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Latina Reads: Puerto Rican Author Lilliam Rivera Discusses Upcoming YA Latinx Feminist Novel

Lilliam Rivera has written two novels featuring strong Latinx female characters including her latest Dealing in Dreams. The Puerto Rican YA author released The Education of Margot Sanchez in 2017, a romantic coming of age story set in South Bronx that explored family dysfunction and the importance of being true to yourself. Born in Manhattan and raised in the Bronx, Rivera penned the ode to her hometown after relocating to Los Angeles. The book was nominated for the 2017 Best Fiction for Young Adult Fiction by the Young Adult Library Services Association and Rivera has also been awarded fellowships from PEN Center USA, A Room Of Her Own Foundation, and received a grant from the Elizabeth George Foundation and the Speculative Literature Foundation.

In Dealing in Dreams, Rivera takes readers on the kind of fantasy adventure she imagines her teenage self would’ve wanted to read. The feminist dystopic novel is clearly influenced by Latinx culture following the adventures of sixteen-year-old Nalah and her all-girl crew Las Mal Criadas and her dreams of escaping Mega City to the exclusive Mega Towers. Read on to learn about the strong Latinx women in the book, why she chose to portray toxic femininity, and how immigration came into play. The book will be out March 5 and she’ll be talking at bookstores throughout the U.S.

The story focuses on an all-girl crew, can you tell me more about Las Mal Criadas and how you developed these characters?

Nalah is the sixteen-year-old leader of Las Mal Criadas, an all-girl crew who patrol the streets of Mega City. They are notoriously fierce but Nalah is wary of the violent life. She believes the way off the streets is securing a home in the exclusive Mega Towers where her leader Déesse lives. She’ll do anything to reach that goal. I wrote a draft of Dealing In Dreams six years ago and Nalah came to me first. I had just given birth to my second daughter and there were people, mostly women, who remarked how my dream of being a published author would have to be placed on hold. Rage can be a great incentive for generating art. I refuse to be pigeonholed. I wrote this draft while taking care of a newborn and I put it away for six years, workshopping a chapter here and there, until a year ago when I returned to the manuscript and still felt its relevance.

Can you describe Mega City and the Mega Towers and their significance in the story?

@lilliamr / Instagram

I based the concept of the Mega Towers on the housing projects I grew up in the South Bronx. The Twin Park West Housing Projects is a U-shaped structure connected by three buildings. With the Bronx slowly being gentrified I could just imagine how these buildings will soon be so desirable for those in power. In Dealing In Dreams, the towers are the only structure that survived the Big Shake, a man-made disaster caused by drilling. The Mega Towers is where the elite live and it’s where Nalah believes she can secure a home for her crew if she plays by this society’s rules. There are a couple of hints that Mega City is the Bronx but only a person from there would discover those Easter eggs.

The book is being described as a feminist Latinx dystopia and The Outsiders meets Mad Max so suffice it to say it’s a fierce book, how would you describe it to someone who is unfamiliar with the genre? 

I would describe Dealing In Dreams as a young adult book about a girl who grew up in a violent world and must decide if that path is truly her only salvation to a better life.

There is a very clear Latinx influence in the city and characters, why was that important to you?

@lilliamr / Instagram

I grew up reading so many science fiction and fantasy novels (Ray Bradbury, George Orwell…) and didn’t see any of my people in them. Where were the Puerto Rican girls from the Bronx crushing monsters? The same holds true of current films. I love Star Wars and have watched it hundreds of times but how amazing is it that my kids get to see Oscar Isaac being a part of the Star Wars canon? The future I envision in my novels is very brown and very black, just like my upbringing. I want to write Latinx characters that are flawed and heroic, who fall in love and discover their voice.

This is your second time writing a teenage Latinx protagonist, why is it important to you to tell these stories through the lens of a Latina?

These are the type of stories I craved for when I was young, desperately trying to connect with protagonists in novels. I think there’s more than enough room in bookstores and libraries for different Latina stories.

You take toxic masculinity and flip it to women instead, what was your intent in doing this?

There’s this great image of activist Angela Peoples taken during the Women’s March. Angela holds up a sign that reads “Don’t Forget: White Women Voted for Trump.” I thought of that image when I was rewriting the novel. I also kept thinking of how our own people will gladly throw us under the bus in order to secure a place beside someone in power. Sometimes our own family are quick to lead us to destruction. I wanted to explore those two realities in Dealing In Dreams.

What are some of the main concepts you wanted to tackle when you wrote this book and why?

I was thinking of books I’ve read that inspired me as a young person such as Anthony Burgess A Clockwork Orange and S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders. I was drawn to their violence and also to the idea of formed families. I wanted to explore this idea of blood family versus the family you create but I wanted to come from the point of view of a Latina.

The idea of finding a better home is a concept that’s all too real for many Latinx in the US, was it a conscious decision to have Nalah’s journey mirror the immigrant experience in a sense?

@lilliamr / Instagram

The quest for home is so rooted in my family’s history. My parents left Puerto Rico to find a better home in New York. Each decision they made, however hard, was made with the intention of providing us with the tools to succeed. Almost everyone who wants to enter the United States come with that hope. There’s an amazing painting by the artist Judithe Hernández titled “La Muerte De Los Inocentes” and it is of a child who clutches a ribbon that states: “We come but to dream.” I feel that painting really captures Nalah’s journey and the journey of so many who come to the U.S. searching for a better life.

There’s a lot of action in this book, what was it like writing those scenes featuring all women?

I had the best time writing those scenes! I think it’s so rare to see young women owning their strength on the page and not being afraid to use it. I love that my characters are unapologetic about it. I also didn’t want to give the reader a chance to rest, to think of putting the book down, so I tried to inject as much action as I could.

What do you want readers to take away from Dealing in Dreams?

I want readers to be transported to a place that looks at times familiar and completely new. I want Nalah, Truck, Nena and the rest of Las Mal Criadas to leave an imprint on the readers long after they read the last page.

Read: YA Writer Tehlor Kay Mejia’s Debut Fantasy Book is a Feminist Story of Forbidden Love and Oppression

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20 Things You’ll Learn Growing Up Puerto Rican

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20 Things You’ll Learn Growing Up Puerto Rican

If there is one country you would wish you have grown up in, that would be Puerto Rico. From its amazing food to their immaculate beaches to its amazing rainforest, Puerto Rico certainly has a lot of reasons for others to be jealous of. For those born or raised in Puerto Rico, here are top 20 things that you have learned having been raised Puerto Rican.

1.  Rice and beans are everyday staples.

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Whether you have chicharrones de Pollo, bistec encebollado, chuletas, or carne guisado, side dishes will always remain rice and beans. For variation, you use other types of beans like black beans, red kidney beans, garbanzos, habas, or white navy beans.

2. You were made to believe that the gusanos will eat you if you refuse to wear shoes.

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Every Puerto Rican kid, at some point, has heard his mom shouting “Vas a coger gusanos (hookworms) after he walks around without any shoes.

3. Your home is beautifully adorned with vejigante masks.

@PuertoRicoPUR / Twitter


Vejigante masks are colorful masks inspired by the folkloric character. Most Puerto Rican household have their home decorated with these artisan-crafted masks that use unique materials like hollowed-out coconuts and paper Mache.

4. Miss Universe Pageants are considered as prestigious as the Academy Awards.

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Puerto Ricans love their beauty queens, and it doesn’t come as a surprise that comes Miss Universe pageants nights, locals will go ga-ga over the competition. Of course, some of the pageant’s title holders come from La Isla del Encanto (Deborah Carthy Due, Marisol Malaret, and Dayanara Torres to name just a few.

5. You grew up scared of Tuesday the 13th, instead of Friday.

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While the whole world believes Friday the 13th is a cursed day, Puerto Ricans say it’s Tuesday the 13th. They strongly believe this day is jinxed that they even believe in the say “Marter 13, nit e cases, nit eembarques, ni de tufamilia te apartes,” meaning, “On Tuesday the 13th, avoid getting married, avoid boarding a boat or a plane, and never separate from your family.

6. You find lots of plastics on practically every furniture piece you have at home.

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Puerto Rican natives find plastic aesthetically interesting. In fact, most households’ pieces of furniture have elements of plastic on them.

7. Your mom shouts when it’s dinner time.

@motherwolowitz / Twitter


Even if you live in a one-bedroom apartment, when it’s dinner time, chances are, you will always hear your mom screaming at the top of her lungs to get the message across. The volume meter of Puerto Rican households only has one setting.

8. Goya products are staples.

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Every meal you have contains up to six Goya products. The most common are Sazon and Adobo.

9. Your mom loves Ricky Martin.

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From small parties to big events and even family gatherings, Ricky Martin will never be out of the picture. Puerto Ricans love this Latino sensation so much so that his name has eventually become a household name over the years.

10. You are obliged to call your mom religiously.

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Especially if you are not physically with your mom, you must call her at least once a day so as to avoid getting reported to the missing person’s list.

11. Puerto Ricans are very interesting when it comes to plane rides.

@airwaysmagazine / Twitter


Have you ever been inside a plane with a bunch of Puerto Ricans? Perhaps you have noticed how they start clapping by the time their plane touches the runway.

12. Telenovelas are very important.

@TInovelasM / Twitter


Just as much as they love the Miss Universe beauty pageants, Puerto Ricans love their telenovelas. In fact, they are as important as major holiday events like Christmas and birthdays. Interrupting them while they’re in the middle of a show is considered extremely rude.

13. Puerto Rican parents are very strict.

@TopCaricaturist / Twitter


Do you plan on hanging out with your friends? Expect your parents, especially your mom to bombard you with a lot of questions. Where do you plan to go? Who goes with you? Do your friend’s parents know? How are you going out? Puerto Rican parents are generally very strict as compared with any average parent. Ask any native Puerto Rican and you will really get the whole idea about how parents ask and how you can bribe them when you really wish to go out.

14. Puerto Rican point using their lips.

@AtwcInfo / Twitter


While most of us instinctively use our fingers to point on something, Puerto Ricans do it differently. They use their lips instead. When you ask them something, like directions, they just simply pout their lips to point to where you are asking.

15. Puerto Ricans can speak with their face.

@GuidoSSBM / Twitter


Most Puerto Ricans have this distinct quality where they can talk and express what they wish to say by making faces to each other. Say, for instance, twitching the entire face will basically translate into “what do you want?”

16. All cereals are called “con-flei”.

@CraigSetzer / Twitter


From Cookie Crisp to Apple Jacks, to multigrain and cinnamon toast crunch, all cereals are called “con-flei” in Puerto Rico. Thus, when your mamita calls you for some “con-flei”, then you’re definitely in luck.

17. You learn interesting words / vocabularies.

@VocabularyNinja / Twitter


Words such as “ay bandito, “chacho”, “wepa”, and “chacha” become your second nature in vocabulary.

18. Cousins, cousins, and more cousins.

@JohandriPienaar / Twitter


Puerto Ricans are closely-knitted families. It will not come as a surprise if you talk to any Puerto Rican native and ask them how many cousins they have, they will tell you they have at least 20.

19. You use VICKS to cure practically everything.

@vicksvaporub01 / Twitter


Does your head hurt? Use Vicks. Are you breaking out? Use Vicks. Do you have allergies? Use Vicks. Vicks is practically the holy grail of any minor medical issues. Just rub it on your forehead or on your chest and you are good to go.

20. You start to drink alcohol at 16.

@Dear_Booze / Twitter


Yes, 18 is the legal age of drinking. But Puerto Rico is way different. Seeing young teenagers in clubs is normal in Puerto Rico.

Puerto Rico’s quality of life is somewhat similar to that of the United States. Aside from its amazing tropical island landscape, a myriad of outdoor activities, sun-drenched weather, and vibrant culture, Puerto Rico also boasts of its variety of entertainment and dining options and opulent resort lifestyle.

This country is a lively mix of Spanish, Taino, and African influences. In fact, this fusion event extends to practically almost all aspects of Puerto Rican like. Puerto Rico also has captivating cultural events like the Fiestas de la Calle San Sebastian to mark the Christmas season and the Heineken JazzFest where international Latin jazz stars are expected to perform.

What most people are not aware of is that Puerto Rico is actually a part of the US territory. Meaning, Americans can easily travel to and from the US sans the passport. Puerto Rico uses the US currency and most of their local speak bilingual.

Whether you are born and raised in Puerto Rico, or you feel like you wish to visit the country for some rest and recreation, this country is definitely one place worth your time.


References:

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Up Next: Minnesota Boricua Singer-Rapper Maria Isa Makes Music That Ignites Change

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Up Next: Minnesota Boricua Singer-Rapper Maria Isa Makes Music That Ignites Change

Up Next is a FIERCE series highlighting rising Latina and Latin American women artists you might not know about but definitely should.

For Maria Isa, music is passion, tradition and resistance.

When the Puerto Rican singer-rapper croons, her voice carries the talent of her late grandmother. Her beats thump like the rhythms of her Borikén ancestors. Her lyrics share hidden histories and inspire change.

“We come from a culture where our music is our torch in activism. Our drums are resistance. Our plena is a newspaper for the island,” the St. Paul, Minnesota-based artist told FIERCE.

Growing up in a largely white environment in Minnesota, the 31-year-old’s parents used culture, teaching her about traditional Afro-Puerto Rican musical genres like bomba and the activism of the Young Lords in New York and Chicago, to instill self-knowledge and pride in one’s identity, both necessary to survive in a society where few at the time even knew what a Boricua was. Today, she combines those ritmos and stories with hip-hop, becoming a leader in arts and music in her ‘hood and beyond.

We spoke with the self-identified SotaRican about music as activism, sustaining culture, making songs for multifaceted women of color and more.

FIERCE: You grew up in a Puerto Rican home in the Twin Cities, Minnesota. Talk to me about that. What were your musical influences growing up, both at home and on the block, and what impact do you think these genres have had on your own style today?

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On behalf of El Fondo Boricua Thank you to @elgritodesunsetpark Sunset Park Relief Coalition for all of your dedication and hands on work in Puerto Rico. From collecting, shipping, providing and distributing 2million pounds of emergency supplies to the island of Borikén as of Oct. It is a true honor to be recognized and representing El Fondo Boricua Hurricane Relief fund of the Saint Paul Foundation today as a Goodwill Ambassador at the Sunset Park Puerto Rican Day Parade. We must not forget Puerto Rico and the lives that have been lost. We must not forget that ???????? needs so much more . Being here in NYC with Boricuas from the island and throughout the US in celebrating our Pride for our isla y cultura this weekend is healing. Our drums, our voices, our resisitance For our families, friends and gente on the island is continued to be recognized and we WILL continue to make sure more is done for our island's future. Thank you to the Boricuas on the island and throughout our beautiful diaspora that continue each day to do what we can. Thank you to the SotaRican community (Boricuas from MN) and the state of MN for having our backs from day 1 after Hurricane Maria hit. Gracias for your continuous support. Thank you to all who have and continue to donate to #ElFondoBoricua .org . #PuertoRicoSeLevanta #quevivapuertorico #quevivaBorikenlibre #4645boricuas T-shirt designed by me. Printing by Black House Printing who are taking orders at blackhouseprinting@gmail.com where Proceeds will go to El Fondo Boricua Hurricane Relief fund

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Maria Isa: Definitely the influences in my home were very soulful: bomba, plena, salsa, funk, into the birth of hip-hop. I was raised by those elements. I was raised on soul, everything from Afro-Boricua soul music to jibaro music to Fania to Nuyorican salsa. This all pumped my veins and opened my musical platform of knowledge.

FIERCE: Talk to me about your childhood. Did you grow up in a musical home? When did you realize you could sing and rap and decide you wanted to do this for real?

Maria Isa: My grandmother, on my father’s side, she was a singer in Puerto Rico. Before migrating to New York, she was in a choir that was pretty popular in Ponce. She wasn’t a performing artist, but her voice sang till she was 87. She taught me the traditional arroz con leche songs as a girl. Holidays were filled with plena and my grandfather, her husband, singing and playing the guitar or trumpet. My aunt was a jazz singer. She sang jazz in Chicago in the ‘70s, and, in 1992, she moved to Minnesota to meet up with my father and moved in with us. She was a big figure in my life. Her and my mother realized Boricuas and Latinos in the community didn’t have cultural spaces to learn and were not culturally engaged, and wanted to make sure we had what they had in New York and Puerto Rico. They started a nonprofit organization when I was five, that’s when and where I started my training with bomba. My aunt was the artistic director, and mom, who worked in philanthropy, was the executive director. It built a foundation for a lot of the Latino youth here to learn about music and history.

FIERCE: This is beautiful. At what point did these efforts to instill cultural understanding and pride turn into you wanting to be a performer?

Maria Isa: When I was younger, my padrinos used to bring in big bands and artists to perform in Minnesota. One time, they brought La India. My parents and everyone were dancing salsa, and I ran off with my padrino and his wife, who were like the promoters, backstage. La India saw me, pointed to me and gestured for me to go on the stage with her. I did, and in that moment I knew this was what I wanted to do. Looking out into the beautiful collection of brown people in Minnesota trying to survive white supremacy, I knew at 7 years old.

FIERCE: Wow! That’s a dope story. La India? That’s amazing. I know, for you, music and singing is a form of activism. Can you talk about that?

Maria Isa: We come from a culture where our music is our torch in activism. Our drums are resistance. Our plena is a newspaper for the island. The first songs I listened to were campo songs about surviving hard times. This then turned into hip-hop lyricism. I’m an educator, I work as a youth mentor, and I realize that if we don’t know who we are or where we come from, how can we achieve physical, spiritual and mental wellness? So my songwriting is informed by history.

FIERCE: Your latest album, Sasa, which I have to say was really beautifully done, includes tracks that criticize Puerto Rico’s colonial status and tackles issues occuring on the island right now, including the Jones Act and moves toward privatization, talks about reparations and also includes bewitching songs about self-care, women feelin’ themselves and dancing to their own beat. You chose to dedicate this project to your mother and women of color leaders. How do you think this speaks to the multifacetedness of women today, being both someone who has no problem shaking their ass, as you sing on this album, and having an opinion and putting in work in social justice and revolutionary movements?

Maria Isa: I look at being Latina in a metaphorical way. Sonia Sotomayor is my aunt and Cardi B is my cousin, and both are getting theirs. Both are survivors. We don’t choose where we come from or the situation we are born into, but we can survive and figure out ways of balancing and encouraging growth and positivity. That’s what Sasa is to me. That’s my mom’s encouragement and the encouragement she got from the women in her life. That’s our ancestors’ encouragement. I look at my circle of mujeres, family or comrades, and we are some badass bitches. We are badass guerreras and luchadoras and come from different shades and stories, but our connection is we want to empower the next generation.

FIERCE: Oftentimes, people are skeptical of music that is rooted in activism and change-making, because, if we are being totally real, a lot of time the shit ain’t poppin’, maybe the beats are weak, the rhymes are elementary, whatever. But your music also bangs and you’ve even shared stages and opened up for mainstream acts like Bad Bunny, Kendrick Lamar, Wu Tang Clan, Common, The Roots, La India, Bomba Estereo, Ana Tijoux and more. How do you think you’ve been able to find that medium that works?

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Tonight. Photo Credit: Maldonado Efren

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Maria Isa: Staying true! All those artists you mentioned do that, too. No one thought, except people in the ‘hood, Kendrick Lamar was going to get an award, but he did while being true to himself. Bad Bunny is a young cat from Vega Baja who was bagging at a grocery store a couple years ago and now is winning everywhere while being true to his self-expression. Wu Tang Clan, these are a group of men that have survived so much, some aren’t even living. I just came to the realization that Lauryn Hill only has only album. People talk shit about that, but they have no idea what she fought and battled. I’ve sat in record label offices since I was 18 and passed on deals from people who wanted to change how I look because my music means more to me than what the deal is. Lauryn may only have one album, but she’s still the greatest. And she also stayed true.

FIERCE: Talking about your experience with record labels, in 2009, almost 10 years ago, you started your own independent label SotaRico — love the name! — where you’ve distributed several of your projects. Why start this and what are some of the pros and cons of being independent?

Maria Isa: Cons: no money and no budget. It’s independent, so it’s your blood, sweat and tears. I have a great team of support with producers. It runs like a campaign. The pros is everything that comes out. We know where it’s built. We can trace and acknowledge it. It’s ours. Another pro is being able to open up paths for so many younger emcees, girls and guys, to believe in themselves. I didn’t wake up and was like, I want my own label. But I started to learn that labels are willing to go aside from what I wanted, and I wanted these decisions to be mine.

FIERCE: When we think about Boricua artists, we often think of folk coming out of New York, Chicago, Miami or the island, rarely ever Minnesota. And, because of this, you are very intentional about bigging up Puerto Ricans from the Midwest and embracing this part of your identity. How do you feel you embody the essence of the Twin Cities, your ‘hood, whether in your music, your aesthetic or simply your way of being?

Maria Isa: My family was one of the first Boricuas in the state of Minnesota. Saint Paul is very influential. Our godfather of music here is Prince, and Prince was heavily involved in bringing hip-hop and Latin into his music. He recorded in the suburbs, not a diverse community, but he had everyone in the ‘80s and ‘90s vibing here. As far as my own work is in music, it’s engaged in the Puerto Rican movement. We might be small in numbers here, but we have power. We have a state senator from Aguadilla and Isabela, a house representative from Humboldt Park, a head of neurology who was one of the first doctors to come from San Juan in the ‘70s. We make things happen. I’m proud of that.

FIERCE: You’re not just an artist, you also have a really cool podcast, “Latina Theory,” which NPR called one of the “Top Latinx Podcasts in the Country.” What are you able to explore through this medium, or maybe just approach differently, that you might not be able to through music?

Maria Isa: It’s being able to engage in conversation with my co-host, who is Chicana, and share similarities, differences and stereotypes that Latinas have survived in Minnesota and the Midwest and create platforms for other Latinas to be on our show and share without shame. It allows us to engage and support one another on a larger scale, and that’s why we cover everything, from health to entertainment. We created Latinx Theory as a session, because we want it to feel like we are with you.

FIERCE: Love that! It’s February, the start of a new year with endless possibilities. What can we expect from Maria Isa in the coming months, whether in music or your work outside of this?

Maria Isa: There are a lot of things poppin’, let’s just say that. I’m expecting a baby girl, my daughter, my first child. I’m working on a new chapter and journey that’s going to change my life. I’m working on a mixtape to drop right before giving birth, and I’m pushing Sasa. I’m going to be out the first few months after I have my baby, so I won’t be performing in the spring or summer, but come September/October, I will have the Latinx Tour. We are going across and networking with different organizations, artists and universities that are sharing their spaces for our art and movements to be heard. I’m also working on a Latina cookbook. I’m type 1 diabetic, and I eat natural and healthy, but I still have our traditional foods. For instance, I make a dairy-free coquito that’s really, really good. So I just want us to take care of ourselves and educate ourselves on our bodies and make Boricua recipes just a little healthier.

FIERCE: Omg! So much to be excited about. You are 31 years old. In five to 10 years, what do you hope people can say about Maria Isa?

Maria Isa: She’s still doing it. The music gets better. Our movement has grown stronger. Our youth are in a higher percentile of education, and our health is strong — mentally and physically. Look how well we can change by speaking our truth and history and sharing that with the world.

Read: Up Next: Dominicana Rapper Jenn Morel Turned A Short Freestyle Into A Platinum Record

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