In 2020, Let’s Ditch the Hokey Latin Crossover Song

In early 2017, Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee inadvertently kicked off a global Latin pop renaissance with their reggaetón lento, “Despacito.” The song gave a second wind to the Puerto Rican artists, both of whose respective heydays seemed to have come and gone in the 2000s. Soon, they would once again dominate Latin music charts in the United States.

Justin Bieber happened upon the song while club-hopping in Colombia; he liked it enough to propose a remix with Fonsi and Yankee, who gave their green light with gusto. With some help from the Colombian artist-turned-accent coach Juan Felipe Samper, Bieber refined his Spanish pronunciation and hit the studio in Bogotá, where the fateful “Despacito” remix was born. It was an instant hit: The song reigned at Number One on the Billboard Hot 100 for 16 consecutive weeks, and continues to be the most-watched video in YouTube’s history.

“The world is coming together and sort of getting smaller,” Luis Fonsi told Rolling Stone in January. “Nowadays people are not afraid to change their normal listening habits and listen to different things. It’s like, ‘Hey, maybe I don’t understand every single word that they’re saying, but this song makes me feel this and it makes me move and I connect to it.’ To be able to sing in both languages, to work with people from around the world and mix styles and cultures? I think that is truly what music should be about.”

Fonsi’s vision of a pluralistic pop music industry is a goal well worth aspiring toward. Yet not every cross-cultural exchange is value-neutral. In the aftershock of his song’s global success, anglophone artists and their record labels would spend the rest of the decade chasing their own Latin crossover hits. In 2019, this manifested in a series of cynical grabs at the next “Despacito.”

This January, Daddy Yankee maintained his mainstream momentum by remaking a cross-cultural hit from another era: 1993’s “Informer,” by the Canadian reggae star Snow. The two joined forces in a maximalist Spanglish revision titled “Con Calma,” which unlocked another billion-view triumph for Yankee, and a first for Snow. Cue Katy Perry’s electric slide into the track, which helped shoot “Con Calma” from its place at Number 48 to Number 22 on the Hot 100. But her Spanish 101 lyrics like “Hola, me llamo Katy/Little Mezcal got me feelin’ naughty” took “Con Calma” from a budding dancehall classic to something more like a dance floor clearer.

Then, swooping in from across the pond this fall came English singer-songwriter Ed Sheeran, who invited the Cuban-American star Camila Cabello and Dominican-Trini rapper Cardi B to join his latest Latin-lite song, “South of the Border.” Praising the brown eyes, curves, and “caramel thighs” of his manic pixie dream Latina, Sheeran flirts with a racial fetishism best left to trashy romance novels of yesteryear. Despite her stellar performances on the 2018 Latin trap hit “I Like It” (featuring J Balvin and Bad Bunny), and on DJ Snake’s “Taki Taki” (featuring Ozuna and Selena Gomez), for “South of the Border,” Cardi B too indulges Sheeran’s threadbare fantasy. “He want the little mamacita margarita/Ed got a little jungle fever,” she says just a little too sincerely, before Cabello beckons to Sheeran, “Come south of the border with me/Jump in that water, be free.” Though it continues to perform well on streaming services, the song’s timing is especially unfortunate given that, along said border between the U.S. and Mexico, asylum seekers from all over Latin America currently languish in detention centers, shelters, and makeshift refugee camps, where they risk physical and sexual abuse by U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, death by the flu, or kidnapping by traffickers.

Even Madonna, hardly a stranger to Latin music, outdid herself on the campy “Medellín,” her electro-reggaeton number with Maluma. “We built a cartel just for love,” she sings between lazy ay ay ay‘s, casually alluding to the handiwork of Colombian narcoterrorist Pablo Escobar. While anglophone pop stars cha-cha all the way to the bank, the complex realities lived by Latinx communities are shaved down to a vacuous picture postcard, tailor-made for the American tourist’s gaze.

Of course, years before “Despacito” mania and the exponential growth of industry enthusiasm (read: revenue) for Latin pop, many artists had already made prescient bets on a mass, mainstream Latin crossover. Towards the end of the aughts, Latino producer Dave Nada first pioneered a dembow-accented house music called “moombahton” at a cousin’s party in D.C. — and by the 2010s, EDM superstars like Diplo, DJ Snake, and Dillion Francis were popularizing the tropical fusion in anglophone pop songs like the 2014 earworm “Lean On” (featuring Danish singer Mø), followed by Bieber’s 2015 hit “Sorry.” (Regrettably, these Latinx-less hits always seemed to eclipse the same producers’ otherwise solid collaborations with artists such as Dominican-American rapper Maluca and Brazilian funk carioca crew Bonde Do Role.)

Meanwhile, in mainstream hip-hop, Drake gave a special shout-out to his Dominican fanbase in his 2012 song “The Motto” — “Go Uptown, New York City, bitch/Them Spanish girls love me like I’m Aventura,” he spit. Two years later, he recorded his very first Spanish-language verses with the frontman of Aventura himself, Bronx-born superstar Romeo Santos. Released on Santos’ 2014 album, Formula Vol. 2, their joint song “Odio” helped further boost the profile of bachata, then a strictly regional genre, among listeners across North America. (Drake would later reprise his role as El Draque for Bad Bunny’s 2018 single “Mia.”)

Then, in late 2017, Beyoncé decided the movement she kicked off with her ode to Southern black pride, “Formation,” could use an internationalist companion song. Not long after the release of their Spanish-French reggaeton smash “Mi Gente” (“My People”), Colombian singer J Balvin and French-Mauritian DJ Willy William got a call from Queen Bey about giving the song her own remix — and using the proceeds for disaster relief, following that year’s devastating string of hurricanes. Upon receiving their blessing, Beyoncé consulted with Luis Fonsi’s brother, Jean Rodriguez, who helped her finesse the Spanish verses. “Toda mi gente se mueve/La fiesta la llevo en mis genes,” she sings over a funky horn sample, with a special nod to her African-American, Creole heritage: “All my people get moving/I have the party in my genes.” The resulting trilingual “Mi Gente” remix was a progressive mélange of Afro-diasporic sounds, unprecedented on both Latin and mainstream American radio. The song closely followed “Despacito” on the Hot 100 chart, where it peaked at Number Three.

J Balvin and Bad Bunny expanded on this cross-cultural mission with their 2019 collaborative album, Oasis, calling upon Nigerian artists Mr. Eazi and Legendury Beats to record the reggaeton-Afrobeats closing track, “Como Un Bebé.” With little more than a swaying, romantic groove, the international crew highlighted the sonic links between the Hispanic Caribbean and its historically downplayed, but unquestionably black lineage. “Reggaeton, salsa, they all have their roots in Africa,” Legendury Beatz told Rolling Stone. “The South American sound is very repetitive in terms of the bassline, always a loop, and that four-to-the-floor bass drum pattern as well. That’s prominent in reggaeton. Those were the elements my brother and I were thinking about when we focused on creating that crossover African stroke.”

So what makes a genuine Latin crossover song — as opposed to a hackneyed, Epcot-derived parody of Latin culture? For starters, it’s all about approaching collaborations with the intent of sharing mutual understanding and respect across cultures. Anglo artists can easily take a page from Drake, Beyoncé, and most recently, Alicia Keys on Pedro Capó and Farruko’s “Calma”, by refusing to indulge tired stereotypes about the Latinx community; striving to make something that transcends both genre and place; and actually practicing, and retaining, their newfound vocabulary. (Definitely don’t get caught out there like Bieber: “Despacito/I don’t know the words so I say Dorito!” he sang before a live audience in 2017.)

As prolific as it was in the final years of the 2010s, it’s time to let the “Despacito” formula run its course — and aim instead for an inventive and daring new era of Latin pop. Here’s to a decade of fewer gimmicks and more good-faith cultural exchange.

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