A Conversation About “Despacito,” Justin Bieber, and the Exploitation of Latinos in the Music Industry

Art by Alan Lopez for Remezcla

Whether you love it or hate it, the “Despacito” remix is here to stay. The Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee song featuring Justin Bieber is currently enjoying its second week at no. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100, a historic accomplishment that makes it the first mostly Spanish-language song to reach the top since Los del Río’s Bayside Boys remix of “Macarena” in 1996.

For the most part, English-language publications have championed the song, Bieber’s involvement, and its massive success. In interviews, Luis Fonsi has pushed a positive narrative about “Despacito,” citing the song as an example of cultural exchange and respect. “I think it’s about coming together. Language is not a factor anymore,” he told NBC News.

But the celebratory tone of this coverage has yet to capture the contentious debate surrounding “Despacito” in Latino communities. For many of us, it’s exciting to see visibility for Latino artists in the mainstream, considering the continued segregation of the Latin music market and the stereotypical marketing many Latino artists must endure. At the same time, Bieber’s decision to hop on the remix has sparked a polemical dialogue about authenticity, the exploitation of Latinos in the music industry, and Bieber’s relationship with black and Latino artists.

Remezcla Music Editor Isabelia Herrera and Jezebel Culture Editor Julianne Escobedo Shepherd sat down to discuss the complex ramifications of “Despacito,” and what the song means for Latino communities today.

Isabelia Herrera: What was your reaction when you heard the “Despacito” remix for the first time?

Julianne Escobedo Shepherd: I had mixed feelings. On the one hand, I think that Justin Bieber should genuflect to the music he’s been mining, and so if he’s gonna make fake reggaeton pop songs, at least he can rise to the occasion and actually give someone making reggaeton a boost. On the other hand…it kind of sucks? Like, sonically. What did you think?

Isabelia: My initial reaction was one of surprise, to be honest. Even though there’s a long history of Latino remixes in the industry, I was a little shocked to see Bieber singing lyrics with that much intricacy in Spanish. I was happy to see that he wasn’t reproducing stereotypes of Latinidad or exotifying Latinxs by throwing around a couple of “mamacitas” or “fiestas.” What did you think of his Spanish?

“Representation in music will never disavow racism, yet pop cultural moments like these are treated as such.”

Julianne: AGREED on the “mamacita” tip. Honestly if you asked me, “What would Justin Bieber do on a reggaeton remix?” two years ago, I would have guessed “Rap terribly and throw around the word ‘fuego’ a bunch.”

My Spanish is not great so I don’t want to throw stones in a glass house, BUT I definitely felt like he was reading from a teleprompter, or just gingerly mimicking Luis and Daddy Yankee phonetically. It’s not great! That said…it could be worse. Remember Drake? #neverforget

Isabelia: “Soy un pobre diablo” indeed.

It’s interesting to me, though, that you aren’t too keen on the original either. Over the course of its evolution, reggaeton has started embracing a LOT more elements of pop. Twenty years ago we probably wouldn’t have heard a cuatro on a Daddy Yankee song. What could Bieber have done differently in that sense?

Julianne: That pop element is exactly what created the environment for him to collaborate here; he would not have done a reggaeton remix even five years ago, and that collapsing of its sharper edges made “Sorry” possible. I think that’s why the J Balvin remix worked so well; Balvin is not my favorite, either, but there’s a sense of big pop stars finally doing each other a solid across, for lack of a better term, their respective markets. I don’t know if Bieber could have done anything differently. To be extremely cynical about it, this is our new capitalist reality. JAJAJA! I’m fun.

Isabelia: The “Despacito” remix story is so interesting me, because Bieber is apparently the one who reached out to Fonsi. Pop music is a perpetual debate about authenticity, and for Bieber to be the one to tap Fonsi for the remix definitely boosts his credibility here. That’s also the narrative I’ve seen from a lot of publications – one of celebration and praise. What was your reaction to the celebratory tone of the coverage? How have you seen that complicated by Latinxs’ reactions to the song?

“I don’t think that a Justin Bieber remix is going to save Latinxs in the Trump era.”

Julianne: I don’t think that a Justin Bieber remix is going to save Latinxs in the Trump era, for one. The notion that it’d take a reggaeton song with Bieber to do so, rather than the THOUSANDS OF SONGS – some of which are actual protest songs! – released by Latinx artists is utterly absurd and ignorant at best. For a long time, I’ve thought that it would take an English-speaking artist on a Spanish world song for mainstream English publications in the U.S. to care, but it’s interesting that they didn’t seem to when, say, Nicki Minaj and Drake collaborated with Romeo Santos. Now they act like it’s some kind of revelation when Biebs – a white vessel who has used black music and culture to help him break out of the kiddie pop genre and become “cool” – does it. It seems pretty telling!

I think the average Latinx music listener is very savvy about this, and so the responses to these articles and in general to the song have reflected the cynicism we might feel, even if we happen to enjoy the song.

Isabelia: That’s exactly it. This goes deeper than celebrating Latinx representation on the charts, yet that is somehow the narrative that continues to unfold. Representation in music will never disavow racism, yet pop cultural moments like these are treated as such. A pop-reggaeton song claiming the no. 1 spot on the charts is a feel-good antidote to oppression, even if the casual listener starts discovering Latin music now.

Julianne: That is such a good point; this notion that people can supplant the terrible feelings that come from knowing at least half the country hates Latinxs and ICE is terrorizing and ripping apart families, just by listening to a stupid song.

I guess that’s a good segue into my feelings about the video of Bieber replacing the Spanish lyrics with “Blah blah blah.” For me, it’s not that he didn’t even know the Spanish; no one, I’m sure, thinks he did an immersion course before hopping on this song. But the way he did it, with such disrespect and, to my read, something approaching vitriol, really infuriated me, and also perhaps reflected the true feelings in this country towards Latinxs. It came out the same week as the video of that white man in an airport screaming at a Latinx dude for DARING to speak Spanish to his mother in an airport. Spanish is highly politicized in this country, and so for Bieber to use the language to increase his pop market share and then shit on it – I don’t care if he was drunk, Biebs stans stay out of my mentions – is the utmost disrespect. And I thought it was racist, to be honest.

Isabelia: I like your point about how Spanish is highly politicized in this country. I think that’s what is hard for a lot of people to understand; they might dismiss our frustration with that video as an overreaction, but they probably don’t understand how insidious it is for him to be able to play around with the language without fear of violence. When Bieber mocks the song, he’s showing us that he can capitalize on Latinidad without actually experiencing any of the oppression that comes along with that identity. He doesn’t have to live in a culture of fear, be treated as a second-class citizen, or experience exotification.

Julianne: Exactly! And you make a great point about the exotification; I read something about how it’s the first Spanish-language Billboard no. 1 since 1996 – since “Macarena,” which is largely looked upon as a kitsch, novelty song that is tangential to the dance craze. I’m not exactly sure that “Despacito” will go down like that, as music consumers are much savvier than they were 20 years ago (thank you, Internet), but it runs the risk.

Isabelia: I’m definitely interested to see how the song is received in hindsight, or how this will affect the perception of crossovers in the future. When Spanish-language songs blow up in the mainstream, Latinx artists are often characterized as new discoveries or part of a trend, even though the artists may have storied careers. I feel like this particular case is a little different, since many listeners will at least recognize Daddy Yankee’s name from “Gasolina.” How do you see the importance of this song in terms of Latinx representation on the mainstream charts historically?

“When Spanish-language songs blow up in the mainstream, Latinx artists are often characterized as new discoveries or part of a trend.”

Julianne: Well, I am glad that actual Puerto Rican artists are reaping some of the benefits of this new pop thirst for dembow, or whatever they’re doing that’s approximating dembow. When Ed Sheeran is out here getting plaques off of a kind of moombahton, the people whose primary style it is deserve a piece. That said, I’m not entirely optimistic that this will last; English speakers for the most part don’t want to hear Spanish-language music, so there hasn’t been a lot of success for crossovers. Even “Gasolina,” which is such a massive track, is still seen as a novelty.

Historically, I think it’s going to be a one-off for now, and in 10 years when another Spanish song hits no. 1 we’ll be like “This is the first time it’s happened since ‘Despacito.’” I hope I’m wrong!

Isabelia: I do think it’s possible that we’ll have more Anglo artists doing Latino remixes, but not necessarily in Spanish. That is, they’ll have Latino performers hop on their own tracks to appeal to Latino consumers and listeners, but not necessarily sing in Spanish. But I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s some saturation of that format in a couple of years, as soon as people’s thirst for dembow is quenched.

Anyway, any final thoughts you want to add before we come to a close?

Julianne: I think my final thought, having talked this through, is that Justin Bieber is a site of aggression and we shouldn’t stand for it. Don’t let Bieber play you!

Isabelia: As someone who has definitely allowed Bieber to play me, my thoughts on “Despacito” have taken a radical turn. I hope that the moment “Despacito” is having at least sparks a dialogue for people to understand why there is so much tension for Latinx listeners about the song’s success. And I hope people take this opportunity to actively engage with the history of reggaeton (which is one of Afro-diasporic struggle), and understand why the song is so complex for us, whether we love it or hate it. I am not expecting accountability, really, but I am truly hoping some fruitful conversation and reflection comes out of this.

Julianne: That’s a great point. Also, we need an Afro-Latina in the White House. That’s all.