Riggs Morales is looking for a unicorn. The vp A&R and artist development for Atlantic Records wants to find a “hybrid, bilingual monster” who can reach both Latin and mainstream audiences, Spanish speakers and English speakers. Where does he expect to find this artist? “I believe the next Drake, the next artist of that magnitude, will come from the Latin space,” he says.
For decades, labels have hunted exactly this kind of “monster”: Latin artists born and raised in the United States who can move fluidly between cultures and languages, reaching two distinct fan bases. But while one-off successes have popped up through the years, like Frankie J (whose 2005 album, The One, peaked at No. 3 on the Billboard 200), Pitbull (with his ubiquitous “Dale”) and, most recently, Camila Cabello — who embraced her Latin identity from the onset of her solo career — a sustained movement has never jelled. Even the artists of the so-called Latin explosion — Ricky Martin, Enrique Iglesias, Shakira, Marc Anthony — had to build solid careers in Spanish before attempting to cross over.
But now, a new generation of homegrown Latin acts is emerging in the United States, singing in a mix of languages and identifying first and foremost as Latin. “The world changed, and certain communities are no longer visitors but locals,” says Afo Verde, chairman/CEO of Sony Music Latin Iberia. “It’s not new, these U.S.-born artists with Latin roots. What’s new is that they’re now accepted.”
The range of artists is broad. There’s the Mexican-Americans: Cuco, 20, the bilingual, multigenre alt act who signed a seven-figure deal with Interscope in March, and Becky G, 22, who after launching her career in English with Dr. Luke perfected her Spanish and is releasing chart-toppers like “Sin Pijama” through Sony Music Latin. Recent Sony signee Paloma Mami, 19, was raised partly in Chile, but her bilingual trap reflects her New York upbringing. And Universal Music Latin’s expanding roster of homegrown talent includes Mariah, 19, born and raised in Miami but now living in San Juan, Puerto Rico; Fuego, 37, born to Dominican parents and raised in Washington, D.C.; and Sebastián Yatra, 24, born in Colombia, raised in the United States and making predominantly Spanish-language pop, though he caught Universal’s attention with English tracks.
This wave of talent calls into question the long-held conventional wisdom that Latin labels should sign Latin artists who sing in Spanish, and mainstream labels would then take over their English-language projects. “We’re getting a lot of proposals from homegrown bilinguals who want to sing in Spanish,” says Alejandro Duque, managing director of Universal Music Latino. “A few years ago, they’d have wanted to sing in English first.”
“It was inevitable that with cultures colliding, all this great music would be heard on a bigger stage,” says Peter Edge, chairman/CEO of RCA Records. “Frankly, it was impossible for Spanish artists to get visibility before. The Latin explosion of the late ’90s was all in English. Now, even an Anglo artist sings in Spanish. Today, young people don’t care: They may not understand everything that’s being said, but they like the vibe. On both sides, there seems to be a willingness to share.”
The artists themselves have evolved, too. First-generation U.S.-born Latinos, who for years felt underrepresented at best and disenfranchised at worst, are now realizing there are many others like them. This, says Paradigm music agent Devin Landau, has allowed a new cohort of indie, mainly Chicano acts like Cuco and Chicago-based Omar Apollo, to gain a following among Latinos — because they identify as Latino — but also among non-Latinos because they sing primarily in English. “They have [Latin] music ingrained in their DNA,” says Landau. “They’re using these elements but creating a more modern sound that is palatable” to many ears.
Finding a bilingual, bicultural homegrown artist with more mass appeal remains elusive, however. “Not many people who have been creating Latin music all their lives understand how to make an ‘American’ song for an ‘American’ demographic,” says Lex Borrero, executive vp/head of Latin for Roc Nation, whose roster includes INNA, a Romanian who sings in Spanish and English, and Mexican-born, U.S.-based Victoria La Mala. By the same token, he adds, U.S.-grown artists who are Latin and bilingual don’t come with a built-in home country fan base. “Even guys who grew up here go back to Puerto Rico, blow up there and come back.”
But that is beginning to change. Aside from artists like Becky G and Dominican-American Leslie Grace, who have already had major chart successes in two languages, there’s Cabello. Born in Cuba but raised stateside and fluent in two languages, she has sung and posted messages to fans in Spanish since her days in Fifth Harmony. Says Edge: “I see a movement.”