J Balvin, a superstar grappling with fame's social responsibility

Colombian musician and composer Jose Alvaro Osorio Balvi aka J Balvin poses during a photo call at the Universal Music offices in Mexico City. — AFP pic
Colombian musician and composer Jose Alvaro Osorio Balvi aka J Balvin poses during a photo call at the Universal Music offices in Mexico City. — AFP pic

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LOS ANGELES, May 8 — A new documentary about reggaeton superstar J Balvin set out to explore a kid from Medellin’s ascent to global fame — but against the backdrop of Colombian protests, it became a meditation on artists’ social responsibility.

Shot in 2019 and released yesterday — the day Balvin turns 36 — The Boy From Medellin offers viewers the chance to shadow Balvin as he prepares for the homecoming stadium show that closed that year’s international tour, which included a blockbuster performance on Coachella’s main stage.

But the week ahead of the sold-out 2019 concert saw his home country descend into tragic chaos, with police violence against demonstrators resulting in the death of a teenage boy who was protesting President Ivan Duque’s harsh policies.

The protests threatened to taint or even cancel Balvin’s big night. Much of the documentary from director Matthew Heineman focuses on Balvin’s inner turmoil as he faced pressure to speak out about the sociopolitical situation in his home country, and endured criticism for his reticence.

Born Jose Alvaro Osorio Balvin to a middle-class family in Medellin, the artist exploded to fame with a brand centred on an inclusive pride in Latin American culture and language.

The Latin Grammy winner helped cement reggaeton — a massively popular Puerto-Rican-born amalgam of Caribbean beats and hip hop influences — as a vital force in pop across the Americas and worldwide.

In the documentary he voices hope that his artistry would help overcome stereotypes of Colombia as a bastion of drug violence and help fans look beyond the country’s decades-long war between guerrilla, paramilitary and government forces.

“Our work is to entertain,” he is seen telling a local journalist in one of the instances that, along with his silence on the protests, prompted backlash and thrust him into the position of finding a political voice.

‘Stop this nonsense civil war’

Ultimately, he spoke out during the concert at the urging of his manager Scooter Braun. The music mogul is an executive producer of the film, well-known for his public feuding with Taylor Swift — another artist who long stayed apolitical for fear of retribution from fans.

“When I wanted to be an artist I didn’t apply to be a politician,” Balvin told journalists at a conference prior to the film’s release.

“But then you start getting to know you have a voice more powerful than politicians.”

“If you talk, it’s bad. If you don’t, it’s bad too. So at least you give it a try.”

The film, available for streaming on Amazon Prime, also lends significant weight to Balvin’s struggles with mental health, which feeds into his anxiety over the pressure of being a public figure.

“There might be a lot of people suffering out there that don’t even know what they have,” he told journalists in explaining his decision to be honest concerning the vulnerable topic of his years dealing with depression and anxiety.

“If I can give them some light in the darkness, why not?”

The film’s release Friday comes as Colombia is suffering another period of deadly unrest, as thousands of protestors engage in marches against Duque’s policies on health, education and inequality.

According to official figures at least two dozen people — some NGO tallies are higher — have died, as security forces attempt to reign in the demonstrations. Protest leaders have denounced the response as inordinate.

Balvin was quicker to speak out this time around, this week dubbing the situation “an issue of human rights” as he called for “peace and love.”

“Let’s stop this civil war,” he wrote, singling out Duque in an Instagram post that was half in English, half in Spanish. “All my colleagues and super stars (artists, sport, etc) please helps me and help us spread the message.”

“We need to Stop this nonsense civil war,” he added. — AFP

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