When Luis Fonsi launched his ninth album, “Vida,” in January 2017, he probably didn’t imagine that its main song, “Despacito,” featuring Daddy Yankee, would become an international sensation. The track broke seven Guinness records, among which were the most weeks at the top of Billboard’s Hot Latin Songs chart in 2018, the most-streamed track globally and the first video to ever receive 5 billion views on YouTube (it has since topped that tally). “Despacito” also made history in the United States, having been certified 13X platinum, which means it sold 13 million units and online streams, becoming the digital single with most certificates in the history of Recording Industry Association of America.


Is Brazil’s Soft Power Under Threat?

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It’s almost impossible not to be seduced by the rhythm, the beautiful men and women dancing on a paradisiacal Caribbean beach in the video clip. Seduction is a key element to soft power that works through attraction instead of coercion, which is the prerogative of hard power projected via politics and economics. Soft power shapes the preference of other people and societies through culture, diplomacy, science and religion. It is usually the best propaganda for any country precisely because it doesn’t look propaganda, with credibility being an important element of the message it carries.

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Hollywood, one of the most successful vehicles of soft power globally, needed more than just one film to achieve its levels of influence in the 20th century. So, is Latin music a new soft power, or is “Despacito” a rare phenomenon? Latin music has been internationally renowned for decades, with bossa nova and tango capturing audiences the world over. But the number of Latin artists wining important international awards and topping charts like Billboard appears to be a more recent phenomenon.

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According to Rolling Stone magazine’s 2018 list of the 50 Greatest Latin Pop Songs from 1950 to now, 24 of the 50 are from the past 25 years, including songs like Ricky Martin’s 1995 hit “María,” “A Dios le Pido” by Juanes from 2002, Julieta Venegas’“Algo Esta Cambiando” from 2003 and Shakira’s “Hips Don’t Lie,” released in 2006, among others. This trend may just be a new outlet of soft power for the continent.

Artists from all over the world are being seduced by Latin music, inspiring increasingly more international collaborations. In 2019, the Swedish singer Tove Lo went to São Paulo to produce “Are U Gonna Tell Her?” with Brazilian funk singer MC Zaac, a racy and rather Latin-looking clip, sung in English and Portuguese. The American magazine Variety claims that Brazilian singer Anitta “offers a much more interesting counterpoint to Madonna than Britney Spears,” referring to their collaboration on “Faz Gostoso” on Madonna’s 14th album “Madame X.”

We can thank funk music for this trend. Although funk has its origins in black communities in 1950s America, with artists like Horace Silver and, later, James Brown, Brazil’s carioca funk was born in the 1970s in Rio de Janeiro’s favelas, but still mostly focused on remixes. Later in that decade, it became the rhythm we know today, with faster beats, more erotic and original lyrics about guns, drug trafficking and other favela problems.

However, it is only in the past 20 years that Brazilian funk got a new look, with songs identified more heavily with Brazil’s black community and the nouveau riche that became known as funk ostentacao, or ostentation funk. That is when funk became another Latin hit on the internet, with artists like Anitta, Ludmilla and videos by KondZilla getting millions of views on YouTube and SoundCloud. The rhythm was once known for its violent, sexist and pornographic lyrics. But that also changed in the past few years, with new variations like indie funk offering a dance beat and romantic lyrics, and building on influences ranging from MPB (Brazilian pop music), pop and bregga, or tacky.

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As a result, funk became the most-listened-to Brazilian music genre in foreign countries. “Bum Bum Tam Tam,” by MC Fioti, released in 2017, is the first Brazilian song to reach 1 billion views on YouTube, with views abroad overtaking the domestic audience. According to a survey from DeltaFolha, of the 200 most-listened-to songs on Spotify in 51 countries, funk is the favorite Brazilian genre internationally.

Seduced by Latin Music

Reggaeton is another Latin rhythm that is part of this soft power. Born in the Caribbean countries like Puerto Rico, Panama and the Dominican Republic in the 1980s, it has grown into a bigger phenomenon in the 2000s. Daddy Yankee and Snow’s “Con Calma” had over 1.6 billion views on YouTube last year and has been awarded the 2019 Premio Lo Nuestro — an annual award presented by Univision TV channel in the US since 1989 to distinguish the new talent of Latin music. The Philadelphia Inquirer’s list of the top songs for the summer of 2020 includes famous reggaeton hits like Bad Bunny’s “Yo Perreo Solo.”

It’s not the first time that Latin music becomes a soft power. In the 1950s, Brazilian bossa nova, which translates as “new wave,” seduced hearts and minds all over the world, with a genre that mixes samba, jazz and African beats. Singers like João Gilberto and Antonio Carlos Jobim made a historical debut at the Carnegie Hall in 1962, introducing bossa nova to American audiences. Two days before the show, the White House organized a party, and Jackie Kennedy, a big fan of the rhythm, insisted on Brazilian music as the main theme. American jazz artists like Quincy Jones, Herbie Mann, Stan Getz and Charlie Byrd soon started to record bossa nova. Bebel Gilberto, the daughter of João Gilberto, made her career in the US with bossa nova.

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At the same time that bossa nova swept the world, tango was also conquering the global radio waves. This rhythm of Argentina is responsible for a multimillion-dollar industry, involving festivals and numerous tango houses that have been drawing tourists from all over the world for over 70 years. The genre of Astor Piazzolla, Julio Sosa and Carlos Gardel captivated Hollywood, becoming central to films like “Scent of a Woman,” which grossed $135 million worldwide and won an Academy Award for Al Pacino.

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Bossa nova and tango conquered the world long before the birth and popularity of music festivals and multimillion tours. Although the music industry almost collapsed in the 2000s as the internet made music freely available, streaming saw its first significant growth in 2015. And it’s in this new era of YouTube and Spotify hits that Latin artists are shaping the tastes of their audiences — a soft power that gives the continent a distinct voice in the world.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.