The songwriter, producer and former "American Idol" contestant has come home looking to do business.

tat tong jovany barreto swaggernautz photo for my spilt milk
Tat Tong and New Orleans' Jovany Barreto of The Swaggernautz

How did a guy from the West Bank end up getting part of that “Despacito” money? It started with American Idol.

Jovany Barreto appeared on season 10 of the show in 2011, where he was introduced as a shipyard worker of Cuban-American descent from Harvey who impressed judge Jennifer Lopez with his abs as well as his voice. Barreto, then 23, had a normal teenage upbringing with music at the center of it. While in high school, he wrote songs with his friend Jesse Woodard, who has worked on songs by Beyoncé, Drake, Lil’ Wayne, J. Cole, Curren$y, Young Money, Nipsey Hussle, Mac Miller and more under the name Chase N. Cashe. “I used to jam in history class while he’d beat on his textbook,” Barreto says. “He eventually started sending me beats and that’s when I started writing my first songs.”

Barreto made it through the tryouts and Hollywood phases of American Idol, but his journey ended on the first live show, when the judges trimmed the field down to eight women and eight men. That turned out to be a blessing in disguise because behind the scenes, he and all the contestants had to sign a contract granting producers’ 19 Entertainment an option to manage them if they wanted to advance past the Hollywood boot camp. Idol doesn’t have a great track record with male vocalists, and has produced more mid-level also-rans than breakout stars. Barreto might have been another the Latin Taylor Hicks or Lee DeWyze if 19 Entertainment had picked him. 

But it didn’t, and that set him on the path that has made him one half of the world pop production duo, The Swaggernautz.

The path wasn’t a straight line. He went on the Idol world tour with the other contestants after the season ended, and he followed his singing dreams. He discovered that the Idol association carried baggage, though. It got him in the game, but once there he ran into people in the industry who thought of him as someone who cut to the front of the opportunity line without properly paying his dues. And, he admits, he hadn’t, and he didn’t really know who he was as an artist. Barreto knew he could sing but had yet to think about what he should sing, or what Jovany Barreto songs ought to sound like. When an interviewer in Miami considered his looks and suggested that he would be great in telenovelas, Barreto entertained that possibility too. Then one day he realized, “I didn’t want to be yelling Mariaaaaaaa nooooo for money.” 

Barreto was talented and handsome, but not so talented or so handsome that the entertainment world cleared a path for him. He changed his professional name to Jovany Javier, taking his middle name as his last name in an effort to define his post-Idol identity. In 2012, he recorded his debut album, but he didn’t have enough clout for another label to step in and pick it up when the one that signed him collapsed before the album came out in 2013. The sessions for that album started the transition to The Swaggernautz though because he began to work with Singaporean producer Tat Tong on it. A mutual friend first introduced them on Facebook, and they eventually met in Los Angeles, Tong’s home base. They had good chemistry together when shaping the material, good enough that they went to Miami together to work on songs with producer DJ Blackout. 

“After finishing up our second tune and starting a third, Blackout made a comment: Do you guys ever write a bad song?” Barreto remembers. “ A comment like that coming from someone as successful as he’d been cemented in my mind that I had a talent for this, and that Tat and I could make a great team.”

Few Swaggernautz productions have made their presence felt on the US charts. Their biggest hit in America came with Troye Sivan’s “Happy Little Pill” in 2014 when the song went gold and topped the iTunes charts, but it was bigger in Sivan’s native Australia. Barreto and Tong made the phrase, “Hits without boundaries” their calling card, and they have backed it up. Swaggernautz co-wrote and co-produced (with Luis Salazar of The Dro1dz) the platinum-selling Evolution for CD9—“the Mexican One Direction,” Tong says—in 2016. They wrote and produced a song for Luis Fonsi’s 2019 album Ego, which was certified 22-times platinum in the U.S. and received a Best Latin Pop Album nomination for the Grammys. Their “Estoy Enamorado De Ti" by the Mexican vocal group CNCO's self-titled 2018 album was certified platinum in the States. They put meat on their pitch when they put together the first K-pop/Latin collaboration and connected CD9 with the Korean girl group Crayon Pop for the song, “Get Dumb.” 

“It’s fun for us because we’re not writing the song everybody else is writing,” Tong says. 

American audiences like songs they can sing along to, so the international market flourished unnoticed until they couldn’t help but see it. Until recently, foreign language hits bordered on novelty. In 1996, Los Del Rio’s “Macarena” reached the top spot on Billboard’s Hot 100, partly on the irresistibility of the song, partly on dance fad it sparked, and partly on the improbable middle-aged guys who seemed to start the party for the fashionistas in the video. In 2012, “Gangnam Style” similarly became unavoidable for similar reasons—a crazy great hook and a video that inspired a dance craze. Still, there was nothing novel about “Despacito” by Luis Fonsi, Daddy Yankee and Justin Bieber when it hit in 2014, nor was K-pop band BTS’ “Fake Love” a novelty when it reached the top 10 in 2018. 

More recently, Shakira co-starred in the Super Bowl halftime show largely on the strength of her celebrity, but paired with another Latina, Jennifer Lopez, her success as a Latin pop star was clearly part of her appeal. America knows her for “Hips Don’t Lie,” which made it to number 1 on Billboard’s Hot 100 in 2006, but the six albums she released between 1995 and 2009 all sold at least a million copies, and three—Pies Descalzos, Dónde Están los Ladrones? and Laundry Service sold five million copies, seven million copies, and 13 million copies worldwide respectively. She had 10 Spanish language songs make Billboard’s Latin music charts before she tried to reach the U.S. market with English language songs starting in 2001 and Laundry Service. After “Try Everything” from the Zootopia soundtrack, Shakira refocused her attention on the Spanish language market and while none of the eight singles released since reached higher than number 51 on the U.S. Hot 100, most were in the top 10 of the Latin charts and were certified gold, platinum and diamond by international record industry organizations. Internationally, she has had a 25-year career, but as a chart force, her career in America has realistically spanned nine or so years.  

K-pop band BTS has similarly signaled a changing narrative. “Fake Love” showed that their international success has grown to a point that American companies dismiss them out at their own risk. When The Grammys telecast saluted Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road,” BTS became featured guests along with Billy Ray Cyrus, Diplo, Nas and Mason Ramsey. The spot treated the band as an incongruous oddity and funny, but that’s just one of the many issues with the Grammys in recent years. The appearance also suggested that BTS had received the Grammys’ seal of approval and was at some level validated by the music industry. 

No artist Barreto and Tong have worked with has had Shakira or BTS-level success, but CD9’s video for “Déja Vu” has been viewed more than 14 million times, and the other videos from their time together have all racked up ten of millions of views. That was a breakthrough project for The Swaggernautz, along with Sivan’s “Happy Little Pill.” “That opened a lot of doors for us,” Barreto says. “That was a song that went to number one is 66 countries and went to number five on the Billboard Hot 100. That put us on the map.”

Working in international markets has given Barreto and Tong a number of insights into the markets’ idiosyncrasies. As the success of “Despacito” and “Fake Love” show, foreign languages don’t impede crossover success the way it once did. In fact, the foreign language version almost always sells better and gets more attention than the English language version recorded with the American market in mind. “At the end of the day, if a record’s good, people are going to listen to it,” Barreto says. They’ve also learned to pay attention to cultural attitudes. “You can never be too soft and sweet in Asia,” Barreto says. “In the Latin market, it’s the opposite. That’s too corny.” 

According to Tong, Japanese J-pop didn’t take off the way K-pop has because “J-pop catered to domestic audiences, but K-pop was a purely international thing from the start.” K-pop was aggressively marketed to international audiences, but he thinks its success will pale next Chinese C-pop if its artists and labels want it to be an international force. A population of 1.4 billion people is a good starting place, Tong says, but it could be bigger. “They’re not exporting as much as they can, but when they do it will be crazy.”

Barreto and Tong attribute the changing attitudes toward international music to streaming, which makes removes many of the obstructions that once kept international pop confined to regions. When success meant selling copies of physical objects, getting albums in stores was a major obstacle. Spotify means that American audiences can hear music from around the world, just as other countries can hear what’s hot in the States. “China—even in very rural parts—can access very similar niche trends that we’re seeing here in the U.S.,” Tong says. “That’s how trap came up in China. It was a couple of years later and an underground thing there, but it came up because of streaming. People vibing with it and wanting to make their own version of it.” 

Hip-hop has become pop’s lingua franca no matter the country of origin, which lessens the friction for foreign-language pop. Bad Bunny’s “Mia” with a feature by Drake helped the Latin star make inroads into the American market. Barreto credits Bad Bunny with helping to modernize Latin pop. “He took trap to the Latin world and it blew up,” Barreto says.

“Despacito” changed the international pop game in more ways than one. Besides being one of the first major international hits in America that didn’t come off as a novelty, the song also became a global franchise. Initially, Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee cut the track, and Justin Bieber didn’t get involved until he heard it in a club, loved it, and reached out to Fonsi about doing a remix that added him to the track. Fonsi saw how that could help the song reach a larger audience and agreed. He also agreed to a salsa version with Victor Manuelle, a Major Lazer and MOSKA remix, a Portuguese version featuring Israel Novaes, a merengue version with Anthony Santos and Mark B, a banda version with La Bandononona Clave Nueva De Max Peraza, and a Croatian orchestral version with 2CELLOS. 

While “Despacito-mania” was in full bloom, Barreto and Tong were working with Fonsi on a track for one project and Chinese singer JJ Lin for another. In an idle moment, they wondered about again bringing their musical worlds together and pitching a Mandarin version of “Despacito.” Barreto texted Fonsi while Tat reached out to Lin, and both singers agreed. For Fonsi, that meant learning enough Mandarin to sing the song, but he picked it up with surprising ease. Lin usually writes his own songs, and for “Despacito” he thought it was important that he rewrite the parts he would sing to bring them more in line with his art, persona, and culture. 

At Junkee.com, critic Osman Faruqi wrote, “given the lyrics are all about fucking, the language barrier has probably helped [“Despacito”] reach a larger audience who might otherwise have been deterred by its pretty explicit imagery.” That sexual frankness was an issue for Lin. In the original, Fonsi sang a passage that translates as “Step by step, soft then softly / We come up against each other, little by little / Until I make you scream / And you forget your last name / Slowly.” 

Lin changed that to lines that translate as “I want to give you the sky, I want to turn with you / I want to dream with you, I want you to be favored / I’ll make a private universe for you.”

According to Tong, “Generally in Asia, they like to take a more subtle approach. Songs are more about love and getting to know each other.”  

After eight years of being based in Los Angeles and Miami, Barreto has moved back to New Orleans. Since the artists he works with are only an Internet connection away, being in other music centers is useful but not crucial. His family is here, and he works as Jovany Barreto again. He now has a sense of what he can contribute to the New Orleans music community and wants to participate, not out of a sense of hometown boosterism but because sees a chance to make money here. Recently, he and Tong spoke with Loyola’s Music Industry students and spent the last 15 minutes meeting with musicians who wanted to network. He thinks about those students, talent like Chase N. Cashe, artists like Tang and The Bangas, and believes another period of pop vitality like the ‘90s during the height of Cash Money and No Limit is possible. 

“I’m hearing bounce sounds all over the radio,” Barreto says. “New Orleans is so relevant right now.”