'Despacito' Co-Writer Erika Ender Looks Back on 25 Years of Ups and Downs

Erika Ender
Jessica Xie

Erika Ender

When Erika Ender was a little girl growing up in Panama, she’d buy albums and inscribe them with imaginary ­dedications from the artists.

“Dear Erika, thanks for your songs. Signed, Chayanne,” the singer-songwriter says with a laugh, recalling the cover of one record in her collection.

Ender, thanks to her work on this year’s Song of the Summer, “Despacito,” no longer needs to pretend that stars adore her work. Along with Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee, the 42-year-old is co-writer of the biggest hit of the year, featuring Justin Bieber, which spent 16 weeks atop the Billboard Hot 100

“We knew we had a hit,” says Ender, who initially worked on the track with Fonsi, a longtime friend and writing partner. “But we had no notion of how big it would become, and how quickly.” (In September, after Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, including the San Juan site where the “Despacito” video was filmed, Ender promoted aid efforts on TV and social media.)

Ender is a singer in her own right, a philanthropist who created a foundation in 2009 to help children, and one of very few successful Latin women in the songwriting field. Now, since the release of “Despacito” in February, she is in demand from ­producers around the world. They’re eager for the sound of cultural fusion that Ender brings to her work, and which is rooted in her upbringing.

Born in Panama to a Brazilian mother and a U.S.-born father of German ancestry, Ender speaks fluent Portuguese and Spanish, and moves easily between cultures. Before “Despacito,” she had written hits for Chayanne, Gilberto Santa Rosa, Gloria Trevi, Ednita Nazario and Los Tigres del Norte. She also is a TV personality in Latin America, where she has been a judge for a Latin version of American Idol.

This year, which marks her 25th anniversary as a performer, Ender has a lot to celebrate. In May, she released her latest album, Tatuajes (Tattoos), and this month she’ll become the youngest inductee into the Latin Songwriters Hall of Fame, which will hold its gala Oct. 19 at the James L. Knight Center in Miami.

“I see myself as a communicator of music,” she says. “I’m three Erikas: the artist, the composer and the TV personality. I have a long career in all three. I’m like my hair,” she jokes. “I take up a lot of space.”

In conversation from Brazil while doing promotion work for Tatuajes, Ender details the genesis of “Despacito,” her foundation’s efforts to fight child labor, and what’s needed to create more female Latin stars. 

Rich Polk/WireImage
Ender (right) and Mónica Vélez accept a Latin Grammy Award in 2016 for writing “Ataúd,” a hit for Los Tigres del Norte.

Tell us about the beginnings of “Despacito.” How did you and Luis Fonsi write it? 

I went to his home in Miami around 2 p.m., we had a cafecito, and then we went into his studio, and he said: “Since this ­morning, I’ve been mulling writing a song called ‘Despacito.’" He sang the first line and the second -- “Vamos a hacerlo en una playa en Puerto Rico [We’re gonna do it on a beach in Puerto Rico].” And I said, “Hasta que las olas griten, 'Ay Bendito' [Until the waves scream, 'Oh, Lord'].”

From that point on, we began to build the song, moving the Puerto Rico line to the end so it wouldn't sound so regional, and create a story. I’ve always felt that a song has to have a story that’s easy to understand and will hook the listener. 

We were really excited as we wrote. So much that I posted a Facebook Live and said, “We have a hit!” I also loved what Daddy Yankee added [the lyrics in the bridge: “Pasito a pasito, suave suavecito (step by step, soft, softly).”] The song went through several arrangements, and I have to give Fonsi credit, because he went into the studio with the producers until he got exactly the arrangement he wanted. All the planets aligned. It’s like pieces on a chessboard, placed there by the universe. None of us imagined this would have such impact. 

This song fuses Fonsi’s pop with Yankee’s reggaetón, a genre that has often been accused of objectifying women. As a female Latin songwriter, how did you infuse your perspective? 

We looked for a story that would put the woman in her rightful place. As a female lyricist, I was trying to state how I would like to be treated. We like to be wooed despacito [slowly], because we live at a time of immediacy, where sex comes first and women are treated like objects. This was, in a way, an invitation for people to live life more slowly and give a touch of class to the genre. I don’t have a problem with any musical genre. But I do have a ­problem with messages that aren't positive for humanity. 

“Despacito” broke the Hot 100 record for weeks at No. 1 for a Spanish-language song. Are people more attuned to Latin music? Or is this simply a great song? 

It’s a mix. A great song with a good ­arrangement at a time when Latins are ­having an impact with a genre like ­reggaetón and its pop fusions. People are going back to dancing and feeling the beat. “Despacito” has a message, and that makes all the difference -- plus the fact that Justin Bieber got on the wave, and opened more doors for us. Latin music has had many big moments, but right now the world is more open to listening, feeling and dancing to music in Spanish. 

p.p1 {margin: 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px; font: 12.0px Helvetica; color: #454545} John Parra/Telemundo; Shareif Ziyadat/Getty Images
“Despacito” became the song of the summer, thanks to co-writers Ender (far left); Fonsi (above left) and Yankee; and being sung with Bieber (inset).

As a performer, you released your fifth album, Tatuajes, in May. What changed on this project?

It’s the most intimate, most sparse album I’ve ever done. I wanted to base it on my voice. In fact, the most arranged song has only four instruments. Otherwise it’s piano and voice, or piano, cello and voice. It’s called Tatuajes because it’s about the ­personal experiences that have marked me. I wrote “¿Cómo Hubiera Sido?” [How Would It Have Been?], for example, for the child I never had, after I lost my uterus [for medical reasons]. In fact, on the album cover, you can see the phoenix that symbolized the times I’ve had to rise from the ashes. 

What have you learned from these experiences?

I’ve had two divorces that have ­represented two deaths. I’ve come out stronger from both, far more flexible and able to see life through different eyes. My other loss was not being able to conceive a child. But I always see the glass half full. The foundation I have in my country has allowed me not to be a mom to one child, but a godmother to many. 

How is your foundation, Puertas Abiertas [Open Doors], helping youth in Panama? 

We’re working to eradicate child labor through music. I installed free music classes in centers that had already ­eliminated child labor, so children can spend the least amount of time possible in the streets. I also launched a project called Talenpro [Talent With a Purpose], which is a national high school talent competition tied to community service requirements. At the end, the 20 winners will get ­scholarships to study in other countries. It’s a project that has massive national support. 

What’s it like being one of so few female Latin songwriters?

There are also very few producers and sound engineers. You have to have your pants on in this industry. It doesn't mean a woman has to be less feminine, less sweet, less attractive. She simply has to be a strong woman, who knows what she wants and who doesn’t go out there to aggressively fight with a man, but instead demonstrates that she’s as capable as he is.

It hasn’t been easy. In the beginning, I had to pay men to sing my songs because if I sent demos to A&R directors with my vocals, they said it was too feminine. But I decided not to take things personally and created songs that worked. At the end of the day, what’s really valuable is managing emotions in the best way possible. We write to connect with the listener. 

Courtesy of Erika Ender
Ender visits with members of her foundation in May. 

Why do you think there are so few women on the Latin charts right now? 

If, as a woman, I create empathy with other women, they’ll buy my music. Shakira, for example, is a phenomenon because she has a good head on her shoulders. But if, as a woman, I just go out there to sashay without a message … why would I pay to see a concert where the woman doesn't connect with me? When a woman sees the artist as a friend, or the artist as an example, or the artist as someone with something to say, then they buy the music. 

Alejandro Bolivar/EPA/REX/Shutterstock
Ender accepts the key to Panama City from Mayor José Isabel Blandón in August.

This article originally appeared in the Oct. 7 issue of Billboard.