Colombia’s musicians step in to take Puerto Rico’s reggaeton crown

Led by artists such as J Balvin, the country is breathing new life into the blend of hip hop and Caribbean music

The reign of Despacito by Puerto Ricans Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee, looks set to be ended by Colombia, whose musicians are reinterpreting reggaeton, blending the form with pop, electronic and traditional influences.

Shakira and Maluma dance to their hit 'Chantaje'
Shakira and Maluma dance to their hit 'Chantaje'

Leading the takeover is J. Balvin, from Medellín, who in August,  replaced Despacito, which had held the position for 14 weeks straight, as the number one song on Spotify’s world list. Not that he is surprised: he says he anticipated the success of his album, Mi gente, or My people, a fusion of reggaeton and electronic music: “I make music that entertains, the world loves me,” he says modestly.

Meanwhile, since the beginning of the year, a Colombian reggaeton song has been within the top 50 most streamed songs internationally on Spotify.

José Álvaro Osorio (J. Balvin’s real name) took on the task of rebuilding latino pop at a young age in Medellín, a city with a strong alternative music scene, along with a love for tango. “I think I am doing what Drake did for the industry,” he said in a recent interview in The New York Times. “I arrived with different melodies and lyrics, from a different place... reggaeton is from Puerto Rico; Drake is from Canada.” .

But he insists he has not betrayed Daddy Yankee, the leader of the first wave of reggaeton. He says he has spent a decade learning from the master and adapting his style to an Internet audience. He does not modify the base of the rhythm, instead combining it with tropical sounds,  delivering beats to pop icons like Pharrell Williams.

The reformulation of the genre has brought success all over the world, from Greenland Britain. From 2014 to June 2017, reggaeton listeners increased by 119% on Spotify. Pop rose 13% in the same period. “Colombia and Puerto Rico have heard about 7,500 years of reggaeton,” according to the streaming company when they add the total hours of listening. “While the rest of the world, approximately 140,000 years.”

“Reggaeton has not had to go through formats like vinyl or cassette, it is part of the digital era of music,” explains Chucky García, a music journalist and artistic programmer for some of the largest music festivals in Colombia. “It's a phenomenon that allows you to speak to this generation.”

Another leading figure in Colombia’s reggaeton takeover is Maluma, also from Medellín, whose music is more faithful to the genre’s Puerto Rican origins, including its controversial misoginism. The Colombian artist composed the song Cuatro babys, which has more then 700 million views on YouTube, along with its fair share of critics for its sexist language.

Reggaeton has not had to go through formats like vinyl or cassette, it is part of the digital era of music Chucky García

Four months later, Maluma tried to make amends with the Felices los 4 song, where the men and women he describes are equally unfaithful. The track reached number one on the US Latin Billboard chart and has been among the top 50 spots on Spotify’s global list since its release. It has more than 870 million views on YouTube, prompting a salsa version from Marc Anthony.

“For the last 50 years Colombia’s music has been marked by tropical music, and Reggaeton is just another form,” says García.

“Latino music found the perfect dance hit in urban areas,” adds Alberto Marchena, director of Los 40 Principales, the PRISA Group radio station which has declared itself a “reggaeton-free zone.”

“We started the strategy about two years ago, because the reggaeton that we were getting was very strong in tone. We are an inclusive station that respects women and the LGBTI community,” he says.

“I don’t think other Colombian music is being played less as a result of reggaeton,” says García. “Take cumbia, for example, which has been embedded in the cultures of Mexico and Peru for decades. People listen to reggaeton on the radio, but it is not part of popular culture in the same way as cumbia. In any event, Colombia, more than ever, has huge musical diversity.”

English version by Debora Almeida.


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