London's Latin pop explosion: 'The body decodes the music's meaning'

In the UK, Spanish-language pop generally equates to exoticised summer smashes like Livin’ La Vida Loca and Mambo No 5. Hits such as Despacito and Mi Gente may have crossed into the UK charts relatively recently, and numerous homegrown songs – such as Ed Sheeran’s Shape of You – have taken influence from reggaeton, but there are still plenty of gross stereotypes in British minds: flamenco dancers with roses in their teeth, slick-haired crooners and a lot of acoustic guitars.

Sheltering from November clouds in a pre-lockdown east London studio, the city’s brightest young Latin musicians want to change all that, drawing equally from the grimy, drizzly moods of London and their vibrant Latin heritage. A carnival atmosphere pervades as Spanish blends with English, and a myriad of sounds from salsa to cumbia to reggaeton buzz around the room. Sachellys, Desta French, Amber Donoso, Daniela Brooker, Dukus, Angelo Flow, Anansi and Guala, all born or brought up in the UK but with roots firmly in Latin America, are keenly aware that the sounds they grew up with have become wildly successful outside the UK: Latin artists such as Bad Bunny, Ozuna and Maluma are among the most streamed in the world. But now, for the first time ever according to London reggaeton DJ and promoter Jose Luis Seijas, “we are seeing the development of a UK urban Latin sound that is characterised by its authenticity”.

Even with the restrictions of a global pandemic, the artists are still hoping for an urban Latin music explosion in the UK, with the capital as its centre. “People are attracted to what makes them feel good … and Latin American music has such a positive, happy vibe,” says Sachellys, a young British-Colombian artist. “We all by chance started writing in our languages, thinking that no one else was doing it. But we were all doing it at the same time, which is a bit mad.”

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Fusing grime and Afro-swing with Latin sabor, Britain’s new generation has more confidence in the uniqueness of its own sound and story, Seijas says. “It’s a transition similar to what British black music went through, which used to be heavily influenced by US hip-hop and R&B, but is now all about its own unique sound and beats. British-Latino kids today are no longer just importing Latin music and playing it here, they are making new music borne of their influences growing up as Latinos in London.”

The Venezuelan, who came to the UK 20 years ago, has been part of this transition, after bringing reggaeton to the UK back in 2005 with his party La Bomba at clubs Ministry of Sound and SeOne. Back then it was Daddy Yankee and Tego Calderón making the hits, as Seijas remembers: “It was Calderón that really got me into reggaeton. Before that, salsa music was our street music,” he says, also citing the importance of Latin house. He says that these styles, folded into the UK’s diverse music ranging from “Stormzy, Giggs and Wiley, to punk, garage and just about any other genre”, provide an endless source of inspiration for London’s Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking population.

It is one of the fastest growing migrant communities in London, an estimated one million people, with two-thirds having arrived since 2000, according to the charity Trust for London. The first generation tended to lie low and worked to create a better life for their kids, who in turn are making their mark on London’s club scene.

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Anansi. Photograph: Manuel Vazquez

While originally singing or rapping only in English, all these artists say they only truly found their voice when they started using Spanish or, in the case of Anansi, Portuguese. Desta French’s song Aguanta, particularly, highlights the vibrancy of fusing a Latin-sounding guitar lick with a drill-like drum beat and Spanish lyrics celebrating endurance, freedom, empowerment and faith in Pachamama, an Andean goddess of nature. “London’s diversity makes you want to be more experimental and innovative as a musician,” she says.

A significant portion of the artists come from London’s large Colombian population, but their heritage stretches from the Dominican Republic to as far as Chile. “I spent half of my childhood on a farm in Chile with my father and the other half with my mother in London,” Amber Donoso explains. “After my father passed away and I was spending more and more time in the UK, I noticed how much I missed that culture. I didn’t have any Latino friends in the UK and have recently realised how much I needed it – being a reggaeton artist is an amazing way to be able to share our culture and music.”

Having grown up in Tottenham and on an organic farm in Ecuador’s Ambato, rapper and youth worker Guala also found it hard to find peers with his complex heritage. “Maybe that’s why my rapping is lightning fast – I feel I have to bring across as much as I can during my time on a beat!” Anansi has an even broader background – Brazilian, Guyanese and Surinamese, singing and rapping in Portuguese, English, and Spanish – and in colourful leopard-print clothing, with a bottle of rum in hand, he explains to me that he is “black, but not Caribbean and not African … Imagine being an Afro-Latino in the UK: you’re not going to be able to just go on YouTube and find a similar artist, or an audience who can relate to where I’m from.” This uniqueness can be a burden, but also a blessing: “I can be that reference for anyone from a similarly weird background.”

There are stereotypes and differences that these musicians still have to battle. British-Venezuelan Daniela Brooker, who was recently named on Billboard magazine’s list of 17 Latina artists to discover during quarantine, says that in school, “I remember being conscious of how different my body was compared to all my friends. My mum would just laugh: ‘Don’t worry, you’re like J-Lo!’” She says she prefers working in Miami, “where producers are fully immersed in the Latin music scene and doors are easier to open”.

Daniela Brooker.

Daniela Brooker. Photograph: Manuel Vazquez

“The narrowness with which people view each other’s cultures [in the UK] is a hindrance,” French agrees. Sachellys says: “Latin America is so diverse, so rich, but people’s view of it is just so narrow … these are things I want to get out of people’s heads through my music.” South London producer and artist Dukus laments the frequent comments about his native Colombia, Pablo Escobar, cocaine and machismo, as well as more mundane examples: “Not all Latinos in London have a stall at Seven Sisters market,” he laughs.

Dukus’s jokes aside, Latin cultural hubs at both Seven Sisters and Elephant and Castle are threatened with closure as the neighbourhoods gentrify. “These places are where we soaked up the environment, hung out with friends, listened to the new sounds coming out of the stalls and bought our music,” says Seijas, “so it’s difficult to know where people are going to connect with their identity in the same way in the future.”

On top of this, many Latin Americans in London with fragile immigration status have been further marginalised since lockdown. Vitoria Nabas, a Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking immigration lawyer, says she has been inundated with requests from South Americans to take up the government’s voluntary repatriation scheme after they were unable to work or access financial relief, and so face destitution.

All these factors mean London’s Latin music scene could be snuffed out before it really finds momentum. But for now, the global success of Bad Bunny et al is helping to change perceptions, says Dukus, who has just landed a deal with influential (if controversial) British DJ Charlie Sloth: “Charlie said to me: ‘I don’t care if it’s Spanish, it’s fire!’ He recognises that there is a big appetite for it and the internet has meant that people in the UK are increasingly open to new music, even if it’s in another language.”

Marcelo Pérez, senior marketing manager for Sony Music, agrees, and believes that while UK music industry chiefs may see music in Spanish as a summer novelty rather than a commercially viable genre, Latin music has a way around this by connecting directly with its audience. “Latin music transfers feeling with the beat, with the pace – that connection is powerful,” Pérez says. “The body receives the message and decodes its intention and true meaning even to someone that might not understand the lyrics.” He suggests ongoing English-Spanish language linkups will help, such as the Weeknd’s new remix of Hawái by Colombian singer Maluma.

During lockdown, these young artists are now in their studios and bedrooms, promising collaborations, mixtapes, videos, promotions and even more music. All of them have releases on the horizon – a forthcoming EP from Anansi, Donoso and Angelo Flow; from Guala, a mixtape, Todo Eso, in March next year. They are all looking to the future: “It’s going to be huge,” Sachellys says.

Anansi adds: “If the scene blows up … us artists will all go up with it.” He speaks to the volatility and unpredictability of the current moment, but I take it in the positive spirit it was intended.

Fuerza London, a film featuring these artists, streams on Facebook at 7.30pm on 28 November.


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