When Rebeca León first saw her client Rosalía perform live in Marbella, Spain, in 2017, she had two immediate reactions. “I thought that one of the most exciting things about her was that she was so irreverent about breaking culture and dancing flamenco in her Air Force 1s,” recalls León, 45. “I had never seen that before.” Then her manager brain kicked in: “ ‘This has to transcend. We’re going to get a Nike deal.’ ”
Fast forward three years, and Rosalía has become the newest face of Nike Air Max as part of a multiyear global campaign — the first deal of its kind between the brand and a Latin music act, and a partnership struck by a singular manager. “Rebeca is a force, paving the way for female creatives and entrepreneurs globally,” says Gabrielle Bozza, Nike’s senior director of global influencer marketing. “She is disrupting the traditional approach to artist development and pushing boundaries in music and marketing.”
That mindset has helped León transform Rosalía from a standout artist in a niche genre to one of the world’s most in-demand acts — a global priority at Columbia and Sony Latin, where she’s signed to a joint label deal, and a history-making performer who took the stage at the Grammys in January, where she was the first best new artist nominee who records predominantly in Spanish.
León herself is no stranger to crossing cultural boundaries. Born in Miami to Cuban parents and raised bilingual, she has deftly navigated between the mainstream and Latin music worlds her entire career. She spent 11 years at AEG Live/Goldenvoice, where she headed the company’s Latin business as senior vp of Latin talent while simultaneously managing Juanes and J Balvin as co-founder/CEO of her own company, Lionfish Entertainment. (León created Lionfish in 2004 but relaunched it in 2014.)
Since 2017, she has focused full time on Lionfish. In the past 12 months, she has carried out a slew of deals for her roster — some in the midst of the pandemic. León worked closely with Travis Scott’s team on two collaborations with Rosalía: the remix of Scott’s “Highest in the Room” with Lil Baby and “TKN,” Rosalía’s single featuring Scott that reached No. 2 on Billboard’s Hot Latin Songs chart. León also worked with WME to secure Rosalía’s multiyear global deal with MAC Cosmetics, kicking off with a Viva Glam lipstick campaign. (All of the proceeds will go to COVID-19 relief.)
After amicably parting ways with Balvin in 2019 (they still chat on WhatsApp and speak often), León signed 20-year-old rising reggaetón star Lunay in partnership with producers Chris Jedi and Gaby Music, who also own the artist’s independent label, Star Island. “She works every day as if we were starting from zero,” says Lunay of León. “It’s the same mentality I apply to my own career.” León snagged an endorsement deal for Lunay with Spanish youth-apparel retailer Pull & Bear; his capsule collection sold out in one weekend.
As she continues to sign new talent (her latest, bilingual R&B singer-songwriter St. Pedro, signed with Interscope earlier in 2020), León says finding artists who share her work ethic is more important than simply growing her roster: “One thing is for me to recognize an artist. Another is for me to want to work with them. As an artist, you have to want it more than anybody else. I don’t do anything superficially.”
Keeping that focus is especially crucial considering León’s latest expansion: film and TV. Earlier this year, she sold half of her management firm to Live Nation, which helped fund her new content company, Lionfish Studios. “Rebeca has proven time and again that she has an incredible ear for talent and a natural instinct for taking artists to new heights,” says Live Nation Entertainment president/CEO Michael Rapino.
The studio’s first project, currently in development with HBO, is a scripted series about a female manager in the Latin music industry. “Obviously there will be things pulled from my experiences, but the character is not me,” says León. “[My hope is] to give women a voice, and I’m actively looking for female writers.”
Empowering female talent — both artists and executives — has long been a passion of León’s. Almost two decades ago, she left her job as director of marketing and A&R at EMI Latin to manage her first client, a teenage singer-songwriter from Miami called JD Natasha. The move didn’t pay off, but the idea of jumpstarting careers stuck. With her client and then-business partner Juanes, she signed Balvin when he was still an up-and-comer, then Rosalía a few years later.
Today, León is a board member at She Is the Music and says she is driven to help all underrepresented groups get equal opportunity in the industry — particularly women and, even more so, Latin women. “Uncomfortable conversations are necessary,” she says. “Taking risks is necessary. And finally some people have embraced it, although I’m still battling discrimination. I’m very excited about the rise of the unapologetic, opinionated female artist. We need more.”