Anthony "Romeo" Santos was born in the Bronx in 1981. His mom: Puerto Rican. His dad: Dominican.
This month, it was announced that Santos will be starring in an upcoming multi-camera ABC comedy series. He will portray the son of Dominicans living in New York's Washington Heights who is torn between his grand ambitions and his parents' traditions.
In other words, Santos has pretty much agreed to play himself.
"It's a show where, as they say, 'Each head is its own world,'" Santos says. The series is produced by Overbrook Entertainment, the company founded by partners James Lassiter and Will Smith.
"My dad in the show owns a mom-and-pop restaurant. He's really old-fashioned, really radical, and wants to do things his way. And his dream is for me to take over the restaurant. And [my character wants] to grow, to be a developer who owns all these buildings," adds Santos, whose real father is a retired cab driver and construction worker. "[He] never gave me permission to be an artist."
But artist he is. And that sits just fine with the growing contingency of producers, marketers, brands and record companies that want to reach that growing-but continuously elusive-younger, bilingual, bicultural, home-grown Latino who is fluent in English but keeps one foot firmly anchored in his or her roots, culture and language.
"They say all Latin kids in the U.S. right now who are 18 and under, 92% are born in the U.S.," Santos' manager Johnny Marines says. "So the idea is first generation versus second generation. What parents view as success . . . the second and third generation have much bigger goals and look at success in different ways. And although this is going to be a story told through a Dominican family, it exists in all cultures and all races. Everybody can relate."
In the Latin realm, Santos isn't the first U.S.-born artist to attempt reaching a young, bilingual demographic. But as lead singer and lead composer of urban/bachata group Aventura, he has arguably been the most successful. Aventura has sold more than 1.7 million albums in the United States, including "The Last," which was the top-selling Latin album of 2009 (according to Nielsen SoundScan).
Now, as Santos prepares for the Nov. 8 release of his solo debut album, the bilingual/bicultural "Formula, Vol. 1," his potential appears to be growing. "You," the album's first single, spent seven weeks at No. 1 on Billboard's Hot Latin Songs chart earlier this summer. Current single "Promise," featuring Usher, reaches No. 1 this week and also tops the Latin digital download chart. Since the release of its video two weeks ago, sales of the track doubled, reaching 49,000 this week, according to Nielsen SoundScan.
"Romeo has crossed over without singing in English," says Sony U.S. Latin president Ruben Leyva, who signed Santos. "He's been able to do what other artists have been able to do-reach a dominant-English-speaking audience-only by singing in Spanish."
Santos is signed to Sony U.S. Latin but a joint effort between the label and RCA/Jive Records allows him to enjoy atypical dual promotion in both English and Spanish media. The "Promise" video, for example-which features Usher singing bachata in English-was pushed heavily on MTV and reached No. 1 on its most-played list.
In the meantime, Walmart, which is releasing an exclusive version of the album, is doing massive TV promotion for the project. Spots are running on both Spanish-language and mainstream TV channels, including ads during the Latin Grammy Awards telecast on Nov. 10.
Many are hoping this rollout will be the blueprint to reaching a new Latin fan and music buyer. "It's the perfect combo of having a super artist together with the power still wielded by a major label," Sony Music Latin VP of marketing Paula Kaminsky says.
The issue is, of course, how do you replicate Santos?
Like most major successes in any market, he is an oddity, in every sense of the word. Or, as comedian George Lopez says in the intro skit that opens the album, "Romeo, you have the formula. Eres el mas chignon [You're the shit]."
Now 30, Santos created Aventura more than a decade ago, crafting traditional bachata-the typical rhythm of the Dominican Republic known for its syncopated percussion and plucked guitar-but with traces of R&B, English, graphic lyrics and Santos' high tenor. The group, signed to indie Premium Records, steadily gained a following, much of it in New York, before breaking out with the 2002 single "Obsession," which became a surprise No. 1 in Europe. From there, Aventura's star rose, thanks to Santos' theatrical antics onstage, coupled with his songs-veritable mini soap operas.
For millions who would've been hard pressed to pronounce the word "bachata," much less identify the music, the genre became a household name. Aventura's "Kings of Bachata" became the second-best-selling album of 2007, according to Nielsen SoundScan. "The Last" was the top-selling album in 2009, and Aventura had the top Latin tour on Billboard's 2010 year-end charts, including four sold-out dates at New York's Madison Square Garden.
Rumors swirled about Santos going solo, and in January it became official. He signed a multimillion-dollar multi-album deal. But even with that move, he broke rank with the norm. While most acts who aim for Latin and mainstream markets usually release albums in English and Spanish that are then promoted to their respective markets by the respective labels, Santos' aim was always to reach one unified fan base.
"We made sure the deal wouldn't differentiate albums by language," Marines says. "We felt it would over-separate the fan base, and we wanted to make sure everybody could go get one album."
Indeed, while "Formula, Vol. 1" is about 60% bachata, the overall track list is a reflection of its multicultural author. While "Promise," "You," "All Aboard" (featuring Lil Wayne) and two skits are bilingual, there's also straight-ahead bachata, a marvelous fusion with flamenco guitarist Tomatito ("Mi Santa"), a pop ballad with Mario Domm of Camila ("Rival") and a mix of bachata and rap with Spanish underground rapper La Mala Rodriguez ("Magia Negra").
Walmart's 20-track exclusive album also includes the uptempo "Aleluya," in English and Spanish and featuring Pitbull. That song, along with others on the Walmart version, may later be included in a deluxe version to be released in 2012.
"It was supposed to have more English material," Santos says of his album, noting that in the next year he plans to record five new English-language songs. "But I didn't want to take that risk with my fans. I always wanted to do stuff like that but I was slowly taking my fans there."
In fact, at the 2010 Billboard Latin Music Conference, when asked how he wanted to grow beyond Aventura's success, he said he wanted to have mainstream acts, like Usher and Justin Timberlake, sing bachata. "I said, 'There's something I'm missing, and that's putting these artists from the Anglo market into my bachata world.'"
The connection with Usher came through AEG Live CEO Randy Phillips, who was impressed after Aventura sold out two shows at Los Angeles' Staples Center in 2009. Phillips introduced Usher to Marines, who proposed that the two record together.
"Seeing him perform, hearing his music but also seeing how incredible he is as a performer, I said, 'This is the thing that people will remember,'" Usher says in a behind-the-scenes video on YouTube. The TV deal was similarly serendipitous. Overbrook Entertainment's Lassiter and Smith developed the idea of a show with a Latin star and contacted former record executive Steve Stoute, founder of marketing firm Translation. Stoute didn't know Santos but had already set his eyes on him. He called Marines out of the blue and asked for a meeting.
"I asked them, 'Are you guys aware I've never done this before?'" Santos says with a laugh. Santos is soft-spoken-in sharp contrast with his dramatic, sometimes very sexual onstage presence.
"I'm very private, not the interview type," he says over wine one evening at his suite at the W Hotel in Miami Beach. He's with Marines, and on the kitchen counter there's takeout food from PF Chang's. Santos, in black jeans and a sweater, lounges on the couch, talking through each of his tracks, something he hasn't even done yet on his Twitter ( @RomeoSantosPage), where he has more than 81,000 followers.
"I don't tweet very much," he says with a small laugh. "I still believe in the mystery of an artist. I believe in going out when I'm ready to sell my product. A lot of artists are out there every day. But I remember the Julio Iglesiases, the Jose Joses -- and it was about the music.
"There really isn't a formula for success," he adds. "The way Aventura became successful was so weird. We didn't have a major label. They say everything has a reason, but it's not easy to find. The only thing that was right was the music."