Last October, Maluma was in the middle of a sold-out show at New York’s Madison Square Garden when he brought out a surprise guest: hometown hero Jennifer Lopez, who looked quite literally like the queen of the city in a spiky golden gown and headpiece that matched Maluma’s glittery blazer. They duetted on “No Me Ames,” a song from her first album — a meeting of two Latin superstars at the height of their powers. Maluma was touring in support of 11:11, his third consecutive No. 1 on Billboard’s Top Latin Albums chart, while Lopez had completed her own arena tour earlier that year — her first trek since her blockbuster Las Vegas residency launched in 2016.
Fans with camera phones in hand weren’t the only ones recording the moment. The two stars were filming the performance for their upcoming movie, Marry Me, and had recorded another scene — set to an as-yet unreleased song — during sound check earlier that day. Planned for theatrical release on Valentine’s Day 2021, the film stars Lopez as a pop star who, after learning that her musician boyfriend Bastian (played by Maluma in his first starring role) has been cheating on her, decides to take a fan holding a “Marry me” sign (Owen Wilson) up on his offer in a hasty act of revenge.
The film, produced by Lopez’s Nuyorican Productions and distributed by Universal Pictures, is not a musical, but it heavily incorporates music and singing in a way not seen in a Lopez vehicle since she broke out with Selena, the 1997 biopic of the Tejano icon. It’s also a landmark moment for Latin representation in film: According to the University of Southern California’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, of the 3,891 speaking characters in the top 100 films of 2019, only 4.9% were Hispanic/Latino, compared with 65.7% white, 15.7% Black and 7.2% Asian — despite the fact that Latinos are the largest minority in the country (18% of the population, according to a U.S. Census Bureau estimate from this year). Having two Latino leads among the top-billed names is especially rare, according to Elaine Goldsmith-Thomas, Lopez’s producing partner. “It is our obligation as people who work with people of color to amplify them and give them their proper place,” she says.
Yet Marry Me — which will have a bilingual soundtrack released by Sony Music Latin, label home to both Lopez and Maluma, in partnership with Arista Records — is coming at a time when Latin musicians are enjoying more mainstream visibility and success than ever.
In 2019, the five most-viewed videos on YouTube were by Latin artists, and roughly 30% of the service’s top 100 videos in a given week are Latin music, according to YouTube; Latin music videos also make up about a third of the videos that have over 1 billion views. In the United States, so far this year 26 Latin tracks have made it to the Billboard Hot 100 — more than any previous year. The pairing of Lopez and Maluma onscreen in many ways represents how the rules of stardom are changing for Latin artists: Lopez has juggled English- and Spanish-language releases throughout her career while Maluma — who only learned English in the past few years — records predominantly in Spanish and says he has no interest in changing that.
“Are you Spanglishing, are you Englishing or are you Spanishing?” asks Lopez, 51, as she plops down on a chair next to Maluma’s at the start of our interview in Los Angeles in early October. “I prefer English, always. I’m more articulate.”
“Oh, she loves her Spanish!” says Maluma, 26, teasing her in English.
“Sometimes I get on a roll,” she says. “Sometimes I’m totally stuck. I’m sure it’s like you with English.” Maluma nods. “To speak English perfectly I have to forget my first language is Spanish.”
Though Lopez had been hoping to make a bilingual soundtrack well before Maluma signed on, the filmmakers weren’t always looking to cast a Latin star opposite her; at different times during the film’s development, they had envisioned the role as a rock star or a rapper. But when director Kat Coiro happened upon a Maluma interview on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, “it just clicked and it was immediate,” she says. “He was so charming and so smart and handsome.” (It didn’t hurt that, with collaborations with Shakira and Madonna under his belt, Maluma also knows how to hold his own alongside pop royalty.)
Maluma’s manager, Walter Kolm, had a similar reaction upon meeting him in 2013, back when Maluma was an unknown teenager signed to Sony Colombia. “He was very charismatic, had tons of attitude,” remembers Kolm. “He sang, danced, rapped, wrote. Not since Ricky Martin had I seen an artist like that.”
Maluma had barely acted before Marry Me, but he didn’t have to formally audition for the film — a clear sign of Hollywood’s awareness of the value of courting Hispanic moviegoers, who bought 25% of tickets in the United States in 2019, according to market research firm Statista. The singer is part of a wave of Latin recording artists popping up onscreen these days: Earlier this year, J Balvin had a role as Tresillo in the animated film Trolls World Tour — a clip of his character performing his global smash “Mi Gente” was prominently featured in ads for the movie — and both Cardi B and Ozuna have joined the cast of next year’s F9, the latest installment of the Fast & Furious series. “Never in his wildest dreams did Maluma picture himself starring in a Hollywood film with Jennifer Lopez,” says Sony Music Latin Iberia chairman/CEO Afo Verde. “It’s a reflection of the moment we’re living.”
Streaming services are also recognizing the value of Latin artists’ stories, with music-driven scripted shows like Netflix’s bilingual Selena: The Series (premiering in December) and Amazon’s Spanish-language Súbete a Mi Moto, based on the story of boy band Menudo (out now). They are a “must-watch” for those acts’ “millions of fans,” says Daniel Eilemberg, president of Exile Content Studio, a Spanish- and English-language production company that has several music-themed projects set up for distribution. “That’s powerful [enough] to drive subscriptions.”
Lopez, of course, is no stranger to the ways film and music can cross-pollinate: She is the only woman to have had a No. 1 album on the Billboard 200 and the No. 1 movie at the U.S. box office in the same week. (With J.Lo and The Wedding Planner, respectively, in 2001.) Now, following a year in which she stormed the Super Bowl halftime show stage with Shakira and garnered Academy Award buzz for her role in Hustlers, Marry Me offers a timely distillation of her brand — and a chance to funnel some of that awards-season adoration back toward her music career. “To be able to use all of her superpowers in one piece is the culmination of the last few years of work that everybody has seen,” says her longtime manager, Benny Medina.
Since her double-whammy No. 1s two decades ago, the ways film can help sell music have only become clearer and more potent. Last year, Lizzo’s 2-year-old song “Truth Hurts” blew up after it was prominently featured in the Netflix movie Someone Great; that same year, an Oscars performance helped Lady Gaga score what then was her first Hot 100 No. 1 in eight years with the A Star Is Born anthem “Shallow.” Coiro is hoping it works the other way, too. “One of my main priorities was showing full performances, and we have nine songs that play in their entirety,” she says. “Films usually have snippets of performances, but it would be a real shame to have Jennifer Lopez and Maluma and not showcase their talents.”
Lopez and Maluma have already been using new music to entice potential moviegoers. In the early stages of the pandemic, they recorded two collaborations: “Pa’ Ti” and “Lonely,” which Mike Knobloch, Universal Pictures’ president of global film music and music publishing, describes as a way to “warm up the marketplace and create an awareness of the mythology of the characters they play.” (“Pa’ Ti” has since been added to the film’s soundtrack.) “We got on FaceTime — this was during lockdown — and spoke,” says Lopez of the tracks’ origin. “[Maluma] said, ‘I have a couple of songs. I’m going to send you one.’ And I said, “I have a song too. I’m going to send you one.’ ”
Both tracks were released in late September in conjunction with a single nine-minute short film that premiered on TikTok — the platform’s first music video premiere. The film is bookended by a TikTok promo that stars Charli D’Amelio, TikTok’s most-followed influencer, inviting fans to take part in a dance challenge with the hashtag #PaTiChallenge. Dance challenges — essentially, calls for users to re-create popular choreography — often start organically but are increasingly engineered by labels to boost exposure on the app, for good reason: Videos featuring the #PaTiChallenge have drawn over 1.8 billion views, according to TikTok, and “Pa’ Ti” debuted at No. 9 on Hot Latin Songs — Lopez’s highest-charting single there since 2014. “We’re seeing a lot of engagement for Latin artists and music in the U.S. and abroad,” says Brandon Holman, TikTok’s manager for label partnerships. “That audience and community is a huge focus for the company.”
There is a chance, of course, that COVID-19 concerns will delay the film’s theatrical release, a fate that has already befallen several would-be blockbusters. (“We are in uncharted territory,” says Knobloch, “so I think the plans are very fluid.”) But Medina hopes that no matter what, the movie and its inventive rollout will translate to more onscreen opportunities for Latin creators. “It takes a lot to cut through all the noise now with any story from any culture,” he says. “We’re seeing incredibly explosive global awareness in some of the best and most interesting Latin artists. And we’ll see more stories being told — better-financed stories that will be better-produced stories.”
What was the first day on set like?
Jennifer Lopez: (To Maluma.) What was the first scene we did?
Maluma: When we were fighting with Owen, remember? In that little hall. It was the first time that I met Owen. And then I had to scream at him.
Lopez: You wanted to beat him up! You wanted to kill him!
Maluma: Yes! It was tough because I had to get into the Bastian role, you know? And then he came back and said, “Bro, I really felt all the things that you were saying to me. You did great.” And I was like, shit, Owen Wilson is saying that to me? The first scene?
Jennifer, you’re playing a pop star not unlike yourself.
Lopez: It was a little cathartic for me. I was playing [a character] trying to find someone who understood her and accepted her for all of what her life was but also just saw her as a person. Like a real girl, which is what I am. People see you as this thing, this star. They forget that you’re just a girl and want to live and laugh and be normal. And that really was what the movie is about.
Some of the songs were done before Maluma signed on, some later. What was the process of creating this soundtrack like?
Lopez: We had the script, and then we picked places where we would like to put the music. You can’t have a movie about two pop stars who are performing and not have a soundtrack. But the album was really difficult because I wasn’t making a J.Lo album. I was writing songs for the story. So while I was on tour, I had submissions from every producer and every writer, and we listened to a hundred songs to get seven or eight.
Maluma: Everything was very fast. When I knew I was going to be part of the project, we were like, “OK, we need to start writing songs.” I was in Colombia. I brought over one of my producers — Edgar Barrera — and we started writing this song, “Segundo.” [The studio and director] liked it, but it was like, “We need another, more commercial reggaetón song.” And that’s when we did that other song, “Uno en un Millón.” I was super motivated.
There’s a lot of cultural significance to the movie. Obviously it’s a rom-com, so it’s light —
Lopez: Eh, eh, eh! (Puts her hands up.) First of all, romantic comedies are not light movies. They’re necessary, beautiful movies, and I don’t know why people feel like they have to put them down when everybody enjoys them so much. It’s like “chick flicks.” I don’t know guys who don’t love to go to the movies and watch a rom-com. It’s a very sweet movie, but it’s still a movie about life.
Fair enough. But having two of the three leads be Latino — let alone singing Spanish-language music on camera — is rare for a huge film like this.
Lopez: It’s not common. I’ve been doing movies for 25 years now, and I’ve done 40-something movies. There have been three to four movies in my entire career where I’ve had Latino costars. So with my production company, one of the things we wanted to do with this film was have an international star who could be right there with me to make an album that was bilingual. That was a big deal for us. That has always been the goal of my career, to show diversity in the different characters that I can play.
So music really helped break down that barrier?
Lopez: Music is the universal language, whereas film really isn’t. Rhythm and melody is something anybody can understand. We had some really dynamic artists in the first “Latin explosion”: Marc [Anthony], Ricky, Shakira, Enrique [Iglesias], myself. That was the first time people said, “Oh, Latin artists exist in mainstream America.” But we had to do English-language music. This is the first time Spanish-language music has been embraced. But I think it comes down to the artists. I’m not saying there haven’t been dynamic artists over the years, but there’s something about the streets that makes everything cool: that reggaetón movement, that trap movement. “Despacito” — people were like, “This is cool, this is sexy, this is hot.”
Maluma: We’re doing great music right now.
Lopez: Salsa music has always been great music!
Maluma: But we need that artist who can take salsa there. There isn’t a new salsa kid right now that you say, “This kid can make it.” I don’t think they think they’re cool. We need that merengue, that salsa — someone who can take those genres to another level. Everybody wants to sing reggaetón, and I really feel we’re missing out.
Lopez: It’s about the artists at the moment and what is the sound of the time. Everything has a timing to it.
Maluma: It’s a new mindset. These new generations think differently. They think, “I’m Hispanic, so I’m cool.”
How aware are you of breaking down boundaries for Latin artists in the mainstream?
Maluma: It has been difficult to get into the American market. But people like Jennifer — who has been working a long time to get people to understand who we are as a community — opened a lot of doors for a lot of artists. I feel very grateful for Jennifer. Who was going to think that my first movie was going to be a Hollywood movie with Owen Wilson and Jennifer Lopez?
Jennifer, your Super Bowl performance must have meant a lot for that reason.
Lopez: It was monumental for me. It was about [putting on] the best, most exciting show that I could, but there were a lot of messages in there — for women, for little girls, for Latinos here in the United States and everything we’ve been going through [politically]. We have to stand up for ourselves. That’s why I said, “Let me hear you, women! Let me hear you, Latinos! It’s time to get loud!” Our vote matters. We matter.
How important is it for you to represent your Latin identity in your work?
Lopez: Everybody knows that I’m a Puerto Rican girl from the Bronx. It’s not something I ever tried to hide — or ever thought that I should hide — so I can get ahead. I always felt that individuality is what made me different from every other actress that was out there when I first started. I feel it’s the secret to my success.
Maluma: I have a tattoo that says “Medellín.” (He opens his shirt to show it.) I just want to be known around the world as Colombian. Everybody is always saying, “When are you going to start singing in English?” Why am I going to do it if I’m doing concerts in Romania, Israel, Morocco, the States, and they’re singing in Spanish? I want to bring my essence around the world. And my essence is singing in Spanish.
Lopez: I love singing in Spanish. Honestly, I think I sing better in Spanish than I even do in English. That’s a big part of who I am. I’m always working on a Spanish album. I never finish it. But you don’t want to put anything out until you feel that it’s the right thing at the right time. I’ve been working on some songs on the album for three years, [and these two new ones], we did them and we put them right out.
How necessary are albums for you two? Jennifer, you’ve been steadily putting out singles over the past few years and still toured arenas. Maluma, you’ve released three full-length projects in three years, including August’s Papi Juancho.
Maluma: Right now, everybody is releasing new music every Friday, and they’re not doing serious projects. For me, I just love to sit down at a table with my team and start thinking about new strategies, concepts — that’s why I love doing albums. I did Papi Juancho during quarantine, and for me it was very nice to be connected again with my roots. I wrote my album in three months. But that was because I was very inspired. Like Jennifer said, it has to be the right time.
Lopez: Albums are important because it’s a body of work. It marks a moment in time. When you do singles it marks a day, a week. I look at my albums like specific moments of my life, and they end up defining you as an artist. J.Lo the album defined me for the rest of my life. This Is Me… Then — I look back on that album and think, “Wow.” On the 6 — all of them are very special.
As artists who work in so many sectors, how do you juggle all your commitments?
Lopez: Whatever needs to be done at the moment is the priority. Some of my time is producing, some of my time is acting on set, some of my time is making music, some of it is touring, some is my businesses — skin care, perfumes. I’m able to compartmentalize.
Maluma: I’m always thinking of the next move. I’m always making music. I have my studio with me wherever I go. Music is my biggest passion, but I’m thinking that I want to keep acting. I need to take advantage of this opportunity and start thinking about my next movie. For me, my No. 1 priority is trying to be happy. Sometimes I’ve been working so hard that I forget about myself.
Lopez: You forget how to live.
Maluma: Exactly. Quarantine helped me reconnect with my roots, my family, Medellín, my dogs. That’s the kind of life I want. I love touring and I miss it — of course I do. But I’m so happy right now. I feel balanced. I’ve been touring for seven years now, and I had to stop.
Jennifer, how have the past few months been for you?
Lopez: Being home and being with the kids [12-year-old twins Emme and Max] was really a special time. We got to do things we never do. One of the fears of artists who perform is, “If I stop, it’s going to go away.” And it doesn’t. You need to have a little bit more faith in yourself and know that when you’re ready to put out the next album, even if it takes two years, it’s OK. You have to take time for things that matter: your kids, your family.
Where do you see yourselves a year from now?
Maluma: I think the J.Lo-Maluma movement is just starting. After Marry Me, I think things are going to change a lot.
Lopez: Maybe we’ll do a tour together.
Maluma: We’re making history right now as a Latin community and I feel very proud of being part of this big, big movement that we’re having right now.