What ‘Latin’ Means Now, In Music and Beyond

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As recently as five years ago, “Latin” music meant one thing in the United States: songs sung predominantly in Spanish. If artists identified professionally as Latin or Hispanic, they most likely hailed from a Latin-American country and spoke the language.

But today, as Latin culture and music are increasingly absorbed into the pop mainstream and a younger generation of artists and fans embraces a heritage not tied to language alone, the idea of what “Latin” means is shifting.

Beyond music, “Latin” no longer suffices as a simple catch-all term for many within the culture. Some prefer “Hispanic” or “Latino”; others now choose “Latinx,” the gender-neutral term coined in the United States and mostly unfamiliar in Latin countries. Within the music industry, the Billboard charts’ and Latin Grammys’ definitions of Latin music remain the same, but some are questioning whether the term’s scope should be expanded to include artists -- like Jessie Reyez, A.CHAL and Kali Uchis -- who identify as Latin even if they largely don’t record in Spanish.

“For me, Latin was always about our cultural heritage, because we share a lot,” says Creative Artists Agency’s Bruno del Granado, who has also managed Ricky Martin and headed Madonna’s Maverick Latino label in the early 2000s. “Now, you get generations who feel very, very Latin even if they don’t speak Spanish. They’re so fluid. Because I’m an immigrant, Spanish is [still] important to me.”

Geographically speaking, Latin people come from Mexico, Central America and parts of the Caribbean, and South America (including Brazil, where Portuguese is spoken). Language was long the glue that bound those cultures and the music together, despite dramatic differences based on country and racial origin. In music, even artists from Spain were considered Latin because they sang in the common language.

But in the United States, where 60% of Latin people are under 27, those who no longer speak the language -- or don’t speak it fluently, or don’t sing it -- are also now stepping up to reclaim their Latin heritage. “ ‘Latin’ is far more than language,” says Jesús Lara, president of Univision Radio. “It’s the relationship with your family; it’s that constant strife between your experience in the U.S. and your roots.”

Singer-songwriter A.CHAL, who records R&B/hip-hop mostly in English, identifies as Perun, “but I’m also American,” he says. “That mix is what my music is, and what my outlook is.” As noted by Stacie de Armas, Nielsen’s vp insights and strategic alliances, in the United States “cultural connectivity is identity-affirming, and sometimes it takes place in the language and sometimes not.” While those stateside may focus on music from their countries of origin, “there is also a ‘U.S. Hispanic experience’ that is unique to our shared cultural journey in the U.S.,” adds de Armas. “U.S. Latinos, regardless of origin, consume and share music from all corners of the Latin music genre.”

Canadian-Colombian Jessie Reyez, who sings in English but speaks fluent Spanish (with a Colombian accent), puts it well: “In your house, it’s Colombia,” she says, when asked what “Latin” means to her. “It’s Latino culture. It’s the food. It’s the way you speak. The rules you have. When you go outside, it’s a whole new culture. It’s a whole new language.”

This article originally appeared in the April 20 issue of Billboard.