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Música bilingüe: How America shaped its own Spanish-language hits

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ANGELA BI | STAFF

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DECEMBER 01, 2022

At the tail end of 2020, when the U.S. was still struggling to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic, Bad Bunny was making history with his album El Ultimo Tour Del Mundo, which became the first Spanish-language album to reach No. 1 on the Billboard 200. Two years later, his reach widened even further, breaking Drake’s record for the most streamed artist globally on Spotify in a single day. Needless to say, the influence of Spanish-language music in the pop macrocosm has moved far beyond Latin America, and especially in the U.S., it has become integral to the music industry and popular culture. 

In 2021 alone, Latin music saw its highest revenue figure in history in the U.S. market with $886 million, according to RIAA. It’s undeniable that Spanish-language music has become a mainstay in American popular music, but it hasn’t always held such power and influence. In the past, many Spanish-language hits in the U.S. have seen remixes or features by longtime established English-speaking artists as part of an effort to boost their popularity in the States. 

Of course, that is not to say that these songs were only popular in the U.S. because of the involvement of English-speaking artists. Rather, labels, music executives and sometimes even English-speaking artists themselves saw opportunities to jump onto tracks that were already gaining traction in the other parts of the world. 

At times, these joint ventures felt organic and, in some cases, like a love letter to Latin culture from artists who either greatly appreciate it or themselves descend from these cultures. Take “Mi Gente” for example, a 2017 hit by J Balvin and Willy William that was remixed by Beyoncé not long after its release. The song skyrocketed to No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100 post-remix, though it was already rising fast prior to Beyoncé’s involvement. 

Beyoncé’s “Mi Gente” sees her singing in Spanish throughout the track, as if in conversation with Balvin and Williams, all in a delicious vocal timbre. Even further, Beyoncé went on to perform the track in her iconic 2018 Coachella set, bringing Balvin onstage to join her in an unforgettable showing of multilingual talent. As one of the biggest Spanish-language Hot 100 hits of the 2010s, “Mi Gente” is a prime example of an English-speaking artist engaging authentically with their Spanish-speaking collaborators to produce a track that melds cultures and languages in pure celebration. 

Other recent Spanish hits echo this attitude, including 2018 favorite “Taki Taki” featuring Cardi B and Selena Gomez, who both come from Spanish-speaking backgrounds. Gomez went on to release an entire EP in Spanish featuring several Latine artists and producers, exploring her own Hispanic roots. In these instances, language, culture and music are deeply intertwined, and the role of English-speaking artists is one which bridges linguistic gaps.

Unfortunately, it is not always the case that English-speaking artists play such a supportive role in engaging with the Latin music space. A glaring example is, of course, Justin Bieber’s 2017 remix of Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee’s “Despacito.” The song, which was a global success prior to its surge in the U.S., was largely overlooked in the U.S. market by radio and streaming prior to Bieber’s involvement. This certainly reflects a fundamental issue in how the American music industry viewed Latin music, likely believing that the public wouldn’t buy into a Spanish-language track that didn’t have the backing of an English-speaking pop megastar. 

While the story goes that Bieber heard the song playing at a club in Colombia and quickly contacted Fonsi about a potential collaboration, it’s hard to imagine that chart success and big money weren’t in some way a factor in Bieber’s decision — especially noting how massive the song already was outside of the American music bubble. Beyond this, however, Bieber’s involvement on the track outside of simply recording the remix has been widely criticized for his unwillingness to learn the song’s lyrics. He’s been seen on many occasions not knowing the song’s lyrics, sometimes outright singing gibberish to the tune of his own lines. 

Needless to say, Beyoncé’s engagement with Latin music has been drastically different from Bieber’s, and this disparity largely reflects the historical struggle that Latin music has faced in breaking into the U.S. and other predominantly English markets. As times change, English-speaking artists more frequently seem to take the Beyoncé route, giving respect to a culture and language that is growing increasingly popular in the American music space. More and more, American audiences appear willing to listen to the work of Spanish-speaking artists without the appended English-speaking popstar. 

This has all led us to 2022, when Bad Bunny was able to break records held by English-speaking artists and become his own superstar in the U.S., releasing his fourth studio album Un Verano Sin Ti without support from any American superstar — sin falta.

Contact Ryan Garay at 

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NOVEMBER 30, 2022