“Do the conga!” is the lyrical phrase that conjures singer/songwriter Leslie Grace’s most meaningful music memories. The classic hit from Gloria Estefan and Miami Sound Machine was on steady rotation at weddings, quinceañeras, and other family gatherings throughout the musician’s childhood. Now, she shakes her feathers for her own rendition of the hit. “I grew up dancing to this song thinking I was on a stage, so it was nice to see it come full circle,” she says enthusiastically.
Making her mainstream debut in 2012 with a bachata spin on The Shirelles’ song, “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” Grace is no stranger to reassembling classics and giving them a new life. The 26-year-old Latin Grammy-nominated musician, born in the Bronx and raised in South Florida, premiered the new twist at the top of the year in conjunction with Bacardi’s international campaign, “CONGA Featuring You.” The track features the veritable Meek Mill and mixes ‘80s drum beats with a contemporary tropical rhythm, nestled into a timeless track that doesn’t ignore where it came from. “It was a huge responsibility and major pressure at the top,” Grace says. “I kept thinking, ‘I don’t want to mess this up.’ Mainly having Gloria’s blessing from the top, and Emilio’s [Estefan] blessing from the top, and the liberty they gave us to make it our own was what gave us the freedom to make something new, and to also pay homage to the original classic.”
While Grace began writing and producing the track with Boi-1da prior to the onset of COVID-19, completing and dropping new music in the midst of a pandemic has had its difficulties. At a distance, she added Meek Mill, and her team rose to the occasion, only to ice the cake with a vibrant music video. “We had to jump through so many hoops to pull this project together,” she shares. “There are so many people in that video you would think it was pre-pandemic.” Shot in Portugal, the video features scenes of busy streets, beautiful beaches, and animated nightlife. “This was the most people I have ever seen on set, so keeping everyone safe was our number one priority.”
Grace has been taking her time working on new music during quarantine as she awaits her film debut in Lin Manuel Miranda’s new film. In the adaptation of his Tony Award-winning stage musical, In the Heights, Grace plays Nina Rosario, the first woman from the Barrio to go to college, earning her the nickname “the one who made it out”. Alongside Anthony Ramos and Miranda himself, Grace joins the story of a bodega owner (Ramos) faced with the decision of closing his store and retiring to the Domincan Republic. “It’s crazy because we wrapped that film right before the world flipped upside down, so it has just been sitting in the can, and we are all just itching for people to see it,” she shares. There’s lots to itch for these days, but we’ll put this progressive and no doubt entertaining film at the top of our list. In the meantime? Let loose that Conga groove at home and in socially distanced outings, of course.
Photographed by Jonny Marlow
Styled by Dani + Emma
Hair: Clayton Hawkins
Makeup: Carola Gonzalez