Perhaps it was the leather pants. Or the blaring horns. Or the bilingual lyrics. Or his swiveling hips that reminded the old guard of the king of rock ‘n’ roll. Or the chorus line of musicians going down the aisles blasting sounds of Mother Africa. Or was it simply the pure joy Ricky Martin sang the words to “The Cup of Life” at the 1999 Grammys. Of course, there was Gloria Estefan and The Miami Sound Machine and many others before Martin but that single performance opened up the mainstream market for the Latinx legends (Marc Anthony, Shakira, Jennifer Lopez, etc.) you see today. The same year, mainstream media coined the “Latin Boom” phrase when Time Magazine placed a smiling Martin on its cover with the cover line, “Latin Music Goes Pop!.” It was the year of the Latin crossover but since 1999 we’ve experienced so much more. Below are the 20 moments that took the torch from Martin and exalted the name of Latinx music for the world to see…and dance to, of course.
2004: Daddy Yankee, “Gasolina”
It’s hard to mention reggaeton without saying El Cangri. The undeniable king of reggaeton also delivered the genre’s seminal song, “Gasolina.” Ironically enough it is also the first reggaeton song to be nominated for Record of The Year at the Latin Grammys.
2005: N.O.R.E. “Oye Mi Canto” ft. Daddy Yankee, Nina Sky, Gem, Star, Big Mato
Before he was a podcast king, Nore, formerly known as Noreaga, was one of grimiest and entertaining MCs from NY. The Puerto Rock is also responsible for introducing reggaeton to the English-language hip-hop crowd with this perreo classic featuring Gem Star, Big Mato, and, of course, Yankee. Nina Sky on the hook was the Midas Touch and a nice ode to the greatest Latinx MC of all time and Nore’s pana, Big Pun.
2006: Shakira, “Hips Don’t Lie” ft. Wyclef Jean
By the mid-2000s, Shakira was already a global superstar who had travelled the world over and charted in just as many. The Wyclef and Jerry Wonder-produced track, which samples a classic salsa romántica (Jerry Rivera’s “Amores Como el Nuestro”) garnered Shaki’s first number one hit in the U.S. And that’s no lie.
2006: Marc Anthony, El Cantante film & soundtrack
Covering a legend’s hits is a death wish…unless you’re a legend yourself. The album, of course, was the cherry atop the tres leches. The Jennifer Lopez-produced biopic is one of the most underrated films of the decade and easily one of the best Latinx films ever. La Voz was done justice.
2010: Don Omar “Danza Kuduro” ft. Lucenzo
The King of Kings was always the most adventurous reggaetoneros when it came to experimenting with different sounds and cultures. So when he adapted Brazilian artist Lucenzo’s “Vem Dançar Kuduro” into Spanish language it came as no surprise. DO’s biggest commercial hit went on to a billion-view status on YouTube and a go-to on any wedding playlist.
2011: Calle 13 wins big at Latin Grammys
Residente and Visitante were nominated 10 times for their fourth album, Entren Los Que Quieran, and won 9 of them in one night. Let’s say the suits got it right in 2011.
2012: Jenni Rivera’s Passing
December 9, 2012 was a dark day for Latinx music. La Diva de la Banda was at once the biggest star Regional Mexican had seen since Selena and just as relatable as one of your homegirls. Her loss is still felt.
2014: Romeo Santos, Drake, “Odio”
We can all thank Romeo for the Internet’s fascination with Dominican Drake. Not only did Santos nab a feature by the biggest pop star in the world but also he did it on a bachata song with Drizzy crooning a few lines in Spanish. The “Spanish girls” proceeded to go apeshit over Drake like he was Aventura.
2014: Romeo Santos sells out Yankee Stadium (Twice)
The King of Bachata is pretty bold. How else can you explain an artist wanting to sell out a sports stadium? Well, pinstripes or one single date cannot contain the power of Romeo—he was forced to add another date due to selling out the first within 24 hours. Also, note the amazing fact that he was the first Latin artist to perform in the house of 27 championships since the Fania All Stars in the ‘70s. And this past September he sold out MetLife. Levels on top of levels.
2015: Juanes Performs for the Pope
The Colombian pop rock legend used the opportunity to represent Latinx worldwide during a time when a then presidential candidate Donald Trump was spewing hateful rhetoric against his people. And, yes, “A Dios le Pido” was part of his set list at Philadelphia’s Festival of Families concert.
2015: Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton
Mainstream theater had been largely a white domain with dabs of color throughout its history—until Hamilton. But in the theater business, like any business, profits are the lifeblood, and Hamilton’s financial success is significant in and of itself: The show notched a whopping $30 million in advance sales alone. A hip-hop/freestyle/salsa/reggaeton-influenced Nuyorican wrote it with a multicultural cast spewing raps. Qué revolution, mijo.
2015: Nicky Jam, Enrique Iglesias, “El Perdón”
The Saga Whiteblack-produced track was the initial spark in the Latinx music renaissance we see today. A simple formula: reggaeton star + pop star = mega hit.
2016: Juan Gabriel’s Passing
JuanGa’s pop ballads made grown machista hombres sob…without the aid of a few Coronas. So you can imagine when the legend passed, the entire world cried a moco tendido.
2017: Luis Fonsi, Daddy Yankee, “Despacito”
Justin Bieber didn’t make “Despacito” a hit. It already was dripping in superstar magic when Fonsi and Ramón Ayala recorded the first scene in their beautiful island of Puerto Rico. What the Biebs did do? Help introduce pop reggaeton to non-Latinx worldwide.
2017: J Balvin, Willy William “Mi Gente”
J Balvin isn’t just one of the new reggaeton era’s kings, he’s also constantly putting his people on his back as he breaks down barriers and records. The club-ready “Mi Gente” (a remix of French artist’s Willy William’s hit, “Voodoo Song”) accompanied by the Queen Beyoncé remix made José a household name. All for his gente.
2018: Nicky Jam and J Balvin Perform “X” on The Tonight Show
They’ve collaborated before on songs but “X” was different. It hit a tone between two important artists from different eras who were relevant to the now. When you see the two friends do the “X” dance with Jimmy Fallon, every Latinx shed a tear of joy. Since then urbano acts are almost a regular occurrence on late night talk shows. Thanks to the Nicky and Balvin bromance.
2018: Cardi B, Bad Bunny, J Balvin “I Like It”
The Pete Rodriguez sample, the brash New York Latinx lyrics from La Caldi, the tremendo flow from El Conejo Malo, and the suramericano slickness from José created a monster Latinx hip-hop hit. And we wouldn’t have it any other way because asi le gusta a mi gente.
2018: Bad Bunny, X 100PRE
After a string of hit singles and features, Benito Antonio Martínez Ocasio hadn’t even properly released a debut album. All that changed on Nochebuena when Bad Bunny turned into Santa Bunny and delivered one of the best Latinx debut albums of the last 20 years. Backed by lush and diverse sounds led by Tainy, X 100PRE turned an independent artist into an icon and also helped other genres (dembow) gain momentum.
2019: J Balvin Headlines Lollapalooza
Another notch on his Gucci belt, Balvin became the first Latinx artist to headline the storied festival—a true game changer.
2019: J. Lo Receives The MTV VMA Vanguard Award
The age-defying J. Lo became the first Latina to win the award. How fitting that someone who started her career as a potential backup dancer for MC Hammer (check the Yo! MTV Raps! footage) is now one of MTV’s hall of famers.
2014: Pitbull, Jennifer Lopez, Claudia Leitte, “We Are One (Ole Ola)”
Yes, Ricky Martin did it first, then Shak, pero the bar was set higher than ever with three global Latinx stars on one track, “We Are One (Ole Ola),” which served as the official theme of the 2014 FIFA World Cup. This merits a big “DALE!”
2019: Los Tigres Del Norte Perform at Folsom Prison
Los Tigres Del Norte are an institution in Regional Mexican and Latinx music overall. So it’s apropos that they were the first act to perform and record an album/Netflix special at the Folsom Prison. The last artist? A guy named Johnny Cash . . . 50 years ago.
Artwork by Ugly Primo