Ozuna wanted to take his yacht out today. But the sunny Puerto Rican skies clouded over, and the 26-year-old urbano star was needed for sound check at San Juan’s Coliseo de Puerto Rico. Tonight, he’ll perform at the country’s biggest arena as part of a show hosted by local comedian/radio personality Molusco. And while he won’t get to hit the water today, Ozuna couldn’t be more hyped: He’s a ball of energy from the moment he arrives.
Jumping out of his truck, he introduces himself to me -- and within seconds launches into how excited he is to finish his third studio album. “This is the first time I get to record at home,” he tells me of Nibiru, which will arrive in the third quarter. “I’ve gotten used to recording in hotel rooms, on laptops. … It’s nice to finally be able to sit down and concentrate on this.” He seems ready to go on for much longer, but he’s due for the sound check. “You’re going to be out there tonight, right?” he asks me with a kind of hopeful confidence. He heads onstage and, when he spies Molusco, blows him a jesting yet warm-hearted kiss.
There are few markers of success more meaningful to a Puerto Rican artist than selling out the Coliseo -- which boricuas call El Choliseo, or just El Choli. Ever since Daddy Yankee became the first urbano artist to perform there in 2004, it has become a symbol of mainstream acceptance for the genre’s stars to play the venue. Ozuna has sold it out four times, including tonight.
Known in Latin America as “el negrito de los ojos claros” -- the black guy with light eyes -- Ozuna is one of music’s biggest global stars. Within urbano, a genre presently veering away from its Afro-Latino roots, Ozuna is one of the only, and certainly the most famous, Afro-Latinos to hit the mainstream. And though he emerged as part of reggaetón’s so-called rebirth, he also helped usher in the era of Latin trap as a featured artist on 2016’s “La Ocasión,” a major breakthrough for the genre.
Since then, the Dominican-Puerto Rican singer, who leads the list of 2019 Billboard Latin Music Award finalists, with 23 nods, has broken record after record. His debut, Odisea, spent 46 weeks at No. 1 on the Top Latin Albums chart, the second-longest run ever, behind Gloria Estefan’s Mi Tierra in 1993. His next, Aura, debuted at No. 1, knocking Odisea out of the top spot and making him the first male artist to replace himself at No. 1. In 2018, he grossed an average of $882,437 per night on tour (according to Billboard Boxscore), outpaced only by Latin industry vets like Enrique Iglesias, Shakira and Marc Anthony. At the end of 2018, he ranked as YouTube’s most-viewed artist globally in any genre. When I ask if he considers himself, along with his urbano compatriots J Balvin and Bad Bunny (who came in that order after him on that 2018 YouTube list), to be the biggest stars on the planet, he answers, with quite genuine gratitude: “Absolutely. Thank God.”
But his sudden rise has encountered some turbulence: With the release of his third studio album imminent, he’s grappling with a barrage of allegations and rumors stemming from the unsolved murder of Puerto Rican trap artist Kevin Fret in January, and the news that Fret had extorted Ozuna with a sex tape filmed when he was a minor.
Ozuna’s lawyer, Antonio M. Sagardia, has said that “Ozuna had nothing to do with [Fret’s] death,” and the state prosecutor insists Ozuna is not a suspect in the murder. But new accusations against him continue to surface -- including, most recently, one from Fret’s mother, alleging that Ozuna was involved in Fret’s shooting and that he and her son, who was openly gay, had an “intimate relationship.”
It’s hard to say what the immediate future will bring. But looking at the enamored crowd at El Choliseo tonight, Ozuna’s fans seem more than willing to stick by him. As for Ozuna himself, he’s focused forward, on a mission beyond increasing his own fame and fortune.
“I want Latino culture to truly break into the United States, because it really hasn’t yet,” he says. “There isn’t enough mainstream art that centers on Latino identity. All the time it’s ‘English, English, English.’ If I have the opportunity of having so many followers, and helping to take Latino artists and culture to the mainstream, I’m not going to selfishly throw it away because I learned English and can ‘cross over.’ ”
After sound check, Ozuna leads me to a private sanctum within his dressing room, past a life-size cardboard figure of soccer star Lionel Messi holding a ubiquitous brand of potato chips, and away from his publicist and other associates. He settles into a couch and looks me directly in the eye, his hazel gaze never wavering. “Ever since I was born, I’ve been a family man,” he says. “My grandmother, my family has always been united. They taught me a sense of community.”
Though Ozuna’s lyrics sometimes paint a picture of an overconfident lothario (on early hit “Si No Te Quiere,” he recommends that a lady leave her husband so he can “go until the sun comes up” with her), in person he exudes humility, peppering his sentences with frequent thanks to God. Like many who grew up with limited means, he seems eager to share his journey with those close to him: His uncle works as his assistant, and his cousin works as his official photographer.
Juan Carlos Ozuna Rosado was raised in San Juan by his grandmother after his father -- a backup dancer for rap en español godfather Vico C -- was murdered when Ozuna was only 3. He came to the mainland for the first time in 2010, when he linked up with family in New York’s Washington Heights neighborhood. “New York is school. You’re out there paying $2,000 rent. It’s a lot of work, and that city taught me so much,” he recalls. “I learned how to produce, how to arrange lyrics.”
It was in New York that Ozuna also first learned about publishing and promoting his videos on YouTube (he made his first for under $100). An early single, 2012’s “Imaginando,” shows the baby-faced artist already singing the kind of soothing melodies that eventually became one of his trademarks. They also attracted manager Vicente Saavedra, who in 2015 took Ozuna on after hearing one of the artist’s tracks at a street basketball game in Puerto Rico (he and Ozuna were later introduced). Saavedra focused first on conquering radio, and by 2016, the remix of his single “Si Tu Marido No Te Quiere,” shortened just to “Si No Te Quiere” and featuring Farruko and Arcangel, peaked at No. 7 on the Latin Rhythm Airplay chart. YouTube came next. Now, though Ozuna is independent (he is signed to Saavedra’s Dimelo Vi label), his music is distributed and marketed by The Orchard/Sony Music U.S. Latin.
As Ozuna rose, he tried to bring his peers up with him. “Elevating Latinos is my responsibility,” he says. “No one believed in collaborating with women, and I did songs with Karol G, Natti Natasha -- it was unheard of, it didn’t exist.” Though Ozuna was not the first to collaborate with either of these singers -- Nicky Jam, for one, guested on Karol G’s “Amor de Dos” in 2013 -- those tracks became top singles for the other artists: In 2016, “Hello” was Karol G’s first platinum single, and the following year’s “Criminal,” with Natti Natasha, became the first song to knock “Despacito” from its No. 1 spot among YouTube’s most-viewed videos.
In fact, Ozuna has done more to push Latin culture forward in pop music than he takes credit for. With the massive success of singles like “La Modelo” (featuring Cardi B) and most recently his lead feature on DJ Snake’s “Taki Taki” (which ruled the Hot Latin Songs chart for 11 consecutive weeks and reached No. 11 on the Hot 100), his sweet falsetto now permeates the pop soundscape. “He’s a global star, and we will see him spread out to so many new sounds and waves in his career,” says DJ Snake, who invited Ozuna onstage at Coachella to perform their hit. “This is just the beginning for him.”
Ozuna acknowledges that others helped him get here, and he wants to do the same for lesser-known artists. “There’s so much new young talent,” he says. “Lunay, Rauw Alejandro and Lyanno are some of the artists who I gave a break to” -- all were featured on Ozuna’s recent single “Luz Apaga” -- “the same way that Farruko and Arcangel gave me my big break on ‘Si No Te Quiere.’ ”
He’s particularly proud of how a big hit like “Taki Taki” raised not only his profile, but that of Latino artists in general. “After that song, North Americans went wild, and started paying attention to Latinos more,” he says proudly. “Before, it was all surface-level. It was like, ‘Let’s see what these Latinos have going on,’ cautiously. Now all the North Americans want to record with Latinos.”
This isn’t the first time a majority Spanish-language song has become a global hit, though Daddy Yankee’s “Gasolina” (which broke reggaetón to mainstream audiences in 2004) didn’t usher in the same kind of frenzy as English-language artists tapping into Latino culture. “The problem with ‘Gasolina’ is it was one song, one artist going up against the biggest English-language artists of that day. It was ‘Gasolina’ versus Jay-Z, Kanye West, R. Kelly,” says Ozuna. “Now, it’s not just ‘Taki Taki’ or one Latino artist in this [mainstream] space. It’s a lot of us, and English-language artists collaborating with us. You have Drake with Romeo Santos and Bad Bunny. I’m singing with Cardi B. It’s coming.”
Ozuna’s social media feeds give a glimpse into a seemingly infallible pop star’s life -- albeit a very carefully curated one (he works with a social media team). His Instagram is all smiles: yacht parties, video snippets in which he talks directly to fans and expresses gratitude for his chart-topping hits. But in the midst of his meteoric rise, and in the wake of truly extraordinary events, that facade has started to crack.
It began in the summer of 2017, when, according to Ozuna and his lawyer Sagardia, Fret -- one of the first openly gay trap artists in Puerto Rico -- tried to extort Ozuna for $50,000 over a pornographic tape that showed then-16-year-old Ozuna performing a solo sex act. (Sagardia has claimed that a version that seems to portray it as a group act among men is doctored.) Ozuna admitted that he paid the $50,000, but he later went to the FBI in Miami to file a report about the extortion plot.
Then, on Jan. 10, Fret was gunned down while riding his motorcycle in San Juan’s Santurce neighborhood. Rumors that Ozuna was somehow involved immediately sprang up online. Two weeks after Fret’s murder, the tape itself surfaced on various video platforms.
At the time, Ozuna called the tape a youthful “mistake driven by ignorance.” Today, when I ask him about its release, he solemnly says that “this was all God’s plan. It’s something I couldn’t keep from coming out. It was out in the world, and the consequences came. It was nerve-racking. I couldn’t sleep worrying about this, but I couldn’t cover it up.”
A few days after the tape’s appearance, Ozuna performed at Spanish Broadcasting System Latin’s mega-concert Calibash in Las Vegas. He addressed the video onstage. “I apologize to each of you for mistakes I made in the past. I apologize to children and those who were offended,” he told the sold-out audience. “As a man I am here facing the issue. Your past does not define your future, you decide your future from today.”
Why apologize? After all, the tape was very much part of his private life. “You don’t have to apologize or explain anything to people,” he says. “But I have so many fans. They buy my songs, they support my tours, so I feel they do deserve an explanation. They’ve become sort of like my family,” he continues, leaning in and touching my knee. “If you made a mistake before you knew you’d be famous, that’s not the public’s problem. It’s your problem. And as a man, as a responsible adult, you have to look the public in the eye and say, ‘I’m sorry, I had no idea this would happen, yet here we are.’ And the fans, they understood.”
But the tape isn’t the end of the story. On April 3, Fret’s mother, Hilda Rodriguez, told Puerto Rico radio host Samantha Love in an on-air interview that she had texts proving Ozuna once had an “intimate relationship” with her son -- and that she was “certain” Ozuna and Saavedra had “sent [my] son to be killed,” though she did not explain why she thought that was. (She also said that Fret reached out to Ozuna about the tape and asked for a feature on one of his songs, and that Ozuna instead offered $50,000 for Fret not to release the tape.)
Asked about Rodriguez’s allegations -- which surfaced a week after our interview -- Ozuna now says, “Out of respect for him [Kevin Fret] and his family, I have nothing more to say.” The Puerto Rico Department of Justice’s Betzaida Quiñones, the state prosecutor assigned to the case, has said that Ozuna has never been a suspect or person of interest in the murder. “I am not investigating singer Ozuna,” she said in late January, in an interview after Fret’s murder, her only public remarks on the matter. “I’m also not investigating everything that has been posted on social media about whether there was an extortion or not. I’m not investigating whether there was a video or not. That is not relevant to my murder case.”
Later on the evening of the Coliseo show, the back corridors of the venue are brimming with artists on the rise and established forces like Yandel. TV and radio personalities mill about while artists hold court in their respective dressing rooms, as if it’s an entertainment-industry dorm party. While up-and-coming reggaetonero Guaynaa performs recent hits like “Rebota” and “Mi Leona,” Ozuna’s manager, Saavedra, sums up why his client chose to perform as just one member of the lineup for Molusco’s event. “Friendship. Connection to the public,” he says. “He hasn’t played here since August, and this is the perfect moment for that.”
Ozuna, who had headed out earlier for a revitalizing preperformance nap (he has a home in Puerto Rico as well as one in Miami), arrives at the venue with his wife, Taina Marie Meléndez, who is decked out in an oversized Gucci hoodie. She quietly settles into a couch while he attacks a sushi platter, and friends and acquaintances gather around him.
Just as the noise level in the green room reaches a zenith, Ozuna yells out that it’s time to pray. After he manages to calm the sizable crowd around him, he begins a prayer that goes on longer than most sports teams’ pep talks. It would seem performative were it not for the sincerity and conviction in his voice as he covers a wide range of topics: underprivileged children, his family members’ health, blessings for both colleagues and “enemies of mine.”
He even asks God to change would-be sinners’ minds about the evening’s not-yet-realized transgressions. Then his voice falters, as he profusely thanks God for giving him yet “another Choliseo,” and for the abundance of opportunities with which he has been blessed. It’s not hard to see that, even with the fruits of fame, the past few months have taken a toll. With all this talk of gratitude, sin and forgiveness, it feels like a moment of communal catharsis, as Ozuna clings to his faith, friends and family -- perhaps more than he has ever had to before.