A report by Mark Savage for the BBC.
Earlier this summer, Luis Fonsi’s Despacito became the most-streamed song of all time – an incredible feat for a record that’s predominantly in Spanish.
But it increasingly looks like it won’t be a one-off.
Another Latin American song, Mi Gente, has replaced Despacito at the top of Spotify’s Global Top 50. Here in the UK, it’s just broken into the top 20.
“It’s amazing. It’s such a blessing,” says singer J Balvin, the Colombian artist who’s behind the song.
Already a huge star in South America, Balvin has been credited with revitalising reggaeton – a hip-hop-infused blend of reggae and rap that originated in Puerto Rico in the late 1990s.
Over the course of four albums, he’s taken the genre once called “reggae en Espanol” and infused it with African, electronic and Caribbean flavours.
More importantly, his lyrics trade reggaeton’s gritty, underground roots for a more universal, romantic narrative.
“Mi música no discrimina a nadie,” he sings in Mi Gente, meaning “my music doesn’t discriminate against anybody”.
“Exactly!” says the star, when we reference the lyric. “I’m Latino but I don’t do music for Latinos. My music is for everybody in the world.
“Music has to be a tool to unite people, to get people together. It doesn’t matter the race, the language, the culture. So that’s what I’m saying when I sing that line.”
The global perspective is evident on Mi Gente, which has its roots in a French track – Voodoo Song, by Willy William. That song, with its chopped-up vocals samples and hopscotch drumbeats, provides a bonkers backbone to Balvin’s hit (which William also produced and sings on).
“We took a risk to make new music, new colours, new ways,” says Balvin. “It’s crazy what we created.”
So what lies behind this sudden explosion in music from Latin America? Aside from Luis Fonsi and J Balvin’s megahits, there are five other Spanish-language songs in the Spotify top 50.
‘New creative era’
Sir Lucian Grainge, head of Universal Records, says streaming is the key – giving Latin American artists a platform they would never have received on US (and UK) linguistically conservative radio stations.
“Streaming has changed the face of music discovery and music consumption,” he told the BBC last month.
“We’re at the forefront of a new creative era [where] anyone who is good can find an audience.”
“The beautiful thing about streaming is that people are looking for this stuff,” stresses Balvin. “It’s like, they really want to play this music. They’re looking for it especially. It’s the people talking.”
Spotify itself has been actively promoting Latin American music in regions outside South America – not least because Mexico and Brazil are two of the streaming service’s biggest markets.
“We’re proactively trying to push its consumption in countries like Germany, Italy, Switzerland, the UK [and] obviously the US,” said Rocio Guerrero, Spotify’s head of Latin culture.
“There has been a domino effect,” she recently told Billboard magazine. “The more songs that we put on the global chart, people are getting more used to listening to songs in a different language.”
‘Good faith and hard work’
Balvin has his own take on the phenomenon: “Well, I think right now kids and the whole world is more open minded,” he tells the BBC on the phone from Uruguay.
“People are just more open to listening to good vibes, even though they don’t understand the words.
“That’s beautiful. That’s amazing. It’s like we’re showing the world this is not luck… This is really down to good faith and hard work.”
Balvin has certainly put in the hours since launching his music career 11 years ago.
Born José Álvaro Osorio Balvin, he grew up in Medellin, a striking, hilltop metropolis that was once branded “the most dangerous city on earth” – thanks largely to the cocaine-trafficking cartel run by Pablo Escobar.
The young musician was largely insulated from that seedy side of the city, growing up in a large house with his well-off family – although they fell on hard times when his economist father went bankrupt in his teenage years.
He wasn’t particularly aware of reggaeton, sound-tracking his childhood with US rock bands like Metallica and Nirvana.
“Since I was eight, I started playing guitar and that’s how I fell in love with Nirvana,” says the star, who has the band’s name tattooed on his knee.
“It’s such amazing music. It’s a big part of my life.”
Aged 18, he went to the US as an exchange student, and discovered hip-hop culture – then spent the next few years bouncing between Medellin, Miami and New York, trying to launch a music career while working illegally in the US as a roofer.
It wasn’t until he settled back in Colombia and joined a production team called Infinity Music that he started to build a reputation locally, tirelessly promoting his music around the country.
“We travelled by bus, ate the cheapest fast food, spent hours and hours outside radio stations,” Infinity Music’s Juan Pablo Piedrahita recalled to The Fader in 2015.
The grind paid off: Balvin was signed to EMI Colombia in 2009 and subsequently set up a 360 deal with Universal subsidiary Capitol Latin.
All four of the singles from his second album La Familia charted in Colombia’s top 10, and he was a featured vocalist on the Colombian version of Robin Thicke’s hit single Blurred Lines. His break-up ballad Ay Vamos, meanwhile, racked up one billion views on YouTube – the first “urban” Latin track to do so.
Now Balvin is edging on to the world stage. His last album, Energia featured collaborations with Pitbull, Camilla Cabello and Pharrell Williams, while the star found himself watching Kanye West record last year’s Life Of Pablo album.
“I went to the studio the day Kanye was doing Ultralight Beams and it was just amazing to see how he works,” the 32-year-old marvels.
“He would brainstorm with his crew, and they all wanted to find the best idea. It really opened up my mind – I want to apply that to my own work.”
One lesson he won’t be taking from the famously mercurial Kanye, however, is how to handle his social media accounts.
“I can’t lie: the phone is like my right hand,” he jokes. “But right now the best way to keep connected with people, with your fanbase is through your cell phone.
“I’m on it all the time – but I’ll turn it off when I’m going to sleep. I just want to get those frequencies out of my brain, so I turn it off and I take it outside.”
When he’s not posting photographs from the stage of his current tour, Balvin is “working like crazy” on his next album which, he says, will represent both sides of his musical personality – “the global side and the Latino side”.
And, despite having the world’s most listened-to song, his ambition is undiminished.
“I want to go bigger,” he says. “Everything started with a dream. I dreamt about having one of the biggest Latin albums, I dreamt I’d be a global artist.
“And dreams do come true.”
J Balvin’s single, Mi Gente, is out now on Polydor.