'Despacito' Singer Luis Fonsi on His Surprise Spanish Smash

Puerto Rican artist talks writing historic Number One single, why he doesn't fault Justin Bieber for butchering the lyrics and more

In January, Victor Martinez, president of Hispanic Broadcasting Radio and programmer for multiple Latin pop stations in the Northeast, opened an email announcing that the Puerto Rican singer Luis Fonsi was readying a new single titled "Despacito" with the reggaeton star Daddy Yankee. Martinez wondered how Fonsi, who specializes in stately, yearning ballads, would blend with Yankee's bruising raps, so he conducted some on-air research. "The moment we got the song, we put it into the morning show, and we allowed people to call in," he remembered. "We must have gotten 100, 150 calls within 10 minutes: We love it."

During the past four months, a version of this scenario has played out at radio stations and streaming platforms around the world. By March, "Despacito" topped the Latin airplay chart, and in April, the clip for Fonsi's song reached a billion views. When a remix of "Despacito" featuring a verse from Justin Bieber hit Number One on the Hot 100, where it has stayed for three consecutive weeks, the single became the first (mostly) Spanish language song to top the Hot 100 since 1996. 

A Number One is a remarkable accomplishment for anyone, but it's an especially notable achievement for any Spanish-speaking artist. And Fonsi is a surprising candidate for crossover: Unlike, say, Shakira or Enrique Iglesias, who have achieved numerous pop hits, often recorded in English, Fonsi has only cracked the Hot 100 twice before and never made it higher than Number 90. He is also more than a decade older than the average singer with a Number One (39 years for Fonsi versus 26.8 for recent members of the Number One club, according to Billboard).

Add to all that the fact that he wasn't swinging for the pop-radio fences when he made "Despacito." "I don't know what happens at radio as far as what is that X factor that makes a song click and have people get connected to it when it's in another language," Fonsi tells Rolling Stone. "At no time was I trying to write a crossover record."

Instead, when he picked up a guitar to write "Despacito" close to two years ago, he had a pair of priorities. Fonsi built a career on romantic ballads, but this time around, he wanted to push the tempo. "I felt as though I needed a little bit more movement," he says. "That's where Latin pop is headed: It's the right time to put a little rhythm into this record." 

"At no time was I trying to write a crossover record."

His second aim was to write a song breaking the word "Despacito" into its constituent syllables – "Des-Pa-Cito." By happy accident, this gives English speakers, often reluctant to engage with music in other languages, something to latch on to: it's an easily absorbed lesson in phonetics. "Despacito" means "slowly," and Fonsi adds another potential layer of satisfaction here by decelerating as he sings the word, enacting his own instructions.

That's just one alluring songwriting device in a track intentionally stuffed full of them: "We wanted to make a song that had hook after hook after hook after hook," Fonsi explains. After he delivers his first chorus, a galloping beat catapults the track forward, and boisterous shouts of "sube!" rattle through the background. "Once the beat comes in, it never stops," Fonsi asserts. "I had written a melodic second verse, but when we put it all together, I realized, 'Hey, we need a moment of explosion here.'" So he put in a call to Daddy Yankee, a "great friend" and reliable radio hitmaker with 15 Latin airplay Top 10 hits under his belt.

Fonsi co-wrote "Despacito" with Erika Ender, who will be inducted into the Latin Songwriters Hall of Fame this fall. "We've been in this industry for a long time: we know how people like music, how it works," she says. And they know a hit – "You can feel it on your skin whenever you do something you really like and you want to hear it over and over again," she continues. "But you don't know how far it's going to go, or how fast it's going to connect with people."

Or who it's going to connect with: When Justin Bieber was on tour in South America, the star happened to encounter "Despacito" in a club, and he reached out asking to add a verse to the single. "He saw how people reacted, and right away he was like, 'I want to be a part of this movement,'" Fonsi recalls.

To Fonsi's surprise, Bieber then decided on his own accord to sing the chorus to "Despacito" in Spanish – his first time ever singing in Spanish on an album. "It's big for Latin music that a global star like Justin Bieber takes the time to do the song, to do it in Spanish," Fonsi says. "I've done songs in other languages, I know how hard it is." 

Though Bieber butchered the lyrics to "Despacito" in offensive fashion during a recent performance, Fonsi seems willing to cut his collaborator some slack. "That chorus is not easy to sing, even for fluent Spanish singers like myself," Fonsi says. "It's got a lot of lyrics, it's kind of tongue-twisty." Martinez, on the other hand, is happy that most of Bieber's verse remains in English: "People get too creative, saying, 'Let's get Bieber to speak Spanish' – I think that can be corny." 

When the official remix of "Despacito" came out in April, the track hopscotched from Number 48 to Number Nine, and it completed its Hot 100 ascent three weeks later, striking a blow for pop music in Spanish. "All Latin artists should feel proud about this success," the bachata star Romeo Santos wrote on Twitter in Spanish. Fonsi has heard a similar message from several other singers. "People reach out to me, huge stars I look up to: They've said, 'Man, that song is changing music, thank you for opening doors for Latin music in so many places,'" Fonsi recounts. "I'm not taking credit for all of that. This is a group effort."

Though Fonsi links his single to a tradition of summer hits that provide relief from grim headlines – "We need to escape all these issues," he says vaguely – there's also an unavoidable political dimension to the success of "Despacito:" This Spanish-language song summited the American charts at a time when President Trump has regularly disparaged the Latino community.

Fonsi chooses to emphasize the unity-promoting aspects of his single. "Just when you think we're living in a little bit of a divided world, music brings us together," he says. Ender offers a similar message. "The way I see the world, I see it as one big home," she states. "In this case, music can make people feel that way too."

Martinez is more pointed when discussing the political ramifications of "Despacito." "Here we are with Donald Trump as a President and the Number One song in the world is by two Puerto Rican Latino guys – how ironic is that?" he declares. "I was watching The Voice on Tuesday [Fonsi and Daddy Yankee performed on the finale earlier this month] and that's the one thing that came to my mind: Everything we've been talking about – the wall, immigration – and here we are, opening The Voice on NBC singing in Spanish. It's beautiful how karma makes things happen."

Adds Martinez, "I just hope the next time, it doesn't take 20 years for another Spanish song to reach Number One."