Luis Fonsi on His Influential 20-Year Career and His Mission to Help Rebuild Puerto Rico (Exclusive)

Luis Fonsi
Universal Music Latin / Omar Cruz

The 39-year-old singer reflects on his mega hit “Despacito.”

Luis Fonsi is on top of the world.

English-speaking fans might just be getting acquainted with the 39-year-old singer, thanks to his hit single, “Despacito” featuring Daddy Yankee, but he’s been producing music for almost 20 years.

ET caught up with the international sensation ahead of the Latin GRAMMYs, airing live on Univision on Thursday, to talk about his most recent career highlights and how he’s using his global platform to help those in need.  

Born in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Fonsi was 10 years old when his family moved to Orlando, Florida. The transition wasn’t easy, but it ultimately helped Fonsi forge a lifelong relationship with music.

“My dad wanted to change things up and seek new work opportunities,” Fonsi tells ET. “It was quite a big change. At the time there wasn't a big Latino population in Orlando, but he always loved the tranquility that he found in Orlando.”

“I’ve done music all my life,” Fonsi continues. “To me, this is more than a job. It was never about being famous, it was about my passion for music.”

His love for music started at a young age. As a child he played the guitar and piano, and soon after, he joined the San Juan Children's Choir. As a teen, Fonsi channeled his energy into meeting like-minded people with a musical career focus.

While attending Dr. Phillip’s High School, Fonsi joined the school’s chorus group under the leadership of music teacher Keith Galasso, and formed an acapella group called "The Big Guys" with Erik Garbus, Joel Herman and Joey Fatone, who later became a member of *NSYNC. The experience proved to be rewarding as Fonsi tried his luck once again at his university's choir.

In 1995, Fonsi was granted a full scholarship to Florida State University School of Music, where he went on to major in vocal performance. He got to travel around the world as part of the school’s choir team, an experience that allowed him to record several demos, which ultimately led to a recording contract with Universal Music Latin. He released his first album, “Comenzaré,” in 1998.

“I think it’s such a blessing to be able to do what you love,” Fonsi says. “I’ve put a lot of work into my profession and now I’m just blessed that all that work paid off.”

Fonsi’s first album was filled with numerous hits, including "Si Tú Quisieras," "Perdóname," "Dime Como" and "Me Ire.” His second album, Eterno, was released in 2000 with tremendous success, making him a household name in Spanish-speaking homes across the U.S. and Latin America. Fonsi had officially reached stardom.  

I don't take anything for granted,” Fonsi explains as he reflects on his hit single, “Despacito,” which premiered in January along with a sultry music video. Fonsi now has eight successful albums under his belt and a ninth on the way.

“It always felt special,” Fonsi says of the song, which was originally crafted as a ballad in 2015 with Erika Ender, a Panamanian singer, songwriter and actress, and later injected with an urban sound with the help of Daddy Yankee. “It’s a song that felt special from the beginning. But, honestly, no one saw this coming. One thing is saying, we feel this record is going to do well on radio and another thing is to say this is going to be a phenomenon and it’s going to break every single record.”

“I didn’t think that far,” Fonsi continues. “It was another song for my album and I wanted it to work and be enjoyed by my audience. I didn’t really see that far ahead, it breaking into the [English] market, being embraced by other cultures or helping break language barriers."

“Despacito,” which Fonsi describes as having a “Latin urban, reggaeton beat, with a tropical flair,” reached No. 1 on the U.S. Hot Latin Songs chart in February and remained there for 35 consecutive weeks. The song’s remix with Justin Bieber reached No. 1 on the Hot 100 in May, becoming both Fonsi and Yankee's first number one on the chart, and Bieber's fifth. The remix stayed at number one on the Hot 100 for 16 consecutive weeks, tying with "One Sweet Day" by Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men as the longest-reigning number-one single in the chart's history.

The original music video for “Despacito” also broke records. It’s the first and only video in YouTube history to reach 4 billion views in just 272 days. And, it's currently the most viewed video of the year in over 50 countries, including Mexico, Germany, Portugal, Greece, El Salvador, Spain, Lebanon, Croatia and Italy.

“It’s never been done before,” Fonsi exclaims of the feat. “There are a lot of beautiful things that came with ‘Despacito’ and a lot of them have been beautiful surprises. Other than just having a feel-good song, thinking that people were going to enjoy it, that’s all I thought would happen.”

Fonsi is nominated for four Latin GRAMMYs this year in the following categories: Song of the Year, Record of the Year, Best Short Form Music Video and Best Urban Fusion/Performance.

“The Latin GRAMMYs to me are the most important music award for Latin music and to have four nominations is certainly an honor,” says Fonsi, who won his first Latin GRAMMY in 2009 for “Aqui Estoy Yo,” which was awarded Song of the Year.

“To have Record of the Year and Song of the Year nominations are two huge categories, those two have a lot of weight,” he adds. “But, you can’t control whether you win or lose and all the artists that are nominated are amazing, so I’m really just truly blessed to be among a great group of artists that I admire.”

Fonsi, who was included in People’s Sexiest Man of the Year issue in the Men of the Year category, will also be performing at the Latin GRAMMYs. “We are going to be celebrating Latin music, we have a lot to celebrate,” he shares. “It’s been a tough year, so it’s definitely going to be an emotional one.”

Aside from focusing on this ninth concert tour, properly titled, Love + Dance World Tour, Fonsi has also been focusing on relief efforts in Puerto Rico, after the island experienced the devastation of Hurricane Maria in September.

Last month, Fonsi enlisted the help of Puerto Rican celebrities Chayanne, Ricky Martin and Nicky Jam. The four traveled to the island in a donated commercial airplane filled with goods.

It was a really emotional day,” Fonsi recalls. “I called my good friends, Nicky Jam, Chayanne, Ricky, and athletes who have always carried our flag with a lot of pride. And, we all went there with one mission -- to deliver goods, hope and to let Puerto Rico know that we are all in this together.”

“We have a lot of work to do, it’s going to be a long recovery process,” Fonsi says, noting he started his own relief fund via in an effort to help rebuild the small town of La Perla, where his music video for “Despacito” was filmed.

“It’s a beautiful, colorful and vibrant barrio,” he continues. “La Perla has always needed funding and help, it was always a little weak and rundown by the ocean. I had already started working with them on the rebuilding process and I wanted to donate a music room, but now after Hurricane Maria, La Perla is pretty much gone. It’s devastating.”

During his visit to Puerto Rico, Fonsi and his friends helped deliver generators, water, clothing, food and baby items. “I’m hoping to gather as much money as I can. Once Puerto Rico is back and running with electricity and establishing communication, which is the biggest problem right now, we can start on the rebuilding phase,” he says.

“I’m adding a lot of my money to do this...pretty much any free time that I have I’ll be going to Puerto Rico with different planes filled with food and medicine,” he says.

And it's a promise he has kept. Following our interview, Fonsi traveled to Puerto Rico for a second time.

“It’s a marathon, not a sprint,” he tells ET. “It’s going to take a long time. The island is just sort of weak and eerie and gray. There is nothing green looks like a fireball just went through it. You see all these little towns that are just filled with debris and they look like they exploded. These people didn’t have much to begin with, it’s a sad situation.”

“I’m just trying to do whatever I can to piece Puerto Rico back together,” he adds.