Music Alumni Spotlight
Sebastián Otero

A feature written by Zoe Boggs ‘22 for the Department of Music

photo of Sebastian Otero by Harry Xavier

Sebastián Otero (B.A. in Ethnomusicology and Latin American and Caribbean Studies ‘19) brings an array of different creative skills to his music-making; he’s a singer, songwriter, rapper, violinist, and poet. Otero, who’s from Puerto Rico and lives there now, has spent the years since his graduation from Brown performing and creating music. In fact, his first EP, created with producer and musician Eduardo Cabra, will be coming out sometime before summer 2022.

Music has long been a central part of Otero’s life, and he spent his undergraduate years at Brown performing with various student groups as well as on his own. Instead of studying pure music, however, he decided to concentrate in ethnomusicology after taking an ethno elective during his freshman year. “I was like, this merges several of my interests -- I started to have a more anthropological lens on music making,” he says.

Studying ethnomusicology gave Otero a new language to use and new ways to think about his music. “I was developing new ethical questions and moral questions about, like, how you integrate different types of rhythms, and how you should definitely know where they came from. Ethno also gave me a lot of exposure to different music-making processes and communities around the world,” he says. Otero took theory and recording studio classes as well, sampling from all the offerings in the Department of Music to enrich his musical practice. He had “an amazing, solid creative community at Brown,” and he still works with some of the friends he made in college, like videographer Adam Hershko-RonaTas ‘18, Ana Marx ‘19, and Wes Sanders ‘15.5.

Even with the disruption of the COVID-19 pandemic, Otero hasn’t stopped his creative productivity, and he’s been able to work with new collaborators as well. In 2019, he connected with Eduardo Cabra, of the beloved and politically-outspoken Puerto Rican rap duo Calle 13. “Eduardo is pretty much one of my role models in terms of how to make music,” he says. “When I was eight, for example, I was a fan of Bayanga, one of his first bands, and I would go see him in concert.” Over the past two years, Otero has assisted Cabra in recording sessions, performed with his band Trending Tropics at a large music festival in the Dominican Republic, and signed to his new label, La Casa del Sombrero. Through these experiences, he’s learned a lot about performing live and the songwriting process.

photo of Sebastian Otero in concert by Camilo Santana

In songs that Otero has been writing for his upcoming EP, he’s capturing what he’s feeling in the present moment. A song of his from 2019 with a recently-released music video, “Vaivén” (featuring Émina), meditates on the passage of time, despair, and resistance. “Voy a clavar mi sombra en la pared/Pa’ que cuando muera, siga de pie,” he sings in the chorus; “I will nail my shadow to the wall, so that when I die, I’ll remain upright.” Love is a common theme in his writing, but not just interpersonal love -- “it can also be about love for your country, about knowing that there are politicians that are making horrendous public policies, for example,” says Otero. His songwriting “is a way to channel that, maybe through confronting these types of policies and these types of characters, but it comes from love and anger, too.”

Otero’s songs express his love for Puerto Rico, and he also shows this devotion through action and activism. After Hurricane Maria devastated the island in 2017, Otero and other Puerto Rican students at Brown came together to collect food and donations to support the communities that were hit. Once Otero could get back to PR, he participated in efforts to help those who didn’t have power or whose homes were damaged. “It was kind of complex, because we knew how negligent the government was being, and we needed to express that, but at the same time, we needed to cover the people who didn’t have roofs,” he says. “We’re still trying to get on top of it, it’s a continuing process.”

It’s been a busy few years for Otero, and he has a lot more plans for the future. He wants to perform live with his band again, maybe tour the EP and play at a few festivals, and turn a room in his home into a workspace for recording music. Another big goal is to be invited for an NPR Tiny Desk concert. Through it all, he’ll be championing the beauty and music of Puerto Rico while fighting to improve it. Otero is someone to keep an eye out for, which you can do by watching his latest music video on his YouTube channel and following him on Instagram, Spotify, or Apple Music.

Portrait photo of Sebastián Otero by Harry Xavier
Photo of Sebastián Otero in concert by Camilo Santana