A report by Marlon Bisho for Fader. Go to the original report for a gallery of photos by Rose Marie Cromwell.
Romeo Santos brought Dominican guitar music to the Bronx. Now he’s an ambassador for Latinos in the world’s biggest boardrooms.
The King of Bachata deftly loads two 35-pound weights and leans back onto the bench. “I’m taking it easy today,” Romeo Santos says. Wednesday is back day. That is, usually it is, but he’s been hitting the studio so hard that his gym schedule is all messed up, so he’s doing chest day instead. He pumps the bar smoothly and effortlessly for a few repetitions and sits up. “If I don’t come here, I feel sick,” he says. “I know it’s probably just mental, but I feel like I’m getting too chubby or too skinny.”
If Santos is out of peak condition, you wouldn’t know it. He’s tall, with sculpted arms worthy of an MMA fighter. Romeo says he’s at the gym four or five times a week, more if he has a photo or video shoot coming up. He works out at the Sports Center at Chelsea Piers in New York City, a massive high-end gym complete with rock walls and an indoor track. A few benches down, an extremely fit-looking Latina woman benches a gnarly stack of weights. “Dale, mamí,” shouts Romeo, encouragingly. “You know it!” she responds.
“What I like about this place is I don’t really get recognized here,” Romeo says. “At this gym, most people don’t know me. The Latins that do know me, they express their admiration for me but kind of leave me alone.”
Not getting stopped by fans for selfies is a perk for Romeo, who is famously private. He avoids too much exposure in the press, and has a policy of never speaking publicly about his family or personal life. But the fact that he can remain anonymous is a sign of the unique kind of American star he is.
The 35-year-old singer is, without exaggeration, one of the most influential musicians in the Western Hemisphere. Formerly as the vocalist and main songwriter for the hit band Aventura and currently as a solo artist, he consistently dominates charts in the U.S. and throughout Latin America, as well as in Europe. Since going solo in 2011 he’s had seven No. 1 hits on U.S. Latin charts, including 2013’s “Propuesta Indecente,” which has racked up more than 1.1 billion views on YouTube. In 2014, he sold out two consecutive nights at New York’s Yankee Stadium, a first for a Latin solo artist.
All of this he’s achieved not by singing Latin pop or cross-over, but by staying true to his original musical love, bachata, which he has almost singlehandedly transformed from a genre of bittersweet guitar music little known outside the Dominican Republic into an international force.
And yet, because of mainstream America’s blind spot to Latino pop culture, he can work out in a fancy gym in his hometown without attracting attention, just the way he likes it.
Two days earlier, Romeo lounges in the driver’s seat of a white SUV parked outside of the Midtown offices of Roc Nation, the entertainment company co-founded by Jay Z. Romeo holds the position of CEO of Roc Nation Latin, a division created in 2016. He’s on a tight schedule — his album is due out in May, so we’re on our way to the studio to put in a little work before he hops on a plane to the U.K. for a top-secret meeting. We head off up the West Side Highway in afternoon rush hour traffic, Romeo deftly dancing between lanes and tailing every car in front of us in true New York-native style. “I love driving in New York, bro. I don’t know what it is. I’m not interested in driving any other place but here,” he says.
Romeo talks in a heavy New York accent, and in a low throaty whisper that doesn’t seem to match his thrushlike singing voice. His manner is both polite and down-to-earth, with plenty of pridefulness but none of the aloofness that celebrities often develop. He often starts his sentences with “I say this humbly,” or “I mean this respectfully”; within minutes of meeting someone, he’ll address them as “bro.” We lurch our way uptown, with the George Washington Bridge in the distance. Beyond it, with a little stretch of the imagination, you can almost see Romeo’s home borough, the Bronx.
New York City is a Dominican city when you get down to it. The city’s first immigrant and non-Native resident was a Dominican man, Juan Rodriguez, who disembarked on what would later become Manhattan in 1613 to create a trading post, a decade before the Dutch colonists arrived. Today, Dominicans are the largest immigrant group in the city and all together there are over 1 million Dominicans who live in the N.Y.C. metro area, centered around a nexus of Upper Manhattan, the Bronx, and metro New Jersey. And contrary to slander from Attorney General Jeff Sessions that “almost no one coming from the Dominican Republic [has a] provable skill that would benefit the country,” Dominicans have prospered in the city as some of its most vital entrepreneurs: as owners of iconic bodegas, hair salons and supermarkets, as well as in every other conceivable field — as doctors, professionals, academics, and politicians. In the past election, the city elected the nation’s first Dominican-American to U.S. Congress, Adriano Espaillat, who took over the seat formerly occupied for over four decades by Harlem political kingpin Charlie Rangel.
Romeo’s family, like many from the Spanish-speaking Caribbean, settled in the South Bronx. His father was an immigrant from Moca, a city in the Dominican Republic’s agricultural interior, who came to New York as a young man and worked double-duty as a construction worker and taxi driver. Romeo’s mother is from Puerto Rico — a surprise to many fans who assume he is only Dominican — and was a stay-at-home mom who took care of him and his older sister. At home, he exclusively spoke Spanish and listened to music by the crooners his mom loved. Outside, the cultural references were different. The neighborhood was black, Dominican, and Puerto Rican, and hip-hop and R&B ruled the block. Summers were spent in Puerto Rico, in a tough housing project called Caserio in San Juan, where his maternal grandmother lived. It was a completely multicultural upbringing.
“I’m just a Latino that’s very Americanized, that’s the best way I have to word it,” Romeo says. “I feel like I don’t speak perfect English, I don’t speak perfect Spanish. But when I’m able to mix it as Spanglish, that’s the closest to perfection for me.”
As we drive, Romeo every now and then reflexively dials the volume up on the radio, set to La Mega 97.9, and back down again. “Just a habit,” he says. At any given moment there’s a pretty good chance he’ll hear himself; he’s had hits constantly in rotation on Latin radio since 2002, especially in New York. “My friends joke, ‘We didn’t know you bought the radio station,’” says Romeo. His specific brand of bachata has become one of the city’s signature sounds, the soundtrack to public school romances and sweaty summer afternoons. It’s a sonic undercurrent to the city that New Yorkers carry in their bones whether they like it or not.
Of course, it wasn’t always that way. Romeo’s musical beginning can be traced to the moment his dad brought home a cassette by the bachata artist Anthony Santos, which he picked up on a whim because the artist shared the same exact name as Romeo (whose real name is Anthony). “I just fell in love with the production. I was like, ‘Wow, this is dope.’ At that time, bachata did not have a great reputation. If anyone liked it, it wasn’t cool to brag about it. But I didn’t know that. When I got that information, it was too late, I was already in love with the genre,” says Romeo.
Bachata’s roots trace back to the early 1960s, when a large wave of Dominicans from the countryside migrated to the capital, Santo Domingo. The transplants played guitar ballads in the working-class neighborhoods where they settled, singing about infidelities and lost loves. Musicians started accompanying those ballads with staccato guitar arpeggios and a more danceable beat, and eventually the sound became known as bachata. The middle and upper classes, who turned their nose up at anything associated with poor people, hated the new music and bachata became associated in the Dominican media’s eye with low-rent cabarets and brothels. When trying to draw comparisons to an American context, writers have often called bachata “Dominican blues,” for the shared themes of pain and suffering, and shared roots in poor, mostly black communities.
Romeo caught the bachata bug while attending Morris High School in the Bronx, and began playing the music before he had ever even visited the D.R. He and and his cousin Henry were singing in a church choir. “We weren’t religious,” he explains. “There was a girl I liked in the choir.” On the side, Romeo was writing his own bachata songs and singing them a cappella at family parties. He and his cousin eventually linked up with two brothers from the neighborhood, Lenny and Max Santos (no relation to Anthony and Henry, despite the shared last name), who were also interested in starting a bachata group. They called the band Los Tinellers — literally, “the teenagers” phonetically spelled in Spanish. They ended up working with a tiny label to put out an album when Romeo was just 17 years old, called Trampa de Amor, meaning “Love Trap.”
By 1997, the band had been playing little gigs in Dominican neighborhoods around the Northeast, but their manager didn’t have much money to promote the project and passed them off to an aspiring indie music impresario named Franklin Romero, who ran a Dominican music label called Premium Latin Music out of a storefront in the Bronx. Around this time, the group was reconceptualized as a kind of bachata boy band, renamed Aventura (translation: “adventure,” but in the context of romance, like “fling” or “affair”) and all four of the guys were put on the covers of their CDs.
Their image was the rare combination of tough, yet romantic. Instead of the corny suits most bachata artists in D.R. wore, they rocked streetwear. “We came with a different vibe,” says Romeo. “We had Yankee hats. Before people even listened to our music, they said, ‘These guys aren’t bachateros, they are rappers or something, what is this?” Musically, they added synths and sound effects that were common in hip-hop, and the vocal melodies had a hint of R&B. They sang in Spanish, but peppered in interludes and slogans in English (such as the Romeo classic, “So nasty”). Bassist Max Santos, who taught himself to play his instrument watching Red Hot Chili Peppers instructional videos, put random slap bass interludes in the middle of the songs.
People back in the D.R. might have been confused, Romeo says, but their music hit a nerve on their home turf. In 1999, with the label hesitant to invest more in the band, Aventura put together a few hundred dollars themselves to record some tracks that they hoped to shop around to a bigger label. According to Romeo, those songs ended up in the hands of a local club DJ. One of the tracks was called “Obsesión,” a maniacally catchy song about a guy whose love for a girl he can’t have tips into stalkerish obsession.
“They were basically demos, because we didn’t have the money to mix and master the records,” says Romeo. “And it was just like, one day to another. In a matter of three months there was not one vehicle in Washington Heights that wasn’t playing our music.”
“Aventura was going viral,” says Marti Cuevas, who worked as the label manager at Premium Latin Music at the time. “They were magic. Nobody had to promote them, nobody had to do anything. It just started in the Bronx and it spread.” Franklin Romeo, the owner and president of Premium, had been indicted for drug trafficking in 2000 and had to flee the country, and Marti was running the day-to-day in New York. Marti remembers going with the band to Boston for an in-store performance early on. “We had to be brought to the store in a police escort. It wasn’t a line around the store… it looked like a protest. Just a mass of people filling the street.”
“Obsesión” charted not only in the U.S., but throughout Latin America, and even in parts of Europe like Belgium, Italy, and Germany. The band went on to rack up hits and record albums until 2010, when they broke up, because, according to Romeo, multiple people in the band had their own plans and wanted to try out solo projects. Romeo swiftly got swooped for a multi-million record deal as a solo artist by Sony Music and Jive Records.
As we cross the George Washington Bridge into New Jersey and pull off the highway in Elizabeth, a heavily Latino town close to the city, Romeo dials up a number on speakerphone. “Bro, I’m like 15 minutes away, alright?” he says. “Nah man, you’re fucking late, nigga. You are fucking late,” a voice responds, belonging to one of his engineers. “Aight, assholes,” says Romeo. Normally, Romeo records at his home studio, but his computer is down so he’s going to a small studio owned by a friend in Jersey. “I’m a little traumatized with leaks and stuff like that, so this is a place that I feel that’s safe,” he says.
We stop at a nondescript apartment building on a commercial block. Romeo pulls a neck garter over his face to avoid detection, and we walk up three stories to a cozy studio bathed in pink lighting. Romeo gives pounds to his engineers and takes off a jacket to reveal a figure-hugging white T-shirt that goes down to his thighs. “I like that fucking shirt,” says Mate Traxx, one of the engineers. “You know how we do,” responds Romeo. His engineers, like all of his team, are Puerto Ricans and Dominicans that he knows from back in the day, people that he trusts.
Romeo wastes little time chit-chatting. He downloads an instrumental off his Gmail and soon after it’s playing through the speakers — it’s not a bachata track, but reggaeton, something to mix it up on the new album. Today he’s making a reference track, working out the final lyrics and melody to record properly later on. The moment he’s on the mic, his low whisper instantly transforms into that warbling, crystalline tenor.
Over the next 30 minutes, he sings the first line of the song over and over again, punching in different spots of the bar, making tiny adjustments to the melody each time. A note goes up and flutters back down; the next time it hovers in place before plunging down. Throughout, he’s painstakingly conducting the process, demanding his engineer to review each variation, cataloging his favorites for later comparison, all at a relentless pace. “Yo, do you feel this line is repetitive?” he asks his engineer. “How can it be repetitive, it’s only the first line of the song,” the engineer responds, somewhat exasperated.
Later on, I tell Romeo that I’ve never seen any musician work quite so meticulously. “You’ve seen nothing,” he says. “It gets a lot more intense than that for me. When I’m recording, I work so much and put in so many hours that I need two engineers to take shifts.”
People who work with Romeo confirm that he’s an unrelenting workaholic, with a tendency to micro-manage his own career to the smallest detail. “He’s just constantly pushing the limit, and if you are going to be by his side, than you need to push the limit also,” says his manager.
“I’m a perfectionist,” explains Romeo with a shrug. “And being a perfectionist, you never really feel like you’ve accomplished enough.”
A few days later, after we hit the gym, I’m riding shotgun in Romeo’s white SUV again, this time headed to his penthouse in a suburb just north of the city in leafy Westchester County. In the back of the car there’s a large acrylic portrait of Romeo singing into a microphone. “A fan made that, and I’m going to give it to my mom to hang up if she wants,” he says. (Romeo bought a house for his mom in the suburbs, too, but she could never bring herself to leave her place in the South Bronx.)
On the way, I ask him why he’s never really strayed from singing bachata. “It’s just something that I feel I’ve mastered. Not to sound arrogant. I just kind of developed this sense for it,” he says. He decided to name his two major-label solo albums Fórmula Vol. 1 and Vol. 2 in homage to his own winning musical formula. These albums were mostly made up of his R&B-inflected bachata, but this time with features from the likes of Usher, Pitbull, Nicki Minaj, and Drake — the latter of which, on “Odio,” he got to sing in Spanish in what became a Latin radio hit. The songs mostly tell of the everyday dramas that happen between men and women — infatuations, betrayals, betrothals, apologies, and so on.
“There’s millions of ways of telling a girl you love her, or ‘I hate you, you broke my heart,’ and that’s just what I do, I just try to tell you in many ways, different stories. I’m an actor in scenes,” says Romeo.
In his marathon live show, which lasts for three hours, he plays up an image of the ultimate subject of romantic and sexual desire. He frequently berates the men in the audience for not giving their women what they need. At the end of the show, he even rolls out a lavish bed onto the stage and invites a lucky lady from the audience to performatively frolic with him under the covers while he performs his hit “Propuesta Indecente.”
He wasn’t always such a heartthrob. There are old home videos on YouTube from when Romeo first started playing music as a teen, and there’s something really tender about them — he’s seated in a stairwell playing guitar, or playing local street fairs. In one video of an Aventura performance from 1999, Romeo’s singing on some kind of lo-fi TV show, and it’s almost hard to recognize him: he’s this gangly, scrawny kid in ill-fitting corduroys, barely moving on stage and too shy to look at the camera.
“I couldn’t even speak to the crowd, that’s how shy I was. I was so skinny, I guess puberty didn’t kick in the way it should have, and I had a total lack of confidence,” he says now. Then, one day, Anthony Santos decided to create Romeo. “I realized that if I didn’t become a different person on stage, it just wasn’t going to work. I just used what I knew I had to offer, and my friends always said I was funny. So I created this character, who was this funny, seductive guy, who could maybe come across a little bit arrogant.”
“I’ve created this character that is basically my alter ego. I’m personally not like that,” he continues. “And I love the fact that I can disconnect myself from all this when I get off the stage because it’s not really me.” Romeo is aware that the character he created feeds into stereotypes about Latino men — but he’s not too concerned about it. “Latin men get that label a lot, the seducer. To some extent I feed people what they want to be fed, and it works for me,” he admits.
As for his personal romantic life — it’s a topic that’s strictly off limits. “I don’t confirm nor deny anything. Am I single? Am I married? Is she Dominican or Puerto Rican? I don’t talk about those things,” he tells me.
The Range Rover pulls up to the complex where Romeo lives, and he goes upstairs to get ready for the night’s event. Twenty minutes later, he returns in bomber jacket and a black T-shirt with a knitted graphic on it. We get into a different car, this one a black SUV containing a driver and Romeo’s assistant, a young Dominican guy dressed in thick-rimmed eyeglasses and dark suit.
The group is heading to a dinner that Roc Nation put together to introduce big-name brands to Romeo as CEO of Roc Nation Latin and develop potential deals. We race back down the West Side Highway and pull up in front of Carbone, a fancy A-lister Italian spot in the West Village, and idle for a while so Romeo can make a dramatic entrance once the rest of the guests are seated. After a few minutes sitting in silence, Romeo speaks up in a rare moment of self-doubt. “It’s just funny because look what I’m thinking about right now. I just realized this literally right now: I don’t even know if I’m dressed the part. I hope that no one there is in suits, which is very possible,” he says.
Romeo’s assistant gets the nod and we walk into the restaurant and are ushered into a back room with about 25 people in it, many indeed wearing suits. They stand and applaud as he takes his seat. Stationed throughout the restaurant, somber men wearing earpieces scan the environs. They’re members of the Secret Service — turns out Barack Obama will be eating here later tonight as well.
The assembled brand managers go around and introduce themselves — Audi, Macy’s, PepsiCo, just to name a few, each eager to glean insights from Romeo on how to sell more of their stuff to Latinos. America may seem to hate Latinos these days — the Trump election was many things, and one of them was a referendum about how white people at large feel about Latino immigrants. But corporations cannot ignore Latino money. In 2015, Latino buying power equalled $1.3 trillion, according to a Nielsen report, and Latino spending is growing significantly faster than any other demographic group.
The music industry, in turn, loves corporate money. Among the less sexy ways hip-hop revolutionized the world is that the genre’s artists were among the first to leverage their authenticity to ink huge, multi-million dollar brand partnership deals, like the famous 50 Cent-vitaminwater partnership. Jay Z certainly made much of his fortune that way, and connecting artists to brands is a big part of Roc Nation’s business model. The company’s goal tonight, basically, is for Romeo to sufficiently impress the assembled brand managers and set the stage to win sponsorships for artists in their Latin division, thus replicating hip-hop’s alliance with corporate America for a new generation of Latino stars and consumers.
Tonight, it’s Romeo’s turn to play Jay Z’s role of the super-empowered artist-executive. Even without the suit, he’s doing a bang-up job, moving from table to table and charming everyone with stories from his career as they munch idly on $50 entrees. “You’ve found a way to transcend the Latin community, how do you plan to do that with your artists at Roc Nation?” asks a young Audi employee. “It just has to be organic,” Romeo explains in response. “I tell artists they need to do what’s real to them. I do bachata. When I worked with Usher or Drake, I brought them into my world. I’m sending the message I’m not interested in crossing over. I want you to cross over into my world.”
As cynical as this whole scene may be, the assembled executives aren’t wrong to want to flock around Romeo. He does, after all, have what they so badly want — that elusive formula. Somehow, a once-skinny, introverted kid from the Bronx, stuck between cultures, who loved romantic Dominican guitar music and stubbornly refused to sing anything else, tapped into something much bigger than he could have ever imagined. And especially for the first-generation immigrant kids that initially raised him to stardom, he proved that what they wanted wasn’t to assimilate to U.S. pop culture or stick to Latin American culture, but to be part of something new, something in between. They wanted pop culture in Spanglish. And the whole continent would eventually prove to want it too.
A few hours into the dinner, a wave of nervous excitement ripples across the restaurant. Barack Obama enters, walking tall and looking like a revelation in a more fashionably trim suit than he ever allowed himself to be seen in at the White House. As he passes by, for a few minutes, the former Leader of the Free World and the King of Bachata are mere feet from each other, their halos touching. Yet Romeo is unfazed — he met the former president twice already during White House performances in 2009 and 2014. One of the Roc Nation employees proposes trying to arrange a hello-and-handshake for Romeo at Obama’s table.
But the meeting doesn’t happen. The bilingual megastar has to get back to work. Before the brand managers know it, Romeo and his team are up and out the door, on their way uptown to the studio for a long night of songwriting, in search of the next great American bachata anthem.