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From ‘Encanto’ to the Oscars: Sebastián Yatra Is Ready For Latin Pop’s Closeup

The Colombian triple-threat broke through the reggaetón boom — and is ready for a global career.

“No, no, no. You were too late,” says Sebastián Yatra, lifting his phone again and turning it to selfie mode. “One more time.”

It’s nearly midnight at a half-empty restaurant in Miami’s hip design district, and Yatra has roped me into what he calls “Instagram therapy”: lip-syncing on camera to his track “Melancólicos Anónimos,” with me playing the prissy-voiced therapist to Yatra’s lovelorn Romeo.

And while we may technically be filming for the 27-year-old Colombian pop star’s 29 million Instagram followers, there’s another rapt audience here — namely, the young Venezuelan mothers and their well-manicured husbands at the table next to us, not-so-surreptitiously looking on. So I focus on delivering my lines on the beat and, this time, nail it.

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“Yes!” Yatra exclaims, uploading the video to both his Instagram account and mine.

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With his puppy-like enthusiasm and unpretentious good nature — both on constant display on his social media — Yatra seems more like a chill, cute younger cousin than an artist on the brink of superstardom. But he is very much the latter: Since 2018, he has placed 18 hits on Billboard’s Hot Latin Songs chart and scored 10 No. 1s on the Latin Airplay chart, including the sexy duet “Pareja del Año” with Myke Towers, which hit No. 9 on the Global Excl. U.S. chart and No. 16 on the Global 200.

Though he has experimented sonically with different genres, Yatra has achieved all that by largely sticking to a core brand of melodic Latin pop — one reminiscent of 1990s stars Ricky Martin and Enrique Iglesias, who tapped Yatra to open for their 2021 U.S. arena tour — that lately has been overshadowed by reggaetón. His first two albums debuted at No. 1 on the Latin Pop Albums chart. On his current, irresistible bop “Tacones Rojos” (whose music video has 100 million YouTube views and counting), Yatra eschews graphic lyrics for airy good humor, with sweet lines like “My slice of sunshine, the apple of my eye/The one who dances reggaetón with red heels and makes me fly.”

Sebastian Yatra
Versace by Donatella Versace sweater. David Needleman

Recently, a much more unlikely hit has been introducing Yatra to a significantly bigger audience. He’s the voice of “Dos Oruguitas,” the gorgeous all-Spanish tearjerker by Lin-Manuel Miranda from Disney’s Encanto that’s now Academy Award-nominated for best original song. (Yatra will perform it at the ceremony on March 27.) It has become Yatra’s highest-charting entry on Hot Latin Songs yet (reaching No. 2) and his first appearance on the Billboard Hot 100 (where it cracked the top 40) at a time when, suddenly, it feels like the artist is everywhere. He’s now starring in the Netflix musical series Érase Una Vez, Pero Ya No (Once Upon a Time… Happily Never After), in which he plays dual lead roles and sings the theme. All of that has set the stage nicely for Yatra’s third album, Dharma, which debuted in February at No. 2 on Latin Pop Albums — and came after a period of intense work and introspection.

“ ‘Dharma’ means the acceptance of reality,” he says — the word is tattooed in tiny cursive above his right wrist. “We all know the meaning of karma: If you do bad things, bad things will happen to you. But dharma refers to the lessons learned in life. [Before], I was giving the best of myself and wonderful things were happening to me, but I was obsessed with controlling everything. Every problem metastasized. Now I face issues head on, and that’s amazing because you take their power away.”

“Yatra is in an exceptional moment in terms of personal and musical maturity,” says Universal Music Latin president Angel Kaminsky, who signed Yatra. “As a composer, he’s at a moment where he not only releases hit songs but is also a well-rounded artist who is recognized by all markets and all ages in the Latin region.”

Sebastian Yatra
Gucci by Alessandro Michele sweater and tuxedo pants, MISHO bracelets. David Needleman

Like his role model Iglesias, Yatra is a pop singer who likes to explore other genres but is obsessed above all with songcraft. Yet he began his career at a time when urban music and the stars performing it, like fellow Colombians J Balvin and Maluma, were dominating Latin music and expanding far beyond its borders.

“When I first started, everyone was reggaetón, reggaetón, reggaetón,” recalls Yatra. “And my dad told me: ‘It’s better to have 10 people go hear you sing the music that really touches your soul than to sing what you don’t like for thousands.’ That stuck with me. I said, ‘I’m going to do the music I love, no matter what genre it is, but I want to do songs that I think are great.’ I love reggaetón, but you can’t stay in one genre forever, in the same beat forever, and think that’s the only thing that can transmit emotion. I think pop in Spanish is having one of its best moments again, and it’s going to get stronger and stronger.”

Unlike the vast majority of Colombian stars — from veterans like Carlos Vives and Juanes to younger superstars like Maluma, Balvin and Karol G — Yatra spent most of his childhood and teenage years in the United States. His well-to-do family fled Medellín in the early 2000s amid escalating political violence in the country that threatened many civilians’ lives, moving to Miami’s suburban Pembroke Pines area, a “Colombian bubble” where his close family lived in the same neighborhood and Spanish was spoken at home.

After he landed the lead role of Troy in a middle school production of High School Musical, “something just clicked,” Yatra says. He began wearing a scarf, as some singers do to care for their vocal cords (yes, his flair for the dramatic began at age 12), and threw himself into a kind of triple-threat training, taking voice, dance and guitar lessons while writing songs and cutting demos. His mother, who supported him from the onset, became his manager (she’s still involved in the back office, though Yatra says their relationship has become more mother-son than “momager”-client), and together they brainstormed a stage name that would have international appeal but still feel natural. (His given surname, Obando Giraldo, didn’t quite roll off the tongue in English.) They arrived at “Yatra,” a Sanskrit word meaning “journey” or “pilgrimage” in Hinduism and Buddhism.

“I always had in my mind that at some point in my life, I was going to sing in English and have a more global career, so I was preparing myself,” says Yatra. “It’s like building a big city: If you don’t plan it well, the roads are tiny and the access doesn’t work. I wanted to lay the foundation so that people could pronounce my name easily.”

Sebastian Yatra
Lu’u Dan tank top, Tara Babylon coat, Diesel by Glenn Martens jeans, Title of Work ring. David Needleman

Once he graduated high school, Yatra returned to Colombia, a more manageable market in which to launch a career, and began performing at high schools and radio stations. He hired a manager, Roberto Andrade (now managing director at Warner Music Latina), who arranged a songwriting session with Dandee of successful pop/reggaetón duo Cali y El Dandee. Together they wrote “Por Fin Te Encontré,” a track intended for the pair, but when Spanish DJ Juan Magán jumped on it, Yatra also asked to be included.

That feature became Yatra’s entry to the Hot Latin Songs chart — and to record labels’ radar. By 2016, he was on the verge of signing with Sony Colombia when Universal Music Latin executives Kaminsky and then-managing director Alejandro Duque (now at Warner) flew to Medellín from Miami with instructions not to return without signing Yatra. Enticed by the deal’s international potential, Yatra took it, also signing a co-management agreement with Universal’s management/artist development division, GTS, which fast-tracked him to priority status at the label and immediately offered him ample touring support.

At just 21, Yatra was well on his way to becoming the global artist he had always imagined he would be. From the start, Universal developed him not country by country (as is usually the case with new Latin artists) but with simultaneous emphasis on the United States, Colombia, Spain, Argentina and Mexico. By the time the coronavirus pandemic began in early 2020, Yatra was an established star in Latin America. But he had yet to achieve massive success stateside, and, between albums, felt stuck.

“Sebas was right at his inflection point,” says Paula Kaminsky, Angel’s sister, who took over as Yatra’s manager two years ago when Universal Music Latin hired her to helm GTS. “He was about to explode. If an artist is lucky to get to that big moment, the problem is, what comes next? The challenge was getting past that stage.”

“I felt like I was losing momentum,” Yatra recalls. “You’ve seen a lot of artists go through that: You’re the artist one day, you’re on top of your game, and then maybe you don’t have the same engagement. Even if from the outside things look great, you can get into your head. And you can’t overcome that by making more hits or releasing more songs. You overcome that by making an interior change, by going somewhere else within you and realizing you make music for love of the music and the songwriting and the performance, but not for the results.”

Sebastian Yatra
Thom Browne shirt, suit, socks and shoes; Title of Work tie; Ulysse Nardin FREAK X Bucherer BLUE watch. David Needleman

He began meditating and, for the first time in his life, going to therapy, which he still does weekly. (“You have to work on yourself every day,” he says.) And with the pandemic pause, he began to regroup professionally, too. “Sebastián started this crazy career seven years ago, exploded and never had time to sit down and figure out what kind of album he wanted to do,” says Paula. “He told me he wanted an organized plan and to try new things.”

She sought out opportunities for Yatra that felt somewhat outside of music but still related to it. Amid the pandemic, Yatra filmed a Disney talent show, Conecta y Canta, and the Netflix series, and also appeared as a judge on The Voice Kids in Spain, which helped solidify his profile in that country. Paula also enacted a more cohesive Latin American touring strategy, setting up a year of global dates in advance instead of piecemeal in response to demand.

But the most effective opportunity for Yatra was entirely unplanned. Matt Walker, senior vp of music for Walt Disney Animation Studios, stumbled upon Yatra after hearing “Robarte un Beso,” his 2017 duet with Carlos Vives, the Colombian music legend who had been tapped early on to contribute a song for Encanto. “Robarte un Beso” led Walker to two poignant Yatra ballads, “Fantasía” and the bilingual “No Hay Nadie Mas.”

“Both those masters blew me away because I heard a voice that was intimate but powerful,” says Walker. “There was no audition. I sent the tracks to [Encanto composer] Lin-Manuel and the directors, and they said, ‘He will kill this song.’ ”

Sebastian Yatra
Versace by Donatella Versace sweater and shoes, Moschino by Jeremy Scott pants, MISHO necklace. David Needleman

Yatra sings “Dos Oruguitas” — a song telling the story of two caterpillars that transform into butterflies, which Walker calls “the heart and soul of the film”— entirely in Spanish, without subtitles, during Encanto’s emotional climax, a dialogue-free flashback montage in which the characters of Abuela and her husband are seen fleeing violent marauders and he is killed trying to protect his family. It’s a distressingly familiar tragedy for Colombians that Yatra brings to heartbreaking life, in one of only two musical numbers not performed by cast members. (The other is Vives’ jubilant “Colombia, Mi Encanto.”) “Sebastián could not only perform it but act it,” adds Walker, “so we felt [the characters’] love and presence.”

Walker called Paula, and within an hour, Yatra was in. He flew to Los Angeles and recorded at Capitol studios, with Miranda coaching over Zoom. “Sebastián was prepared,” says Walker. “When he started singing that first verse and bringing that character to the performance, that’s when we said, ‘This is special. Something miraculous is happening.’ We were all convinced this was the song we wanted to present to the Academy [of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences].”

A “Dos Oruguitas” Oscar would go to ­Miranda, but Yatra’s performance — especially in the wake of Encanto’s extraordinary, and ongoing, success on the charts — could be a game-changer for his career. “He’s already a star,” says Walker. “The Academy Awards would be able to open up entirely new audiences to how talented this man is.”

Sebastian Yatra
Sebastián Yatra photographed on February 28, 2022 at Seret Studios in Brooklyn. David Needleman

And soon, he’ll have a chance to see just how many people now want to know who Sebastián Yatra is. In August, he’ll embark on the Dharma tour, with over 70 dates in Central and South America and Spain (where he’ll play the 15,000-seat Wiznik Center in Madrid), as well as 22 U.S. shows at venues ranging from Los Angeles’ YouTube Theater to Miami’s FXT Arena. Already, he has performed on Good Morning America and The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon — where, midperformance of “Tacones Rojos,” he threw in a shy “What’s up, USA?” and was greeted by the audience’s supportive screams.

“We haven’t done the work yet [outside the Latin market],” says Yatra. “Once all that starts, stuff starts to happen. There’s an opportunity for me to get known here as a person and not just as a voice.”

PMC is the largest shareholder of SXSW and its brands are official media partners of SXSW.

Sebastian Yatra

This story originally appeared in the March 12, 2022, issue of Billboard.