It’s been nearly a year since Camila Cabello left Fifth Harmony, and no one can say she isn’t doing the damn thing. The singer didn’t exactly spell out a reason for leaving the girl group that made her, but you can read between the lines—in a cover story for Seventeen, Cabello revealed, “Fifth Harmony wasn’t the maximum expression of me individually.” That’s certainly polite, but the message is clear: She left Fifth Harmony because she wanted more. And now she’s delivering on her promise to get there, where “there” means massively famous: Her single “Havana” could become the No. 1 song in the country.
This is where things start to get interesting. Cabello is currently working on her debut album, which will surely become the touchstone for her solo career. If it goes well, she could join the ranks of other girl/boy band defectors: Gwen Stefani, Justin Timberlake, Beyoncé. (OK, Beyoncé’s a stretch.) She’s figuring out how she wants to define her pop personage, individuating after life defined by four others. Based on the music she’s putting out, and the press she’s done, it looks like she’s aiming for something U.S. hasn’t seen before: becoming America’s first big Latinx pop star.
The most interesting thing about Camila Cabello’s transformation from Harmonizer to America’s next big voice in pop isn’t that she’ll find fame after leaving an already-famous group. It’s that she’s coming into superstar-sized fame as an immigrant, Cuban-born and Miami-raised, in Trump’s America. She could sell out arenas on a solo tour, become the face of Pantene or some other brand eager for celebrity endorsements, have multiple songs or albums go No. 1. She could become adored, America’s sweetheart, as a Spanish-speaking woman who grew up in two countries that each have a historically contentious relationship with the U.S., before she moved to stateside, to the city informally known as “the capital of Latin America.” Her personality and upbringing shine through on “Havana”—and in the way Cabello carries herself in the public eye. She could become one of the only female pop stars to win over America while bringing her Latinx identity to the forefront of the image she projects to the public, rather than relegating it to the background.
Of course Cabello isn’t the first Latinx female pop singer that the U.S. has seen—of those, there are many: Selena Gomez, Demi Lovato, Becky G, Christina Aguilera, Jennifer Lopez. (Often mistakenly added to this list is Ariana Grande, but she’s Italian.) The U.S. is deeply familiar with women from Latin backgrounds dominating the pop world—and these women have, usually early on in their careers, flirted with making their Latinx identity a bigger, bolder part of their public persona. But in the long run, most do not.
One of the simplest ways to signal that you’re an artist who can connect with Latinx audiences is to release a Spanish-language remix of one of your first big hits. Every singer I’ve mentioned has done this, and two weeks ago, Cabello did it too. She dropped a Spanish remix of “Havana,” featuring reggeaton royalty Daddy Yankee; the original currently sits at No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100. On the remix, Cabello flashes her native Spanish-speaking ability by pulling off words like cruel and actitud without any clumsy mispronunciations or strained cadences.
The remix is good, but that’s not the point of the format—Cabello’s and the Spanish remixes of others who came before her. How they do on the charts, for the most part, is inconsequential. The Spanish “Havana” remix didn’t even debut in the top 10 of the Latin Pop chart, and unsurprisingly, has not made it onto the regular Hot 100. Instead, a Spanish remix is just one step on the way to becoming America’s most buzzed-about pop star. It’s little more than proof an artist tests well with diverse audiences, but it’s recorded in the effort to show that she can speak to the only audience that matters: white America at large. Because, usually, once the artist does release her first Spanish remix or original song, the pressure to do anything else in Spanish, ever again, is gone. Most of these women never remind audiences of her Latinx background after she’s gained some footing in the Top 40 world, choosing instead to focus their efforts on whatever else will make her more famous.
That’s why most of these songs are released directly following the artist’s first big brush with fame. Christina Aguilera all-Spanish album, Mi Reflejo, arrived the year after her first record was the top-selling debut solo album in the country. Selena Gomez and Demi Lovato both re-released some of their early hits in Spanish when they were still shedding their Radio Disney-friendly personas. Ariana Grande redid “The Way,” her breakout hit, in Spanish, two weeks before the original peaked on the charts. (Again, not Latinx, but benefiting from the Spanish-sounding surname.)
These songs are not bold reimaginings of the singer’s hits—painted with all the colors of salsa, bachata, reggeaton, or other Latin pop genres. Even Billboard, notoriously generous in its music criticism, described Mi Reflejo as just “a mostly mainstream pop album with Latin inflections.” On paper, Spanish-language remixes are an opportunity to cast these rising young stars as potentially highly bicultural and bilingual, women who contain multitudes and can find devoted audiences from sea to shining sea. That’s rarely the reality.
Admittedly, this is the right time for Cabello do a song in Spanish. (Have I mentioned that the original “Havana” has been sitting at No. 2 for the past three weeks?) But here’s where her journey to mainstream pop stardom is different, and refreshing: It’s not even her first song in Spanish. That would be “Hey Ma,” her track with Pitbull and J Balvin that appeared on the Fate of the Furious soundtrack. The entire song is sung in Spanish except for the overly simplistic chorus (“Hey mama, hey mama, hey mama, hey ma / I need you”).
The majority of the actors in the music video for “Havana,” which centers around a sexy telenovela and a homely fan played by Cabello, are Latinx. And we might hear more music in Spanish, or songs about her background, from Cabello. In an interview with Orange Is The New Black’s Diane Guerrero for Teen Vogue, Cabello said she was working on a song about how her family came to America. This song, in whatever form it takes, more so than Spanglish remixes, would surely serve as a sort of lighthouse for Latinx audiences, especially young ones who may be looking for artists like them.
Turns out, Cabello might have already written that song. Before her family moved to Miami, she split her time between Cojimar, Cuba and Mexico City. In that way, “Havana” is not a song about choosing between two romantic partners, but as a love letter to both of her homes and the feeling of always being from two places. On the chorus, Cabello sings “Half of my heart is in Havana.”
It’s possible that Cabello could become America’s sweetheart on the strength of her pop music—not her Latin pop music, but her gets-a-ton-of-radio-play, comes-on-in-Ubers-and-at-the-club, American pop music. Maybe one of the reasons why Latinx artists stay away from music in Spanish is because they don’t want to be pigeonholed—a very real fear, as anyone who isn’t white and makes art for a living can tell you.
But it is true that you can straddle the line between your U.S.-centric and Latinx identities over time: Jennifer Lopez is working on an all-Spanish album 10 years after her first one of those, and Demi Lovato just released a song with Luis Fonsi, in which she sings in Spanish. All of these women, including Cabello, may be benefitting from a right place, right time kind of thing. Post-“Despacito,” there are more eyes than ever on the Latinx community in the pop world. But Cabello is building a relationship with her Latinx fans, now, and it doesn’t sound like she wants to let up. “A lot of my fans are Latin so I definitely treat it like a special responsibility to them to speak up for them,” she told Guerrero for Teen Vogue. “I honestly had never planned to be so active politically, but the Trump administration hit so close to home.”
And why shouldn’t it? Camila Cabello’s story is different from her peers, but it may not be very different from the stories of many of her fans. And if America’s changing, it makes sense that the face of our pop music does as well.