J Balvin’s Struggle to Break into Puerto Rican Reggaetón
J Balvin recently shared his personal experience with challenging Puerto Rico’s reggaetón primacy. The Colombian compared himself to Drake and said they both were cultural outsiders in their musical genres at one time.
In 2017, when Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee's “Despacito” had its 35-week-run atop the U.S. Latin Songs chart halted by J Balvin's “Mi Gente,” some fans of reggaetón began to ask: If a song isn't made by Puerto Ricans, can it be reggaetón?
In an interview with Puerto Rico's Rapeton this week, J Balvin, who's Colombian, opened up about the difficulty he had being accepted as part of the genre, which began its global takeover from San Juan. The media is, in part, to blame.
“The media only understood reggaetón as Puerto Rican. It was a bit hard to win the acceptance of the media. But once I earned the credibility from the media, it was even harder to earn that acceptance from artists.”
He paralleled his experience with another well-known artist: “That's why I identified so much with Drake's story. In the sense that he is from Canada, Jewish and comes from a different culture that isn't hip-hop. And the same way, I'm here. Different culture, different country, different social class and a different way to express myself.”
Still, when people think reggaetón, they think Puerto Rico, and this wasn't lost on the “Mi Gente” singer. Earning respect in the genre was a challenge that he knowingly embraced. He wanted to be accepted by those Puerto Rican artists that he admired and is now friends with.
At the same time, one can only consider reggaetón solely Puerto Rican by neglecting its multicultural roots. Panamanians pioneered “reggae en Español,” which led to a mix of these influences with hip-hop in the '90s, known as “underground.” This eventually culminated in a rap culture and sound popularized by artists in San Juan, namely DJ Playero and DJ Negro. Puerto Ricans, with more access to resources and markets than, say, Dominicans had with the similar dembow sound, were able to lead the crossover into the early 2000s.
Balvin's come up in Colombia didn't resemble that of Puerto Rican artists because he didn't have to do battles, like Daddy Yankee and Don Omar did in the crossover era. Colombia lacked a similar urban music community, so early adopters like Balvin had to develop it: opening doors to Colombian artists. They became colleagues and lifted up one another, he explained in the interview.
Music is ever-changing but always built upon previous sounds. What started as an act of rebellion by Panamanians of Jamaican descent who wanted to embrace their roots has evolved to a genre heard worldwide.
Fittingly, in November, Balvin teamed up with Tainy and Sky Romipiendo to deliver an homage to the pioneers during the crossover wave, like Tego Calderon, Daddy Yankee, Don Omar and Luny Tunes Mas Flow albums. The song title: “Reggaeton,” of course.