Ricky Martin Comes Full Circle at the Grammys, 20 Years After His Historic Breakthrough Performance: 'We Are Here to Stay'

ricky martin
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Ricky Martin performs at the 41st Annual Grammy Awards at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles on Feb. 24, 1999.

The 1999 Grammy Awards started like any other Grammys ceremony -- the performances sedate, the applause polite. That is, until a hip-swiveling Ricky Martin took the stage.

Cavorting with a 15-piece band and a host of dancers and percussionists, who did a conga line up and down the aisles of Los Angeles' Shrine Auditorium, Martin blistered with a bilingual version of “The Cup Of Life” -- his anthem for the 1998 World Cup, an international smash the year before. Even before the end of the song, the audience was up on its feet. 

With confetti floating down amid the standing ovation, host Rosie O’Donnell faced the camera with something akin to awe on her face. “I never knew of him before tonight,” she said. “But I’m enjoying him soooooo much.”

So was everyone else. At the time, then-UTA head Rob Prinz called Martin’s performance “the single biggest game changing moment for any artist in the history of the Grammys.” 

But beyond Martin, it was also a game-changer for Latin music worldwide, effectively ushering in what would become known stateside as the “Latin explosion.”  Three months after his Grammy performance, Martin -- already a Latin American star -- debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 with his eponymous first English-language album, and a phalanx of other Latin stars followed him onto the top echelons of the charts: Shakira, Jennifer Lopez, Marc Anthony, Enrique Iglesias. 

Twenty years later, Martin returns to the Grammy stage, as part of an opening number that will also feature Camila Cabello, J Balvin and trumpeter Arturo Sandoval, an ensemble nod to the current popularity of Latin music and a huge departure for the Recording Academy. 

Latin artists performing at the Grammy telecast are rare. Very, very, very rare. In fact, in the past 30 years, there have been fewer than 15 Latin performances at the Grammys, including Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee’s rendition of “Despacito” last year. 

When Martin performed in 1999, Latin music was simply not important to the Academy, or to the mainstream music industry. 

But Tommy Mottola, the then-chief of Columbia, “had it in his mind that he was going to create this Latin revolution,” Grammy producer Ken Ehrlich told Billboard in 2009. At the time, Mottola was already in conversations with several artists, including Marc Anthony, Jennifer Lopez and of course, Ricky Martin, to release material in English. 

The former Menudo member was a charismatic performer with movie-star looks and moves, and was already a superstar in the Latin world. He was also bilingual, which at the time was essential to even consider a crossover. After being selected to perform "The Cup of LIfe" as the 1998 World Cup anthem, Martin was nominated at the 1999 Grammys for Vuelve, an album of mostly romantic material that also included “La copa de la vida” (“The Cup Of Life” in Spanish), a song that had made him a star virtually everywhere else in the world. 

The Grammys were leery about having a Spanish-language performance -- this was well before YouTube and streaming, of course -- but Mottola, who had no doubts about Martin’s stardom, pushed hard to have him on the show. 

“There was tremendous resistance from the Grammys,” Mottola told Billboard this week. “They did not want an ‘unknown’ to perform, yet we he had already sold 10 million copies of Vuelve worldwide. To me, that was absolutely UNACCEPTABLE.  We had enormous leverage at that time with almost every major superstar on our label. We heavily voiced our ‘opinion and influence’ and said: ‘Ricky must have a performance on the Grammys!’ No was not an option.

"Of course, the rest was history," he continues. "Ricky Martin’s performance on the Grammys doing ‘La Copa de la Vida’ lit the fuse to the Latin explosion. It took a relatively unknown artist in the Anglo market and propelled him to global superstardom, literally overnight. We followed this by immediately releasing ‘Livin’ La Vida Loca,' and sold over 20 million albums worldwide." 

The irony of all this is that it’s taken 20 years -- 20 years! -- to get Martin back performing on that Grammy stage. In the interim, Latin music stopped being treated as a novelty, and the mainstream in general (and the Grammys in particular) stopped taking notice. Unfortunately, it has traditionally taken seismic developments for our Latin culture to gain recognition. But here we are, three years into a new cycle of Latin music that again has permeated global consciousness. 

As a result, last year the bilingual “Despacito” was nominated for song of the year, and although it lost to Bruno Mars' pop smash "That's What I Like," Fonsi and Daddy Yankee performed it at the awards show. This year, “I Like It” by Cardi B, J Balvin and Bad Bunny is up for record of the year. While the song won’t be performed (as far as we know yet), Balvin will join Martin onstage for the opening slot. 

It’s a full-circle moment for Martin and for Latin music, which now gets a second chance to solidify its position not as a fad that comes and goes, but as a permanent part of the fabric of music in this country. 

“As an artist it’s always an honor to be a part of the Grammys, but this time in particular feels extra special, because we have united forces to continue showcasing our Latin roots to the world,” Martin tells Billboard. “20 years ago I was extremely fortunate to perform for the first time on the show and it undoubtedly became one of the most important and defining moments of my career. Since then, we have remained focused. Our music has evolved with the times, and there is no denying Latin music came back to the mainstream charts full force in the last two years, breaking all barriers once again. The world is listening and we are here to stay.”

2019 Grammy Awards