Prince Royce sounds groggy. His voice is raspy, not at all resembling the air-light vocalist who has cooed sweet nothings over bachata melodies for the past decade on his way to becoming one of Latin music’s major breakout stars. But he’s got a good reason to be tired: The 28-year-old just wrapped a video shoot with Chris Brown in L.A., and in the evening, he’s hopping a plane to Chile to perform for a sea of doting fans in support of his most recent album, “Five,” a Spanglish braid of bachata and R&B.
Royce has straddled the English- and Spanish-language music industries for years, often dipping into songs that are a departure from the Dominican style that made him a heartthrob across Latin America. While some of his English language efforts have been more successful than others, he, along with Colombian artists J Balvin and Maluma, continually surface as the Latin stars poised to make it big in American markets. The conversation about who has the most crossover appeal has become increasingly intense, with fans and industry experts comparing the singers’ strengths against each other as if they were boxers. And a lot of this added attention has to do with one word that has taken over the summer: “Despacito.”
In music circles, the story of “Despacito” has been repeated so often that it’s starting to feel like a folk tale. Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee, two established Puerto Rican artists, released a reggaeton-meets-pop earworm so catchy that when Justin Bieber heard it in a nightclub in Colombia, he immediately asked to hop on the track. Soon there was a shiny new remix that featured Bieber singing in Spanish for the first time.
A dash of the Biebs proved to be the missing ingredient that would make “Despacito” a viral music phenomenon. The original Daddy Yankee and Fonsi song had resonated in Latin America, but the Bieber boost shot the remix to unprecedented heights. The track steamrolled its way to becoming the first Spanish-language No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 since 1996’s “La Macarena.” It reigned as the most-streamed song in Spotify history, and the music video (which doesn’t include Bieber) shattered YouTube records when it reached 3 billion views.
As “Despacito” ricocheted through the world of mainstream pop, Balvin was putting the finishing touches on a syncopating Spanish-language reggaeton banger called “Mi Gente.” A month after its debut, “Mi Gente” blew past “Despacito” to reach No. 1 on Spotify’s Global Top 50 chart, where it has remained for the past three weeks.
The success of these two songs has rekindled the promise of Latin music’s previously dwindling influence in the mainstream pop stratosphere, while also hinting at new opportunities for both emerging acts and those, such as Prince Royce, who have been in the game for years.
“The rules are the same: Work on great music that connects with people. But you kind of feel it where there’s a whole big interest now in Latin music, and people are searching and Googling, and labels are looking for songs that have a little more Latin flavor,” Royce said.
Most of the excitement positions “Despacito” and “Mi Gente” as the beginning of a new Latin crossover era — of which there had been little talk about over the past decade. While Latin crossovers have occurred throughout history (the Estefans’ Miami sound of the late ’80s, the mambo craze of the ’50s), the boom of the early 2000s stands out vividly, as it turned artists such as Shakira, Jennifer Lopez, Enrique Iglesias and Ricky Martin into international megastars.
But while Shakira and Martin perfected a string of pop jams in English to court the American market, the artists currently in the spotlight have done things differently. Daddy Yankee, Fonsi and Balvin injected Spanish straight into the heart of mainstream pop, a proposition that insists that if the music is good, the language won’t matter.
“I think now everyone has to be super open-minded to different sounds,” Balvin says. “If you don’t know how to speak English, how are you going to do an English song just to reach someone? I came with my Spanish and the No. 1 is in Spanish. That’s the special thing about ‘Mi Gente’ . . . I’m creating a new statement with that. It’s possible, it’s all Spanish.”
Today’s artists have another major advantage: streaming technology. No one has watched the Latin industry’s digital progress more closely than Rocio Guerrero, Spotify’s Head of Latin Culture, Shows and Editorial, who says streaming has given Latin artists hard, undeniable numbers that prove their popularity and demand attention from mainstream outlets.
“I actually believe that Latin music lovers have always been there and will always be there. The difference is that now, there is a way to measure that, whether its views on YouTube or streams on Spotify,” she said.
Walter Kolm, the former president of Universal Music Latino/Machete and current manager for Latin heavyweights including Carlos Vives and Maluma, explained that in today’s era, technology has globalized music and made it so that “the audience decides what they want to watch and listen to.”
“Labels and brands are looking [to] and including Latino artists into their global budgets and marketing campaigns, and it is also an eye opener for the media around the world to be more educated about the Latino music and community,” Kolm said.
But the question remains how to keep the momentum around Latin music growing. Few people know what the next move is for artists like Fonsi and Daddy Yankee, who are now put in the near-impossible position of figuring out how to follow an all-time hit. That might be a hard task for Fonsi, who is known as a balladeer; a long stream of Spanish-language love songs would seem to test just how open-minded English-speaking fans who couldn’t get enough of “Despacito” can be.
The success of “Despacito” and “Mi Gente” also has to be coupled with other mainstream media appearances and opportunities for visibility, explains Jack Rico, the host of the Latin pop culture podcast Highly Relevant. He points out that “Despacito,” with all its record-breaking accolades, was left out of this year’s Video Music Awards nominations. Rico says mass-media moments like these are critical blows to Latin representation.
“We need the help of people like MTV to ease that consumer acceptance,” he says. “If media embraces language and particular artists and says, ‘You’re gonna love this,’ we’re going to be okay with it. But this can’t be about one person who is the ambassador of a culture. This has to be an all-hands approach,” he said.
The current iteration of this Latin boom has also been very specific when it comes to those who benefit. Male artists who make music in the reggaeton-pop vein have a path to success, but that’s not necessarily the case for those who don’t fit the “Despacito” model. Spanish-speaking female artists are missing from the crossover conversation, which also doesn’t include lesser-known genres in the Latin music world.
Isabelia Herrera, the music editor of the culture website Remezcla, notes that the idea of “Latin music” itself is problematic, a broad umbrella term that encompasses dozens of countries and genres. All eyes on reggaeton-pop may not actually help genres that don’t sound like what’s trending right now.
“I think this pop moment that reggaeton is having is probably going to continue and be very successful. If you look at the Latin charts, it performs the best,” Herrera said. “But if we talk about regional Mexican, or salsa, I’m very hesitant. I don’t really know what’s going to happen with things that don’t fit into the construction of what outsiders think Latin music is.”
For some artists, the urge is to push for broader, more nuanced representation outside of what’s exploding in the mainstream. Last month, Alynda Segarra of the band Hurray for the Riff Raff hosted and curated Nosotros Festival, a concert that showcased Latin music and activism in New York City. Segarra organized the event last year as a way to broaden the definitions of Latin art and Latin music, raise the profile of a Latin alternative scene that has been blossoming for the past decade and support the Latin community at a time when anti-immigrant rhetoric is prevalent in the political arena.
Segarra crafts a specific style of blues-meets-Americana rock; mainstream juggernauts such as “Despacito” seem distant, connected simply by a loose cultural thread. But the attention on Latin music does offer a chance to bring in more representation of diverse Latin identities.
“We just need more, and we need more representation that is very multifaceted,” Segarra said. “We shouldn’t be satisfied with one thing. We do all this other music and all this other art, and we’re an incredibly, so confusingly diverse people. The fact that we’re all even grouped together is insane because we’re from so many different parts of the world. That’s a big thing I wanted to do with Nosotros Fest: Say, ‘Here’s Latinx electronic music, here’s funk, here’s hip-hop.’ We have to keep pushing.”
At Nosotros Fest, Roberto Carlos Lange, who performs under the name Helado Negro, soothed audiences with his mix of twinkly and twitchy electro-pop songs that include odes to Latinidad, like “Young, Latin and Proud” and “It’s My Brown Skin.” For Lange, his music has always been about capturing his own inner moments, but he recognizes that the artists who offer a different take on Latin music and Latin identity have a role to play in expanding representation.
“Venues might look at me or my friends and say, ‘Oh, you guys drew a lot of people — maybe I should book this other brown kid who’s doing different things,’ ” he said.
Segarra says that despite the work that needs to be done, she feels hopeful that Latin artists will continue to gain representation. Between the pop moment that “Despacito” has sparked and the growing alternative scene, she’s optimistic about the road ahead for Latin artists.
“This is not what I had when I was a kid — there’s a lot more out there for people who want to be themselves, who want to be radical, and who don’t want to disappear,” she said. “It’s life giving to me. And it’s exciting.”