“Despacito” by Luis Fonsi featuring Daddy Yankee and Justin Bieber was 2017’s most inescapable song. It spent a record-breaking 16 weeks at number one on the Billboard charts and is the most-streamed single of all time. It served as the year’s soundtrack for millions of people, and not just in America. The sexy single topped charts everywhere from the Czech Republic to Poland to Greece; in Havana, Cuba, in May, it could be heard blasting from the radios of every 1950s-era car. In fact, it was in a Colombia nightclub last April that Justin Bieber first heard the track and, after seeing the crowd’s reaction to the already popular hit, told his manager he wanted to do a remix.
Yes, “Despacito” was the musical unicorn that managed to push past language, genre, and streaming barriers to become, hands down, one of the biggest songs in history — and the first Spanish language song to hit number one in the U.S. since “Macarena” in 1996. And while the Grammys considered the hit big enough to be performed during the show — a moment that drew a standing ovation from the audience — the Recording Academy did not give “Despacito” one single award, even though it earned three nominations: Best Pop Duo/Group Performance, Song of the Year, and Record of the Year.
The big honor, for Record Of The Year, went instead to Bruno Mars’ “24K Magic,” itself an infectious jam beloved by the masses over the past year. And a win for Mars is a win for Latinos, as he himself is Puerto Rican. But “Despacito” was in Spanish, and a reggaeton-pop song at that — and simply much, much bigger. Even just comparing the charts, the Motown-influenced “24K Magic” spent 19 weeks on the Billboard Hot 100 and only ever peaked at number two, versus 43 weeks for “Despacito,” many of which were at the top spot. Neither the numbers nor the outraged Twitter fans lie. This was the year that the Grammys had a chance to finally acknowledge Latinos for their impact on American popular culture and music.
Instead, the Recording Academy chose to snub “Despacito.” And that rejection was about much more than one song.
In addition to acknowledging what a success Fonsi and Yankee’s work was, awarding them would’ve given credit to the impact the release had on mainstream music this past year. Since the original release of “Despacito” last January, American music has been infused with a Latino sound. Camila Cabello’ s tropical tinged “Havana” shot up the charts; Beyoncé collaborated with Colombian rapper J. Balvin to do a remix of his wildly popular “Mi Gente,” Mexican-American pop star Demi Lovato teamed up with Fonsi for “Échame la Culpa,” and Nick Minaj added a verse to Farruko’s Spanish trap hit “Krippy Kush.” And Spanish songs by artists like Shakira, Enrique Iglesias, and rapper-singer Maluma also made their way into the Hot 100.
The dismissal of the impact of Latino music is nothing new, however. The genre has long been exoticized, considered separate than American music until one rarity manages to capture the public’s attention, and suddenly, there is a “trend.” We saw that phenomenon back in 1999, when the success of Ricky Martin’s “Livin’ La Vida Loca” ushered in crossover hits from Jennifer Lopez, Marc Anthony, and Iglesias. But then the “trend” died down, and Latin and Spanish-language music have mostly been ignored by the mainstream since. So while breakthrough tracks by Martin, Shakira, or Fonsi are big enough to dominate the charts and influence culture every decade or so, they’re apparently not big enough to garner any love from the Recording Academy, which has never awarded a Spanish language song with a Record of the Year win.
Tapping into the Latino influence only when it’s convenient is not an anomaly that only happens in music. We see it in politics all the time, like when candidates briefly show an interest in Latino culture just to earn the Hispanic vote. (Remember when Trump desperately tweeted about taco bowls on Cinco de Mayo?) So it shouldn’t be lost on viewers that while the Grammys half heartedly attempted to address the discussion surrounding DACA and the Dreamers, they then chose American singers U2 and Sting to perform the tribute songs — and then failed to recognize the biggest song of the year, which happened to be in Spanish.
“The Grammys tried to make this big stand on immigration and Latino culture, but then they failed to recognize the Latino voice with an award for ‘Despacito,’ so that effort just felt empty and false,” says Latino cultural critic Michelle Herrera Mulligan, a contributor for Billboard, Latina, and more. “And then they have these Puerto Rican artists perform at the Grammys, but don’t recognize their work. Meanwhile, their people in Puerto Rico are being treated like second-class citizens, denied of basic resources after a natural disaster destroyed their homes. And there wasn’t a single word about that during the show.”
A win for “Despacito” would’ve also been historic for songwriting. Erika Ender, who co-wrote the song with Fonsi, is the first Latina to ever be nominated in the Song Of The Year category. Considering that the music industry and the Grammys are both facing criticism for their lack of support for both women and women of color, specifically, Ender’s songwriting credit added just one more to the dozens of reasons a “Despacito” win could’ve been historic.
“And inspiration for me back in the ’80s and ’90s was Gloria Estefan, because I saw her breaking down the walls and making people of all backgrounds around the world dance to Latin rhythms,” she told Refinery29 on the red carpet before the Grammys. “So I always dreamed of making that crossover in any way that I could, and that happened this year. And not just for me, but for many Latin artists. We might be a minority, but our music is loved by all, and when people give it a chance, it always delivers results.”
One could argue that the Grammys do hold a separate Latin Grammys ever year, so Spanish language receives lots of love there. But the difference is that “Despacito” wasn’t just part of the mainstream this year; it was the mainstream, opening the door for more cross-genre, cross-language collaborations, as well as for more Latino artists to cross over into the American market. Not to mention that the song’s singers are both Puerto Rican, which makes them just as American as the rest of us.
“For the Grammys not to acknowledge the impact of ‘Despacito’ was backwards thinking — and, frankly, bigoted,” Mulligan says. “We’re clearly at a cultural crossroads where English speakers are listening to Spanish music and know the artists. This Spanish music boom feels like our culture is striking back at the way this country has of making Latinos feel invisible. So even if the Grammys won’t recognize the song, ‘Despacito’ is sending a clear message. And it’s ‘Hey, America: You can’t shove us off the map. We are the map.'”
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