Jordan Levin

J Balvin’s attack on Trump thrust him in spotlight

J Balvin opening for Pitbull and Enrique Iglesias at Miami’s American Airlines Arena last October
J Balvin opening for Pitbull and Enrique Iglesias at Miami’s American Airlines Arena last October MIAMI HERALD STAFF

Donald Trump’s incendiary remarks calling Mexicans and Latinos rapists and criminals prompted a string of major companies, including Univision, NBC and Macy’s, to sever ties with the billionaire GOP presidential candidate back in June. Their actions propelled them into political controversy and set off threats of lawsuits from Trump.

But the risk they took was small compared to the leap taken by J Balvin, a rising reggaeton singer who announced — before Univision or anyone else — that he would not perform during the Miss USA pageant, co-owned by Trump, because of his statements.

“The decision took me about two seconds,” Balvin said from his home city of Medellin, Colombia. The appearance on Miss USA, on NBC, would have been his first on a mainstream U.S. TV network. “It wasn’t like ‘let’s talk about this guys, and see how it’s gonna be, what’s good and what’s bad.’ No, it was personal, as a human being, I felt disrespected. This wasn’t about an artist. I just did what I wanted because I felt bad about what he said. I did it with my heart.

“It did surprise me when I started to watch the news,” says Balvin, who opens his first U.S. tour Wednesday at the James L. Knight Center in downtown Miami. “It turned into this big situation. I wasn’t expecting anyone to follow me. I just did what I wanted.”

Balvin’s decision broke in an online article on Billboard Magazine the evening of June 24. The next morning, Univision, the United States’ most powerful Spanish-language media organization, announced that it was severing ties with Trump and would not air the Miss USA or Miss Universe pageants, which Trump owned until selling the Miss Universe organization last week. NBC and others soon followed, setting off the stream of controversy and attention that has propelled Trump to the front of the GOP primary race and made him a daily media flash point.

The Billboard article’s author, Leila Cobo, Billboard’s executive director of content and programming for Latin music, had reached out to a number of top Latin acts for a reaction to Trump’s statements, in which he said Mexicans coming to the United States were criminals, rapists and brought in drugs. Balvin, 30, and just starting to break into the competitive ranks of U.S. Latin pop music, was the only one who responded.

“It was very gutsy,” says Cobo. “I was impressed. It was Miss USA on national television in English. … It could have been career making. In retrospect I think it was great for him. But he couldn’t have known that then. It could have gone either way. Once [Balvin] spoke up it opened the doors for others to speak up.”

Balvin’s actions were covered by Entertainment Weekly, AP, People and other major outlets. Other, more established Latin music acts, including Ricky Martin, who wrote an op-ed for Univision, and Marc Anthony, who has also been attacking the GOP leader, followed. Earlier this month, Emilio Estefan announced he was putting together an all-star group of Latin musicians and personalities to record We’re All Mexican, although Estefan said the song was meant as a statement of Latin pride and not a direct response to Trump.

Born and raised in Medellin by middle-class parents (his father is an economist, his mother studied medicine and his sister is a dentist), Balvin is a fan of U.S. culture and music. At the end of high school, he studied in a small town in Oklahoma on an exchange program, then lived with family in New York for eight months.

“I’m still in love with New York. It’s like a dream, there’s so much to do, so much culture,” Balvin says. Though he had been playing guitar since age 12 and is a fan of Colombia and Medellin’s rich native musical scene, he found his path in New York in hip-hop.

“It was chemistry,” Balvin says. “I really made a strong connection, not just to the music, but the way they dress, the graffiti, breakdance, the way you express yourself — the whole urban culture is amazing to me.”

Balvin’s music is a blend of reggaeton, pop, Colombian music, electronica and hip-hop, with slippery, syncopated rhythms and infectious melodies. Following the release of his first single in 2013, in 2014 he began breaking onto the U.S. Latin music scene, which has become largely closed to all but a trickle of new talent. This year, Balvin’s first album, La Familia, has yielded several hit singles, including 6 AM, Ay Vamos and Ginza — whose video ranked alongside those of Taylor Swift and Justin Bieber as one of Vevo’s top five videos. He has become a major social media player, with 3 million Instagram fans and more than a billion views on YouTube.

He’s influenced by his native Colombia and American pop. “Colombian culture has a lot of music — it’s in our blood, it’s in our DNA,” he says. But he’s also a fan of Kanye West, Rihanna, Drake and Bieber (whom he taught some Colombian slang when they appeared at the opening ceremony of the Special Olympics World Games).

“The only way I’m not going to follow other people in reggaeton is if I listen to other things,” Balvin says. “I get other melodies or sounds and put them in reggaeton and make it different.”

Balvin identifies as Latino and as part of young hip-hop generation. Both aspects of his cultural identity drove him to speak out against Trump.

“I’m not into politics,” he says. “This wasn’t about politics, this was about racism. My generation knows how it is, and talking about racism is not OK. I don’t judge. The only thing I judge is the way he said this. I know what’s going on, I know we have problems with drugs and violence. But don’t represent us with just this one small thing.

“I’ve been working hard, traveling around the world, and the more I travel, the more I know my Latin culture. He offended the whole Latin community.”

For now, Balvin is focused on, and thrilled about, the imminent launch of his first solo tour (he opened for a Pitbull and Enrique Iglesias tour last spring). His opening act is teenage Mexican-American pop singer Becky G, who released her own proud response to Trump, We Are Mexico, in late June. But Balvin says she was chosen before any of the political controversy erupted.

“I’m super happy, super anxious, super excited — everything is super,” he says. “I’m just a regular guy trying to make my dream come true like everybody else. I’ve been working for 10 years now. I’m enjoying the ride. I gotta enjoy the whole climb, the whole way up, enjoy it and try to understand the good and the bad and everything.”

If You Go

What: J Balvin and Becky G in concert.

When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday.

Where: James L. Knight Center, 400 SE Second Ave., Miami.

Info: $29.50 to $59.50, or 800-745-3000.