Many of the stars taking the stage at Thursday’s Latin Grammys will be familiar not just to fans of Latin pop but to most consumers of American pop culture.
For decades, well-established Latin artists rerecorded their music in English and made other adjustments to cross over into the American mainstream. Now, Latin pop artists like J Balvin and Bad Bunny grace the covers of major magazines and appear on late-night talk shows without changing their music — English-speaking listeners are instead crossing over to them.
“You go to Jimmy Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel, and every week almost there’s a Latin artist performing in Spanish. And it’s perfectly normalized,” says Leila Cobo, author of “Decoding ‘Despacito’: An Oral History of Latin Music.”
“That just is an example of how popular the music has gotten and the fact that now it’s regarded as mainstream pop not just niche music.”
The success in 2017 of Puerto Rican singer Luis Fonsi’s “Despacito” kickstarted a new wave of mainstream success for Latin music — one that shows no signs of slowing down.
Since “Despacito,” other predominately Spanish-language tracks have performed well on the charts, too — from J Balvin’s “Mi Gente” to Rosalía’s “Malamente” to the No. 1 hit “I Like It” from J Balvin, Cardi B and Bad Bunny.
Streaming has made it easier for listeners to discover music scenes such as reggaeton and Latin trap without those artists needing the marketing machine of a major label — in other words, English-speaking audiences are crossing over into Latin music.
“The world is coming together and sort of getting smaller,” Fonsi told Rolling Stone in 2019. “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.”
Despite finding major success outside of Latin America, artists such as J Balvin and Bad Bunny have recorded few songs in English and have indicated that they feel no compulsion to do otherwise.
“Why do I have to change?” Bad Bunny said during a recent appearance on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah. “No one has [told] a gringo artist that you have to change. This is who I am. This is my music. This is my culture. If you don’t like it, don’t listen to me. If you like it, you know.”
However, there’s still progress to be made, some critics argue.
Suzy Exposito of the Los Angeles Times pointed out earlier this year that the 2021 Grammy Award nominations largely shut Latin artists out of the top categories and relegated them to the Latin categories. But there have been some changes. The Recording Academy announced in April that it would be adding a fifth category to the Latin field, meaning the 2022 show will have more awards for Latin music than pop, rock, rap or country.
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