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The Rise of J Balvin: How Colombia's Reggaeton Superstar Became a Global Icon

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2020 belongs to J Balvin. 

In the seven years since unleashing his breakout single, “6 AM,” Balvin has solidified himself as an international superstar. The Colombian reggaetonero is set to receive the Global Icon Award at this year’s Premio Lo Nuestro awards commemorating his contributions to globalizing Latin music. 

The honor comes on the heels of Balvin and his longtime friend and collaborator, Bad Bunny’s, surprise cameo during the Super Bowl LIV halftime show headlined by Jennifer Lopez and Shakira. 

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There’s no denying Balvin’s star power, especially when it comes to pioneering moments in music. JAY-Z even fanned out with pride after Balvin’s guest spot at the Super Bowl, which also marked the first time that two Latinas headlined the big show. 

Like Shakira and Lopez, the “Morado” rapper is no stranger to making history on a major stage. In 2019, he became the first Latino artist to headline Lollapalooza, and his ever-expanding list of credits includes winning four Latin GRAMMYs and Latin American Music Awards, five Billboard Latin Music Awards, an American Music Award, two MTV Video Music Awards, a GRAMMY nod for his guest feature on Cardi B’s hit single, “I Like It,” and collaborating with Beyoncé on the remix to his mega-single, “Mi Gente.”  

“I make music for my dreams and for inspiration,” Balvin told ET in an exclusive interview last year. “There’s a moment that you just want to inspire people…not only to do music, but to do whatever they want to do in their lives. And I think that I’m here to inspire people to just follow their dreams, to be disciplined, to work hard.”

Born in Medellin, Colombia, the 34-year-old recording artist, whose birth name is José Álvaro Osorio Balvin, grew up listening to rock bands like Nirvana and Metallica. At age 17, he moved to New York City to chase his music dreams, all while working odd jobs as a roofer, house painter, and even a dog walker, before returning to Colombia where he enrolled in college to study international business. He later adopted the stage moniker "J Balvin" and began performing his music in local clubs. 

“Everything was against me because reggaeton was born in Panama, but especially grew in Puerto Rico,” Balvin shared with ET about defying expectations. “Colombia didn’t have anyone at that time doing reggaeton. Everyone thought I was crazy. But at the same time, that was a blessing because it made me want to prove them wrong.” 

By 2009, Balvin signed to EMI Colombia and released his debut album, Real, followed by a mixtape. In 2013, Balvin scored his first international hit, “Yo Te Lo Dije,” and signed with Capitol Latin. Under the record label, Balvin released “6 AM,” the fourth single from his La Familia LP. The album hit No. 10 on the Billboard Top Latin Albums chart and spent a total of 122 weeks on the chart. Additionally, Balvin’s 2014 single, “Ay Vamos,” which was released as the bonus track from his La Familia B-Sides LP,  earned a Latin GRAMMY nomination, while the remix, featuring French Montana and Nicky Jam, landed on the Furious 7 soundtrack. Balvin has also collaborated with pop megastars Ariana Grande and Justin Bieber, and appeared on the remix to Robin Thicke’s 2013 hit, “Blurred Lines.” 

In 2019, Balvin became the most-nominated Colombian artist at the Billboard Latin Music Awards with 13 nods. As his winning streak continues at warp speed, the success hasn’t stopped Balvin from speaking out on behalf of fellow artists, even if it means airing out his frustrations with the Latin GRAMMYs over its lack of reggaeton representation and for herding the genre into “urban” categories. 

“There’s a big confusion when it comes to categories,” Balvin shared in an Instagram video last year. “There should be a rap category, a reggaeton category, a trap category, and they shouldn’t all be under a blanket term ‘urban.’ Because at the end of the day, all music is urban because it comes from a personal story, places and cultures.”

Colombian culture has played a large part in birthing the musical ingenuity that catapulted Balvin into superstardom. Whether it's rocking flamboyant hair and fashions, or the confidence and vulnerability infused in his music, Balvin is intent on making fans feel the entirety of his artistry --  colors and all. 

“I see music as colors, and in this case, you can really feel the colors,” Balvin explained in a 2019 Dolby Atmos Music short film. “Colombia is a place full of happiness, it’s a place full of inspirations, colors... that’s the way I describe myself.” 

And despite being a major figure in Latin music, Balvin's domination has grown into a global movement. 

“We are not making music just for Latinos,” he added. “We do it for the culture. We’re making music [for] the world.” 

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