About 10 years ago, J Balvin was a hot young star in his native Colombia on his way to headline a concert in the remote state of Chocó. Nicky Jam was his older opening act, a once-promising Puerto Rican reggaetón artist intent on reviving his career in another country after struggling with drugs and alcohol. When they met on the chartered private jet taking them to their gig, Balvin was starstruck. “He really had been one of the inspirations in my career,” says Balvin, now 31. Recalls Nicky Jam, 36: “He told me he was my fan, that he was where he was thanks to my music and Daddy Yankee’s.”
Today, Balvin (born José Álvaro Osorio) and Nicky Jam (Nick Rivera Caminero) are not only peers, they’re leaders of reggaetón’s new generation. Together, they’ve taken an underground Puerto Rican genre once dismissed as a fad and helped transform it into the soundtrack of a globalized Latin music revolution. In the past three years, they have each logged eight top 10 hits on Billboard’s Hot Latin Songs chart, more than any other artist in that period, and both placed two videos among the 100 most-viewed of all time on YouTube. Meanwhile, their Instagram followings have both shot past 15 million. Nicky Jam notched his first-ever No. 1 on the Top Latin Albums chart in January and wrapped up his first European arena tour in April. Balvin has already earned five new Hot Latin Songs hits this year (for a career total of 15), and his album Energía is in its 41st week in the top five of the Latin Rhythm Albums chart.
Seldom have two artists who sing in Spanish simultaneously impacted the mainstream so forcefully with the same musical style. For the 2017 Billboard Latin Music Awards, Nicky Jam leads the field with nine nominations. Balvin has seven. They’re competing against each other in the artist of the year category, which encompasses their success on radio, in sales and, perhaps most importantly, streams, which more than anything demonstrate their global reach. (The-artists also will sit for an interview together on April 25 at the Billboard Latin Music Conference.)
In today’s multihyphenate world of celebrity, the two have naturally cultivated strong side hustles as well. Nicky Jam hosted Lip Sync Mexico, the Mexican TV adaptation of Lip Sync Battle, and his friend Vin Diesel recommended him for a role in 2017’s international box-office smash xXx: Return of Xander Cage. “Nicky Jam is such a great talent on so many levels,” says Diesel. “He not only is a natural in front of the camera, he has great comedic timing.”
Balvin, meanwhile, has broken into the fashion world, landing a coveted invite to the Chanel fashion show last December in Paris; becoming, in January, the first Latino named as ambassador of New York Fashion Week; and appearing in Ovadia & Sons’ Spring 2017 campaign. “Balvin’s ability to mix an authentic streetwear sensibility with classic luxury makes him perfect for the current fashion climate,” says AMIRI founder/creative director Mike Amiri.
Despite their personal differences — Balvin is a commitment-averse fashionista, Nicky Jam is a recovering addict and born-again Christian who recently married — the two are close friends. Balvin cut his New York Fashion Week activities short to attend Nicky Jam’s March wedding in Medellín. When they hang out, which is as often as their schedules permit, it’s for a PG-rated boys’ night out for pizza and a movie, most often in Medellín, where both have homes.
“[Balvin] saw me when I was in the dumps, going home from gigs in a rundown taxi in Medellín,” says Nicky Jam, recalling the days when he was first rebuilding his career. “That same guy stood next to me at the Latin Grammys last year. It takes a real man to get to where he’s at and remain humble.” Together, says Balvin, the two have “been able to prove to the world that our music can really be mainstream, even in the U.S., where Latin acts can still be marginalized.” (This interview is translated from Spanish.)
What has been the biggest challenge to finding global success?
Balvin: Erasing the stereotype that Latin acts don’t have the international scope to conquer global music markets. And by “international,” I mean that the people who went to see Nicky in Israel this month aren’t Latin — they’re Israeli. We’ve been breaking the barriers for a while, thanks to what other Latins have done in film and music. Nicky and I are lucky to live at a very key time when social media doesn’t lie, and that has been a blessing. As Latinos, we are many, and our geography is gigantic.
Nicky Jam: I love to see people’s faces change when they hear me speak English and they realize how far I have been able to go.
How have social media and streaming helped you?
Nicky Jam: I’d say streaming has been [a factor] in 50 to 60 percent of our success. It’s my platform, where people found my music. It’s my format. We came at a time when things were changing, and that’s how people view me. Thank God for that.
Balvin: I wrote a new song that says: “The world is big, but I hold it in my hands.” You can have the power of your music on your cellphone and reach millions. Thanks to social media, we’ve also been able to show ourselves as we are. In the end, masks are useless. You have to be real. And the fact that we’re real has made us an inspiration.
How important is the choice of language in your songs?
Nicky Jam: Very important, depending on what angle you’re working. If you’re aiming for the American market, it has to be in English, with maybe a smattering of Spanish — which doesn’t clash, because it’s your culture and your essence. Same thing in Spanish. If you’re making music for the U.S. Latin fan, it’s important that you sing in Spanish. Even going too bilingual can backfire. I don’t see a Spanish song being No. 1 on the Hot 100. I mean, if it happens, fantastic. But I don’t think it will.
Balvin: I think it’s possible, but we’re not there yet. It may take many years, as new generations emerge and realize the United States isn’t the only place on the planet and English isn’t the only language of value. [At this point] I’m very, very focused on singing in Spanish.
Nicky Jam: It’s easier for an English song to be No. 1 on the Latin lists. You can do a collaboration with an American rapper, and Latinos will listen to that. But I can’t picture an African-American rap fan sitting in his car saying, “I love Nicky Jam’s rap!” Just being realistic.
Nicky Jam: The problem isn’t the producers. We have very good producers. The problem is we sing in Spanish, and that’s not the global language. If we sang in English, we would have global No. 1s, and no one would say anything.
Has the issue of deportation touched you in any way?
Balvin: Several years ago, I had relatives who were deported because they were working here illegally. It pains me to see the situation of Latins here right now, but you know what? The day Latins stop working in this country, the economy will go down the drain.
Nicky Jam: I don’t have deportations [affecting me], but I have preoccupations. My mother-in-law is trying to get her residency so she can be here with her daughter, my wife. I have employees who are Venezuelan and work here and are very worried about being deported and not being able to take care of their families. I have Colombian employees who are always worried about their visas. So, yes, it’s scary and it’s worrisome.
José, in 2015, you canceled your performance at the Miss Universe pageant after the then-co-owner, Donald Trump, spoke disparagingly about Latins. As artists, do you feel added political responsibility today, with Trump as president?
Balvin: Canceling Miss Universe was not based on a political opinion, but on the opinion of a human being who thinks Latins must be respected. It’s my vision as José, a Latino who once worked painting houses in the U.S. I felt offended. But it was never, “Let’s start a political movement.” Politics doesn’t interest me in the least.
Nicky Jam: As individuals, we have to act independently of the politics at hand. I don’t feel an added responsibility to do anything more beyond being who I’ve always been and acting decently. As a reggaetón act, I’ve always felt people are looking down on us and expecting us to fail. That’s enough of a burden, and we automatically try to act with dignity.
And in fact, you both have largely avoided objectifying women in lyrics and videos, which is common in reggaetón.
Nicky Jam: Our audience is so broad that we have to make videos where women look beautiful and conservative and are treated with respect, because the videos are seen by kids and adults. Other reggaetóneros who do what they do are targeting one audience. They don’t have the same responsibility we do.
Balvin: Plus, we both have mothers, sisters, relatives. Part of what we did is change that misconception that reggaetón is machista and misogynist. On the contrary, women are our biggest fans, and they inspire us.
Who are your musical heroes?
Balvin: Culturally, right now, Drake has had a really interesting impact by being a Canadian of mixed heritage in a field that’s typically African-American. He has changed the concept of flow and melody and become the biggest artist in the history of streaming.
Nicky Jam: Michael Jackson. He changed the format and history of music. His videos were films. He was the first who floated on the stage and changed the concept of a musical performance. He created something that’s still the basis of a lot of what’s done today.
Have your careers ever affected your friendship?
Nicky Jam: It’s important to see two artists in their prime, with no ego. We’re competitors, not rivals. We’re simply enjoying our mutual success and showing the world you can do that without harboring negative feelings. I think we’re setting a good example for youth. And it’s real.
Balvin: I give thanks to life that we found each other when we were both evolving. We’re both human, of course, and we have our egos. But this friendship is from the heart.
Nicky Jam: We don’t spend as much time together because we’re both doing our thing. But we speak whenever we can, and Balvin gives me likes [on Instagram], and I give him likes. Although I’m not as good about it…
Balvin: (Laughs.) He hardly ever gives me likes. It’s like his finger weighs a ton.
Where do you see yourselves in five years?
Balvin: With strong discipline and good music, we’ll be 10 steps above where we are today. And I would like to have a role with Nicky Jam in the Fast and Furious [franchise]. That’s a dream of mine! Nicky, you got that?
Watch J Balvin and Nicky Jam play “How Well Do You Know Your Hermano?”, where they answer questions about each other’s favorite dance moves, music and guilty pleasures.
Nicky Jam and J Balvin will speak at the Billboard Latin Music Conference. To register, visit http://billboardlatinconference.com