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Becky G: From Pop Star to People’s Champion

How the Mexican American singer perfected her Spanish, embraced social justice, and ultimately got her groove back

Emilio Sanchez*

At the onset of 2020, everything was coming up Becky G. Nearly a decade after she signed a record deal with Sony Music, the now-23-year-old Chicana pop starlet had finally released her full-length debut on Sony Latin, Mala Santa, in October of 2019. A Spanish-language jaunt through pop, reggaeton, and Latin trap, the album was a grab-bag of new songs and earworms that had already circulated heavily across the U.S. and Latin America: take the 2018 feminist anthem “Sin Pijama” with Natti Natasha, and the Bad Bunny-assisted “Mayores.” She dipped her toe into the Korean popverse with BTS member J-Hope in “Chicken Noodle Soup.” And at the 2019 Latin American Music Awards, she would take home the annual Extraordinary Evolution Award.

Yet in the anglophone corner of the industry, the future of Becky’s pop career remained murky. Though she enjoyed a coveted status among the Latin pop elite, progress under her label, RCA, had reached a stalemate. In 2018, Billboard reported that the star had filed a $105 million lawsuit against Core Nutrition, LLC, the company behind Core Hydration bottled water, of which producer Dr. Luke owned a large share; Becky claimed that promotion of the branded water had eclipsed her actual recording career, for which she had little to show for beyond her 2013 debut EP Play It Again, and her highest charting hit to date, 2014’s “Shower.” But in 2019 Becky dropped the suit entirely, instead pooling her efforts on expanding her Hispanic fanbase.

“I was left with no other option but to sing in Spanish,” Becky tells Rolling Stone over the phone. “I felt so stuck in my career. What 18-year-old should feel like that’s the end? So I was like, ‘Man, thank God I can kind of speak another language!’”

During the pandemic, the star found herself hunkered down in quarantine with her family in Los Angeles, as well as her boyfriend of four years, 27-year-old Sebastian Lletget, a professional soccer player for the L.A. Galaxy. Since the lockdown first went into effect in March, Becky’s released a string of tracks in both English and Spanish: a ranchera retelling of Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” with Chiquis Rivera; her bubblegum reggae-pop single “My Man,” and her brand new number with Puerto Rican superstar Ozuna, “No Drama.”

Yet of the many career pivots Becky has made in her life, few fans might have clocked her calling as both an activist and podcast jockey. Earlier this summer, Becky began speaking publicly in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, as well as with the family of Vanessa Guillen, a Latina soldier who was slain outside the Fort Hood army base in Texas. Becky has since launched her own show on Amazon Music titled #EnLaSala (In the Living Room), where she has talked shop with distinguished guests like actress America Ferrera, Vice Presidential nominee Kamala Harris, and California Governor Gavin Newsom.

“I have a greater responsibility beyond just singing songs,” she says. “What affects my audience affects me, too.”

You haven’t been able to perform live. You haven’t been able to go on tour. How are you adapting to quarantine life?
I’m used to traveling a lot. But just knowing that this virus does not discriminate and does not care where you live, or how much money you have in your bank account… If it gets you, it gets you. So you can only imagine where I was when all this started! I’m such a hypochondriac and germaphobe, I was just freaking out. [Sebastian and I] have our own apartment, but we were quarantined with my parents for the first two and a half months of our lockdown. We’re a super big, Mexican American family. That sense of unity provided a lot of comfort in such a time of uncertainty. And when we shot the video at our house [for “My Man”], they were helping with the equipment and stuff.

It took nearly 10 years to release your debut album, Mala Santa — it’s gritty, sexy, and sung entirely in Spanish. When did you feel safe to explore this side of yourself in your music?
There’s a positive side and a negative side. And that’s what Mala Santa was for me. There’s the good girl in me, and there’s the empowered version of me — but everybody wants to call her “bad” because she’s sexy, because she’s outspoken. I am entitled as a woman to not be put in a box, but to embrace both sides of me, you know? Which is still that young sweetheart that everybody met so early on in my career, but I found my womanhood. I’ve found my sexy, I’ve found all of those things that make me the artist that I am now.

You weren’t a Disney star, but because you started your career so young, people expected you to be.
We are exposed to so much at a younger age now, that we mature faster. I wasn’t ever into Barbies, but I liked baby dolls because they made me feel like a woman. Since I was nine years old,  I felt like I needed to go out and work and help my family. Then I got discovered at 14, for making cover songs on YouTube. I was having label meetings, choosing which labels I wanted to sign with. The grit was always there — who starts rapping at 11 or 12 years old? I think it was the culture of Inglewood, where I grew up. But the industry was like, “You’re so young… Why are you angry? Why are you rapping like you’ve been through some shit?” And it’s like, “Because I have!”

You started out as an English-language artist. What were some of the challenges of doing a “reverse cross-over” to music in Spanish?
On the Anglo side, I’m a Latina artist. And then on the Latin side, I’m an American artist who’s singing Latin music. I’m constantly trying to find my center and trying to find where I belong. I look at many of my fans who were either born here, or their parents were born here. And maybe they don’t speak Spanish perfectly, but they identify as Latina. We should embrace them, rather than discredit them. Because how else is the culture going to survive? Now, more than ever, we’re so multicultural, and it’s a beautiful thing. It’s my reality.

It’s an experience so many Latinas from the States have — explaining to people that you’re still Latina, even though you’re American. You have to work harder to earn their trust.
My parents were born in the States. My grandparents are from Mexico, from this place called Jalisco. But Mexico was one of the hardest crowds to really earn love and support from. If they don’t accept me there, but I don’t feel comfortable here, where do I go? One of the first albums that I bought was a Christina Aguilera album. There was one side in English, and then the other side in Spanish, with the same songs. And I always knew, “When I become a star, I want to have my Spanish music, I want to have my English music.” But my biggest fear was the speaking-in-Spanish part. It wasn’t perfect.

What did you do to speed up your fluency?
I brought my cousin Cristina on the road with me, and I made her speak to me only in Spanish. If I had questions about certain things, she would explain: “OK, the equivalent of the word that you’re trying to use is this.” For many years I had my favorite vocabulary words, because I felt comfortable using them. I thought, “I guess the most important thing is to try, right?”

How would you describe your Spanish now?
I have such a musical ear that I’m like, a mutt. If I’m in Spain, I become Spanish. If I am in Miami, I become Cubana. If I am in L.A., I am so Mexican. My boyfriend’s family is from Argentina, so now I have a little bit of an Argentine accent. I reflect my environment.

You’re a classic Pisces — Pisceans are like sponges.
We’re water signs! We really are fluid. You put us in a cup and we are a cup! You put us in a bowl and we’re a bowl. You spread us on the floor, we’re just everywhere! We’re like little shapeshifters. But I think early on in my career, I used to feel lost because I was so good at that shapeshifting. They say, “We want you be a pop star!” And I say, “Yes, I am going to be the best pop star!” And it was like, “OK, maybe this isn’t me though.” Now I’ve learned to use my chameleon superpower. But still always bringing it back to who I really am.

Are you open to talking about your lawsuit against Core? Or the status of your deal with Kemosabe Records, and how will that affect your future English-language releases?
As uncomfortable as it is, I would like to wait until I’m able to give the right information. I do know how quickly things can be misinterpreted, and taken and ran with. And not just on [the media] side, but even the fans. My fans go hard.

How hard do your fans go?
I’ll give you an example — this is how Mala Santa was born. I was sitting down [at a hotel in New York City] with my A&R, a rep from Sony RCA, and we were talking about releasing [Mala Santa]. I was very ready to release an album. But it’s very much a singles-based industry, and I had an entire career based off of singles. I’ve been signed since I was 14, but as an artist, I have a right to exercise my creativity and release a full body of work! So there was this whole conversation: They love me, they’re super supportive, but there’s the business side of things.

There were fans waiting outside, who wanted to take pictures. I was by myself, no guard. I felt like they were sent from heaven. They asked, “Yo, B! Like, when’s the album coming?” So I looked over to the label reps and my managers. And I was like, “Go ask them when the album is coming.” So about seven fans came over to the table like, “Excuse me. When are we getting an album? Don’t you think she deserves to put out an album?” My managers [later said], “They were convinced that you paid them to come and do that.”

Fans, without having to say anything, I think they really understand that through the good and the bad, I’ve always just tried to navigate with having faith, working hard, not taking any shortcuts, and although things haven’t always played out in my favor, it’s like I’m just still that little engine that could.

What is the status of your English-language project?
I’ve released some songs, just to delete that last English phase of me — you know, the “Shower” era. That doesn’t represent who I was at all. When I started my Spanish project is when I started co-directing my music videos and taking charge of the concepts. It’s nice to hit the reset button on my English project, and reintroduce myself. It’s got more of an R&B influence. I grew up listening to Don Omar and Daddy Yankee, but I also grew up listening to Brandy and TLC.

You’ve been increasingly vocal about politics and social justice this year — you spoke out in solidarity with Black Lives Matter, and joined the Conciencia Collective, an organization of Latin artists united against racism. What moved you to use your platform this way?
I don’t have to think twice about where I stand alongside our black brothers and sisters. Racism is global and people should open their eyes. Especially individuals in the Latino community. Even in L.A., which is one of the dopest, most multicultural places, I’ve witnessed [racism] for too long. And what affects my fans affects me, so I have a greater responsibility beyond just singing songs. It’s something that scares a lot of people — even just one little statement like, “I don’t agree with racism.” I can understand the fear that you’re saying the wrong thing. But you’re never too late, as long as you get there.

How have you been able to frame these issues to non-black fans, who might have hesitated to support a movement like Black Lives Matter?
Look, I have experienced forms of discrimination growing up… but it depends on what room I’m in. If I’m speaking Spanish at the market with my grandma, and there’s a Karen present, she might say: ‘Hey, we speak English here in America! Go back to where you came from!’ … But I have never left my house, fearing for my life while walking to school, because my skin is black. As a light-skinned Latina… I have white privilege. Education is so crucial, especially when it comes to the Latino community. Even [explaining] something as simple as the difference between race and ethnicity is important.

Between the protests, the pandemic and the election, American society is going through a massive period of reckoning. How do you stay present?
Everything has become so political. Like if you wear a mask, you’re a Democrat. I don’t think being a kind person should be something we associate with a political party. But the nature of American politics right now is so fractured, especially in the pandemic. I believe that [the pandemic] is literally thriving off of division. It’s been traumatizing to witness so many people’s deaths in real time, to see police brutality videos, or to see women like Vanessa Guillen go missing. I have a pretty good relationship with a lot of other artists, so I check in and see how they’re doing. Some opened up, like, “Man, I’m so really affected by what’s going on.” There’s such a need right now for empathy. Find the connection between you and somebody like you. You may not be able to relate on the surface, but somewhere in there, we all have a connected struggle. And we’re stronger together.

From Rolling Stone US