early March, TIME sat down with global music sensation Benito Antonio Martínez Ocasio, also known as Bad Bunny, as he was preparing to perform at Coachella—the first Latino artist to headline the prominent music festival. During a wide-ranging interview for a TIME cover story, Martínez Ocasio spoke candidly about his life, his music, and spending more of his time these days in Los Angeles, a place he “always dreamed of going” as a chamaquito (a little boy) growing up in Puerto Rico. He also addressed his burgeoning acting career, along with the responsibility he feels as a reggaetonero who is often asked to speak for an entire region.
The following transcript has been condensed, edited for clarity, and translated into English. For the Spanish version click here.
We’re currently in downtown L.A. Are you liking it here?
In reality, yes I like it. I’ve always liked it since I started coming here a few years ago. It’s a place that since I was chamaquito (a little boy)—before all of this—I’ve always dreamed of going. I always dreamed of going to Los Angeles one day because I was a fan of the Lakers and Kobe.
Do you have family in the U.S.? Do you remember the first time you came to the States?
Damn. If I didn’t have family in the United States I wouldn’t be Latino.
I remember the first time I came to the U.S. I was 12 years old. It was summer and I went to Connecticut, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania. I stayed in different family member’s houses, but I visited New York for only one day. We went and came back. I remember it really well. That was the first time. And it was the first and only time until I grew up.
Where are the best beaches? Los Angeles or Puerto Rico?
[Audibly chuckles] You know the answer to that. Puerto Rico, definitely 1000 times. I haven’t gotten into the water yet. I’m going to see if in the summer the water gets warmer and then I’ll go.
Read the Cover Story: Bad Bunny’s Next Move
Growing up in the pueblo of Almirante Sur, what were your fondest memories of your childhood?
I always say that I had a very normal life. I grew up with my mom and dad. I am the oldest brother of three so I remember waiting for my brothers. When my first brother Bernie came and the second, Bysael. My mother was a teacher and my dad was a truck driver. So you know we were working people. Very Catholic. We went to church. We had to do good in school. I grew up with a lot of love from my mother and my father. I saw them sometimes trying hard, going through difficult times to bring us food and other times, easy. They were beautiful moments, sometimes of uncertainty but in the end I was always grateful to the core that I grew up in my family, my barrio (town), in my pueblo (city) and the way I grew up because from there I acquired a lot of experience and a lot of knowledge that makes me the person I am today.
What role did music play in your life in your early life?
The thing I’ve done the most in life is listen to music. Since I was little I was always a fan of music. When I was a kid I had a lot of CDs of salsa, merengue. My mom listened to a lot of merengue and balada (ballad) and my dad would listen to salsa. When I was a chamaquito or niño (teenager or younger boy) I was listening to rap and reggaeton. I always remember when I was 5 for Christmas they gifted me a CD of Vico-C, “Aquel Que Había Muerto,” with the dark cover, almost black, you could barely see Vico C’s face. My mom would buy records from a catalog, which was like a book and you chose the records and they came in dozens. Well she would choose about eight and let me choose the last four. I’d grab CDs of Marc Anthony, Victor Manuel and CDs of “bolero” music. I grew up always listening to music and tried to imitate the voices of the singers and the sounds they made. Since I was little it was always my passion. I was always a big fan of artists. That’s why when they ask me, ‘What artist inspired you?’ I never say one alone because I listened to so many artists and genres like reggaeton, which has many artists that inspired me and salsa. I would say that the entire movement of Latin music inspired me.
What do your parents and family think about you being the biggest artist in the world?
I don’t think they know that. [Laughing] In reality, my dad is proud of me and is happy that I feel good and that I’m living my dreams. I always thank God that me, my friends and my family maintain our feet on the ground. I go to my dad’s house and I feel so relaxed. So normal. Like nothing is happening. Outside of that house perhaps the world is listening and talking about me, but in that house everything is the same. Nothing has changed. My dad doesn’t act a new way or treat me a new way. It’s beautiful for me to like going there and they still look at me with the eyes of, ‘Come here, Benito Antonio. The baby. Their son.’ You understand? My mom is the same as my dad. That’s why I say they don’t know, but not in the sense that they don’t understand it. It’s the sense that I am still the same person and nothing has changed on how we feel and treat each other. Every time I go to the house it feels just like that… a home.
Could you have imagined where you are now?
Perhaps at first I would not have imagined that I dreamed of this. When I was in my room alone making beats, dreaming that one day I’d have success in music, no. But now with time passing and I’ve seen big things I can now imagine the next and the next. I remember two years ago I told myself, papi (dude) I’m already at a level that if it goes down I won’t be the same as before, I won’t be able to recover my normal life so to speak. But yes, I have imagined it, but if you ask me from the beginning when I was a chamaquito (little boy), no. When I was a little boy, I only dreamed of music and that someone would listen to my music. I always say that if a thousand people listened to me and I performed once a month at a little place, just with that I would be happy. But the hunger and the passion that I have for this is impossible because I always want to give more and more and more.
Do you feel like the emergence of the Internet and streaming platforms like Spotify are important reasons why you’re here today?
Obviously yes, and on this I can tell you, above other people, if it weren’t for social networks I wouldn’t be here. What I don’t believe in is that it’s an advantage. There’s a bunch of artists of the past that say, ‘During my time there wasn’t Spotify. During my time there wasn’t Instagram.’ But there were other things. For example, it was more difficult than getting exposure to reach the position. But at the same time it was better to those who achieved it. Now we’re at a time where at any point you can release a song. I compete with one million people. When I come out with something that same day a thousand artists come out with songs. Twenty albums coming out on the same night. Back then, one, two or three albums would come out. There wasn’t so much saturation in music. I release an album now and a week passes and 15 new albums have arrived. So it’s easier for more people to not listen to my album and start to listen to another. Before you would buy an album at $15 you wouldn’t have money to buy another album. You were going to burn through it and pela, pela, pela (listen over and over again). Now you listen to my album and you’re bored, you can listen to others. So to maintain yourself right there in the position that they continue to listen to you and that you maintain the position that your album continues to stay at the top is way more difficult than times before. Nowadays it’s much harder. Before you would listen to the same song for a whole year on the station. It is the station that plays your song and if they don’t like it, you do have chavos (money) to pay the station, otherwise you could not compete with anyone. Now anyone puts a song in the media and can pegarla (hit it).
Read More: ‘Hago Música Como Si Fuera la Única Persona en el Mundo.’ Bad Bunny sobre Coachella, Hollywood y Superándose a sí Mismo
Do you think about the industry’s competition when you’re at the creation stage of your projects?
No. When I’m in the studio I’m enjoying what I’m doing. I’m not thinking about the amount of people who are recording or not. I make music like I’m the only person in the world.
Do you care about staying in your position as the number one artist in the world?
I always say no, but I think I lie. Because at the end of the day I’m very competitive. But with everything. If I’m playing chess, I want to win. If I’m making jokes, I want to tell better jokes. I’m very competitive. In all situations. So obviously in music I am. But in a good way. But I don’t like to see others lose. I like everyone winning. There’s space for all of us. I like to see others triumph and have success. I like to see people have good music because it’ll make me better. If I see someone making a song that’s rompiendo (breaking or hitting the records), if there is someone who made a cabrona (badass) song, I am going to make a more cabrona (badass) song. I want to do something better. But not to overshadow them, but because I want to do something better. We can all win, we can all shine together.
You were the most streamed artist on Spotify for three years in a row. Why do you think your music has this effect on people?
I don’t know. The manner in which I do music is a way that’s so real. I give so much love to the music. I always say that my mom gave so much love to me since I was kid, that’s why I have so much to give to the world and los demás (the rest). I think that my songs are the same. I give so much love to my songs that it doesn’t run out. That energy every time you listen to my song it’ll give you so much alegria (joy). I don’t do songs just to do them. When I have a song to release I will release it.
Do you have a song right now?
Right at this moment? Yes. [Reaches to phone in right pocket] But I’m not going to show you. [Laughs]
Who would you say you do music for? For Puerto Rico?
I do music for the people that love me. When I read comments that say, ‘Bad Bunny, now I’m not going to listen to your music,’ that’s fine. If you don’t want to listen to my music anymore that’s OK. That’s fine, someone will like it. I do music for who wants to listen to me and for who wants to connect with me. If you don’t like what I’m doing I’m not going to do something else for you to like it. If you don’t like it, well brother, there are plenty of artists out there, and perhaps you’ll find someone you’ll like. Someone is going to like what I’m doing and those are the people I’m singing to. But obviously, yes I do music for Puerto Rico. It’s where I was born and grew up. I’m a fan of our people, our culture, as well as our culture within reggaeton. When I write and I do music my spirit is always in Puerto Rico and I try for the music that I do to be liked by people there.
Your latest album Un Verano Sin Ti was an immersive listening experience. Why was bringing the experience of a Puerto Rican summer to the world important to you?
A lot of artists will do songs, take a picture, the cover and that’s it, then the video and that’s it, done. I want to create an entire world, an ambience and sentiment along with an album, from the videos, the visuals, the cover, the thematics, everything synchronized, with the purpose that you listen to it so that you feel like you’re in a place or having a feeling. If someone is in f–king Switzerland they can feel like they’re in the Caribbean, they can feel like they’re on the beach. That’s why all the visuals for the songs are me on the beach and it’s 360 so if you put the [VR headset] on you’ll be on the beach with me. If you are in Puerto Rico even better cause then you don’t need the [VR]—you are there.
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Your producer Tainy is a legend in the reggaeton space. What has it been like working with him on your projects?
I have been a fan of his forever. I have had dreams since I was a chamaquito (kid) to work one day with Tainy. Even after I got into music, it took time to be able to work with him. I remember when I did my first record and they asked me, ‘Who do you want to work with?’ And I said, ‘I want to work with Tainy.’ And up until now we’ve worked together. I don’t work with a lot of producers like that hand in hand.
We’ve got a video question directly from Tainy that we’d like to show you from our phone. Tainy: As a fan I’d like to know, how did you find a way to put so much of who you are as Benito the person, not just Bad Bunny the artist in your urban music?
I always attempt to give the real me in my songs. I am a chamaquito (still young). [Laughs] We have different preoccupations and desires to do one thing one day and the next not. One moment we go to the club to drink and smoke, and tomorrow I want to be chilling at home watching a movie. Tuesday I want to go to the gym and Wednesday I want to eat a hamburger. And then next I’ll be thinking about my ex or a girl that I like. And then tomorrow I am bothered over something I think is an injustice. But then by night I go to eat tacos, they give me a bit of tequila and I’ve forgotten.
I think there’s nothing wrong with that. That’s why my songs have everything in it. We’re in the club, we’re on the beach, we’re crying over love, we’re upset about social injustice because that’s how it is.
Your first project with Tainy was Estamos Bien, which you dedicated to the victims of Hurricane Maria. In that sense, the song speaks to the resilience of Puerto Ricans. Is it important for you to speak on Puerto Rico injustices, while also highlighting the resistance of Boricuas?
Yes, there’s always different sentiments to the songs so that you can listen to it and take from it what you want. For example, I remember when we were doing Estamos Bien, it also gave a sense of what’s going on and I did it so you could also feel for the island and Puerto Rico. In that song I also talk about butts and chavos (money) and things like that, more trap so that the people from the street that also like that can also feel. To me it could signify one thing but to another person it means something else. So I always attempt to do that in the songs. If I’m giving you a message, I’m going to do it in a way that can be interpreted in different situations so that they can see themselves in it too.
How is reggaeton a genre that offers the opportunity to not only do perreo-style music (reggaeton dance party tracks), but also address social and political topics?
Yeah, undoubtedly! I think that reggaeton and all music genres are a means to express yourself. They always have been. Music has always told stories of things good, things bad, dangerous things, things that bother you. So reggaeton is just another genre of music. It includes sounds from the street, from the barrio (town). There’s always space and opportunity to talk about everything a little bit in reggaeton records. That’s why I have songs for the club. I have songs for everything.
Do you think the elements of race and colorism are involved in determining who is successful in the reggaeton space?
They’ve asked me that before… it’s been a long time since I’ve had a question like that. Within my ignorance I didn’t understand it. I said that can’t be. I couldn’t imagine it. I can’t say that yes or no because I haven’t lived it. I also haven’t seen with my own eyes that yes this person didn’t become more successful because of their skin. I haven’t seen it. It’d be irresponsible of me to say yes. For example, they asked me about if Tego Calderón would’ve been bigger if he wasn’t Black. But in my eyes, Tego Calderón is the biggest singer in the industry. You understand? I didn’t understand things about the industry that maybe are true. Maybe doors closed because of his skin, maybe some promoter preferred an artist whiter than him. But those things I don’t know. I haven’t lived it. When they asked me I said, ‘What? To me Tego Calderón is the biggest singer in the genre, he is one of my idols too. What do you mean not as big? What’s bigger than him?’
Is it important for you to give your flowers to the greats like Tego Calderón and those that have inspired you?
Yes of course. To me it’s important to always maintain a respect for those who deserve it. If you see someone who you feel inspired by and admired, say it and say it with respect. It doesn’t matter how big I grow, I include people that have inspired me that for the better that I wouldn’t necessarily be here. I don’t have a name but there are artists that I used to listen to and I see them and I respect them equally. I’m a fan of reggaeton and I don’t want to forget about its history.
What was your process and approach of creating your Grammys performance?
They never told me what to do. They gave me the liberty to do what I wanted and I knew that I wanted to sing “Después De La Playa.” A lot of people thought that I’d perform “Titi Me Pregunto” or “Moscow Mule,” but I knew I wanted to do “Despues De La Playa.” But I wanted something more. So I had the idea to do the first part of ”El Apagón.” And mano (brother) the idea came very spontaneously and naturally. In Puerto Rico in the month of January there’s the street festival of San Sebastián. It’s a super big, traditional Puerto Rican festival where you’ll see personalities portrayed by the cabezudos (big heads). Incredibly, in all my life I’ve never been to one. So I thought this year, I wanted to go. I thought I’d find a way to put myself there, but I couldn’t because I was here so I thought, you know what, I’m bringing the San Sebastián Festival to the Grammys. I actually didn’t know that I was going to be the opening act. That was something decided at the last minute. I think after they saw the show they thought let’s put him as the first act. And I said, ‘First?’ It was all very natural.
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During your performance, there were subtitles that read “Non-English” on the program. Your fans were vocal on social media about their disappointment. What was your reaction when you first saw that?
In reality when I saw it…it didn’t capture the message. It didn’t say ‘in Spanish’… como que (like) ‘non-english’… well, the system doesn’t work. It was porqueria (crap), that’s the only way I could put it.
One of the songs you chose for the performance, El Apagón, is one of your most politically direct records. What does the lyric ‘Todo quieren ser latino… pero les falta sazón, batería y reggaeton’ (Everyone wants to be Latino… but they’re missing seasoning, drums and reggaeton) mean to you?
That line is from Tego Calderón! The thing that happens when you’re creating music, especially me, is that I’m the type of person that changes my mood quickly. So when I wrote that song I was upset. I thought: these people… what do they think? That for the moment… there’s artists that want to do things and also now mentioned their Latin roots that they’ve never said but now because of the moment, yes you want to do a song in Spanish. Cabrona (asshole), you’ve been singing for 20 years and now you want to do a song in Spanish? You didn’t do it at your best moment but now you want to do a song in Spanish because you are apagá (not in your best moment)? So things like that I see and in that moment it bothered me. But now that feeling has passed me. It’s not like I feel like that right now. It’s good to do what you want. And the same for other artists that are gringo (white) that never would have the opportunity to work with a Latin artist or do a song in Spanish, and now you see them looking at Latin music because it’s on top. It became “cool” to be Latino. They’re not just doing the music, they’re trying to copy the flow of Latinos. But then I think about it—our culture and music runs far and wide. It impacts people in other places. They want to try it and feel it. So why am I going to be bothered by that, if they do it with respect?
Act 60 is a law that entices foreigners to move to Puerto Rico for its tax benefits. How do you feel about non-Puerto Ricans coming to the island and contributing to gentrification and displacement of natives?
It bothers me so much. I think what bothers me the most is them wanting to come, take possession, occupy a space, but don’t want to embrace anything, or help out. They don’t want to give back. When you go to a new barrio (town), they’re always going to look at you oddly because you’re from another place. They’re going to feel like you’re taking something from them, like when they see you using the basketball court and you aren’t from there, of course they would look at you bad. But if that person embraces and contributes to the barrio (town) I’m sure that somehow they’ll accept you little by little. This is good. You understand? I think that’s everything. The other day I was watching a TikTok of a white girl talking about Hurricane Maria with such happiness, saying that it was the best thing that happened to Puerto Rico. She said it so contentedly, and sure, yes us Puerto Ricans look for the positive in situations over the negative. But it isn’t the same. So I think that’s what bothers me the most, not having empathy nor respect for the place they’re going to benefit from.
How is it for you being an artist so big in the U.S. when there are such strong tensions between the two? Do you ever feel like you have an obligation to educate?
Yes, I always talk about it to my friends from here. If I’m with someone I can educate, I will. I always do it. And not just in the songs or the interview. I do it in real life. If I’m with someone and I hear something very ignorant about my country or my culture, I always try to educate them, like ‘No it’s not like that.’
Do you think the U.S. government has failed the Puerto Rican people?
[Immediately giggles] I think that the government has failed Puerto Rico, it’s failed the United States. Equally, Puerto Rico has failed Puerto Rico. I believe that all governments have failed their country at some point.
Do you feel it’s unfair that you get these political questions that you have to speak on behalf of the entire Island?
Yes, I think it’s unfair. And that’s why some artists don’t do it. If you don’t talk about it in your songs, you won’t get these types of questions. They’re not going to ask Daddy Yankee something like that. I don’t know why I said Daddy Yankee, sorry Daddy Yankee. They won’t ask them something like that because they don’t address that in their songs. I will limit talking about that because then I don’t want them to ask me. When I’m writing my music I’m not thinking, ‘Well then they’re going to ask me.’ I’m thinking simply about expressing myself at that moment. Because when they ask me it might be hard for me to express because I’m not as good with my words when I’m talking. But in the songs, yes, that’s where I’ll say it because that’s where I feel comfortable—I feel intelligent, I feel capable of. In my songs I will be able to express myself fully like how I want. That question could be a bit unfair because I simply do a song and then a responsibility so big falls on me. That responsibility isn’t only on me. If I weren’t to release that song talking about something no one would ask me. We wouldn’t be doing an interview with that type of question.
You go by the mantra “yo hago lo que me da la gana” as referenced in the title of your sophomore album YHLQMDLG. The more famous you get, do you still think that’s still the case?
Yes. Because I don’t care about fame. I don’t care about that pressure that we were talking about. I don’t care about that. I’m a person. I’m a human and I make mistakes. I have always said I will live how I want. But I never limit or act a way because of what they’re going to say or think—no. I’m famous and I don’t stop being human.
Your appearance in Bullet Train alongside Brad Pitt was epic. Where has your interest in acting come from and what was that experience like?
I have always liked acting. Where I grew up, if you like something it’s the only thing that you like. It’s complicated to take classes for music, piano, singing, and acting. It requires money and time. When you’re growing up where the conditions are not the city like San Juan, you have almost everything, theaters and stuff. I always liked acting, but not more than music. Music is always number one. So when the opportunity came for acting it’s coming thanks to my fame and success in music. I’ve tried it and like it. The Bullet Train experience was super cabrón (awesome).
What was more difficult? Fighting with Brad Pitt or fighting with the Mizz on WWE?
Definitely fighting with Brad Pitt. That fight was hard because it was physical and serious. But the two were cabronas (amazing fights). The day with Mizz—that fight that day was the best day of my life.
Do you feel like the more famous you get the more fans invade your personal space?
I think it’s possible that they operate in a different way. If they understand that we are the same, we are human, that we should not be aggressive, why invade my private space? I always say I will never say no to someone who comes up to me to say hi. I will never leave someone’s hand out that’s greeting me. Never. If you’re coming up like you’re going to rob me, then yes, it’ll bother me. Someone will ask me for a photo, I stretch out my hand, and they leave it there because they’re looking for their phone. Why do you want a picture with me? Cause I’m the Statue of liberty? I’m a human. Greet me. The photo isn’t worth more than a greeting. A photo isn’t worth more than an exchange of words. That’s worth more than a photo. You can say I know Bad Bunny. You prefer to know me or have a picture with me?
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Do you still live in Puerto Rico?
I always say I live in PR because I don’t know. I could be two years in LA but I’ll always say that I live in Puerto Rico. Now I’m here in LA for a little while. I’d like to move to other places like New York. But yes my home is in Puerto Rico. I say I still live in Puerto Rico because I know it’s just temporary. Just for a bit looking for other experiences. But at the end of the day I’ll always go back to Puerto Rico and will stay forever.
Your film Cassandro received buzz at the Sundance Film Festival. How was that experience?
Amazing. That was one of my first experiences acting. I remember I was nervous. I think I was more nervous than for Bullet Train because it was my first experience. I didn’t want to joderlo (mess it up) or ruin it. Acting with Gael was so great and they treated me super well. I’m glad it was my first experience.
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Your first on screen kiss was with Gael Garcia Bernal. How was that?
It was cabrón (badass). My first kiss for a movie and it was with a man. That’s the penalty I get for being with so many women during my life. [Begins to laugh] If you’re acting, you’re being someone you’re not. That’s the fun part. So when they asked me for that I said, ‘Yes, I’m here for whatever you want.’ I think it was very cool. I didn’t feel uncomfortable. It’s part of acting. It’s part of what I’m doing.
Anything you can share on your Marvel film ‘El Muerto’?
We haven’t recorded any scenes yet. Maybe they’ll switch me out for Pedro Pascal. [Laughs]
You’ve always been a fan of wrestling. What was that day like stepping into the WWE ring?
Best day of my life. I never felt that kind of adrenaline before. I wanted to explode before. It was like I was a kid all over again. And the fight—it was the blink of an eye. Everything happened fast.
It appears like you’ve been learning a lot of English. Is learning the language something you felt pressured to do or always had an interest in?
No. I’m just learning, that’s it. There’s a lot of things that I’m losing, like opportunities, ‘cause the language. I didn’t care about [learning] English. But now, I think I care. It has been so natural just talking and practicing but without pressure or with one goal or something.
Does it bother you when people ask if you’ll ever do music in English?
No, because I think it’s a fair question. But no one asks Drake when he’s going to make a Spanish song. The day I feel like I need to do a song in English, I’ll do it because I feel it.
You said 2023 is the year for you?
Everyday I exercise, rest, watch TV, write music—but without pressure—not that I have to do it, it’s because I like it.
Tainy told us you like to decorate your studios according to your vibe. What is your studio currently decorated like?
For Un Verano Sin Ti, I put little plants to make it look tropical. Now I have created a space that looks like, ‘70s—very colorful, vintage. Colors from that time. I’m on that vibe right now. I’m buying ‘70s cars, ‘70s shit. ‘70s drugs. [Laughs]
You’re the first Latino to headline the famous Coachella music festival in Indio, Calif. How are you feeling going into it?
A lot of people ask me that in the street. I’m like, ‘Am I supposed to feel something?’ I performed at Azteca. I performed at Yankee Stadium. I’ve performed every place. Coachella is going to be another f–king performance to me. I felt more pressure at the Hiram Bithorn [Stadium in Puerto Rico] than I feel for Coachella. Obviously I’m excited. I want to do my best.
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Your Yankee Stadium show was iconic. Do you want Coachella to top that one?
There’s a lot of megastars that have performed at Coachella before so I don’t want to compete with any of them. I just want to be myself. A lot of legends have performed at Coachella but no one like me. There’s never been a Benito performing at Coachella. And that’s the cool thing for me.
What do you want your fans to experience at your Coachella set?
I want them to enjoy the show. I want the people to feel free like it’s not Coachella—we’re in the barrio (town), on the beach. At Coachella, there’s never been someone from where I come from. There hasn’t been anyone that will bring what I bring. I want people to not feel pressure or responsibility. We’re going to enjoy where we are now because we don’t know where we’re going.
I was looking at all of the Coachella flyers since ‘99. I forgot I was doing it this year. I saw that it said my name for 2023—I thought it was fake. It was a bit impressive. All of the people that have been and now it’s me, but it doesn’t change who I am as an artist and as a person. If I’m there it’s because I do my job well. I don’t want to try doing something bigger than Beyoncé or Radiohead.
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Lastly we need to know… Do you have a song with Justin Bieber coming out?
There’s a song with Justin Bieber? It’s a rumor? No, I don’t have a song with Justin Bieber. That’s fake. You’re never going to know what I’m going to do. Don’t lie to yourself, you will not know my next move.
—With reporting by Israel Meléndez Ayala