Sting stood in front of the mic, his two hands clasped behind his back, a white envelope in one hand. He leaned forward to the microphone, his black suit a tad too fitted for a man in his mid-60s. The salmon-colored dress shirt did not help either, its collar popped, the look reminiscent of a former frat star still stuck in his glory days. The award was to be given to an artist “whose recent work captured the collective imagination of people all over the world,” Sting proclaimed in his distinctive British accent. A song that “managed to both convey the spirit of these challenging times while inspiring all of us to transcend them and to make the very best of our lives.” As the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer explained, “this is the transcendent power of song and these are the nominations.”
Sting was introducing the Song of the Year Award at the 60th Annual Grammys that took place in Madison Square Garden last month. Five songs were in contention: Jay-Z’s confessional “4:44,” an open love letter to his wife and superstar Beyoncé; Julia Michaels’ pop ballad “Issues;” DC-area rapper Logic’s powerful suicide prevention anthem “1-800-273-8255;” Bruno Mars’s earworm “That’s What I Like;” and then the ubiquitous, record-breaking “Despacito” by Luis Fonsi featuring Daddy Yankee and Justin Bieber. As Sting announced the award, I was certain “Despacito” had it in the bag. The “imagination of people all over the world”? “The transcendent power of song”? The description seemed tailored for the undisputed song of the summer. Fonsi’s danceable hit broke records, including most streamed song of all time and most viewed music video on YouTube, while also tying for longest run at No. 1 on the Billboard 100, all while being primarily in Spanish. Talk about transcending culture and breaking barriers.
But then Sting opened the envelope. “That’s What I Like,” the former frontman for The Police announced. Bruno Mars had won as he would for the rest of the night, picking up six awards including Album of the Year. “Despacito” had been snubbed. But the Spanish-language hit had also been nominated for Record of the Year and Best Pop Duo/Group Performance. Surely it would win one of those two. Again, swing and a miss. Three snubs and a strikeout. Luis Fonsi’s track had gone zero for three.
The “imagination of people all over the world”? “The transcendent power of song”? The description seemed tailored for the undisputed song of the summer. Fonsi’s danceable hit broke records, including most streamed song of all time and most viewed music video on YouTube, while also tying for longest run at No. 1 on the Billboard 100, all while being primarily in Spanish.
The internet reacted. “While the Grammys considered the hit big enough to be performed during the show—a moment that drew a standing ovation from the audience—the Recording Academy did not give ‘Despacito’ one single award, even though it earned three nominations,” Arianna Davis wrote in an article for Refinery29.
“Even at the 60th Annual Grammy Awards, the single stood out as the only song to be nominated for both record and song of the year,” Carolina Moreno pointed out in an article for the Huffington Post. “A first for a foreign-language hit since Los Lobos’ “La Bamba” received both nods 30 years ago. And still, it got snubbed in both categories.”
Now, there is no need to get deep into the weeds of the history of the Grammys and who has been snubbed and who has not, because let us be honest, at the end of the day most of us probably do not care about the Grammys. The award ceremony’s viewership is dwindling and with a thousand ways to access music and get informed about music, the Grammys does little to dictate what music we listen to and how we listen to it. But the Grammys still hold value as essentially the pinnacle of musical achievement, it is formal recognition of work well done. When an announcer introduces an artist as a “five-time Grammy award winner” that means something to the audience. For songwriters and producers, often unrecognized behind the scenes, a Grammy can boost their profile, both in earnings and in their ability to work on lucrative projects outside their current genre, say in movies and commercials. Forbes, the New York Times, and Fortune have all written about the ‘Grammys bounce,’ a boost of ticket sales and producer fees during the year following a Grammy win. Grammy awards allow talented performers, songwriters, and producers to have the credentials to match their artistic ability.
And “Despacito” missing out on all three of its nominations, despite its immense success, is at the very least symbolic of the historical exclusion of foreign language music at the Grammys. If the prolific hit had won either Song of the Year or Record of the Year, it would have been the first time that a foreign-language song had won one of the two categories since “Nel Blu Dipinto Di Blu (Volare)” by Italian Domenico Modugno at the very first Grammy Awards ceremony in 1958.
Just one foreign-language song has won Song of the Year or Record of the Year ever, and exactly 60 years ago at the very first Grammys. Never since.
Take that in. Just one foreign-language song has won Song of the Year or Record of the Year ever, and exactly 60 years ago at the very first Grammys. Never since. And if any foreign-language song were to have won it since then, it would have been “Despacito,” a song that transcended cultural barriers and was enjoyed worldwide. So when Sting introduces the Song of the Year and talks about the single capturing the “collective imagination of people all over the world” and the “transcendent power of song,” he is really talking about a watered down version of these ideals. He is talking about a song that is acceptable to traditional mainstream music standards in the United States and just that. Without ripping on Bruno Mars, “That’s What I Like” was a big song, it has been certified six-times platinum gold by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), but it objectively did not have the global appeal that “Despacito” did, a song that was played nonstop and topped charts from Norway to New Zealand. Perhaps the Onion phrased it best with its headline: “Bruno Mars Takes Home Coveted ‘Least Threatening Artist’ Award At 2018 Grammys.”
But “Despacito” is symbolic of something bigger than just a Grammy snub. In my mind, Luis Fonsi’s hit is the poster child for a larger phenomenon that no one is talking about: the major success and proliferation of Latinos of diverse backgrounds within the pop music scene in 2017. While “Despacito” gets the majority of the attention, and perhaps reasonably so for all of the records that it broke, there are so many more Latinx artists contributing to the mainstream American music industry. And although individually these artists are gaining the recognition they deserve it is as if no one is connecting the dots to recognize the important contributions that Latinos as a whole are making to popular music. This past year saw Latinos of all genres create major hits, receive awards, and overall dominate our airspace. Let us take a second to recognize that.
Each Latino, whether outspoken about their heritage like newcomer Camila Cabello, or quieter about their ethnicity like pop mainstay Bruno Mars, contributes to the cultural landscape. What is special about Latino representation in pop music this past year is that not only is an often overlooked ethnicity getting the representation that it deserves, but also that its representation has been diverse. The Latinx community represents people of many backgrounds and cultures, likewise the Latino superstars that we are now hearing on the radio come from varied backgrounds, make music that spans a variety of genres, and even engage with their Latino heritage in different ways, just like the Latinx community itself.
And all of this matters particularly given the political landscape that we currently face in the United States. While 2017 saw a myriad of Latinx artists dominate the pop music scene, 2017 also happens to be the first year of a presidency built on rhetoric that denigrates the Latinx population and its contributions. The success of these Latinx artists creates a narrative that counteracts the harmful and hateful messages that come out of the White House. These artists are symbolic of the important contributions that Latinos make in the United States, as well as around the world, and show that the larger population is embracing the Spanish language, Latinx culture, and cultural mixing, despite our government’s policies that might indicate otherwise. So with the year of Trump also being the year of “Despacito,” we must recognize the Latinx artists who are reminding the world, and perhaps the White House, that immigrants not only make positive contributions, but are here to stay.
The Latinx community represents people of many backgrounds and cultures, likewise the Latinx superstars that we are now hearing on the radio come from varied backgrounds, make music that spans a variety of genres, and even engage with their Latinx heritage in different ways, just like the Latinx community itself.
But of course, to begin addressing these pop music contributions, one must start with 2017’s poster child: “Despacito.” As we all know, the Latin pop song from Luis Fonsi, featuring fellow Puerto Rican Daddy Yankee smashed records. The original version, completely in Spanish, debuted last January, topping charts in Latin America while beginning to gain a following worldwide. However it was the remix, which features a short verse from Justin Bieber in English, that shot the song to stardom, eventually matching the all-time record for most weeks at No. 1 on the Hot 100. Only the 1995 Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men smash “One Sweet Day” shares this title. Fonsi’s hit is the first Spanish-language song to be No. 1 in the United States in over 20 years since “Macarena,” released by Spanish one-hit wonder Los del Río in 1996.
As mentioned earlier, “Despacito” also broke records as the most streamed song of all time and the most viewed video on YouTube. The song’s global popularity shot the track up international streaming charts, allowing Fonsi’s single to break records with 4.6 billion streams in just six months. Time, Billboard, and Rolling Stone named the track one of their top ten songs of 2017 and as of last month, the song is one of only 18 songs to ever be certified diamond by the RIAA, a category that I am sure many, like myself, did not even know existed. Not surprisingly, “Despacito” is the only non-English-language song to have ever received this honor.
But perhaps most interesting has been the success of the music video on YouTube. With a current total of over 4.8 billion views, the “Despacito” music video has blown all previous record holders out of the water. The music video surpassed Wiz Khalifa and Charlie Puth’s “See You Again” in August to become the most viewed video on the popular video streaming platform. Impressively, it took “Despacito” less than eight months to take this title. It took “See You Again” two years to knock off previous record holder “Gangnam Style” by Psy. Not only did “Despacito” become far and away the most watched video, and in record time, but it did so with one noticeable exclusion: no Justin Bieber. The music video for “Despacito” is the original version, fully in Spanish, without the Canadian superstar. This proves important because it shows that although Bieber’s inclusion on the track played an undeniable role in the song’s popularity, it was ultimately Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee’s sound that made people stay.
The popularity of “Despacito,” and its all-Spanish music video, speaks to the possibility of more Spanish-language songs in the mainstream pop music market. Following Fonsi’s massive success, major reggaeton artist J Balvin released his Spanish-language single “Mi Gente,” which penetrated the global mainstream. In the last five years, the Colombian artist has made a splash, churning out hits within the Latin American market year after year, however, “Mi Gente” is the first time that the Medellin-based artist has found mainstream success in the United States. The song peaked at No. 19 on the Billboard Hot 100, but received additional popularity with a “Mi Gente” remix with Beyoncé. “Si el ritmo está en tu cabeza/Ahora suéltate y mueve los pies” (If the rhythm is in your head/Now let go and move your feet), the Queen B sings on the infectious, high-tempo song.
With the addition of Beyoncé, the remix reached No. 3 on the Hot 100 and claimed the top spot on the U.S. Digital Songs chart, marking J Balvin’s first time on the Hot 100 top 10. For Beyoncé, the song was the highest she had peaked since her single “Drunk in Love,” featuring Jay-Z, which charted at No. 2 in 2014. With “Mi Gente” joining “Despacito” in the Billboard Hot 100 top ten, Fonsi and Balvin made history as the first time that two primarily non-English-language songs appeared on the top ten at the same time.
The success of “Mi Gente” and “Despacito” show that Latinx artists do not need to compromise by singing in English to find mainstream popularity. Both original versions had the appeal necessary to pique the interest of big-name artists and create natural collaborations. Having Justin Bieber or Beyoncé reach out is a stamp of approval in itself.
The success of “Despacito” and “Mi Gente,” and the ability of these two songs to attract big-name artists on their remixes, speaks to the growing mainstream success of Spanish-language pop songs. For both, the original versions debuted well, breaking into the Top 50 in the United States and topping charts internationally. And in the case of both remixes, the collaborations came naturally. It was the success of the original that caught the attention of the respective pop superstar who joined for the remix.
Fonsi’s collaboration with Bieber came about after the young Canadian singer heard the track being played while touring in Colombia. According to Fonsi, Bieber was at a club in Bogotá when the song played. The Colombian crowd went wild, everyone was singing along, and based on that experience, Bieber made sure that his camp reached out to Fonsi for a remix.
In the case of “Mi Gente,” it was Beyoncé’s daughter Blue Ivy who can be credited for the collaboration. Beyoncé’s 5-year-old daughter loved the song and from there talks of collaboration were born. The superstar shouts out her daughter on the remix, “Azul are you with me?” she sings playfully, saying her daughter’s name in Spanish, in line with the bilingual nature of the song. As Balvin explains in an interview with Billboard, “The beautiful thing about “Mi Gente” is that it got No. 1 globally without any features but when Beyoncé jumped on the remix, it just makes it more special, it wasn’t for strategy, it just happened.”
The success of “Mi Gente” and “Despacito” show that Latinx artists do not need to compromise by singing in English to find mainstream popularity. Both original versions had the appeal necessary to pique the interest of big-name artists and create natural collaborations. Having Justin Bieber or Beyoncé reach out is a stamp of approval in itself. Furthermore, on both occasions, the featured superstar included verses in Spanish. Bieber sings as much in Spanish as he does in English. Beyoncé raps fluidly in Spanish to begin the “Mi Gente” remix. The fact that such high-profile artists crossed over to Spanish on originally Spanish-language songs, and not the other way around, is a big win for the culture. It shows that Latinx do not need to anglicize their art form or expression in order to be accepted by the mainstream.
“Mi Gente” and “Despacito” are special cases. It is more common to see Spanish-language singers create versions in English to better appeal to a wider fanbase. Major Latin pop stars Shakira and Enrique Iglesias often employ this technique. Think Iglesias’s heartfelt “Hero,” released in 2001, which also has a version completely in Spanish: “Héroe.” In a 2000 interview with Spanish-language newspaper El País, Iglesias explains his crossing over to English. “Para triunfar en Estados Unidos hay que cantar en inglés” (To succeed in the US you have to sing in English), he says. “Los recientes premios Grammy Latinos no hacen de sus ganadores figuras importantes en el mercado norteamericano. Yo ya había vendido cuatro millones de discos en español en Estados Unidos, pero hasta que salió el último [titulado simplemente Enrique] en inglés no se me consideró un triunfador allá” (The recent Latin Grammy awards do not make their winners important figures in the North American market. I had already sold 4 million copies in Spanish in the US, but it was not until my latest [titled Enrique] in English that I was considered a success over there.)
This pressure to cross over to English is something that Latinx artists like Luis Fonsi and J Balvin are very much aware of. Balvin responds directly to the phenomenon in a 2016 New York Times article, pre-“Mi Gente.” Referring to his predecessors, like Ricky Martin and Shakira, he says, “They didn’t live what I’m living right now. They felt that they needed to cross over to get bigger, but I’m going to go the furthest I can in Spanish. And then we’ll see.” In an interview this past August for NPR, referring to the success of Spanish-language songs like “Despacito” or his “Mi Gente,” Balvin elaborates on this idea: “I think we’re showing the world that it’s cool to make English music, but it’s better to make it in Spanish because that’s where I’m from. This is my roots—who I am, and I cannot lose that.”
It is an admirable authenticity, but also one that comes with the weight of representing Latin America and Latinx culture for artists who find themselves in the spotlight that comes with mainstream success. After losing out at the Grammys, Luis Fonsi posted on Instagram in Spanish: “No nos vamos con las manos vacías esta noche. Romper la barrera del idioma y unir al mundo con una canción es el mejor premio que uno puede ganar” (We’re not leaving empty-handed tonight. Breaking the language barrier and uniting the world with a song is the best award you can win), he wrote. “Sigamos compartiendo nuestra cultura y nuestra música latina con el mundo entero. Gracias por apoyarnos, esto es solo el comienzo” (Let’s continue sharing our culture and our Latin music with the whole world. Thanks for supporting us, this is just the beginning). Balvin has expressed this same sentiment, but more bluntly. “I want to change the perception of Latinos worldwide,” he told the New York Times. “I think people don’t know yet how cool we are. When you see a movie, they always put the Latino on the bad side or in a tacky way. It’s not like that. Latinos are shining like a diamond.”
And shine they have. But it has not just been Fonsi and Balvin who have found themselves in the limelight. This past year also saw the success of Latinx artists who make music in English. The English-performing Latinx artists who have dominated the radio are overwhelmingly a mix of Latin-American immigrants to the United States and first-generation Americans of Latinx descent. Their stories and identities reflect the diverse and unique culture of the United States—the very culture that makes the nation a country of immigrants.
After losing out at the Grammys, Luis Fonsi posted on Instagram in Spanish: “No nos vamos con las manos vacías esta noche. Romper la barrera del idioma y unir al mundo con una canción es el mejor premio que uno puede ganar” (We’re not leaving empty-handed tonight. Breaking the language barrier and uniting the world with a song is the best award you can win), he wrote.
Cardi B is a prime example. Born Belcalis Almanzar, the Trinidadian-Dominican-American rapper, made waves with her debut single “Bodak Yellow.” The fiery track became the longest-running No. 1 song on the Hot 100 by a female solo rapper ever. The Bronx native’s rap anthem won Single of the Year at the 2017 BET Hip Hop Awards and was nominated for Best Rap Performance and Best Rap Song at the Grammys. And Cardi B’s Dominican heritage is far from hidden. Cardi B teased a Spanish remix of her hit single “Bodak Yellow” at the 35th Annual Dominican Parade in August. Shortly after, she released a “Latin trap remix” of her hit single, which features both Cardi B and Dominican rapper Messiah el Artista rapping in Spanish. Cardi B maintains her characteristic bravado while incorporating heavy Dominican slang. “A lot of my family members on my dad side of the family don’t understand English. I wanted to make them proud. Sooooo I did BODAK YELLOW IN SPANISH,” she wrote on her Instagram.
While the ferocious “Bodak Yellow” put Cardi B on the map, the outspoken rapper has put in work to guarantee her stay. Since the release of her breakout single, Cardi B has been a part of five more songs that have made it into the Billboard Hot 100, with three of these breaking into the top ten. In fact, she made history at the very beginning of this year as the third artist or musical group ever to have their first three entries to the Billboard Hot 100 chart within the top ten simultaneously. She joins fellow New Yorker Ashanti and the Beatles in sharing this elusive achievement.
Cardi has also continued to make music in Spanish. In December she collaborated with Puerto Rican singer Ozuna and released “La Modelo” (The Model), which is primarily in Spanish and features a softer side to Cardi B. The two sing side-by-side on the Caribbean-tinged dancehall track, each crooning about a new love interest. The Latinx collaboration charted at No. 52 on the Billboard Hot 100, but reached the No. 3 spot on the Latin Charts. While lacking the commercial success of “Bodak Yellow,” Cardi B’s collaboration with Puerto Rican Ozuna reveals the rapper’s continued commitment to the Latino demographic and the potential for more music in Spanish.
“I’ve done a lot of collabs, but most of the time, it’s me on someone else’s track. I’d never brought someone like Cardi B into my own music,” Ozuna told Billboard. “When you hear, you’ll say: ‘Wow, that woman is amazing, in English and in Spanish.’ That to me is the real crossover: a mainstream artist singing in Spanish.” He is right. The song is yet another example of a mainstream artist, who traditionally performs in English, crossing over to Spanish and not the other way around. As Matthew Ismael Ruiz explains for Pitchfork: “Most importantly, the song [“La Modelo”] highlights why Cardi is so important to pop this year: Her bilingual, pan-Caribbean aesthetic represents a modern depiction of Latinidad, and proves its mainstream appeal.”
In Hollywood, Afro-Latinos are often pushed between their two identities, with many deemed too dark for “Latino” roles. Cardi B’s response reflects the constant questioning that many Afro-Latinos endure as they are pushed to justify their identity time and time again.
As an Afro-Latina, Cardi B provides important representation for a subset of the Latinx population that has historically been ignored. Afro-Latinos have often been excluded from Latinx representation around the world. Just look at Latin-American telenovelas or switch on the Spanish-language news, most of those that you will see on screen are of lighter complexion.
Cardi B is well aware of her important role due to her ethnicity and race. In an interview with major actress and singer Zendaya for CR Fashion Book, Zendaya asked the Bronx rapper if there was “anything that people don’t ever ask you that you want somebody to ask you?” To that, Cardi B tackled her Afro-Latina background head on. “One thing that always bothers me is that people know so little about my culture. We are Caribbean people. And a lot of people be attacking me because they feel like I don’t be saying that I’m black,” she told Zendaya. “Some people want to decide if you’re black or not, depending on your skin complexion, because they don’t understand Caribbean people or our culture.” This is a common phenomenon for Afro-Latinos. In Hollywood, Afro-Latinos are often pushed between their two identities, with many deemed too dark for “Latino” roles. Cardi B’s response reflects the constant questioning that many Afro-Latinos endure as they are pushed to justify their identity time and time again.
“I don’t got to tell you that I’m black. I expect you to know it,” Cardi B explains. “I expect people to understand that just because we’re not African American, we are still black. It’s still in our culture.”
Camila Cabello, another rising Latina star, represents another facet of the Latinx community. An immigrant to the United States herself, Cuban-American Camila Cabello broke into the scene in full force with her hit single “Havana,” an ode to the city in which she was born. “Oh, but my heart is in Havana/My heart is in Havana,” the former Fifth Harmony member sings. The song, both sexy and sauntering, reached #1 on the worldwide iTunes charts and claimed the No. 1 spot on the Billboard Hot 100. Two months after the original release, Cabello also came out with a Spanish-language “Havana” remix with Daddy Yankee taking over for Young Thug, the Atlanta rapper featured on the original. Cabello, who was born in Havana to Cuban and Mexican parents, adds lyrics in Spanish, while Daddy Yankee delivers a verse in his usual reggaeton style.
But as with “Despacito,” particularly interesting to me is the music video for “Havana.” The video, a mini-movie of sorts, begins with a two-and-a-half-minute-long scene fully in Spanish with English subtitles. A rare move for such a popular song, Cabello’s video forces its audience to engage with the material presented in Spanish before listening to the full song. Whether or not calculated to do so, her music video allows Cabello to be an important cultural and linguistic ambassador as she attracts attention to Spanish language and Latinx culture.
Camila Cabello, another rising Latina star, represents another facet of the Latinx community. An immigrant to the United States herself, Cuban-American Camila Cabello broke into the scene in full force with her hit single “Havana,” an ode to the city in which she was born.
Cabello’s role as an important Latina figure was amplified during the Grammys that took place last month. Despite not being nominated for any Grammy awards, the 20-year-old singer still left her mark on Madison Square Garden with a moving speech in support of Dreamers while introducing a performance by U2. “Tonight, in this room full of music’s dreamers, we remember that this country was made by dreamers, for dreamers, chasing the American dream,” Cabello told the sea of celebrities. “I’m here on this stage tonight because just like the Dreamers, my parents brought me to this country with nothing in their pockets but hope. They showed me what it means to work twice as hard and never give up. And honestly, no part of my journey is any different from theirs. I am a proud, Cuban-Mexican immigrant, born in eastern Havana, standing in front of you on the Grammy stage in New York City. And all I know is that just like dreams, these kids can’t be forgotten and are worth fighting for.”
Madison Square Garden erupted in applause. For me, her speech was the highlight of the ceremony. The young pop singer is a reminder that while the Recording Academy might snub a record-breaking international hit, the Latinx community is represented by many more artists and in so many more songs than just “Despacito.” We have mainstays like Selena Gomez and Bruno Mars, and newcomers like Cardi B and Camila Cabello. We have those committed to performing in Spanish, such as J Balvin, as well as others who do not speak the language like Demi Lovato. Whether born in Latin America, or Latinx by descent, these artists all represent the Latinx community and its diversity.
This past year demonstrated the importance of the Latinx community first hand. The widespread success of Latinx artists and the diverse representation that these artists brought to the mainstream was incredible. Latinx artists were everywhere, there are literally too many artists to list.
As Latinx cultural critic and prolific writer Michelle Herrera Mulligan explained for Refinery29: “This Spanish music boom feels like our culture is striking back at the way this country has of making Latinx feel invisible. So even if the Grammys won’t recognize the song, ‘Despacito’ is sending a clear message. And it’s ‘Hey, America: You can’t shove us off the map. We are the map.’”
This past year demonstrated the importance of the Latinx community first hand. The widespread success of Latinx artists and the diverse representation that these artists brought to the mainstream was incredible. Latinx artists were everywhere, there are literally too many artists to list. At the 60th annual Grammys, Latinx were nominated for nearly a fourth of all of the categories, ranging from Best Contemporary Instrumental Album to Best Song Written for Visual Media. The award ceremony also featured the most Latinx acts that it had in nearly two decades. On top of that, one-third of YouTube’s top 100 most viewed artists of 2017 were Latinx stars. Six of the top ten music videos on YouTube in 2017 were in Spanish. For context, in 2017, 11 predominantly Spanish-language songs made the Billboard Hot 100, compared to just two in 2016. Worldwide, Latinx are dominating the pop culture sphere.
At the very least, the success of these artists provides a counter-narrative to the images of the Latinx community spread by the White House. In the face of our government’s politics of assimilation and isolation, these artists are powerful figures who engage Americans with Spanish language and Latinx culture. They are creating music that shapes our cultural landscape while inspiring the many Latinx of diverse backgrounds who now see themselves more fully represented in pop culture. These Latinx artists are representations of what our community can do and what we can achieve.