Director Matthew Heineman – author of documentaries about ISIS in the Middle East, the opioid crisis in the United States, or drug traffickers on the northern border of Mexico – premieres this Friday a documentary on Amazon Prime on a subject in which fewer weapons are involved or drugs as usual: the reggaeton of the Colombian José Álvaro Osorio, known as J Balvin. On The Boy from Medellín (The boy from Medellín), the only thing that can explain such a twist is that Heineman does not really come to offer a discussion about perreo. He comes to ask a more awkward and more political question for his fans. When Colombia is experiencing the most violent protests in years against the government, who does J Balvin sing to?
“And if the people ask for reggaeton / I’m not going to deny it, ”He sings in the first seconds of the documentary Balvin before an euphoric audience in Mexico, in a film with spectacular drone shots and impeccable sound editing. “I am a Colombian who is proud to lead a country and take my land to other parts of the world. I am not from the left, I am not from the right, but I always walk straight not slow”, He then says to the audience, while the pop melody of The song, with the Puerto Rican Bad Bunny, one of his most listened to songs.
The problem is that, at the time the documentary was made, it was difficult to define oneself politically as what in Colombia is called “a lukewarm”: a guy who doesn’t take sides. The film follows J Balvin at the end of November 2019, when a massive national strike against the government of Iván Duque started, and the reggaeton player was preparing to fulfill a dream that he had been saving for 15 years: to appear at the Atanasio Girardot stadium, the platform bigger for him in Medellín. “I have a head, asshole, that exploits me,” he nervously confesses over the phone to the mayor of the city, Federico Gutiérrez. Balvin does not want a traditional concert: he wants fireworks, he wants to have Bad Bunny and Nicky Jam and Jhay Cortez on the stage, he wants to “transform this concert into a very hijueputa”.
The mayor, however, called him because he was concerned about public order: the protests are massive, the roadblocks recurrent, the concerts in the country were being canceled. A subject that J Balvin constantly tries to ignore. When he reads the messages that his fans send him on Instagram or Twitter, he looks at the screen of his mobile like a confused child. “Everyone is waiting for Balvin to say something important about what is happening in Colombia and he goes out to say that he is just an artist,” a tweeter claims.
The great fear of the singer when there are serious complaints of police violence against the protesters is, really, that the concert will fall. Balvin does not want to hear about the protests, he does not want to see them, he does not want an obstacle to exist for what he believes will be the best concert in Medellín, the city where he was born in 1985. But there is no truce. Journalists ask him why he is silent on the subject. “Our job is to entertain,” Balvin responds, and local rappers besiege him.
“People are feeling like you are hiding,” rapper Mañas Ru-Fino tells Balvin at one point. “What the peeled people are asking for is that they be able to study minimally, that you go to health and be treated minimally and not send you two acetaminophen tablets. Do you get me? Anything you can do to help, believe me it will help you, because you are killing the peeled people ”. Regarding not speaking out, Balvin argues that he does not understand the political issue, that artists have no obligation to talk about demonstrations, that he is there only to “give light to the world.”
Heineman intermingles Balvin’s political dilemma by explaining not only his intimate life, but his symbolic power. J Balvin is the singer with the most nominations in 2020 for the Latin Grammys, the one who managed to position himself in the hegemony that the Puerto Rican reggaeton artists had, the one who achieved a hit per year in duets with Rosalía (With Height), Cardi B (I like it), o Pharrell Williams (Safari), and who even Barack Obama talks about in his speeches (“Who doesn’t like J Balvin?”, said the former president). He is also an artist who has spoken openly about his depression and anxiety attacks, and the documentary hovers several times in the idea that he feels divided between José, the upper-middle-class boy in Medellín who is obsessed with his image, and the product he created and made him a millionaire. “When I’m on stage, I become someone else, my alter ego, J Balvin,” says José.
The only omission in the documentary, which the director does not even consider as a hypothesis, is if behind the fear of the singer there is actually, in addition to something, someone, like Álvaro Uribe Vélez, the popular former president of Colombia who promoted the current president Iván Duque . J Balvin had no dilemmas, years before, in taking a political position in front of Donald Trump when he withdrew from a concert at the Miss USA pageant in 2015 in protest at his racist comments about Mexicans. Speaking out against Trump could generate likes and followers. The cost among fans was not very high. But Medellín is the most Uribe capital in Colombia and speaking out against Uribe was not well received there by the crowds during his rule (2002-2010). A cost that someone like J Balvin, who can’t stand not being loved by everyone, would have a hard time digesting.
The documentary lands on Amazon Prime when Colombia is again on strike against Duque and there are reports that the police have killed several protesters and injured dozens of young people. Against the excessive violence, celebrities inside and outside the country have spoken out: soccer players Radamel Falcao or Jaime Rodríguez, Barranquilla Shakira, African-American actress Viola Davis, rockers from the American bands Garbage and Rage Against the Machine. And yes, J Balvin too. “To all colleagues and superstars, please help me and help us spread the message, we must stop this senseless civil war,” he wrote on Wednesday on his Instagram account, where he has posted videos of violence against protesters.
It would be a spoiler unforgivable to reveal what changed in José Álvaro Osorio’s mind from 2019 to 2021 so that now his alter ego, J Balvin, pray for the support of the artists. But part of the answer has a name: Dilan Cruz, an 18-year-old boy who was murdered by the police just days before the concert in Medellín. “He didn’t die, they killed him,” the singer told a friend at one point. The death of Dilan Cruz was an iconic death that sparked the political consciousness of hundreds of Colombians currently marching, and also helped the 35-year-old boy from Medellín finally mature.
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Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.