How Vin Diesel Gave Reggaetón Its Hollywood Moment in the 'Fast & Furious' Franchise
The action star turned the blockbuster film series into a showcase for Latin artists like Nicky Jam and Anitta — and is now plotting his own music career.
By Leila Cobo
Vin Diesel makes his entrance into a hangar studio near downtown Los Angeles accompanied by two distinct sounds — one familiar, the other far more unexpected. His deep, gravelly voice cuts through the enormous space, instantly recognizable as it echoes across the high ceilings and open doors.
The black speaker tucked under his arm, booming out a stream of midtempo reggaetón, catches most onlookers off guard, though. Nicky Jam’s smooth vocals float over the thumping beat, singing an immediately catchy refrain in Spanish: “Many told me I wouldn’t amount to anything/But I didn’t lose the faith.” But then, that unmistakable gravelly voice crashes in: “No le tengo miedo a ningún envidioso” (I’m not afraid of anyone who’s envious).
Is that Vin Diesel... rapping? In Spanish?
He nods, flashing his Hollywood grin with a trace of bashfulness. Diesel is here ahead of the June 25 release of F9, the ninth installment of the mega-successful Fast & Furious franchise and one of the most anticipated blockbusters in a year when, finally, blockbusters are back. But he’s not here to talk about his starring role as car expert-turned-action hero Dominic Toretto. Diesel has come to this photo shoot — alongside his good friend Nicky Jam and Brazilian superstar Anitta — to show how the the franchise has helped speed Latin music’s remarkable rise in pop culture. It also continues to accelerate the musical careers of both veteran and emerging artists — including, potentially, his own.
Since becoming a producer of the film franchise in 2009, Diesel has personally handpicked major Latin music stars — including Don Omar, Tego Calderón, Romeo Santos and, for F9, Ozuna and Cardi B — and put them in the Fast & Furious films, in addition to actor-artist franchise regulars Ludacris and Tyrese. Meanwhile, the Fast & Furious soundtracks have been treasure troves of hip-hop and Latin urban music, with several songs commissioned for specific film moments. The soundtracks have produced multiple hits on the Billboard Hot 100 – including one year-defining No. 1 smash, “See You Again” by Wiz Khalifa featuring Charlie Puth, that spent 12 weeks atop the Hot 100 chart in 2015 — and five of the first eight soundtracks have reached the top 10 of the Billboard 200.
But the arrival of F9 also coincides with the beginnings of Diesel’s own venture into what he hopes will be a new brand of Latin music, as he collaborates with artist friends in different genres — from Lenier Mesa’s more traditional Cuban music to Nicky Jam’s melodic reggaetón. For a 53-year-old action star who had released zero songs prior to 2020, it may look like a lark. But over the past several years, Diesel has been steadily working in the background with a plethora of artists, slowly but surely building a bilingual catalog of songs that feature his own personal lyrics and reveal his vulnerable side.
His agent at CAA “suggested I speak with this guy Afo at Sony Latin," says Diesel, referring to Sony Music Latin America Chairman/CEO Afo Verde. The two hit it off, and now Diesel is negotiating a recording deal with Sony Music Latin.
“You have to build confidence,” says Diesel, who in 2013 posted a cover of Rihanna’s “Stay” for his 100 million Facebook followers as a Valentine’s Day gift for his longtime girlfriend, Mexican model Paloma Jiménez. “People in Hollywood were saying, ‘That’s the most dangerous thing you’ve ever done,’” he recalls. “‘Don’t ever do that, that’s crazy. You’re going to ruin everyone’s livelihood.’” But when no one’s career was ruined and Diesel saw his fans embraced his Rihanna cover, “that’s how I first stepped out of my comfort zone,” he says.
Compared with “Feel Like I Do,” a dance track with highly sequenced vocals that Diesel floated out last year, the tracks he plays today are far more acoustic and rootsy; his rapping in Spanish over Cuban son is distinct, persuasive and most importantly sounds genuine.
It’s a risk for a huge star with an even huger franchise to carry. But Diesel is treating music exactly how Dom Toretto would approach a death-defying stunt: Floor it and see what happens.
“I just want to have the freedom to make music and do it without any restrictions,” says Diesel. “And sometimes do things that, quite frankly, I should not do. Sometimes I’ll think, ‘What in the f--king world were you thinking doing this song?’ But that’s part of the statement.”
Up close, it’s hard not to be taken aback by Diesel’s sheer size: Wearing white jeans and a shirt with cut-off sleeves, he’s six feet of bulging muscles. But his passion for music is even more striking — as he jumps up and down to hype himself up for each photo click, he regales the room with stories of his early days as a break dancer and, as a kid growing up in New York, a rapper. The song with Nicky Jam that he’s playing on his speaker isn’t officially part of the Fast & Furious brand, but it’s still a full-circle moment for him.
“I love this song. Why isn’t this out?” Anitta says later, as the track plays again. She’s still wearing the leotard and high heels from the photo shoot — looking like the embodiment of her sultry F9 soundtrack song, “Furiosa” (Furious), while lounging on the lone couch in the middle of the studio.
“Because he’s like that!” replies Nicky Jam, shouting out Diesel with the familiarity that comes from a close friendship. The two met on the set of 2017’s XXX: Return of Xander Cage, and since then, Nicky Jam has urged Diesel to release the numerous Latin tracks he’s got in his vault, but to no avail. Diesel didn’t feel ready. “We recorded this song four, five years ago,” adds Nicky Jam, who’s wearing a sweatshirt with a rainbow on it — a nod to Diesel’s 6-year-old daughter Pauline, whose nickname for him is Rainbow because he draws them with her. “I wrote it. It has a whole message.”
“I’m dying to release it,” says Diesel. “But it’s all timing.”
Diesel is used to talking about his status as one of the most bankable film stars in Hollywood. But today, he’s more focused on the franchise’s unique position as a vehicle for multicultural representation in film, as a showcase for Latin and urban acts both onscreen and on the movie’s soundtracks over the past two decades. “You really can’t think about it in another film franchise … Fast is the only original franchise in Hollywood that has multiculturalism in its DNA,” says Fabian Castro, senior vp multicultural marketing for Universal Pictures.
That organic intertwinement of cultures begins with Diesel’s longtime love of Latin music. “Cultural music in itself is important, regardless of where it comes from,” says Diesel. “Cultural music has a truth. Reggaetón in particular, when it first catapulted from underground movement to commercial acceptance 20 years ago, was music coming from the concrete of the barrio, which represented a movement and state of mind.”
And while meshing that music with a huge franchise film may feel natural to Diesel, it’s not lost on his Latin colleagues how singular that kind of interest is. “It’s very hard to see movies filmed in Brazil [as 2011’s Fast Five was],” says Anitta, who, with 54.3 million Instagram followers, is arguably the country’s most popular music star. “Plus, everyone is always saying Latin music is popping and it’s so easy for me, and I’m like, ‘I’m Brazilian! I don’t even speak Spanish.’ I had to learn Spanish. We don’t even listen to Latin music. It’s a whole different thing! For me to even be here is so hard. How many Brazilians do you see here?”
“A mainstream movie, a global movie, believes in our music?” asks Nicky Jam, shaking his head in amazement. “It automatically puts us under the spotlight. Many Latinos think it’s normal for us to be in Hollywood. This is not normal, bro. You don’t understand how big this is.”
Dominic Toretto and his love interest, Letty, have become one of the most iconic couples in movies today — a modern-day Bonnie and Clyde, with a lot more horsepower. They’ve also changed what an iconic movie couple can look like. Toretto is, as Diesel puts it, a “Latino mulatto” — and Letty (played by Michelle Rodriguez) is Dominican and Puerto Rican (as is Rodriguez). The crew around them are remarkably diverse, too: Toretto’s sister Mia is played by Jordana Brewster, who is half-Brazilian, and their close pals are all played by people of color.
“My character owns a bodega,” says Diesel matter-of-factly. “When I first did the movie back in 1999, as a thespian, I felt I had to go to Cuba because my character has Cuban blood. I went to Havana before I filmed the movie to become the character. I could have given him another background, but that’s who he was. That’s where all the family values come from.”
As a multicultural actor — his mother is white, and he’s never stated his birth father’s background — Diesel gets it. “That sentiment is how I feel about me as a movie star,” he says. “For so many years I looked too ‘multicultural.’ I don’t fit any specific role. It was very hard for me to get roles back in the 1990s.”
“He wasn’t white enough, he wasn’t Black enough,” adds Nicky Jam. “Now there’s many actors like him.”
When Diesel was first approached to play the role of Toretto in the original The Fast & the Furious, he wasn’t yet a star — he was the sixth or seventh lead from Saving Private Ryan. And he was unconvinced; he felt that the script and the characters were underdeveloped. But he was sold after director Rob Cohen walked him through a shot: “‘I take the camera through your eye, down your arm and into the shaft and the engine of the car, making you one with the car,’” recalls Diesel. “I was [like], ‘Oh, my God. This is incredible.’ Then I got the script. I said, ‘You’re not there yet.’”
Diesel felt strongly about character development, and if the script were reworked, he said, he’d do it. So began an on and offscreen saga: Diesel co-starred alongside Paul Walker in the hit 2001 original but declined roles in the next two installments because he felt the producers weren’t evolving the story or its characters. By the mid-2000s, Universal offered him the opportunity to “produce the way you want, the way you think the franchise should go.”
The proposal came around 2005, while Diesel was vacationing in the Dominican Republic. “I was riding my bike in el Malecón, and a kid came up and wanted to shine my shoes, but I had sneakers on,” he recalls. The kid said: “OK, buy one of my mixtapes.” Back in his hotel room, Diesel played the music and was taken aback. “It wasn’t just raw. It was very organic,” he says. “Rap was already explosive. But this was something that was just so fresh, that was taking influences from all kinds of music.”
One song caught his ear: “Bandoleros” (Outlaws), a track written by Don Omar and performed with Tego Calderón that brilliantly fuses Puerto Rican cuatro with reggaetón beats. “I felt it was written for Dom Toretto. I was stuck on it,” says Diesel. “I thought, ‘Maybe it’s a sign. I’ll tell the studio, if they play this song, I’ll go back.’” Soon enough, “Los Bandoleros” was soundtracking a last-scene sequence in 2006’s The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, playing right before Diesel makes a teaser cameo.
When Diesel returned as the face of the franchise in 2009’s Fast & Furious, he helped cast Don Omar and Calderón in speaking roles. “And the studio thought, ‘What are you thinking?’” recalls Diesel. “But they [then] became such beloved parts of the franchise. It was part of building that multicultural family.”
For a young Nicky Jam, watching from afar at a movie theater in Puerto Rico, hearing “Bandoleros” in Tokyo Drift — and then seeing Calderón and Don Omar onscreen in the next installment — was transformational. “As a reggaetón singer, I felt good envy,” he says. “I thought, ‘If they did it, I’m going to do it.’ But I never imagined I’d know Vin. I couldn’t even believe Don knew Vin! Vin Diesel knew something about our music?”
When the two met years later, on the set of XXX: Return of Xander Cage, they bonded immediately. “I know one thing he liked about me is I talked to him like I’m one of the guys from the hood,” says Nicky Jam. “There are fascinating similarities,” says Diesel, “and I immediately felt comfortable.”
Diesel didn’t audition Nicky Jam for the role — whether considering an actor or non-actor, he says, he relies on gut instinct. As for Cardi B’s brief cameo in F9, “Maybe my daughter had a little bit to do with that,” says Diesel of Pauline, a huge Cardi fan. “But Fast has a methodology that has to work so hard to move with integrity. I don’t ever put people in for no reason at all. It has to be organic.”
As Leysa, the head of an all-girl squad that stages a Dom Toretto rescue, Cardi B “absolutely fits the DNA of a Fast and Furious movie,” says Mike Knobloch, president of global film music and music publishing for Universal Pictures. “We are serving the needs of the film. If in doing so we’re working with artists who have an impactful social media following, then it’s a win across the board. But our first consideration is, we want the best possible, most relevant, coolest, cutting-edge music we can in the film.”
Regardless of how much screen time or how prominent a soundtrack placement they’re given, any affiliation with a franchise as massive as Fast and Furious pays dividends for artists — and, likewise, for Universal Pictures, which has smartly leveraged those guest artists’ appeal and social media capital. For 2017’s The Fate of the Furious, for example, the studio partnered in making a video for the Pitbull-J Balvin-Camila Cabello team-up “Hey Ma.” Following the release of the first F9 trailer in late January, Cardi B and Ozuna performed live in Miami during Super Bowl weekend. And Anitta’s song, “Furiosa,” was used in a featurette highlighting the film’s women.
“Furiosa,” in fact, was “specifically made for the film; I actually didn’t write it,” says Anitta. “They told me the concept was that of a strong, powerful, feminine message that spoke about strength and aggression in a positive way, and very closely related to the movie. And I loved it because it’s very me. You can feel the vibes of the speed, the racing, the acceleration of the cars.”
That approach to track list construction makes the franchise fairly unique: Instead of licensing existing tracks, it commissions most of its music, not just one end-credits focus track, to fit moments onscreen, even hosting songwriting camps specifically to create music for the films.
“When we’re still shooting the film, we start looking at the scenes,” says Rachel Levy, executive vp motion picture music for Universal. “Our searches [for artists] are really wide. We look at who’s relevant, who’s exciting. We host song camps. Since Mike and I started [working on the franchise], almost all the songs are bespoke for the films.”
The F9 track list includes top-tier hip-hop talent, from Lil Durk and Offset to Kevin Gates and Lil Tecca. But the Latin representation, which also includes Amenazzy, Myke Towers and Farruko, is just as strong — and yet still far from typical in Hollywood. According to the 2020 Motion Picture Association THEME Report, Latinos over-index in most entertainment consumption categories, including mobile viewing (22%, the second-biggest population) and electronic sell through/video on demand subscriptions.
Per capita attendance to film screenings in theaters is highest among Latinos, who represented 29% of all tickets purchased in 2020, up from 25% in 2019. Yet there remains a persistent and noticeable absence of Latinos in major Hollywood films — only 5% of speaking parts, according to a recent study on film representation by the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative.
“If you look at the average of the last three years, 26% of the opening weekend is made up of Latinos,” says Universal Pictures’ Castro. “They over-index for this particular franchise. The Fast franchise draws more Latinos than Avengers, Star Wars and Jurassic Park.”
Diesel prides himself on being attuned to that appeal from day one.
“I don’t think Hollywood was able to really assess how strong that Latin thirst for a film like this was,” he says, “because they don’t go into the barrios of Puerto Rico. They don’t reach out in the same way. But that has always been such a pure part of this franchise.”
And it’s that same Hollywood mindset that’s driving him to make more of his own music. “Hollywood has so many conditions; they don’t often give you opportunities to be totally free creatively,” Diesel continues. “In music, I can.”