the 1980s marked a pivotal era in the rise of latino english-speaking recording pop artists who achieved mainstream success. this period witnessed the emergence of gloria estefan, menudo, and lisa lisa & the cult jam broke down barriers by blending dance-pop, soul, and electro music with latin rhythms. this captivating fusion created a path for a generation of young latino artists, including a teenage brenda k. starr to leave an indelible mark in the tapestry of pop music.
born brenda joy kaplan in new york city, a chance meeting with singer, actor, and activist harry belafonte on the set of the 1984 hip-hop movie “beat street,” landed a teenage brenda a role in the movie. the cameo garnered the attention of producer arthur baker who helped starr secure a record deal with mirage records.
brenda’s debut single, the pulsating “picking up the pieces,” was released in the summer of 1985 as the latin freestyle music genre was still taking shape. the song reached #10 billboard’s dance chart and #83 on the r&b chart. the success of the single made brenda one of the first latino breakout stars of the still-emerging freestyle genre.
by 1987, brenda signed with MCA records and released her eponymous sophomore effort. the album generated three charting singles, “breakfast in bed” (#6 latin, #18 dance), “what you see is what you get” (#6 dance, #24 pop), and the quiet storm classic “i still believe.” released in february 1988, the single ignited radio and propelled into the top 20 on billboard’s hot 100 and adult contemporary charts.
before i began to buy music with the money i earned from babysitting, i’d record my favorite songs from off the radio. whew, if that isn’t a generation x testimony, i don’t know what is. but i digress.
one of the songs i remember recording was puerto rican pop singer brenda k. starr’s 1988 hit “i still believe.” i was living with my late aunt blanca in the spring of 1988, and we listened to power 99 fm’s quiet storm every night to record songs. one night, when “i still believe” began to play, blanca screamed, “record it!”
as the 90s dawned, brenda would experience personal and professional setbacks. the commercial viability of latin freestyle began to dissipate. many latino pop/dance artists found themselves banished from top 40 radio, and despite brenda’s multi-genre success, she had become primarily known as just the “friend who helped mariah carey secure a record contract.”
in the mid-90s, former latin freestyle artists india and marc anthony had successfully pivoted into salsa music as younger audiences re-discovered the genre. this opened a lane for brenda’s re-emergence as a salsa music sensation. her 1997 cover of myriam hernandez’s “herida” topped billboard’s tropical chart in the spring of 1997.
almost a decade after that summer with my aunt blanca brenda’s music would have another family member screaming at me. in early 1997, my cousin evy called me at work to ask me if i remembered brenda k. starr. and of course, i did. she then said, “she is doing salsa now” and began to play “herida” over the phone. up until that point, salsa music was heard at family parties. but it took only one listen to brenda’s version of “herida” for me to run out and purchase her “te sigo esperando” album.
brenda’s album resonated with a new generation of fans and further showcased her ability to transcend and excel in multiple genres. in the years that followed, brenda continued to release and chart singles on the latin charts, including a 1999 salsa version of “i still believe.”
brenda k. starr’s musical odyssey continues. her journey from latin freestyle to her reinvention as salsa songstress has remained an enduring presence in her musical prowess. in just the past year, she has released two slammin’ freestyle tracks, “the only one i love” and “always remember,” and a pair of soaring salsa tracks, “quedate” and “soy otra mujer.”
a couple of months ago, i texted a friend a link to brenda’s latest freestyle single “always remember.” it is only now, as i write this, that i recognize how music brenda’s music has been something i shared with family and friends – for 35 years! whew, my gawd.
brenda k. starr is a luminary preserving the sounds of both latin freestyle and salsa music, genres with strong roots in puerto rican communities. her musical journey is a testament that great artists are not confined to boundaries. instead, they adapt, evolve, and continue contributing to the ever-evolving sound symphony. this is why i still believe in brenda k. starr.