By Lucas Villa Photos By Javi Neris
“I’m a super fan,” Anuel AA says of the Goku and Vegeta tattoos on his left arm. “Everybody that has lived that street life is a fan of ‘Dragon Ball Z.’ They’re like soldiers and that’s why I identify with them.” In 2018, Latin music became the fifth-most consumed genre of music in the U.S., placing ahead of country music. As the genre continues to do impressive numbers, the superheroes of the Latin movement are the reggaetoneros, or reggaetón music artists. This year, Anuel was one of two Latin artists to achieve the Herculean feat of debuting inside the top 10 of the all-genre Billboard 200 chart. For Anuel to soar to such heights with his “Emmanuel” LP, he had to come back from rock bottom.
Emmanuel Gazmey Santiago grew up in Carolina, Puerto Rico, where reggaetón music was cultivated. In the early 2000s, reggaetoneros like Daddy Yankee, Tego Caulderón and Don Omar helped popularize the once-underground genre on a global scale. “If it wasn’t for them, like, all they did in reggaetón, there would be no Anuel,” he says. At the time, his father, José Gazmey, was the vice president of Sony Music Puerto Rico’s A&R department, so a young Anuel was able to connect with those icons. “Thank God I met them when I was a little kid,” he says. “It was meant to be. I see it like that.”
When Anuel was 15 years old, his father lost his job at Sony Music so their family struggled financially. The rapper moved out to the projects to work on his own music. “Something always happens, but I kept knocking on doors, and I made it,” he says. The “it” that Anuel is referring to was being discovered by hip-hop producer Spiff TV, who brought him to the attention of Rick Ross and his Maybach Music label. “Nobody in the Spanish music industry believed in my music in the beginning,” Anuel says. “They were the first ones, so I’m always going to be grateful.” As Anuel was becoming a rising star in Latin trap music, he was arrested in April 2016 outside of a nightclub in Guaynabo, Puerto Rico, for illegal possession of firearms. The judge sentenced him to 30 months in federal prison.
“Shit, I fucked up,” Anuel recalls. “I was thinking, I’m going to have to go back to the streets when I come out because people ain’t gonna be waiting for me.” While Anuel was behind bars, the community he built with Daddy Yankee and Caulderón along with his contemporaries came through for him. “Ozuna, J Balvin, Bad Bunny, everyone, they held it down for me,” he says. “They shouted me out in their shows and recorded on my songs when I was in prison. Like my song ‘Sola’ with Daddy Yankee, Farruko and Wisin, that helped me a lot.” Anuel’s team dropped his “Real Hasta La Muerte,” or “Real Until Death,” mixtape at the peak of the #FreeAnuel movement. That mixtape made him one to watch in both Latin trap and reggaetón. “It was like a movie,” he recalls. “My career kept going as if I was in the streets.”
When Anuel was released from prison on July 17, 2018, he independently released his debut album, “Real Hasta La Muerte,” which opened at No. 1 on Billboard’s Top Latin Albums chart. Not only did Anuel step out to the success of a platinum album but also to some unexpected romance. Tattooed on his back is a photo of him linking tongues with Colombian reggaetonera Karol G. The frostiest character in reggaetón in terms of his signature “BRRRR!” tagline and his iced-out neck and grill, warmed up to one of the biggest female artists in the genre. “That was the first picture we took kissing each other,” he says. “When I met her, it changed my life for good. Something in my mind and my heart told me she was the one. That she was going to be the girl I spend all my life with.”
The reggaetón power couple went public with their relationship in early 2019 on their single “Secreto,” or “Secret.” The music video featuring Anuel and Karol G’s intimate moments together broke the Latino internet and now has over a billion views on YouTube. “People think that just because you’re an artist or you’re famous that everything’s good,” he says. “They see you shining. They see the camera flashes. Of course, life is great, but it comes with a lot of stress too. Having Karol, she lives that same life. She understands it. She’s really a big fan of mine and I’m a super fan of her music. She helps me a lot and I help her too.” He even has his fiancée’s name tattooed on his finger. “When I showed her, I was like, ‘Yo, if it’s real, tat my name then,’” Anuel laughs. “Yeah, she got it too.”
Last summer, Anuel assembled the Avengers of reggaetón for his biggest hit single, “China.” The song turned a sample of Shaggy’s 2000 smash “It Wasn’t Me” into a refreshing reggaetón banger featuring Daddy Yankee, J Balvin, Ozuna and Karol G. “That song, I was going to drop it by myself, but I was like, nah,” he says. “Somebody played one of those reggaetón classics that had all the legends on it and I was like, ‘Yo, this is what I want to do.’ If that song wouldn’t have gone No. 1, I would’ve retired. With all those big artists, it was impossible for ‘China’ not to be big.”
“China” was one of the songs that led up to Anuel’s second album, the self-titled “Emmanuel.” “This is the first album I dropped since I came out [of prison], basically,” he says. “The other one was done already. This is the first album that I could sit down and work on. I could pay more attention to it.” Among the surprise features on the album is Blink-182 drummer Travis Barker on “No Llores Mujer,” a Spanish reworking of Bob Marley’s “No Woman, No Cry.” “He’s really humble,” Anuel says. “He’s a super legend and he likes my music, so we’re probably going to keep working together.” Rap icon Lil Wayne features on “Ferrari.” “For me, that was a dream come true,” he says. “I didn’t know he was going to know who I was because that’s how big he is. He treated me like family.”
On having Daddy Yankee and Caulderón on “Emmanuel,” Anuel says, “I see them as my big brothers because we work together.” It’s an especially rare occasion for Caulderón to be on “Rifles Russos,” or “Russian Rifles.” “He’s like family,” Anuel says. “When I was in prison, he paid for my lawyer. I wanted people on the album who are very close to me, so I hit him up. Even though he’s on another phase in life, he loved the song. I was like, ‘Bro, nobody else fits on this.’” The album opened at No. 8 on the all-genre Billboard 200 chart, making Anuel the second Latin artist (the first being Bad Bunny) this year to have a top 10 debut on that chart.
Anuel featured on Bad Bunny’s “YHLQMDLG” and Bad Bunny returned the favor on “Emmanuel.” Because of their similar career trajectories and successes, the two are often pitted against each other. “There’s always going to be respect between us,” he says. “It’s a competition for the people the most. Right now I’m in a phase of life where I only gotta be better than myself. Every time I do something, it’s gotta be better than the last thing I did.” Rappers like him and Bad Bunny are broadening reggaetón’s appeal. “Reggaetón is the type of music in the Latin industry that used to get criticized a lot,” Anuel says. “Reggaetón came from the streets. The streets had a lot to do with reggaetón’s success in the beginning, so seeing [Shakira], Enrique Iglesias, Drake, everybody doing reggaetón, for us it’s super legendary seeing how it has grown so much.”
“My biggest fan base is the streets all around the world,” Anuel says of his own legacy. “When I grew up, my only role models for real were the drug dealers, so for me, making it like this and being one of the biggest artists in the Latin industry is like a dream come true. It’s a lot of responsibility, so I gotta keep making the right decisions and making the right music. The most that anybody can say about me is: ‘He came from the streets and he made it. He knows what’s falling down and getting up.’ I’m super proud of that.”