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Despacito is the earworm that has got people talking about racial dynamics

File photo dated 06/12/2015 of Justin Bieber who has been named the world's most influential pop star for a second year running. - Credit: PA Wire/PA Images

Our culture correspondent on the ‘earworm’ that has become the soundtrack to the summer

If you haven’t yet heard Despacito, this summer’s hit of the moment, then don’t worry. Now that I’ve mentioned it, you will hear it everywhere. Originally released in Spanish as a collaboration between a singer and a rapper from Puerto Rico, it became the most downloaded track in history when an English remix featuring Justin Bieber was released.

Meanwhile for Spanish speakers everywhere the singer Luis Fonsi (who also wrote the track) is a hero, popularising their language globally. (And also driving the planet crazy. Despacito is an extremely powerful earworm. Once heard, it plays in your brain all day.) Fonsi is currently on tour in Spain, where he is playing Madrid’s opera house, Teatro Real. Despacito is on course to become the most successful Spanish language track in history. The video has now had over 2.8 billion views on YouTube. It immediately went to Number 1 in every Latin Billboard chart. In April, an English remix was released featuring Justin Bieber and went to No.1, Luis Fonsi’s first non-Latin hit.

While Despacito is generally recognised as a force for good (and, in some quarters, even as a source of racial harmony), it has become controversial in Venezuela in recent weeks as president Nicolas Maduro has been using a rewrite of the song to promote his redrafting of the constitution. The New York Times reports: ‘Mr Maduro clapped along as the altered version of the song played in the background, with lyrics extolling his plans to overhaul the country’s Constitution.’ The new lyrics say: ‘Exercise your vote instead of shooting and go with your ideas in peace, Our call to the ‘Constituent Assembly’ only seeks to unite the country … Despacito!’ Luis Fonsi has asked the president of Venezuela to stop using his track.

Despacito (which means ‘slowly’ or ‘softly’) was released in January, with Luis Fonsi on lead vocals and featuring the Puerto Rican rapper and music producer Daddy Yankee, rapping over the top. Daddy Yankee is known as ‘the King of Reggaeton’, a Puerto Rican music style that mixes hip hop, Latin American and Caribbean music and rapping in Spanish. The sound has been described as a departure from the music of Shakira, Enrique Iglesias or Ricky Martin (also global successes with Spanish tracks) because it integrates ‘reggaeton’ in an overt way.

Despacito has become a fascinating way for US commentators to talk about racial dynamics, partly because of Justin Bieber’s involvement (which some see as ‘cultural appropriation’) and partly because of what ‘reggaeton’ represents in the Puerto Rican context. Speaking to The Atlantic, Petra Rivera-Rideau, a professor at Wellesley College who has researched the roots of reggaeton, said: ‘In Puerto Rico, there’s a sense that the island’s trinity of races – black, Spanish and indigenous – has produced a harmonious society with no racism. But when you look at things like who has access to education, or at housing segregation, it’s very clear Afro-Puerto Ricans are discriminated against. Reggaeton provided a space to talk about those issues.’

While some are thrilled that this music genre has hit the mainstream, others are ‘upset because reggaeton has become very commercialized,’ says Rivera-Rideau. She also said she was bemused that a lot of the US media seemed to suggest that Justin Bieber had ‘discovered’ Luis Fonsi. In fact Despacito is taken from Luis Fonsi’s ninth studio album. He has previously duetted with Christina Aguilera and Spice Girl Emma Bunton, supported Britney Spears on tour and is a Latin Grammy award-winner.

Born Luis Alfonso Rodriguez Lopez-Cepero in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Luis Fonsi is his stage name. Although he was born in Puerto Rico, he was raised in Orlando and now lives in Miami. He is used to success in the US market but aimed predominantly at what they call ‘the Latin audience’ (ie. Spanish speakers). He studied music at the Florida State University School of Music before recording his debut album in 1998. He performed at the White House concert commemorating 9/11, regularly occupied the No.1 spot on the Latin charts in the US and starred in a Mexican TV soap opera, Corazones Al Limite. Clearly Fonsi was on a certain trajectory already, but the success of Despacito has pushed him up onto another level.

Bieber approached Fonsi about appearing on the track. The Canadian star was on tour in Colombia when he heard the record and, according to Luis Fonsi, said, ‘I have to be a part of this movement.’ Bieber recorded his own vocals separately and Fonsi was surprised to find that Bieber had chosen to sing in Spanish. But this, he says, is the beauty of Despacito. People are trying to sing it in the original. ‘It’s amazing, especially given the times that we’re living in,’ he says, ‘It feels like we’re in a divided world with politics, but when you hear Despacito and you see someone who doesn’t speak Spanish trying to get the words right… it shows the power of music. We’re coming together.’ If this sounds facile, it’s not. In terms of culture wars, Despacito is a big deal. I was shocked to hear an American friend say recently, almost in passing, ‘I know it’s wrong to say it but I just don’t want to hear people speaking Spanish in my country.’

Ironically, Bieber has been mocked for forgetting the words during some live performances, once singing ‘blah blah blah’ and ‘I don’t know the words so I say Dorito’ during a nightclub appearance, a clip which has gone viral on YouTube (and a lapse that has been criticised as ‘racist’). To be fair, the lyrics are a tongue-twister: ‘Quiero desnudarte a besos despacito, Firmo en las paredes de tu laberinto, Y hacer de tu cuerpo todo un manuscrito.’ (‘I want to undress you with kisses slowly, Sign the walls of your labyrinth, And make your whole body a manuscript.’) Luis Fonsi defended Bieber, saying: ‘That chorus is not easy to sing, even for fluent Spanish singers like myself.’

The Despacito craze shows no sign of slowing down. Last week it spent its eleventh week at No. 1 in the US. If it maintains its position, it will break the record held by Ed Sheeran’s Shape of You and Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars’ Uptown Funk for the longest stay at the top of the charts this decade. Once it hits fifteen weeks at the top, it will beat Macarena by Los del Rio (1996) as the longest-reigning foreign language No.1 in Hot 100 history. Imagine being bigger than the Macarena!

Fonsi says he has yet to drink a glass of champagne to celebrate his success. It has all taken him rather by surprise. ‘I wasn’t trying to make the next important Spanish song in the United States or the world. I was just trying to write the best song I could. At no point in time was I trying to write a crossover song either, which I think was important because I think one of the reasons for the song’s success is that it came together very organically. It was just always trying to be a feel-good song to make people dance. The rest just kind of happened on its own. And maybe that’s why it’s working very naturally.’

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