How J Balvin, Mon Laferte & More Are Fusing Music and Politics to Stand Up For Latin America
During his November 2019 concert in front of 45,000 fans in his hometown of Medellín, Colombia, J Balvin did something he never had before: He gave a political speech.
“I understand the situation the youth in this country are going through,” said Balvin, speaking for over three minutes to the crowd at Atanasio Girardot Stadium. “If they’re marching, it’s because something is not right.”
The show coincided with a week of national strikes in the country. Hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets to demand an array of changes to President Ivan Duque’s social policies, from education to minimum wage to the implementation of a peace treaty with guerrillas and armed fighters. As fellow Colombian artists took a stand, fans began to pressure Balvin to do the same. “I hadn’t planned it,” Balvin tells Billboard. “But the day of the concert, I went to Medellín, to the barrios, and I reconnected and understood my responsibility. I only want to be a singer. But youth see us, they see me, as a voice for the people.”
The statement was emblematic of what has been an extraordinary year for the convergence of Latin American music and politics. Fueled by a perfect storm of regionwide political and economic upheaval, coupled with populist movements, Latin artists from Puerto Rico to Brazil are raising their voices louder than ever regarding political issues, actively pushing for change and releasing politically charged music to support their points of view.
The regional demonstrations began in February 2019, when some 30 artists performed at Venezuela Live Aid, a massive concert held on the Colombia-Venezuela border with the backing of billionaire Richard Branson to call attention to the country’s deep economic distress. The show raised over $2.3 million for humanitarian aid, according to organizers, and the artists called on the Venezuelan government to allow international aid into the country, though it ultimately did not.
In Chile, Carlos Lara, CEO of concert promoter Swing Music, beefed up security for shows that wound up coinciding with massive marches. He even moved a Luis Fonsi show from Concepción to the neighboring city of Talcahuano. “The artists weren’t canceling, but when you have 12,000 people coming to a concert in the middle of a protest, there’s high risk.”
In July, Puerto Rican artists Ricky Martin, Bad Bunny, Residente and Kany García, among others, took the lead in demanding the resignation of Gov. Ricardo Rosselló after the publication of a government group chat that included sexist, homophobic and derogatory comments. Within days of the chat being leaked, Bad Bunny, Residente and Ileana Cabra (who records as iLe) wrote and released “Afilando los Cuchillos” (“Sharpening Knives”), a furious rap track calling the governor “corrupt” and “criminal.” At the same time, dozens of artists used social media to ask fans to march in massive protests on the island. “We’ll fight until Rosselló steps down,” Martin posted on Instagram, drawing over 700,000 likes. Two days later, on July 24, Rosselló resigned.
The social and political upheaval on the island was unprecedented. “I don’t think the change could have happened without the artists,” says Pompi Vallejo, co-founder of promotion/marketing firm Mr. & Mrs., whose properties include the Urban Music Awards. “The artists that intervened are very successful, precisely because of their connection to the people. And they became the voice of the people.”
There is a rich history of protest songs in Latin music, particularly in Latin America, where the military dictatorships of the 1960s and ’70s led many popular artists — from Mercedes Sosa in Argentina to Caetano Veloso in Brazil — into exile. But lately, social media has proved to be a major driver of the current artist-politics revolution. “The biggest difference in the current times is that thanks to the power of social media, statements disseminate quicker, are more direct and have become more effective with no geographical limit,” says Latin Recording Academy chairman/CEO Gabriel Abaroa.
“It’s pretty hard to feign ignorance when we have direct contact [with fans],” says Chilean singer Mon Laferte, who made perhaps the boldest statement when she bared her naked chest on the Latin Grammy Awards red carpet, the words “In Chile they torture, rape and kill” scrawled in Spanish on her skin. It was an act “almost of desperation,” she says. “I personally went to Chile, and I listened to the people, and I can’t be the same again. Latin America needs to wake up.” That night, the singer released “Plata Ta Tá,” a universal call to action, with Puerto Rican rapper Guaynaa.
“We’re supporting Mon Laferte’s artistic creativity, independent of any symbolism or ideology,” says Universal Music Latin Entertainment president Victor Gonzalez, echoing the sentiment of other labels that have supported their artists’ more political releases. “If her art carried political symbolism, or if there is social messaging implicit in the song, the song would come first, and we are committed to promoting it.”
Mon Laferte was far from alone. From Luis Enrique speaking up for Nicaragua, to García speaking for gender equality, to Nella speaking for Venezuela, stars referenced politics in acceptance speeches and when talking to reporters at the Latin Grammys. And that mindset has persisted.
“The countries that are colonized, oppressed, marginalized and taken advantage of, in many ways are now striving toward a future that is different and new,” says Chilean singer-songwriter Francisca Valenzuela. And many artists are coming to terms with their role in shaping that future. As Balvin puts it, “Sometimes we have so much power that we are more listened to than any president.”