Ambassador of Reggaeton
Colombian José Álvaro Osorio – or J Balvin, as he’s better known – is a driving force in the world of reggaeton and urban music. He has transformed the genre and ascended to the pantheon of Latin music.
Text: JOSÉ DOMINGO CHEYRE @cheyre
His YouTube videos have garnered more than a billion views, and he has more than eight million followers on Instagram. These numbers have cemented his status as a musical icon who transcends his Latin American origins. But what made J Balvin a worldwide phenomenon in reggaeton and urban music?
José Álvaro Osorio was born 30 years ago in Medellín. By the time he was 15 – long before he was baptized J Balvin by the rapper Fat Al – the electric guitar, drums, and bass were already providing the soundtrack to his life. A schoolboy with dreams of becoming a musician, he made his first forays into the music world.
A fan of thrash metal from U.S. superstars Metallica, he spent his school days in Medellín moving from one band to the next, in search of a musical identity that he never found in those strident chords. And gradually, the young Colombian artist found himself listening to more and more rap music.
If You Need Reggaeton, Go for It!
Rock was out. Rap was in. Surrounded by the incessant bustle of New York City while on a student exchange program, Balvin embraced rap and urban music. The combination proved perfect for revamping the Latin America dembow, with its rhythmic base, and threatened the hegemony of the bump and grind of perreo.
“It has been sweet because I’ve always listened to what I like and enjoy. I’ve gotten a lot out of rock music, and now I’m into what I’m doing 100 percent.”
The numbers back up his success story. His latest single, “Ginza,” has topped the Latin charts in the United States for more than 20 weeks. Meanwhile, the YouTube video for the song has already been played an amazing 400 million times. His coronation was complete in 2015, when J Balvin took home the Latin Grammy for Best Urban Artist.
“If you need reggaeton, go for it! / Keep dancing and don’t stop,” goes the chorus to “Ginza” – this song has become a nightclub anthem not only in Latin America, but around the world. The screams of fans young and not so young start the second the first chords of the song ring out, proof not only of the Colombian’s massive stardom, but the world’s ardor for the new face of reggaeton, a genre that was begging to be revamped.
Why is the world now dancing to the rhythms of Latin America? What’s so special about the music from this part of the world?
“I think it’s very contagious. It invites happiness. And although some people don’t understand the lyrics, the melodies are really catchy. And that lets people from all over enjoy the music.”
We are talking with J Balvin in Miami, and as our conversation continues, he becomes meditative. “There are so many musical milestones in my career, you know. But having sung with Justin Bieber in Los Angeles was very important,” he says, in the wake of the first live presentation of their collaborative song at Calibash 2016, an event that brought the biggest stars in urban music to L.A., including artists the caliber of Snoop Dogg.
Why are English-speaking singers more interested in working with Latin American artists? The region’s reggaeton stars have definitely staked out a position in the global market. Daddy Yankee, Nicky Jam, and Balvin himself are among the world leaders when it comes to MP3 downloads, YouTube views, and streaming rankings. “We’re a global power,” says Balvin emphatically.
His video “Ay Vamos” already has more than 745 million YouTube views, making it one of the most popular videos on the Website.
I Told You So
The music and rhythms are progressing and evolving. With a look far from the bling that defined past reggaeton stars, J Balvin is leading a revolution within the genre. Why? He offers a fresh style that has charmed audiences beyond the region, with impressive success in countries like Romania and Italy. Markets that once seemed impossible for urban artists from this part of the planet are hungry for more.
Nevertheless, when I ask J Balvin why he is a worldwide success, he obliquely observes, “Nothing is free.” It has been ten years since he released his first song, “Panas,” in which he talks about the importance of friendship. And it has been six years since he produced his first album, Real (which means both “royal” and “real” in English). It has been a long road on this musical adventure, one that has turned a man into an icon.
As he says in his song “Yo te lo dije” (I Told You So): “I’m J Balvin and the rest you already know.” in