“Breaking the record for most-viewed video of all time is a massive achievement,” says Lyor Cohen, YouTube’s Global Head of Music. “Huge congrats to Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee in reaching this milestone—it truly demonstrates the power of YouTube in providing artists a place to express their creativity and connect with fans across the globe.”
That last part—the international appeal of “Despacito”—is perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the song’s unlikely rise. Though Justin Bieber helped supercharge “Despacito” with an April remix packed with English lyrics, that version has clocked “only” half a billion YouTube spins (though it has now spent 13 consecutive weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100). Remarkably, it’s Fonsi’s Spanish-language original that set the YouTube record.
Though it has been wildly successful in Mexico (385 million views), the song’s appeal extends to places where Spanish isn’t the first or even second language, from Italy (146 million) to Indonesia (41 million) to Israel (18 million). “Despacito” is the most-watched video of 2017 in more than 40 countries.
“It is such a victory for the Latin world,” says Erika Ender, who co-wrote “Despacito” with Fonsi. “The whole world is singing and dancing in Spanish. That is something really amazing.”
The song is the most famous fruit of a lengthy friendship between the two songwriters. One day, Fonsi called Ender and asked if they could meet up for a writing session next time she was in Miami. The day they went to the studio, Fonsi woke up with an idea in his head: the first line of the chorus of “Despacito.”
He sang it to Ender—Despacito, vamos a hacerlo en una playa en Puerto Rico—and, instantly, she replied with the next line: Hasta que las olas griten “¡ay, bandito!” From there, they started writing the song from scratch, trying out melodies before deciding on “a very sensual lyric with a nice message.”
“Kind of like inviting people to fall in love slowly,” says Ender. “This genre tends to put women as an object. It’s very aggressive sometimes. So, I think we did it with responsibility, we did it knowing that we had a very contagious melody on our hands.”
Ender and Fonsi finished the song with just guitar and voice, going through at least five arrangements before they found the sound they wanted. Then Fonsi decided “Despacito” needed another collaborative element, so he called Daddy Yankee, who agreed to add the pasito a pasito element of the chorus. The song debuted in January and immediately went to No. 1 in 14 countries, and Universal started to contemplate an English language version.
In April, Bieber was in Colombia during his world tour and heard the song in a nightclub. Ender soon received a call from the singer’s team, asking if there was any interest in a Bieber remix—one that would inject English lyrics into the beginning of the song, but would leave the body of “Despacito” in Spanish.
“I’m like, ‘Oh, my God, are you kidding me? Go ahead,’” Ender recalls. “I thought that was so beautiful … when he tells me he wants to sing it in Spanish, and he tells me it's good, I go, ‘That’s amazing, it is going to help our culture so much.'”
“Despacito” has certainly advanced the cause of Latin music on the worldwide stage, but contrary to popular belief, it’s more a reflection than an alteration of reality. More than one third of YouTube’s top 100 most-viewed artists of 2017 are Latin acts--including Nicky Jam, Maluma, J Balvin and Ozuna, all of whom have crossed the 1 billion mark this year.
Much like “Despacito,” these views aren’t just coming from North and South America. Monthly YouTube tallies for Latin acts have surged over the past year, up 185% in France, 178% in the U.K., 195% in Australia, 260% in Israel, 352% in Egypt and 940% in Indonesia. The movement is a combination of genre and medium.
“That Latin consumer even dwarfs the R&B/hip-hop consumer in terms of how important streaming is to them,” says Nielsen’s David Bakula. “The Latin music consumer really skipped over digital sales. It’s because that demographic is not a computer-owning and computer-centric consumer. But when you moved it over to the phone, their life is on their phone.”
Perhaps the most surprising part of the rise of Latin music—and “Despacito” more recently—is the fact that it’s happening even amidst a global political environment that’s more xenophobic than it’s been in decades.
“In the times that we live, where some people want to divide and want to build walls,” Fonsi told NPR, “it’s quite lovely that a Spanish song is No. 1 right now.”
His co-writer certainly agrees.
“The truth was that we never ever thought that it was going to get this big," adds Ender, who is now the first Hispanic woman with a Spanish language No. 1 song on the Billboard Hot 100. "We knew we had a hit in our hands, but we never thought that the world was going to be singing in Spanish.”