There’s been a significant change in pop music over the past few years. Though not solely responsible for the change, Luis Fonsi’s 2017 smash hit Despacito, featuring Daddy Yankee (and its hugely popular Justin Bieber remix) marked a seismic shift in a global appetite for Latin and non-English-language music not seen since the days of Gloria Estefan in the 1980s, Ricky Martin in the 1990s and early-2000s success of Enrique Iglesias. Since Despacito became Spotify’s third most-streamed track worldwide in 2017 (its remix coming in second), artists who eschew the lure of performing in English have seen continuing success.
Although Despacito didn’t open the floodgates for non-English number ones—Los Lobos’s 1987 wedding favourite La Bamba was the first all-Spanish record to hit number one in the UK and the US—the streaming statistics are hard to argue with. The number of artists breaking through is also significant, such as Bad Bunny, J Balvin, Ozuna, Maluma, Rosalía, Karol G and many more.
And it’s not just Spanish-speaking artists, either. In 2019, K-pop phenomenons BTS was the first group from Asia to reach 5bn streams on Spotify. (In February 2020, they surpassed this mark with eight billion.) Meanwhile, in June 2020, BLACKPINK’s How You Like That broke multiple YouTube records with 82.4m views in the first 24 hours of its release—at the time, the platform’s biggest ever premiere, only to be beaten in August by another BTS track, Dynamite.
Culturally, huge strides are being made too, whether it’s Jennifer Lopez and Shakira headlining last year’s Super Bowl LIV or the stars of K-pop becoming muses for international fashion houses. In 2020, predominantly French-speaking singer, Lous and The Yakuza, made her US debut on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon—a slot normally reserved for English-singing stars—while Paris-based singer Christine and the Queens was hailed as “the voice of a different generation” by Time magazine. The rise in popularity of non-English-language artists means we’re finally seeing meaningful inclusivity in pop on a global scale.
Bad Bunny breaks boundaries
Bad Bunny’s staggering success perfectly epitomises the rise of reggaeton and Spanish-language music—until now, to be commercially successful on a global scale relied heavily on singing in English. The Puerto Rican rapper, however, performs only in Spanish. His collaborations with English-speaking artists such as Drake and PartyNextDoor are few and far between, making his rise to the top even more impressive. In 2020, 8.3bn global streams made him the most-streamed artist on Spotify; his album YHLQMDLG took top honours too, with more than 3.3bn streams.
The streaming success of non-English-language music isn’t just contained to individuals, either. Two of the top five most-listened-to playlists on Spotify are ¡Viva Latino! and Baila Reggaeton, and they’re packed with artists such as Maluma, Karol G and Rosalía, who have become a huge part of this new wave of Spanish-speaking singers. (The latter, who features on the January 2021 cover of American Vogue, won a Grammy last year for her critically and commercially lauded album El Mal Querer.)
Meanwhile, Colombian star Maluma—who’s just released a visual EP called #7DJ (7 Days In Jamaica), inspired by reggae and dancehall—believes the secret is in the production. “I truly think it’s the feeling of our music and the rhythm,” he tells Vogue via email. “It’s a different vibe and feeling when you listen to our music. Everything in Spanish sounds much more romantic.” With 57m Instagram followers, it’s clear that Maluma has global appeal—something he insists comes from sticking close to his roots. “It’s very important to stay true to who you are and not change just to fit in,” he explains. “Music is one of the elements in life that is universal—the language doesn’t matter. It’s the emotional tone to the lyrics and the beat.”
Meaningful cultural exchange
English-speaking artists are recognising the success of their Spanish, Korean, French and Chinese-speaking peers and realising the possibilities that open up. Before, it was incumbent on non-English-speaking artists to ask (and potentially pay) for a collaboration with an American star—now we’re seeing a reversal in that process. From Fonsi and Bieber to Billie Eilish and Rosalía and J Balvin and Beyoncé, many UK and US acts are proudly placing these singers front and centre of their own releases.
In further signs of progress, Drake sang in Spanish on Bad Bunny’s 2018 hit Mia, while BLACKPINK can be heard on both Lady Gaga’s Chromatica and Dua Lipa’s 2017 debut album. Last year, Lipa collaborated with Belgian singer-songwriter Angèle on Fever, ebbing and flowing between English and French in each verse. You can also see the huge impact of Afrobeat and dancehall on UK and US hip-hop: Drake worked with Jamaican star Popcaan on One Dance, while Nigerian singer Burna Boy has appeared on many of the best UK Afrobeat tracks over the past two years—not to mention his appearance on Beyoncé’s Black Is King visual album, which also featured Nigerian singer Tiwa Savage and Davido, one of the most influential artists in Africa right now.
The rise in language learning
This appetite for non-English music is showing up in more than just streaming numbers and sales. It’s inspiring more people to learn languages—particularly in lockdown. Spanish is the second most-learned language on Duolingo, while a 2018 report by the Modern Language Association showed that 14,000 US students were learning Korean, compared to 163 two decades earlier. Professor Andre Schmid, who teaches Korean history at the University of Toronto, told the BBC that the increase was “driven by the popularity of Korean pop music and drama”. Duolingo agrees—Korean is the second-fastest-growing language on the app and most of those learners can be found in the US. Meanwhile, BTS tapped into their fans’ desire by releasing Learn Korean with BTS on Weverse in March 2020, teaching basic words and grammar in an introduction to the language.
Though non-English vocals might not dominate the charts in all English-speaking countries, its impact in recent years is undeniable. From BLACKPINK and BTS’s sold-out arena tours to Rosalía’s Grammy win and Bad Bunny’s streaming supremacy, the appetite for non-English pop is building and it’s encouraging other stars to adapt. If we see more Despacito-level success in 2021, you can expect those language-learning figures to jump again.