Reggaeton singer J Balvin, also known as “The Boy from Medellin”, recently released a documentary with the same name on Amazon. In this documentary, fans can see the daily life of the singer in his hometown, know a little of his friendships, his concerns, his past, and also the pressures he experienced by a segment of his audience to take a position on the Colombian protests.
Colombia is currently facing a so-called national strike, a series of protests against the government of Iván Duque that have been gaining strength in 2021 due to the proposal of an unpopular tax reform, but that date back to 2018, when President Duque’s rival, leftist Senator Gustavo Petro proclaimed that they were going to take to the streets constantly with protests against a government that in his eyes is illegitimate.
The filming date of the documentary occurs in 2019 in the month of November, while J Balvin plans his big concert at the Atanasio Girardot stadium (the largest arena for public events in the city of Medellin), the country erupts in a wave of protests that were magnified by violent clashes between protesters and Colombian police.
Throughout most of the documentary, J Balvin and his team can be seen watching with astonishment and concern as the protests in the country escalated, and consequently the pressure Balvin received to speak out. Throughout the documentary, you can see how his Instagram account is full of pressure and insults branding “the boy from Medellin” as indifferent for not showing support for the protests in Colombia and ignoring the young people who were the ones who got him to where he is today.
J Balvin and the Colombian youth
Although different unions of state workers, teachers, indigenous groups, and other collectives have participated in the protests, the protagonism of these protests has been taken by young people, who are the ones who end up taking over the protests after a few days of continuous strike.
However, it is not difficult to understand the displeasure of the young population in Colombia with the status quo, because on the one hand they are the age group most in conflict with the police, and secondly because they are the population most affected by unemployment in a country where hiring formally is extremely costly.
For his part, J Balvin is undoubtedly the Medellín figure who has gained the most international attention, second only to the nefarious Pablo Escobar. Young people in the city watched with pride as someone through music brought a bit of what they consider to be a rhythm that has become as native to Colombians as it is to the rest of the world, bringing with it a positive and hopeful image of a country that once only made international headlines for its bloody violence and war against drug trafficking.
Gone are the days when the headlines of famous Colombians abroad were powerful narcos, now the world’s headlines show sportsmen like James Rodriguez or Mariana Pajon, or musicians like J Balvin, Juanes, Shakira, or Choc Quib Town as figures representing Colombia.
In the context of the strike, it is natural for young people to seek support from figures they admire such as J Balvin, it is gratifying for a young person to see that an artist they admire has sympathy for their cause and their protests.
However, J Balvin reaches far more people than just the marchers in Colombia, as J Balvin is not a political symbol, but an artistic one. It would be naive to think that the national strike is universally supported by all Colombians and in fact, many, including young people, do not agree with the political movements that are strengthened by these marches, that even if they want to sell the idea that “the strike belongs to everyone”, the strike is fundamental of the Colombian left and groups related to it.
Faced with the protests in Colombia, many artists rushed to give their support to the national strike, either because they legitimately believe in it, or to avoid pressure from their fans and the general public, J Balvin, however, remained silent.
It didn’t take long for the boy from Medellin to be met with waves of insults and labels such as “indifferent” at best, and there was even talk of trying to sabotage the artist’s concert if he didn’t show solidarity with the national strike.
J Balvin, whose real name is José Álvaro Osorio, preferred to leave his message for later. In an interview, José Álvaro Osorio explained that because of his status as a public figure he had to be very responsible with any words he said about the strike because just as it could generate support in one part of his fans who are in the protests, it could generate resentment in the other part that does not support them.
J Balvin’s message
On Saturday, November 30, 2019, the Medellín boy gave his message on stage, amidst the clamor of his fans. Balvin shouted to President Duque to listen to the youth and called for an end to violence in the country “due to f*cking intolerance”. A valid and non-politically charged message, but one that nevertheless fell into the cliché of trying to please everyone.
Despite J Balvin’s message that tried to be unified in such a polarized country, the documentary left me with a bad taste, as I feel that José Álvaro Osorio was dehumanized by turning J Balvin into a political symbol that he really is not.
Why do we want musicians and artists to give political messages of a certain nature? Why do we expect entertainment symbols to sympathize with certain causes? Frankly, what J Balvin and other musicians can do other than inspire the youth, and provide a few direct and indirect jobs, is very little. They are not responsible for the laws that will be passed in Congress, nor are they responsible for thinking of solutions for a country as complex as Colombia.
Without delegitimizing the political beliefs of the artists, many times their discourse is only loaded with good intentions, but rarely has any hint of realism. It would be strange and even a bit ridiculous to expect an artist’s discourse to go beyond sentiment and transcend to the achievable, simply because they do not know the framework of things that can be done in public policy or not.
A reflection on the Boy from Medellín and politics
Frankly, I find more responsibility in J Balvin’s supposed indifference to the strike, than in the political activism of artists like Residente, since at least the former has the humility to admit that he has little understanding of how to change the country’s situation; while the latter uses his networks to launch inflammatory harangues and does little else besides that, with a mere repetition of the victimizing discourse that we have all already heard without really constructive proposals.
Music and art are gifts, which naturally cannot be exempt from the cultural and political expressions of society, however, we must understand that these are a small piece as part of the change and that musicians and artists are not necessarily obligated to think like us or support the causes we support.
Seeking to validate our feelings on the opinion of a famous figure, rather than artist indifference, shows a void in us. In the end, our causes are validated through the construction of knowledge, work, and effort. It is our actions, not even our values, that ends up giving importance to a cause.