Pasito a pasito: Daddy Yankee and Luis Fonsi | Backstory

The Caribbean musical hit of 2017? That’s “Despacito”, the steamy song by Puerto Ricans Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee, which has been breaking records all year. Nazma Muller investigates its runaway success, and explains why “Despacito” has roused controversy for more than its lyrics

Luis Fonsi. Photo by Omar CruzStills from the record-breaking “Despacito” video

Over the last few decades, slowly and with perfectly timed rhythm, the Caribbean has been increasing its influence on global popular culture. From Barbadian Rihanna to Trinidad-born Nicki Minaj, the region’s offspring have increasingly dominated the charts and airwaves in the United States, Canada, and Europe.

This past year, “Despacito”, the runaway hit by Puerto Rican sons Daddy Yankee and Luis Fonsi, has proved once and for all that the power of Afro-Caribbean rhythm is unrivalled. Like a hurricane, the seductive heat of “Despacito” has taken the US by storm, devastating records and leaping across language barriers to become the first music video in history to be viewed three and a half billion times — in the shortest time ever. Not to mention the first Spanish-language song to top the Billboard Mainstream Top Forty chart.

The original version of “Despacito” debuted last January, and then Canadian pop star Justin Bieber’s remix hit the airwaves in April. With Bieber on board, the song rose to number one in the Billboard Hot 100, where it remained for sixteen consecutive weeks. It was both Fonsi and Yankee’s first number one on the chart, and Bieber’s fifth. For Bieber, this was the first time he performed in Spanish, switching millions of his teenage fans across North America and Europe on to Latin rhythms and opening the portal to a whole new world of music.

Number one in the UK for eleven weeks, “Despacito” was also the biggest-selling track for the summer, racking up 1.2 million combined sales across 347,000 downloads between June and August. With a total of 1.8 million in sales to date in the UK, it has far outstripped the summer’s other big hits.

 

So what’s the secret? The “Despacito” video, filmed in San Juan, seduces you both aurally and visually. It pans gradually, allowing you to savour in slow-mo the crashing waves of the Caribbean Sea, the luscious colours of Puerto’s Rican’s stunning landscape, and her drop-dead gorgeous women. Like a carefully planned pepperpot stew, “Despacito” simmers with the Caribbean’s signature spices: una playa, muchas muchachas bonitas, and sensual dance moves. You can easily see why so many people have watched it over and over again. A steamy song about what the singer wants to do to a chica that he sees in a club, “Despacito” is filled with the many textures, colours, and flavours of the region, and — not surprisingly — has unleashed a firestorm of controversy: about the steaminess of the lyrics, the cultural appropriation of Caribbean creative products, and the true beneficiaries of this groundbreaking phenomenon. Its impact in the US is especially intriguing in the wake of Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant policies. Cultural theorists are watching with fascination as millions of American youths fall under the spell of “Despacito”: “pasito a pasito, suave suavecito” — “step by step, soft, softly.”

Leaping over language and social barriers, “Despacito” has united its fans with its Afro-Caribbean rhythms, combining the musical traditions of Puerto Rico (the delightful intro is played on the cuatro) and Jamaica, which inspired reggaeton. Daddy Yankee (of “Gasolina” fame) brings street cred to the proceedings with his unique rapping style. “Despacito” has been performed on all the major talk shows in the US — and there’s even a remix by Ernie from Sesame Street.

Puerto Rico’s economy has also got a much-needed boost from all the hype over the song. Just two months after Governor Ricardo Rosselló declared the country bankrupt to restructure a US$70 billion debt, tourism picked up again, with curiosity no doubt piqued by the song’s promise that “this is how we do it down in Puerto Rico.” Interest in travelling to the island increased forty-five per cent after the song debuted, according to Un Nuevo Día newspaper. Tour operators now include some of the places featured in the video, such as Club La Factoría in Old San Juan and the La Perla neighbourhood.

For Latino artistes, it is the major breakthrough into the North American and European markets they have long hoped for. “‘Despacito’ proves that when music moves you and makes you feel something, it’s universal, no matter in what language the lyrics are written,” said Mexican-American singer and actress Becky G to USA Today. “As a Latina American singer-songwriter, I couldn’t be prouder to be working in this industry at this point in time.”

And Colombian singer J Balvin, whose single “Mi Gente” is being hailed as the next “Despacito”, agreed the song is a “historic” achievement for Latino artists. “I have the biggest love and respect for Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee for opening even more doors for all of us,” he said.

 

Fonsi is a classically trained Latin artist who has been making a name for himself on the Latin pop scene for nearly two decades. Two years ago, he woke up with the “Despacito” melody playing in his head. That same day, at a studio session with Panamanian songwriter Erika Ender, the two began putting together the nuts and bolts of the mega-hit. “It just came together the right way: the right song, the right timing, the right lyric,” recalls Fonsi. The writing experience was “very magical.”

Fonsi then brought in Daddy Yankee to feature on the song. Together they rearranged the track, adding in Yankee’s urban rap style. After its debut in January, “Despacito” shot up the Latin charts. Then Justin Bieber heard the song at a club in Colombia while on tour, and saw the effect it had on the crowd.

Bieber immediately got in touch with Fonsi. He told him he loved the song and wanted to release a remix. Fonsi sent a translated version of the lyrics to Bieber in Colombia, and just days later received a remix that was still mostly Spanish.

“Streaming was the difference maker in ‘Despacito’ becoming historic, rather than just another song of the summer,” says Matt Medved, a Billboard director. “The number of streaming-music subscribers has nearly doubled in the last year. In Latin American countries alone, subscribers increased over fifty per cent; overall, streams are up over thirty per cent globally. The audience for music available digitally is bigger than ever and, consequently, plays a more significant role in the charting calculus.”

The lusty ode to a mamacita has unleashed a tidal wave of columns and editorials about cultural fusion, and the unrelenting rise of the Latin sound. Its success led Daddy Yankee, who has seventeen million followers on Instagram, to become the most listened artist worldwide on the streaming service Spotify in June — the first Latin artist to break that record.

Among the countless cultural explosions ignited by the song was Bieber’s faux pas at a concert when he massacred the Spanish lyrics, replacing some of the words with “burrito” and “Dorito.” Leila Cobo, Billboard’s executive director of content and programming for Latin music, said this has no way affected the song, which was always bigger than Bieber.

“[‘Despacito’] was doing very well without Justin Bieber, that’s really important to say,” Cobo explains. “He definitely helped it get to number one on the Hot 100, which is a domestic US chart . . . [But] it was number one on Spotify and number one on YouTube at a global scale. So it was a global hit.”

Just how much of the wealth generated by the song has gone to the creative well from which it first sprang has been another talking point for activists, who say the music industry has exploited the cultural production of communities of colour. Now coasting smoothly in the Latin American mainstream, reggaeton is the go-to rhythm to make a hit. The pioneers, such as the Jamaican sound engineers from the 1980s who created the dancehall styles that formed the backbone of reggaeton, do not get their just dues. “Despacito” is seen by those promoting the rights of artistes as a perfectly packaged product that exploits reggaeton’s now-global appeal for the benefit of a handful of superstars and large media monopolies.

As non-Latino and non-Caribbean artists claim new fans by tapping into Afro-Latino and other African diasporic musical genres, they appear to be “gentrifying” the culture, while not really paying it forward to the foundation musicians, producers, and sound engineers who have never been credited or paid for their intellectual property. Tellingly, Fonsi credits a legion of crossover artists like Enrique Iglesias and Shakira for helping pave the way for his success. However, over the last three decades, it was artists and musicians of African descent who experimented with various styles and sounds to carve out the groove and build the driving rhythms that Fonsi, Daddy Yankee — and now, Justin Bieber — can so easily ride.