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How Mexican Sounds Are Shaping the Most Popular Music in the World

As soon as Alex Guerra and Ramon Ruiz discovered 15-year-old Yahritza Martinez on TikTok, they knew she was going to be huge. The high schooler from Yakima, Washington, had been courting a massive following on social media with her shockingly powerful voice, and Ruiz and Guerra — both artists from the seminal Mexican band Legado 7 and founders of the label Lumbre Music — quickly signed her and her two brothers, Armando and Jairo Martinez, forming the band Yahritza y Su Esencia. Still, no one could have predicted the seismic wave caused by the band’s first single, “Soy El Unico”: In March, the emotional ballad shot to the top of Billboard’s Hot Latin Songs chart and made Yahritza the youngest Latin artist to chart on the Billboard 100, ever.

Yahritza’s story is unique on its own, but it also fits into the larger story of música Mexicana’s impressive global expansion. The category, also known as regional, is an umbrella term that encompasses banda, norteña, mariachi, grupero, and more — all sounds that have been getting bigger and bigger in recent years. Headline-making Coachella sets this April included performances by the Sinaloan group Banda MS and the mega-band Grupo Firme, and in May, the brooding outfit Eslabon Armado released Nostalgia, the first música Mexicana album to reach the Top 10 on the Billboard 200. At Apple Music, música Mexicana has seen double-digit growth every year since 2017, and in the first four months of 2022, it’s up by 33 percent compared with the same period in 2021.

Some of the popularity of música Mexicana can also be tracked to the resurgence of corridos. For more than 200 years, Mexico’s most epic stories — tales of glowing heroism, crushing betrayals, bloody battles, tragic deaths — have reached the world through these folksy, guitar-driven narrative ballads based on both real-life and fictional events. Last year at Spotify, corridos made up half of all streams within Mexican music, with acts such as the enigmatic singer-songwriter El Fantasma, the rising talent Luis R Conriquez, and the swashbuckling pair Los Dos Carnales boosting those numbers. The platform also reports that since 2019, there’s been a 116 percent increase in listening among Gen Z audiences; they’ve connected, in particular, with Gen Z artists such as DannyLux, known for gentler alternative corridos, and Natanael Cano, whose trap-flecked style has drawn in megastars including Bad Bunny.

“We’re seeing a huge increase in Gen Z listening to corridos, especially when it is catered to them,” says Daniel Calderon, senior editor of U.S. Latin editorial at Spotify. He notes the popularity of the playlists Corridos Perrones and La Mamalona, the latter of which was created specifically for younger people who want to blast corridos in their cars. “The younger generation feels a connection to the look and feel and the stories the new musicians are creating,” he says.

To Krystina DeLuna, Apple’s global programmer for música Mexicana, the genre’s popularity has to do with geography — how its artists have always straddled two cultures. DeLuna has decades of experience and has seen the music evolve over the years. One key artist, Chalino Sanchez, came to the U.S. in the late Seventies from Sinaloa as an undocumented migrant worker and launched his music career in Los Angeles. Other legacy acts — including Los Tigres del Norte, Los Tucanes de Tijuana, and the late icon Jenni Rivera — continued popularizing Mexican sounds of all genres, and attracting listeners navigating both cultures. “That’s who the fans are: They’re listeners that don’t just live in one world,” DeLuna says.

Guerra and Ruiz, both Mexican transplants living in California, started Legado 7 in 2015. They drew inspiration from the corrido greats before them and wrote about one subject they knew intimately: weed. Unwittingly, they created a subgenre called corridos verdes, or “green corridos,” which became pot anthems for legions of stoner kids. “We definitely changed the game,” Ruiz says. “Honestly, we never said, ‘We’re gonna do this’ — it just happened.” Their music highlighted how new generations were mixing influences all around them.

“These are all kids with parents who were listening to Chalino Sanchez and Vicente Fernández, and then they went to school and were listening to Jay-Z and Tupac,” says Ximena Acosta, an entertainment-strategy consultant who oversees digital marketing, publicity, brand partnerships, and more for some of Latin music’s top names. She saw early on how fans flock to Mexican sounds: “The numbers were always there, and culturally, it was fascinating.” Eventually, she entered the música Mexicana world and met Legado 7. “They came up with their own kind of music that really became a lifestyle,” she says. Today, her clients include both Yahritza y Su Esencia and Natanael Cano.

Rita Feregrino

A quiet, tatted kid born in the Mexican state of Sonora, which shares a border with Arizona and New Mexico, Cano was deeply influenced by American hip-hop and Latin trap, and became the face of corridos tumbados, a blend of traditional corridos and hip-hop beats. Following the success of his 2019 “Soy Diablo” remix with Bad Bunny, he’s kept pulling rappers into his world: Lil Mosey, for example, made a cameo on his latest album, NataKong, released in April. Other reggaeton stars have taken note: At the end of last year, Jhay Cortez jumped on Ivan Cornejo’s sad sierreño ballad “Esta Dañada,” while Karol G tested out her own corrido-making skills on “200 Copas.”

Adriel Favela, a singer-songwriter born in San Francisco and raised in Mexico, says that the cross-pollination between these genres is part of what’s making Mexican music ubiquitous around the world. “I’ve even seen Dominicans singing corridos lately — and they’re dope!” he says. Earlier this year, he released Cosas del Diablo, which bounces from corridos to banda to ranchera while embracing bold alt-pop sounds. He thinks one of the reasons these sounds are resonating has to do not just with experimenting, but also with how these genres serve as vehicles for storytelling and self-expression: “This is like a musical diary that lets Latinos express themselves.… At the end of the day, they’re stories of pain, of suffering, of joy, of hope, of faith.”

Still, some artists think the industry should be doing more to make sure Mexican genres continue skyrocketing to the top. Cano started his own label, called Los CT, to support new artists and prioritize top-notch production. “Regional can be bigger,” he told Rolling Stone earlier this year. “It would be at the top if we had the best studios, the best engineers, and people working with their whole heart. We’re trying to change all that with Los CT.” DeLuna and other industry leaders have also championed the term “música Mexicana” over “regional.” “I feel like that name in general gives a perception that we’re a regional sound, and we’re not,” she says. “The goal is global.”

Kids like Yahritza, Cornejo, and other breakout stars are shaping the future, particularly through their new take on acoustic sierreño traditions that have gone viral. These newcomers, clad in snapbacks and sneakers, have changed the look and feel of the music, and they aren’t afraid to sing at the top of their lungs for millions on social media. Ruiz and Guerra remember that when they were kids, they were a little embarrassed about playing Mexican music. “I wouldn’t tell anyone that I played the accordion,” Ruiz says. “That’s all changing now. Nowadays, you see all these little kids taking their instruments to school,” Guerra says. “It’s cool to be a músico.”

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