Ozuna In Puerto Rico: A Latin Superstar's Homecoming

This is where the odyssey of Jan Carlos Ozuna Rosado -- the reggaetón and Latin trap star known simply as Ozuna -- began: in a modestly appointed, three-bedroom apartment above a bodega in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Outside, a trio of chickens poke around in the street and an old salsa tune wafts through the air. Ozuna’s grandmother, Eneida, shuffles between the porch and the kitchen. Ozuna, who is 25, grew up here, though the house is considerably more crowded now. Nearly a dozen people pass in and out, including a two-man security detail; Ozuna’s uncle, Felix, who became a father figure after Ozuna’s own died when he was 3; and Charlie, a one-time neighbor who now serves as Ozuna’s personal assistant and has Ozuna’s logo, a teddy bear, tattooed on his calf.    

Wearing a jacquard Gucci tracksuit and Balenciaga trainers, Ozuna sits on the living room couch, scrolling through Instagram. His first microphone -- a scratched-up Samsung that Felix gave him when he was 12 -- rests beside him, a reminder of the days before he was packing arenas in both Puerto Rico and the continental United States and attracting collaborators like rap sensation Cardi B, with whom he recently released the dancehall-inflected duet “La Modelo.” I ask Ozuna if, at some point that week, his team might help me get in touch with her to discuss her work with him -- and not five seconds later, he’s got her on FaceTime, despite the fact that she’s clearly exhausted from the Grammys the night before.    

“Yo CARRR-deeeee!” coos Ozuna.

She’s still in bed, but a big grin spreads across her face: “Hey!”

“Baby, call me back when you’re up, all right? Go on, girl. God bless you.”

A sweet and nimble vocalist known for his sensitive, romantic lyrics -- once a rarity in traditionally macho reggaetón -- Ozuna persuaded Cardi to try singing in Spanish. His instincts were spot-on: In January, “La Modelo” debuted at No. 3 on Billboard’s Hot Latin Songs chart and No. 52 on the Billboard Hot 100, capping off a year that perfectly positioned Ozuna for a stateside breakthrough. His first full-length LP, Odisea, bowed at No. 1 on Top Latin Albums in September and arrived on the Billboard 200 at No. 22, ultimately becoming the longest-charting Latin title there since Gloria Estefan’s Destiny in 1996. As a solo artist, Ozuna has twice cracked the Hot Latin Songs top 10. Without the benefit of a major English-language radio single, he has earned 1 billion on-demand streams in the United States, according to Nielsen Music.

Kevin Winter/Getty Images
Ozuna and Cardi B performed at Calibash in Los Angeles on Jan. 20.

It has been four years since Ozuna first started posting his music to YouTube. Back then, he was sharing his childhood bedroom with his wife, Taina, and their first child, Sofia. Since then, a great deal has changed -- for Ozuna, his country and for Latin pop. In 2017, when Puerto Rico’s own Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee made history with their inescapable hit “Despacito” (and its Justin Bieber-assisted remix), it felt like the walls between Spanish- and English-language pop had come crashing down. Major Grammy nominations for the track, including song and record of the year, followed.

Yet it was difficult to think of the success of “Despacito” without remembering the desperate situation in the territory it came from: the devastation wrought by Hurricane Maria in September, sending over 200,000 fleeing the island and leaving its remaining inhabitants without water, electricity and other crucial resources as the Trump administration dragged its feet in providing aid. (Over 400,000 remain without power.) Against the backdrop of the ongoing struggle, “Despacito” losing on Grammy night felt especially cruel, notwithstanding the jubilant performance Fonsi and Daddy Yankee gave at the show.

“You either make history or you don’t,” says Ozuna. “I’m a guy that roots for the home team. Daddy Yankee and Luis Fonsi, those are my guys. As far as I’m concerned, they won. They broke into every market with ‘Despacito.’ They took [Latin] urban music to the American Grammys.”

His attention shifts to his phone -- he’s somehow able to engage in thoughtful discussion while perma-scrolling through Instagram. His thumb stops on a video posted by New York’s WSKQ (La Mega 97.9), the No. 1 Latino station in the nation: it’s Camila Cabello, center stage on Grammy night. “I’m a proud, Cuban-Mexican immigrant,” said Cabello, “born in Eastern Havana, standing in front of you on the Grammy stage in New York City. And all I know is, just like dreams, [immigrant] kids can’t be forgotten and are worth fighting for.”

Ozuna nods his head, saying, “Good... good...” Though he’s still most comfortable speaking in Spanish, this he says in English.

On the title track to Odisea, Ozuna raps his autobiography in Spanish at breakneck speed: “Crecí en un círculo de pobreza...”

I was born in a cycle of poverty
Everything was happy
Adapting was a skill
Grandma raised me, Daddy died
Mommy was always there for me
I swear I lacked for nothing...

But on the refrain, he sings with an ache:

If tomorrow I do not wake up
And Dad sends God to look for me
I would first like to say goodbye
But what will happen to me?
Who will take care of my family?
In this world of betrayal
It’s been an odyssey.

?Ozuna was 3 when his father was fatally shot. He has no real memory of the man who traveled the world as a backup dancer for Spanish rap and reggaetón pioneer Vico C. “He had to go to another place,” says Ozuna, “but I know that he would have given everything for somebody to elevate the family name. That somebody happens to be me.” His mother was and remains a constant presence, but she was never financially stable enough to take Ozuna in. For most of his life, he lived with his grandmother.

“She taught me to follow the path of Jesus Christ, that nothing is given to us, that you have to work for what you get,” says Ozuna of Eneida. “And she taught me the value of money, a pair of sneakers -- we bought those with sacrifice. She would say the same of a pencil, an eraser, simple things. We had to sweat in order to get it.”

Wesley Mann
Ozuna (center) with his grandmother, Eneida Cespedes de León, and uncle, Felix Ozuna, at de León’s home in San Juan.

In 2004 -- the same year that Daddy Yankee’s “Gasolina” exposed a new, worldwide audience to the once-underground genre called reggaetón -- Felix gave Ozuna that Samsung mic. “I’d play music,” recalls Felix, “and he’d know all the songs,” tracks by artists like Daddy Yankee, Don Omar and De La Ghetto. “I’d always be saying, ‘Quit that noise, boy,’” Eneida quietly chimes in. Ozuna started writing and recording himself, downloading beats from YouTube and occasionally performing at the local bar where he worked, El Corozal. Later in the afternoon, I stop in there, and the son of Ozuna’s former boss, Héctor López, pulls up a video of a teenage Ozuna performing. “You see? It’s called ‘Before the Fame,’” he says excitedly. “I told him he was talented.”

For five years in the mid-2010s, Ozuna tried living in New York, staying with family in Manhattan’s Washington Heights and “looking for opportunities I could have in the music industry.” But “life goes very quickly there -- too quickly, more quickly than me,” he says with a laugh. “And I think nobody can go more quickly than I do.” He returned to Puerto Rico, where posting his music on YouTube led to features and collaborations with childhood heroes like Daddy Yankee and De La Ghetto. Long before the release of Odisea, he built a loyal Spanish-speaking fan base. “I’m from here,” he says with a shrug. “The music flows, the lyrics change -- everything changes when you come back.”

Now, he considers Puerto Rico his permanent home (he also has a house in Miami), and while he lives an hour outside San Juan, he has clearly maintained a presence in the old neighborhood. A rail-thin local named Tito appears on the steps with a business card he wordlessly hands to Charlie. Ozuna has enlisted Tito to watch over the house 24/7. “There’s a lot of people in the streets,” explains Tito. Ozuna takes the card -- it turns out it’s from a local real estate broker -- then vanishes down the block. “You have to invest nowadays,” says Charlie, explaining that Ozuna wants to buy the apartment building next door.

Ozuna’s grandmother was lucky during the hurricane: Other than a bit of water damage, her house was largely untouched. The building next door, entirely made of wood, was mangled. When the storm came, says Ozuna, he was “at home, waiting for it.” He was able to get his wife and two young kids to Miami before the worst hit. Now, he reflects, “the hurricane united us as a community. We met a lot of people we didn't know before.” In the aftermath, a nonprofit he started, Odisea Children, has helped kids with limited resources on the island.

Javier Lugo/Courtesy of Odisea Children
Ozuna (center) with kids from his Odisea Children foundation.

Earlier, I had asked Ozuna his thoughts on Donald Trump, assuming he’d have strong feelings about the U.S. president who’s so widely perceived as having abandoned Puerto Rico in its time of need. “Well, I respect the ideals of each person. I have nothing against anybody,” he says measuredly. “I don’t really watch the news. I don’t believe in politics. I only believe in my people. And my people -- the ones that follow me -- are Latinos. I would go with them till the end of the world.”

Later that day, I’m in the back seat of a car heading to Fajardo, Puerto Rico’s recreational boating capital, where Ozuna is spending the rest of the day. When I arrive at Marina del Rey, a golf cart takes me to a 71-foot Azimut yacht belonging to Ozuna’s manager, Vicente Saavedra. Everyone from the house in San Juan is here, save for Grandma Eneida, and Ozuna’s mom has joined, sitting with a smile by a table piled with fresh seafood. Up on the flying bridge, Charlie flashes a thumbs-up for a selfie.

The mood feels light, and for good reason. Ozuna’s at work on new music, with a new studio album planned for August. It has been almost a year since Ozuna and Saavedra co-founded Dimelo Vi, an independent company that struck a lucrative deal with Sony Music Latin including distribution for all of Saavedra’s acts. As a breeze drifts in off the Atlantic, Ozuna reflects on how success has made him focus on his family even more. “They need the love of their father,” says Ozuna of his two kids, Sofia, 4, and Jacob, 1. “I’m very affectionate. [Fatherhood] changed me. I had to work twice as much -- to take care of another human being, to maintain a home.”

Wesley Mann
“It’s time for Americans to work hand-in-hand with Latinos and revolutionize the world,” says Ozuna, in the Santurce neighborhood of San Juan, where he grew up.

A proud young father, he seems the polar opposite of the iconic rough-and-ready reggaetónero. But even as he approaches mainstream stardom, traces of a rockier past haunt him. At a New York concert last July, Ozuna struck a security guard on the head with his microphone (he later apologized on Facebook: “As a human, I make mistakes”). Four days later in San Juan, as reported by both The New York Times and Univision, Ozuna was present at the scene where alleged narcotrafficker Carlos Báez Rosa (aka “Tonka”) was gunned down; subsequently, Ozuna received two death threats on YouTube, one with footage of a man slicing a pig. Meanwhile, his close friend Anuel AA, a Latin trap star who features on Odisea and who Ozuna calls “a brother, even outside the music industry,” is still in jail after being arrested in April 2016; officers found three guns, a dozen clips and 152 rounds of ammunition in his car. “He doesn't really want me to see him in there,” says Ozuna. “We will see each other when he gets out.”

But to hear Ozuna’s music is to hear a different world entirely, one guided by the principles his grandmother instilled in him. It’s the approachable sweetness of his logo, a rotund teddy bear in a hoodie, that he projects. “Maybe that’s why I’m Ozuna,” he says. “If you fill your mind with negative things, you won’t have the drive -- the inspiration -- to make music.” When I note the similarities between him and Drake -- both mix rapping and singing with raw emotion -- Ozuna heartily agrees.

“Because Drake writes lyrics that don’t offend anyone. He’s very careful not to denigrate women or to hurt young people. He uses words with real meaning,” he says. “People identify themselves with the song.” Likewise, “even a kid can listen to a song by Ozuna, or a man with his girlfriend. My music fits the whole family” -- whether they speak Spanish or English. “I write what we live in my songs: desire, love, mistreatment. It’s something we all experience. And I interpret it in a good way and make it sound nice.”

This article originally appeared in the Feb. 17 issue of Billboard.