By Bethonie Butler
Adassa, the voice behind fan-favourite Dolores Madrigal in Disney's "Encanto," has a showstopping verse on the musical's most popular number, "We Don't Talk About Bruno."
But in the weeks leading up to recording her velvety interlude that borders on rap - and no doubt helped propel the song up the Billboard Hot 100 - she wasn't sure she was going to be able to pull it off.
Just days after her audition last spring, the veteran reggaeton singer, who has performed alongside artists including Daddy Yankee, Pitbull, Ciara and Snoop Dogg, started feeling so sick that walking and talking at the same time left her so exhausted she'd faint.
Two emergency room trips provided frustratingly few answers, but doctors believed Adassa was suffering lingering issues from a Covid-19 infection a few months earlier.
When casting director Jamie Sparer Roberts called to tell her she got the role, Adassa's husband, a music producer who also serves as her manager, covered the phone's speaker with his hand and whispered, "We need to tell her that you can't do this."
But Dolores - a cousin of protagonist Mirabel with the power to hear even the slightest noises, down to a nervous eye twitch - was a dream role for Adassa.
Like her, the character was Afro-Latina, and the story was set in Colombia, the birthplace of Adassa's parents, who immigrated to the United States before she was born.
Adassa saw so much of herself in Dolores that in her interview with directors Jared Bush and Byron Howard, she pulled out photos of her mother, father and grandparents.
She told them how singing had been a dream for her mother and for her grandmother, but it had never come to fruition in an entertainment industry that has long rendered Afro-Latinos nearly invisible on stages and screens.
"I had to tell them this was three generations of wanting to have an opportunity and that I could not pass this moment without mentioning their names to them, and for them to hear their story and their struggle and what they came from," Adassa recalled in a recent interview with The Washington Post.
Thisclose to realizing that immense dream, Adassa told husband Gabriel Candiani that there was no way she could pass up the opportunity.
"We're going to take this and you call them if I'm dead," she told him. Still suffering from symptoms so debilitating she had drawn up a will, Adassa says she could only muster a brief response to the casting director on the other end of the line:
"Thank you so much. When do I start?" She spent the next few weeks trying to get her strength back, conserving as much energy as possible while taking intermittent walks to rebuild her stamina.
"I was like Rocky for those three weeks." She even took to talking to her kids - she and Candiani have seven children - in hushed tones.
@adassaofficial Q&A “How did the Dolores squeak come to be?” #doloresmadrigal #adassa #disney #lafamiliamadrigal #answeringquestions #wedonttalkaboutbruno ♬ original sound - ADASSA
When it came time to start recording - with Howard, Bush, co-director-writer Charise Castro Smith and songwriter Lin-Manuel Miranda attending virtually because of Covid restrictions - Adassa said, "I was so ready and just to see them there gave me adrenaline." Before recording her "Bruno" verse, the directors told her they had been thinking that Dolores's speaking voice should be a bit more "intimate."
After all she had done to prepare for this moment, Adassa knew she could deliver.
Miranda, though, was stunned, as seen in a clip Adassa shared recently to her TikTok account.
Miranda had expected her to sing the verse slightly higher, but she reasoned the soft-spoken Dolores would sing the verse like she was passing along a secret - which, in essence, she is - and he was game.
Bush recently shared a screenshot of the text Miranda sent him after Adassa nailed the verse in one take: "She came to SLAY."
"Encanto" and its soundtrack (currently No. 1 on the Billboard 200 albums chart) have occupied vast Internet space since the movie arrived on Disney+ last month (following a No. 1 debut at a box office still reeling from the pandemic).
Adassa only joined TikTok - home to billions of "Encanto"-themed videos - last week and has already amassed more than 350 000 followers.
Seeing fans cover the film's songs, cosplay as its characters and unpack the generational trauma of the Madrigals has been one of the best parts of her experience.
Incidentally, the Internet has been part of Adassa's path to playing Dolores since she first heard murmurings of a Disney movie about a Latino family.
In 2020, as the first details about the film and Miranda's involvement were emerging, Adassa and Candiani were on vacation in Miami. Light was streaming in through the window and the couple decided to film an impromptu video for a song called "Porque Ella Y No Yo??" ("Why Her and Not Me?").
The video got a modest number of views but one of them turned out to be from a Disney casting associate, who messaged the singer to see if she might be interested in auditioning for a then-undisclosed project.
Suspecting it was "Encanto," Adassa kept tabs on the movie through one of her favourite YouTube vloggers, an Australian influencer who goes by Aussie Disney Girl.
It was through that Disney-obsessed account that Adassa first learned of a potential new "Encanto" character, an Afro-Latina woman who was "socially awkward and anxious" with serious singing chops.
Like parents across the globe, Adassa, whose youngest child is 2, has seen "Encanto" many times and still gets emotional watching it.
The film has been praised for its Afro-Latino representation, which is still rare in mainstream depictions of Latinos.
She is quick to defend Miranda, who was criticized last summer for featuring mostly White and light-skinned Latinos in the film version of his "In the Heights," noting that Leslie Grace, who has a prominent role in the film, is Afro-Latina and that Miranda - affiliated with no less than four film productions last year - is only one person.
"You're asking for the only guy championing to do better," she said. "It's like, can somebody else help out here? ... Seeing that there are talents that have not been given an opportunity to shine - so many people out there that are just waiting for their shot."
Her late grandmother would have cried, Adassa said, seeing Dolores, "a morenita," (brown-skinned woman) sitting at the table sharing a meal with her lighter-skinned cousin as she does in several "Encanto" scenes. Dolores "wasn't serving the food," the singer said.
"She was sitting, eating at the table with her. How powerful of a scene is that - how powerful that we have made strides that I wish were there 20 years ago . . . but this is our moment. This is the moment that we all shine."
Adassa said it wasn't until after the cast gathered at El Capitan theater in November to celebrate the film's premiere that she told the directors and Miranda about all that she had endured before recording.
"I learned to go into that character voice by this unfortunate event," she said, recalling the weeks she spent whispering to her family in an effort to sustain her voice and energy. "
Sometimes things that happen in your life can be a catalyst for something else that will take you in a direction you never expected."