As anti-immigrant rhetoric mounts in US, Latin song is tops

Puerto Rican pop singer Luis Fonsi (far left) and reggaeton star Daddy Yankee at the Billboard Latin Music Awards in April in Coral Gables, Florida, where they performed the hit song Despacito.
Puerto Rican pop singer Luis Fonsi (far left) and reggaeton star Daddy Yankee at the Billboard Latin Music Awards in April in Coral Gables, Florida, where they performed the hit song Despacito.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

NEW YORK • This summer, American white supremacists have put on a show of force, the United States President is fighting for a wall to keep out immigrants... and a Spanish-language song has achieved record success.

Despacito, Luis Fonsi's infectious dance track rooted in Puerto Rico's reggaeton music, on Monday marked 16 straight weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart.

It ties for the longest reign at the top of the US singles chart with One Sweet Day, the 1995 tear-jerker by Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men.

The feat is all the more remarkable as non-English music rarely dominates US airwaves. The kitschy Macarena was the last Spanishlanguage song to hit No. 1 in the US, back in 1996.

In some markets, such as Miami, Los Angeles and New York, however, millions of Spanish-speaking locals do make up a large minority or, in Miami's case, a majority.

Celebrating on Instagram, Fonsi hailed the record as "historic for Latin music".

The cultural moment comes just months after President Donald Trump won an election on promises to crack down on immigration. Last week, he threatened to let the government shut down if he does not win funding to build a wall on the Mexican border.

While Despacito does not come from Mexico, its Latin flavour is unmistakable.

Hispanics are the US' largest minority group. And most Hispanic Americans - more than 60 per cent - are Mexican-American.

On the song, veteran Puerto Rican pop singer Fonsi turned to the beats of reggaeton, the often testosterone-heavy dance music of the US territory's historically marginalised Afro-Puerto Rican community. He also featured reggaeton star Daddy Yankee.

Despacito had its break on the mainstream US chart as a remix, with Canadian pop star Justin Bieber, who added a breathy English-language opening verse.

But it is the original that has soared to an all-time record on YouTube, reaching more than 3.4 billion views worldwide since January.

Music professor Robin Moore at the University of Texas at Austin said Bieber undoubtedly gave the song a lift.

But he noted that reggaeton itself was "fundamentally about cultural mixture and international influences" and that politics rarely stopped such fusion.

Reggaeton's sources include Jamaica's dance-hall rhythms, New York's rap and beats from Panama, where Jamaicans and other West Indians came together to build the canal.

"So perhaps the disconnect between tendencies in politics and in the realm of popular culture is to be expected," Dr Moore said.

"It's possible that the tendency is even more marked right now, with many listeners consciously or unconsciously demonstrating their rejection of anti-immigrant rhetoric coming from the Trump administration and instead embracing diversity."

Data from analytical firm BuzzAngle Music showed that Despacito had, by far, the most sales and streams in New York and Los Angeles - unsurprising considering they are the largest US cities - and fared especially well in other left-leaning coastal cities, such as San Francisco and Boston.

The song has also won an audience far beyond the US, topping charts across Europe, Latin America and Asia - although it was banned in Muslim-majority Malaysia over its lyricism, which even to a non-Spanish speaker is palpably full of sexual innuendo.

Musicology professor Alejandro Madrid at Cornell University said Despacito succeeded in part by reinforcing the image of Latinos in a way made "more palatable to American taste".

The song - whose title means "slowly" in English - plays on sexual metaphors, but Prof Madrid said it was not nearly as explicit as much of reggaeton, including earlier works by Daddy Yankee.

"It is reproducing what one would expect from someone who is Latino, but in a sort of toned-down version," he said.

"It allows an interaction with Latino culture - without it being aggressive, but still keeping some of the 'wild' overtones," he added.

He also tied the song's success to the greater visibility in the US of Latinos, who are facing political attacks, but also speaking out.

He drew a parallel to the 1990s, when California saw a boom in Mexican-rooted banda music - just as then Republican Governor Pete Wilson was pushing Proposition 187 to deny services to undocumented immigrants.

"What I hear with Despacito is Latinos saying, 'We are here, we are Latino. Whether you like it or not, we are here to stay. And we are part of America,'" he said.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 30, 2017, with the headline 'As anti-immigrant rhetoric mounts in US, Latin song is tops'. Print Edition | Subscribe