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'Despacito' has been heralded as the song of the decade, a record-breaking triumph for Latinos and Latin music. Its cultural significance in the age of Trump has been discussed ad nauseum as have its implications as yet another example of cultural appropiation. But for all its success and headlines, let's talk about the fact that 'Despacito' was co-written by a woman, and for that too is breaking barriers.
Erika Ender has been working as a singer and songwriter for 25 years, penning hits for artists such as Chayanne, Los Tigres del Norte, Gloria Trevi, and yes Luis Fonsi, before 'Despacito' took it out of the ball park. "It's a victory for the Latin music industry and for Latin culture itself," says Ender, 42, who in October will become the youngest person to be inducted into the Latin Songwriters Hall of Fame. During our conversation for the U-LAB Podcast, she talked about how she and Luis Fonsi sat down at his Miami home one afternoon and wrote 'Despacito' -- (she came up with the brilliant line 'hasta que las olas digan 'ay bendito').
As one of the few working women in the music industry, she does not take her role or her current success lightly. During our interview, she brought up the fact that there's never been a Latina woman writer with a #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 with a song in Spanish. "I take this as a mission, to tell women 'you can do it'," she says, explaining that she's faced sexism in an industry that is vastly outnumbered by men, especially in producing, engineering and songwriting roles. "For me this is a responsibility." As a woman, Ender also took the sensual lyrics of 'Despacito' very seriously, crafting lyrics that were "classy", purposely distancing the song from the objectifying tropes of reggaeton's street origins.
Born and raised in Panama from an American/Panamanian father and Brazilian mother, Ender recently relased her album Tatuajes, a collection of intimate, piano-based songs that includes new versions of 'Ataud' (originally recorded by Los Tigres del Norte and which won her a Latin Grammy) and 'Despacito'.
"I see it as a super positive thing that he decided to sing the majority of the song in Spanish," she says of the Justin Bieber remix, which despite its massive success has been critized, especially when a video of the artist mispronouncing the Spanish lyrics at a club surfaced online. "It is a difficult song because it has a lot of lyrics and then when he started saying the ‘burrito’ or whatever, I don't think he did it…. You know... en ‘mala onda’ as we say in Spanish. The thing is that it’s not easy, it's a lot of words and I guess he had to learn it first before doing that. I don't see anything bad at all, I think at the end it's been a big thing and we have to focus on that."
Ender is currently working with Thalia, Carlos Rivera, Pepe Aguilar, and meeting with producers from Kelly Clarkson and Sia about possible collaborations. For the full conversation, listen and subscribte to the U-LAB Podcast, available on Apple Podcasts and other platforms digitally.