Beyond 'Despacito': Why Latin's New Wave Is Here to Stay

John Jay Cabuay
Lin-Manuel Miranda, Daddy Yankee & Cardi B

In October, J Balvin and Willy William’s “Mi Gente” (featuring Beyoncé) and Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee’s “Despacito” (featuring Justin Bieber) sat at No. 3 and No. 9, respectively, on the Billboard Hot 100. (This was after “Despacito” ruled the summer, sitting for 16 weeks on top of the Hot 100.) It isn't the first time Latin artists shared space in the upper strata of the chart, but it is the first time two Spanish-language songs have.

A history lesson: In 1999, the year of the Latin explosion, Ricky Martin, Enrique Iglesias and Jennifer Lopez were all in the top 10 together thanks to their English-language, Latin-tinged songs. In 2011, Iglesias’ English-language “Tonight (I’m Lovin’ You)” reached the top 10 alongside a rotation of English-language Pitbull tracks. In 2014, Iglesias’ Spanish-language “Bailando” broke Latin chart records, peaking at No. 12 on the Hot 100.

Why did “Despacito” and “Mi Gente” reach higher than “Bailando”? The megastar co-signs (Bieber, Beyoncé) helped. But shifting demographics -- nearly 60 percent of U.S. Hispanics are now millennials, according to the Pew Research Center -- and bicultural entertainment trends (non-Spanish speakers largely watch Spanish-language shows, like Netflix’s Narcos) suggest other factors at play. And critically, there’s streaming, which brings Latin music to its core listeners but also to a global and non-Spanish-speaking audience. Top streaming playlists -- two of Spotify’s top five playlists globally, for example -- are Latin.

Republic president Charlie Walk, who helped promote “Despacito” and “Mi Gente,” credits their successes to streaming’s democracy and access, and what he calls the platform’s “honesty and transparency.”

And then there’s YouTube, where Latin consistently over-indexes. For the week ending Oct. 11, 14 of the top 20 most-watched YouTube videos were Spanish-language songs.

A look at terrestrial radio indicates shifts in music tastes too. “The main radio markets now serve crossover markets,” says Tommy Mottola, who, as the former CEO of Sony Music, was an architect of the 1999 Latin explosion. “Bilingual and Latin sounds are going to be the way to go.”

The embrace of the bicultural market extends beyond music. There’s Narcos (whose September season-three launch was the most popular digital show in the United States, with nearly 30 million viewers, according to Parrot Analytics), and season three of AMC’s Spanish-language-heavy Fear the Walking Dead was the second most-watched cable show for its time slot, averaging 2.2 million viewers, according to Nielsen. There’s also English-language content that celebrates Latin culture, like the Netflix reboot of Norman Lear’s show One Day at a Time, this time conceived with a Cuban family at its core, now entering its second season. The “crossover of the Latin culture is the new norm,” says Enrique Santos, chairman/CEO of iHeartLatino. “It’s Jackie Cruz on Orange Is the New Black. It’s Beyoncé singing in Spanish.”

Recognizing this momentum, the music industry is activating. Cardi B released a remix of her No. 1 “Bodak Yellow (Money Moves)” with fellow Dominican and trap artist Messiah. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s charity song for Puerto Rico relief, “Almost Like Praying,” hit No. 1 in digital sales the week that it debuted. “There is hunger for Latin repertoire from a streaming and radio perspective,” says Sony’s Dusko Justic, who in 2017 was appointed to the newly created position of vp international marketing and partnerships for Latin Iberia, and is tasked with building Sony’s Latin music business outside the Latin region.

Other companies are making moves too. Rebeca Leon, J Balvin’s manager, this year partnered with Ron Laffitte’s Patriot Management Group, which represents artists like Pharrell Williams. Atlantic and Warner Music Latin jointly signed Venezuelan millennial singer-producer Danny Ocean (né Morales) and quickly released “Baby I Won’t,” an English version of his 2016 hit “Me Rehuso.”

As Latin artists turn to English, English-language acts like Bieber aim to try Spanish. “We love when it comes from the heart,” says Afo Verde, chairman/CEO of Sony Music Latin America & Iberian Peninsula. “Others do it for commercial reasons, which we love less.”

Looking forward, executives say the day may come when the U.S. market won’t need English-speaking artists to sing in Spanish (or mainstream co-signs). “Already there are countries that don't want English,” says Fernando Giaccardi, Iglesias’ manager. Just look at “Bailando,” which scaled heights without a developed streaming market or broader cultural awareness of the Latin audience. Imagine what it could have done if it had been released today.

This article originally appeared in the Nov. 11 issue of Billboard.