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Photo by Omar Cruz

Luis Fonsi talks about going from singing on Orlando’s corners to creating a worldwide hit 

Slow burn

Listening to this summer's earworm radio hit "Despacito" can be a dangerously hypnotizing experience – no matter how many times you hear it. The song's enticing island vibes and seductive lyrics can charm anyone into a three-minute-49-second Caribbean fantasy that will make you late for work. 

For Luis Fonsi, the creator of this worldwide hit, it's a welcome intoxication. After a nearly two-decade career spanning eight studio albums and a soon-to-be-released ninth album, the Puerto Rican superstar says it's nice to get some acknowledgement from the American audiences he grew up with. The music video for the single featuring reggaeton star Daddy Yankee is currently the most viewed YouTube video of all time, with almost 3.8 billion views, while the song's remix with Justin Bieber tied the Billboard's Hot 100 record for most weeks at No. 1 with 16 weeks.

"I don't see 'Despacito' as a crossover song because it's still a Spanish song – it just crossed over naturally," he says. "Now I'm blessed that it's sort of a new beginning."

The road to "Despacito," like all good things, goes through Orlando. Fonsi, 39, grew up in San Juan singing in a children's choir. When he was 10, his family decided to leave the island for Florida and moved to Orlando's Dr. Phillips neighborhood. Through the tough transition of learning English and making friends, he joined chorus at school to keep himself grounded. Under the tutelage of music teacher Keith Galasso, he formed an a cappella group called "The Big Guys" with Erik Garbus, Joel Herman and one Joey Fatone, later a member of *NSYNC. The doo-wop group of teenagers would sing wherever they could – school, plays, talent shows, even Orlando Magic games. Many times, they'd go to downtown Orlando, plop down a hat on a corner and just sing.

"It helped me kind of break out of my shell because I was always very shy and introverted," he says. "A lot of it had to do with the whole language accent and that I had just moved from Puerto Rico. You're obviously trying to fit in as best as you can, and music was always the easiest way for me to do it and express myself."

The four men remained good friends as they went through their respective careers – Fonsi went on to study music at Florida State University and took the Spanish solo route, releasing his debut album, Comenzaré, in 1998. Now almost 20 years after his career first started, Fonsi, who lives in Miami, told the hosts of New York radio station Hot 97 that with "Despacito," his white classmates from Orlando finally understand what he's been doing this whole time.

Co-written with Erika Ender, the sensual melody of Latin pop and reggaeton first came to Fonsi in a dream. He invited Daddy Yankee to guest on the song, and after it was already a hit in Latin America, Bieber did a remix, which made the song's popularity grow exponentially. In an age of President Donald Trump and increased racial antagonism toward Latinos, Fonsi says he's proud that a Spanish song like "Despacito" that celebrates Puerto Rico could become a hit in the U.S.

"In the times that we're living, where people want to build walls and divide cultures, I think this song does exactly the opposite," he says. "It celebrates unity, it makes people want to dance. I'm extremely happy and proud that it celebrates Puerto Rico, its music and its people."

Fonsi is pretty busy these days, appearing on American talk shows and charity fundraisers, but he's ready to tour, and he is thrilled that his Love + Dance tour includes a homecoming show.

"I can't wait to visit Orlando," he enthuses. "It's such a special place for me because I have so many friends and family that still live there. That's where I grew up, that's where I worked at all the theme parks, that's where my music career started. ... It's a special city and it will always be a special city to me."  

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