Sonido: Understanding the Rise of Latin Music in the US

Camila Cabelo 2019 Grammy
2019 Grammy Awards

Unless you’ve been living under a rock then you’re probably pretty familiar with Latin music. Latin beats are everywhere — on the radio, in clubs, playing in doctors offices, in commercials, in concerts, on TV, and literally everywhere you look or listen. But where did this explosion of Latin music come from? What caused this musical craze from our heritage that is taking the world by storm?

While it may seem trendy to you, if you ask most Latinx people, Latin music is far from new; the only difference is that in recent years it has become far more mainstream than ever before.

The Top Artists of 2018 according to Billboard

Camila Cabello, Selena Gomez, Ozuna (a Puerto Rican reggaeton and Latin trap singer), and Bad Bunny (aka Benito Antonio Martínez Ocasio, a Latin trap artist) are in the top 100; and as far as top songs of the year, “Havana” was number 4 and “Mi Gente” (a song with a Latin beat and performed entirely in Spanish) also broke the top 100. “I Like It” by Cardi B, Bad Bunny and J Balvin peaked at #1 this past summer and has been stuck in your head ever since.

And that’s not even the Latin music charts; those are Billboard pop music charts in the U.S., featuring a whole lot of Latin music. And this isn’t the first time that has happened. We all remember the undeniable song of the year in 2017, “Despacito,” right? So when did this happen?

A Brief History of Latin Music in the U.S.

Once upon a time Latin music was just that — music appreciated by and listened to primarily by the Latinx community, largely in local Hispanic communities. Latin music was not topping American music charts, getting recognized at awards shows, or being played on repeat on local radio stations.

The origins of Latin music in the U.S. can be dated back to the early 1930s and 1940s with the rhumba. In the thirties the rhumba became synonymous with Cuban-styled ballroom dance in the U.S., and then in the sixties salsa music, hailing primarily from Cuba and Puerto Rico, came to New York City. But even then, as this musical genre of rhythmic Latin dance music gained popularity in the states, it was still considered just that — Latin dance music. It was far from mainstream and it was its own genre with its own unique audience.

After the rhumba and salsa became popular on dance floors, in ballrooms and even in dance competitions, other hybrid versions and Latin styles became popular as well, with Latin jazz and Latin rock music gaining popularity in the fifties and sixties. Ritchie Valens, a Mexican-American singer and musician, pioneered the Chicano rock movement with his hit “La Bamba,” which was an adaptation of a Mexican folk song.

Who can forget the eighties and nineties hits from Gloria Estefan, Shakira and Marc Anthony, as well as “Bailando” by Enrique Iglesias in 2014? Latin pop songs are not new, but up until recently they haven’t garnered the recognition and air time they deserve.  

Back in 2009, filmmakers Elizabeth Deane and Adriana Bosch, who created the four-part documentary series on PBS called “Latin Music USA,” were on a mission to educate audiences about the roots of Latin music, the history of this rich culture and the way that this music connects us all. And while they wanted to show how Latin music has an integral place in American history, they acknowledged that “for Latinos, this is the music they live and breathe, with artists they have known all their lives,” reports the New York Times. So while those musical styles and artists were new to some, they were not new to everyone; Latinos had been listening to this music forever.

Latin Musical Style Is Likeable and Danceable

It should come as no surprise that Latin music has become so popular over the decades and even more so in recent years. The musical style appeals to people of all ages and backgrounds because of its rhythmic beats and catchy upbeat vibe. It has never mattered if the lyrics were in English, Spanish or both. The music is danceable and relatable because you focus on how it makes you feel and how it makes you move, as opposed to what they are saying. Just consider the popular obsession over Los Del Rio’s “Macarena” and Ricky Martin’s “Livin’ La Vida Loca.” It did not matter what the lyrics were; we bet you don’t even know what Macarena is about. Spoiler alert: the song is about a girl named Macarena who cheats on her boyfriend with two friends while he’s being drafted into the army. Consider our nineties hearts crushed.

But that’s the point. The words didn’t matter nearly as much as the sound, the style and the feel. Latin music is universally likable, with a global sound so many people are drawn to and so many cultures can relate to. It was just a matter of time before it became universally popular.

The Descpacito Effect In 2017 Changed Everything

While Latin music has been slowly gaining popularity over the years, there was arguably a huge shift in perception, mainstream appeal and popularity in the past few years alone. This explosion happened fast and thanks to some groundbreaking artists and hugely successful songs, the landscape of Latin pop music in America was irreversibly changed for the better.  

An NBC News report refers to this shift as The Despacito Effect. In 2017, “Despacito,” by Puerto Rican artists Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee, hit the scene and it has since become the most viewed video of all time on YouTube with nearly six billion views. Six billion! Yes, with a “b.” The article refers to the popularity of this song as a catalyst that “brought into clear view Latino artists’ rising influence in the American and music scene.”

And it wasn’t just “Despacito.” Sure, you heard that song on every radio station, every ten minutes for one year straight, and even still today. You definitely heard it blasting in a workout class, or at a club, or while walking into a store / restaurant / office / insert virtually any business establishment here. Yes, it got stuck in your head for days on end. But Fonsi wasn’t the only one changing the game where Latin music is concerned. In fact, there were 19 Latin tracks on the Billboard Hot 100 list in 2017.

Yes, this is a big deal, and it’s important to note that the previous years had far less Latin representation. In 2016, there were only four Spanish-language songs on any Hot 100 list, and in 2015 only three. The mainstream popularity of Latin pop music is growing, and while there are several reasons for this growth, we can definitely thank streaming services for really propelling Latin music to the spotlight.

Streaming Services For the Win

If we solely judged what is popular in the music world by what is playing on local FM radio alone, we might not be talking about the Latin music boom that we are experiencing today. But thanks to streaming services such as YouTube and Spotify, audiences around the world are able to listen to a wider range of music and are exposed to more global hits than ever before. What we stream influences what is played on other platforms and what is featured both on radio stations and Hot 100 lists. Streaming is a game-changer, and it is putting the power of popularity and fame into the artist’s hands as opposed to giving radio DJs the power to serve as gatekeepers.

According to Rolling Stone, “on Spotify, global listening to Latin music grew 110 percent in 2017 (compare that to 74 percent growth in hip-hop), and 10 different Spanish-language singles made it onto the platform’s Global Top 50 chart, setting a new record.”

Back in the day we were forced to listen to what was played on the radio or what was sold in our local record store. People didn’t have the ability to stream tracks on demand and share that music with other people on the other side of the city / state / country / world. Streaming has changed the way we consume music, the way we connect with others about music, and ultimately had changed the way that music becomes popular. And streaming has helped Latin music become a fan favorite around the world, and especially in the U.S.

Collaborations Took Latin Music to Another Level

While the digital revolution has changed the way music becomes popular, there’s more to a cultural shift in musical tastes than just streaming. Two words: Justin. Bieber. We know – it’s hard to imagine that Bieber is responsible for such a culturally significant shift but hear us out. His collaboration with Luis Fonsi on a remix version of “Despacito” further catapulted that song into the #1 spot, and other cross-cultural collaborations like it had similar positive effects. From Beyoncé working with J Balvin and Willy William on a remix of “Mi Gente” to Cardi B’s “I Like It” with Bad Bunny and J Balvin.

And we’re already seeing more cross-cultural collaborations, mixing Latin beats with Reggaeton, trap and even hip-hop music. Pop stars are working with Latin musicians, and unexpected pairings are churning out chart-topping hits. The music industry landscape has changed, and Spanish-language hits are gaining more and more attention thanks to artist collaborations that pool together multiple fan bases with one massive, viral hit.

Latin Music is American Music

While the infusion of Latin sound and style into pop hits was once considered to be a crossover of musical genres and cultures, it’s no longer seen as a mixture or a blending of anything. Latin music becoming mainstream is not a crossover, but rather an indication of the world we live in. Latin culture is American culture. Hispanic people are the largest minority in the United States, reports CNN — the second largest ethnic group after whites.  

So to say that the presence of Latin music or Spanish-language pop hits on an American music chart is a crossover is a complete misrepresentation what it means to be American. “This is really a misunderstood term,” explains Michel Vega, Chief Executive Officer for Magnus Media. Vega founded this management company in 2015 with singer Marc Antony. “Particularly with U.S.-based Latin artists, you can’t cross over to someplace you’re already at,” he argues in a Forbes piece. Latin music and American music were once considered to be separate and unique. They had distinctly different properties and music labels managed them differently. But not anymore.

Considering all of the changes in the music industry and the rise in popularity of Latin music, the model of music production and management is changing too. It used to be that one marketing team worked with artists on their English-language pop hits, and another for their Latin albums. Now record labels are signing bilingual artists and managing them with one direction and one career path. People both on the creative and business side of the spectrum are less concerned about so-called crossing over between American and Latin music, because they are fused together now. And it seems that when those musical styles are fused together, magic happens.

According to Caracas-born singer-songwriter Danny Ocean (born Daniel Morales), “music is something that transcends beyond any language or nationality…it’s all about being a global artist,” he told Forbes. And based on the growing popularity of Latin music in the U.S., bringing people and musical genres together, we’d have to agree.