The Boy from Medellín
University of California, Davis (US)
University of California, Davis (US)
Directed by Academy Award-nominated and Emmy Award-winning filmmaker Matthew Heineman, The Boy from Medellín (2020), portrays a week in the life of Colombian reggaetón artist José Osorio Balvin—better known by his stage name J Balvin—in advance of the culminating concert of his Colores 2019 tour in his hometown of Medellín. Although this is Heineman’s first music-themed documentary, it is not his first biographical film tackling complex social issues in Latin America, as Cartel Land (2015) attests. The Boy from Medellin, joins a catalogue of biographical documentary films portraying the tensions between public and private life of popular musicians such as Jay-Z (Fade to the Back, 2004), George Harrison (Living in the Material World, 2011), Residente (Residente, 2017), Anitta (Vai Anitta, 2018), Taylor Swift (Miss Americana, 2020), and Billie Eilish (Billie Eilish: The World's a Little Blurry, 2021). As is often the case in these documentaries, Heineman engages many complex aspects of J Balvin’s life and work, of which we will focus on two: The development of the reggaetón scene in Medellín, centering Balvin’s position within it; and the negotiation between Balvin’s public and private personas. From this second topic, we will elaborate on the artist’s engagement with the political realities he encountered in Colombia, the role of social media in shaping relationships between artists and audiences, mental health issues, and the “return to the hood” and overcoming topoi.
As in other Latin American countries, reggaetón arrived in Colombia through piracy and the exchange of cassettes and discs within the rap and dembow community in the late 1990s and early 2000s (Navarro 2019). Programing mostly Puerto Rican reggaetón at the beginning, radio stations and figures such as El Gurú del Sabor (Fernando Londoño) were crucial in disseminating and popularizing the genre within the country, paving the way for the emergence a local scene in Medellín, which is now recognized as a reggaetón powerhouse (García 2013). It is within this scene that José, as J Balvin chose to call himself in this initial period, and other youths from Medellín began to incursion into reggaetón composition and singing. With José and groups such as 3 Pesos and Golpe a Golpe, the Medellín scene gradually grew, reaching international visibility for its high professional productions when a group of artists created the recording label Palma Productions in the early 2000s. One of the first goals of these artists was creating a sound and aesthetics distinct from its Caribbean counterpart. They accomplished that by using romantic lyrics, melodic lyricism with influences from Anglo-American pop, and chord progressions with inversions and extensions emulating the harmonic colors of jazz (Franco 2018). If the Puerto Rican reggaetón of the first wave (i.e., from the early 2000s until 2010) was characterized by a robust percussive texture similar to that of dancehall, in combination with synthesizers playing the harmonic sequence i–VI–V, the Colombian reggaetón of those days used more chordal variety, as we can hear in “Obra de Arte” an iconic reggaetón by Fainal & Shako, famously performed by Balvin, that features the harmonic progression i7–iv7–VI7–V7.
The first part of the documentary features a young J Balvin consolidating his career as a reggaetón artist in Medellín through dogged work. This narrative of struggle and self-improvement is consistent with a hip-hop street aesthetics that centers and idealizes the artist’s humble origins. Although reggaetón lyrics in the early stages in Colombia featured the typical Puerto Rican malianteo and fronteo (i.e., texts based on crudeness, confrontation and hyper-masculinity), artists such as J Balvin and later Maluma, contributed to develop a distinct Colombian approach called romantiqueo, or use of romantic lyrics. The documentary features various pieces in this tradition such as “Ay Vamos,” “En mi,” and “Obra de Arte,” which can be contrasted with the confrontational style that characterized early Colombian productions such a “Tiradera Pa’l Guru,” a piece first performed in 2003 by a collective of reggaetón artists called Colombian Flow.
The main theme and source of tension in the film is Balvin’s dilemma: one the one hand he has come to his home city to reconnect with his family, friends and fans, to visit the neighborhood where he grew up, and to perform what he called “the most important concert of his career” in Medellín’s largest venue (a local football stadium). On the other, the volatile social situation in Colombia, perceived by many as the result of President Iván Duque’s neoliberal policies, created the expectation among many of his fans that J Balvin and other high-profile artists should intervene either by voicing criticism against the government or calling for the end to violence in the streets. Initially Balvin resists getting involved because he believes that artists are not to engage in politics, but through multiple interactions with producers, family members and fellow artists, he changes his mind. Yet many thought his intervention (a call to the government to listen to the youth and to end violence in the streets during his final concert) was both late and lukewarm. While dealing with this conflict, various contradictions are revealed. Balvin, who is shown arriving in Medellín in his private jet, driving luxurious cars and living in a mansion with an army of servers (practically all women in the film are either Balvin’s fans or part of his supporting team), tries to connect with people from poor neighborhoods by walking down the streets, shaking hands and taking selfies with them. It is no wonder that he struggled to connect with “the hood.” The neighborhood where he grew up, the humble origins that lend him authenticity within reggaetón discourse, is only visited, not inhabited. Colombian society seems incomprehensible for him.
Balvin’s reluctance to speak up in the middle of Colombia’s political upheaval is, nonetheless, atypical among fellow Latin American reggaetón artists who are known for their ongoing political engagement within their communities. During the wave of youth-led political and social revolts that swept Colombia and other Latin American countries at the end of 2019, many reggaetón musicians responded to their fans’ call for action. In Puerto Rico, for instance, the demands were directed against Governor Ricardo Rosselló (incidentally, son of former Governor Pedro Rosselló, who persecuted and banned the underground musicians who eventually developed reggaetón on the island during the mid-1990s), accused of corruption and homophobia. Reggaetón artists such as Bad Bunny, Ñengo Flow, Daddy Yankee and Residente marched in the streets along with thousands of protestors. Likewise, in Chile, the revolt against President Sebastián Piñera’s neoliberal agenda was supported by Chilean and Puerto Rican reggaetón artists such as Pablo Chill-e, Lizz, Don Omar, Zion, Nicky Jam and others. Surely Balvin’s inaction in the context of this tradition of reggaetón political activism in Latin America confused his Colombian audiences and intensified their criticism of his silence.
Of course, Balvin and other reggaetón artists are not the first popular musicians to have experienced pressure from their audiences to take political stances at critical junctures. Ingrid Monson (2007), for instance, documented the case of many Black jazz musicians during the African American Civil Rights and Black Power Movements in the US in the 1960s and 1970s, who felt morally pressured to take political action. Philip Auslander’s (2004 and 2006) tri-partite concept of musical personae, which includes the real person, the musical person, and the character (in songs, for example), is useful to understand the complex interaction of public and private aspects of the life these performers. In Heineman’s documentary, Balvin appears as a professional and well-established musician (J Balvin) with a fragile real human behind the scenes (José). His musical personae is that of a dreamer cangri (influential person in reggaetón slang), enriched by the nuances from the fictional characters described or alluded to in his songs. For instance, in introspective scenes, we hear songs like “7 de Mayo” whose lyrics reinforce the image of a sensitive man who acknowledges his humble origins and is committed to supporting up and coming artists. Other characters in Balvin’s songs, not shown in the documentary, include the promiscuous macho, explicit in “Si tu Novio te Deja Sola” and “Mojaita.” Heineman addresses the artist’s inner complexity by including extended sections of J Balvin’s concerts, images of José with his spiritual guide and medical team, and scenes of Balvin incarnating the cangri character, for example when he receives phone messages from artists such as will.i.am prior to his concert. While these three aspects of his musical personae are identifiable at different points of the film, it is difficult to draw clean boundaries among them. At the climax of the final concert and its aftermath, the narrative of the sensitive, crisis-ridden, conflicted artist gives way to a larger story of overcoming.
One prominent aspect that amplifies Balvin’s conflict is social media communication. With the advent of social media platforms such as Twitter, TikTok and Instagram, many fans have now the opportunity to interact with their favorite musicians and with fellow fans. With artists constantly posting both professional and personal information, these platforms have created a sense of closeness between musicians and audiences that did not exist before when interactions where limited to live concerts or reading/watching the news and thus more purely parasocial. Artists have recognized that this virtual closeness is beneficial to promote their careers and to understand their fans’ desires. One aspect of this perceived closeness is that many audiences feel that artists are part of their communities and thus should be sensitive and committed to their causes and tribulations. This issue is explicitly portrayed in the documentary. It is through social media that J Balvin learns about the reactions of his fans to the strikes in Medellín and to the assassination of young student Dylan Cruz by the Colombian police. More importantly, he reads and hears their louder and louder calls for him to intervene through these platforms. At a dramatic point he takes the bold decision of meeting one of his critics (local rapper Mañas Ru-Fino), all arranged through social media. We’ll let readers watch the documentary to learn how two contemporary musicians from the same city negotiate their opposing views on the artist’s commitment to social justice. In a vivid manner, The Boy from Medellín, thus engages the real challenges that artists face now that social media functions as a public forum.
The narrative of J Balvin’s “return to the hood” proposed in this documentary is therefore problematic but should not be judged as insensitive or trivializing. The complex political situation that J Balvin encountered in Colombia, intensified by social media activity, and expectations of political involvement on his part, had a real toll on José’s mental health. The efforts that he and his team made to deal with the conflict and to put on a successful performance were enormous. His intentions to connect with the people he grew up with seem genuine on the screen despite his understandable distance from their daily experience and his detached attitude. The “return to the hood” and overcoming narratives served Heineman to weave these threads of Balvin’s experience into the fabric of his musical personae. At the same time, the two narratives cemented Balvin’s position as a politically outspoken Latin American reggaetón artist: at the concert, which represents the overcoming, Balvin joins fellow reggaetón musicians from the region in voicing his concern for social justice. In the end, the relationship between Balvin and his audience is simultaneously strained and reinforced. The singer uses the streets of Medellín as an extension of the scenic space, but those streets are no longer known in depth; the city may have been his place of humble origins but is now only partially accessible from his position of fame.
The Boy from Medellín is therefore an obligatory watch for those interested in reggaetón culture, its aesthetics, politics, narratives, dynamics of local production and popularization, the struggles of the real person behind the artist, the blurred boundaries that social media creates between audiences and artists, and the development of reggaetón scenes in Latin American cities in general, and in Medellín in particular. The five-episode TV documentary series Flow Importado, Ritmo Pegado (2018), which documents the rise to fame of key reggaetón figures from Medellín, including J Balvin himself, offers important historical context to Heineman’s film. Although The Boy from Medellin stands on its own, readers will gain a deeper understanding of the stories of J Balvin and the other reggaetón artists shown in the film as well as their audiences’ passion for the genre, from watching the TV series beforehand. The Boy from Medellín will not disappoint even those purely interested in reggaetón aesthetics; the director devoted about ten minutes to the final concert, a fortunate decision that allows us to appreciate Balvin’s artistic craft in all its splendor.
Auslander, Philip. 2004. “Performance Analysis and Popular Music: a Manifesto”. Contemporary Theater Review 14(1): 1-13.
Auslander, Philip. 2006. “Musical Personae”. The Drama Review 50(1): 100-119.
García, Julio. 2013. “Del Tango al Reggaetón: Medellín, Capital de los Contrastes Musicales.” BBC News Mundo, 17 October. <https://www.bbc.com/mundo/noticias/2013/11/131017_cultura_medellin_capital_musical_colombia_jgc>.
Monson, Ingrid. 2007. Freedom Sounds: Civil Rights Call out to Jazz and Africa. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Navarro, Fernando. 2019. “Medellín, la Fábrica del Reggaetón”. El País, 30 November. <https://elpais.com/elpais/2019/11/26/eps/1574784498_877729.html>.
Franco, Andrés. 2018. Flow Importado, Ritmo Pegado. Medellín: TeleMedellín.
This performance of “Tiradera Pa’l Gurú” can be watched here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yoTGSfIFQO0.