The house of José Osorio (Medellín, 36 years old) there is not a single object that reminds him that he is J Balvin. One of the main tips that her psychologist gave her to fight anxiety was to separate her identity in two, the man and the star, so that one does not sabotage the other. It is not entirely clear which one caters to Icon from New York, reclining on a couch and wearing sunglasses, via Zoom. It may not be either one.
“What I want is to be a legend.” With this declaration of intent, in 2015, he got the president of his record company, Universal Music Latino, to pay attention to the project. J Balvin. Since then, this reggaeton player has been fulfilling his mission: in 2017, My people it became the first song in Castilian to reach the world number 1 in listeners; he ended 2019 as the most viewed singer on YouTube thanks to With height, his duet with Rosalía, and in 2020, he was the third most listened to artist on the planet on Spotify, only behind Bad Bunny and Drake. On The boy from Medellín, the documentary that Amazon Prime Video has just released, Balvin explains that his dream was always “to be someone.”
Had you not achieved this success, would you be nobody?
One hundred by one hundred. That is always the constant struggle. Music becomes your life and you prioritize it above, far above, being itself. The pressure does not drop. It is getting bigger and bigger. But we continue. The word resilience helps a lot. It is adapting to all those changes and difficult moments. Get the most out of them even if you don’t see it at the time. Later in the future we will understand why.
He speaks in slow, calm sentences almost to the rhythm of his breathing, very much in contrast to his musical cadences on stage. He himself admits that he chose a profession and, above all, bad ambitions for someone who suffers from so much anxiety. Anything short of legend will seem like a failure. “What I want is to inspire the world,” he insists. “If you study the legends, they made more than music. They touched on topics that few dared to speak about: Madonna, for example, with the LGTBQ community. It was my turn to mental health ”.
In 2015, she publicly shared her problems with anxiety, panic attacks, and depression. So it was not usual for an artist to be so vulnerable, much less confess to having gone two months without getting out of bed, crying every night and having come out of the hole with the help of medication and meditation (and coloring books). “Already by being an artist one is crazy,” he declares. “It is part of the mission to give light and to give hope, to remove that taboo. At that time the situation was like that of AIDS long ago. Nobody spoke it. People did not feel socially accepted. And this is the evil of this decade, mental health diseases. I think we have saved more lives than any psychiatrist. Music has a very great power over the masses ”.
The vocation came to him in three acts. One, when his father lost all the family assets due to a bad business: José was a child and understood the importance of money. Two, when he heard Gasoline by Daddy Yankee at age 20 and swapped Nirvana and AC / DC CDs for reggaeton mp3s. And three, when he visited Times Square in New York, he saw the giant screens and decided he wanted to go as far as the guys on them: Jay-Z, Puff Daddy, Kanye West …
At the university, the Eafit of Medellín, Balvin studied to preside over a record company one day. He ended up betting on a musical career, which does not mean that he has stopped thinking like an entrepreneur. In its beginnings it was put as a nickname The business. He wants to be the first billionaire Latino artist not because he needs the money (“it’s not like having two jets private instead of one ”) but to show that if Jay-Z can, so can he.
He still does not sing in English despite being bilingual. It has not been necessary. The Latin public feels less and less self-conscious, especially Colombians like him. “I never had any feeling of inferiority regarding what I was doing because I knew very clearly what was going to happen. It was a game of conquering. From Medellín to Bogotá, then Rumania, Bulgaria, Peru, Bolivia, it was watering, it was watering and now … it was too late to stop it. It is a sound that we have given a status that it did not have before, putting it in fashion and in the marketing so that it represents the Latin culture as it has to be. With collaborations that had not been seen with Latinos before, ”he celebrates.
In 2019, he contacted Nike to propose a project: the Air Jordan 1 Balvin sneakers, the firm’s first collaboration with a Latin artist. They sold out in a matter of hours. Another example of the industry’s unprecedented recognition of Latin music: that Primavera Sound of the same year. “They had never had reggaeton at that festival,” recalls Balvin. “It set an impressive precedent. The process of going from disrepute to global respect has been very nice. “
In the United States, where he lives, where he has been an illegal immigrant who painted rooftops in Miami, he led a similar shift. Latinos make up 18.5% of the US population, according to the April 2020 census. Why was their culture still seen as a fringe movement? “We have had to re-educate, or explain to the world the global impact we have. And we no longer have to. It’s like when the Pope asked forgiveness for the Crusades. ‘This is not like that, it goes beyond what you think ”, he compares. “It is not just a question of music but of influencing culture, fashion and society. It is a question of power ”.
This plan of world conquest required reinforcing the troops. In 2015, she crossed paths with Justin Bieber in Los Angeles and, after paying her respects, turned to her true target: her manager. In 2019, Scooter Braun signed Balvin as a client and placed him in the intermediate show of the 2020 Super Bowl alongside Shakira, Jennifer Lopez and Bad Bunny. It was seen by 103 million people in the US alone. J Balvin performed with a sweatshirt that said Made in Medellín. When the streets of his city were filled with violence, many accused him of exploiting concepts such as Medellin Colombia O My people as merely cosmetic emblems.
Balvin himself faces in The boy from Medellín that conflict, that of a privileged artist before an audience that has nothing to eat. “Without a doubt, the situation in my country is one of a complicated government full of much corruption. You also have to put the chip on work and discipline and not leave everything to the Government. I always dreamed of doing my thing and not leaving it to anyone … But it is true that there are people who do not have what to eat or have studies and they are within their rights “, he argues.
The Super Bowl show was the last major global event before the pandemic. The confinement and the harsh symptoms that he suffered when he contracted the virus led him to relapse into depression. Composing a reggaeton record like the one he has yet to release was not an attractive plan, but the planet does not conquer itself: “It was not easy. Not all the letters that came out were the most partying. However, there were days when you did feel connected to that more upbeat music and went out. It was a bit more dense, but we adapted to the change ”.
Balvin is walking a path that did not exist before he started walking. Vulnerability, sentiment and vanity were forbidden for the men of reggaeton. By the time he released his first album, The family, in 2013, the genre had fallen into the formula and collaborations dance with American artists. Its greatest exponent was Pitbull. Balvin himself wore jeans, white or black T-shirts and cowboy hats. Since 2018 her clothes, as colorful as her music, have been advised by the visionary Murcian stylist Sita Abellán. Together, they designed a line for Guess last year with which he became, once again, the first Latino to collaborate with the firm. That visual identity of explosion of joy culminated in Colors, his last published album, whose cover and aesthetics were the work of the Japanese artist Takashi Murakami.
It must have been liberating to drop weights of obsolete masculinities.
No not at all. I feel that it is a duty, I came to the world to serve. It’s also nice when someone comes up to you and says: ‘Thank you for talking about this, you saved my life, I thought I was alone and that I was crazy but now I am medicated and I understand that I have a mental health problem and it is already under control.’ Music nailed, in quotes, it can have any. But that the power of being heard is something else.
With great power comes great responsibility. Great responsibility can lead to great anxiety. José Osorio is aware that his creation, J Balvin, is a company with a titanic mission: to change the global image of Latinos, generate billions of dollars, save lives by destigmatizing mental illness.
Do you sometimes imagine what would become of you if you had not created J Balvin?
No, not anymore. Too late for that.
If the one who says the latter is J Balvin, the phrase is an imperative. José seems to regain command later, when the coloring books are mentioned to him. “Yes. Coloring helps me. I have to do it again. Thank you for reminding me … thank you ”.
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.