Pharrell was featured on a new song by Colombian Reggaeton singer J. Balvin. The song, “Safari” is produced entirely by the Virginia native and has him singing in Spanish. Unfortunately, Pharrell’s verse isn’t long enough for me to properly assess his fluency in my mother tongue (he does sound better than Kendrick though). Despite that, the verse-and song- serve as an interesting artefact for Spanish language music in popular culture.
It used to be Latin artists had to enter the US market to be considered a success. During the so-called “Latin Invasion” of the late 1990s and 2000s, we saw established Latin Pop icons release English language albums to cater to an English-speaking audience. One of the first notable examples was Ricky Martin, who released his self-titled English debut in 1999. Others, like Enrique Iglesias, Shakira and Marc Anthony quickly followed suit.
Thus it was interesting to note that the most popular Latin songs in the United States were sung in English. Until quite recently. One look at the charts and you’ll find a number of Latin acts sitting a top in their native language. Enrique’s Spanish rendition of his 2014 hit “Bailando” has over 1 billion views on YouTube. J. Balvin and the SAP version of Pharrell have amassed 110MM views on YouTube. since September 2016.
How did we get to this point? How did we go from Ricky Martin livin la vida en ingles to the likes of Nicky Jam, Romeo Santos and Ariel Camacho having regular chart toppers in Spanish? If we’re to pinpoint a time when Latin music became a part of popular culture, we have to look back to 2010 and begin not in the US nor the Americas, but in France with a rapper/singer named Lucenzo.
In 2008, Lucenzo released his first single, “Emigrante del Mundo.” The song was a radio hit in Portugal. But his next single, “Vem Dançar Kuduro” would be an even bigger hit and put him on the trajectory towards international stardom. For the uninitiated, “kuduro” is an African dance style, popularized in Angola during the 1970’s and 1980’s. For over 400 years, Angola was a Portuguese colony. As such, the official language of Angola is and was Portuguese. Therefore, “kuduro”, In Angolan-Portuguese, ” means “cu duro” or hard-ass.
Yes. Kuduro is essentially twerking in Portuguese.
Sometime after the song’s release in January of 2010, word came to Lucenzo’s camp that reggaeton star Don Omar wanted to make his own version. Big Ali, an American DJ based in France who appears in “Vem Dançar Kuduro” told us; “After the success of the song, millions of views, or whatever, Lu’s manager called me and and said ‘I think Don Omar wants to do a record…would it be okay?’ And I was like well shit, it’s Don Omar. If he wants to make a record, let him make the record. Go in!”
The Don Omar version, titled “Danza Kuduro” featured Lucenzo and came out in the summer of 2010. The video amassed millions of views within days of release and would go on to become the smash single of 2010. The song earned Don Omar his second US Billboard Hot Latin hit and Lucenzo his first. Most famously, it also appeared on the Fast Five soundtrack.
While it’s been six years since it’s release, “Danza Kuduro” is still heard at clubs, bars and weddings around the country. What’s fascinating is the song isn’t even in English. Lucenzo and Don Omar sing in Portuguese and Spanish respectively. To date, the song has garnered over 800MM views on YouTube, easily placing it among the top 100 songs on YouTube, ever. Among all songs in sung in Spanish, it’s the most popular track in the US that’s older than 5 years:
So what made this song so popular in the United States?
An obvious answer is the Spanish language. It’s no secret that Spanish is one of the most spoken languages in the United States. According to the Instituto de Cervantes, there are 41MM native Spanish speakers in the US plus an additional 11.6MM who are bilingual. Much to Trump’s probable chagrin, numbers estimate that by 2050, there will be 138MM hispanohablantes in the US. Which means yup, the USA will become the biggest English speaking AND biggest Spanish speaking country in the world.
But what about Portuguese? I can’t tell you how many of my friends have been surprised to learn Lucenzo’s verse isn’t in Spanish, but in his native Portuguese. Now, the number of Portuguese speakers in the United States is small. Figures estimate that there are less than 1MM speakers in the country. Yet what they lack in numbers they more than make up for with social connections.
There are sizable communities of Portuguese-Americans across the United States, with pockets of concentration in Massachusetts, New Jersey, Florida and my home state of California. Growing up in Modesto, I remember learning Portuguese words as a kid, which came especially handy when calling for the ball in soccer games. Carolina Matos of the Portuguese-American Journal says there are over 400 cultural associations for the Luso-American community.
These communities are very closely knit and proud of their heritage. If we look at the Google Search Trends from the time of the song’s release in 2010, we see the majority of interest come from metro’s with strong Portuguese Communities.
|Top States For “Danza Kuduro” Search Terms
||States with the highest % of Portuguese population
For a song with over 800MM views, it’s interesting to see the majority of views coming from smaller cities like Providence and Fresno/Visalia. Both have very strong Luso-American communities.
For the Portuguese community at home and especially abroad, “Danza Kuduro” was almost an unofficial theme song. Big Ali said, “the whole country (of Portugal) made the world pay attention to it. They finally had something they say was their own, and it was beautiful to see the whole world behind it.”
The song’s success was also key in rallying together a community that is dispersed around the world. Portugal has the largest emigration rate in the European Union. If you want to find Portuguese culture, then you should look outside of Portugal, like France, Switzerland or the United States.
It’s almost poetic that Lucenzo was born in France to Portuguese parents and he’s the one helping spread the Portuguese culture.
The large number of US Hispanics and the tight knit bonds of the Portuguese American community helped Danza Kuduro become a hit in the United States.
When you break it down, “Danza Kuduro” is about a French singer, rapping in Portuguese about an African dance move with a Latin American pop star who sings in Spanish. The song, and video, is an amalgamation of languages, cultures and histories. It’s almost the perfect metaphor for Latin culture at-large, be it Latin European or Latin American. It’s especially of significance for the Portuguese community around the world. By studying the complex cultural layers of the song, we can begin to understand why it was such a global phenomenon and an important cultural touchstone for Latin Music in the USA.
This combination of ideas and languages is akin to the Latino’s forebears, the Romans. The Roman Empire was a melting pot of cultures from around the Mediterranean and Africa. Yet what made people Roman wasn’t so much the “race” as much as it was the common culture and language. As Anthony Everitt said in The Rise of Rome;
The Romans had no concept of racial purity and, just as they had welcomed conquered states into partnerships with then since the days of Romulus, so they invited individuals whom they had oppressed and degraded to join them as collaborators in their imperial project. Over time, Rome became the most culturally diverse of cities and its population mirrored the ethnic composition of its growing empire.
One of the last frontiers conquered by Rome was the island of Britain. Julius Caesar invaded the isles in 55 and 54 BC and centuries later, the Emperor Claudius returned to Britain with four legions, establishing the Provincia Britannia.
The conquering of Britain pushed the the limits of the Roman Empire. Similarly, the “conquest” of English-America by “Danza Kuduro” increased the prominence of Latin and Spanish language music. It was no longer required that English be the lingua franca of success in music. And in a way, Don Omar and Lucenzo’s hit is partly responsible for why Pharrell, an icon of American music, is now singing in Spanish.
As J. Balvin told THE FADER, he wants mainstream artists to “accept Latino artists as equals, without having to sing in Spanish.”
Seems like the mainstream already is.
This post was done in collaboration with Matt Daniels and Ilia Blinderman, both of The Pudding. Collectively, we probably listened to this song at-least about 3,917 times during the process of working on this piece.