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Rage And Reggaetón In Colombia: J Balvin Documentary Ponders An Artist's Duty

Screenshot of reggaeton superstar J Balvin (in sunglasses) visiting fans in a barrio in his native Medellin on the eve of his stadium megaconcert there in 2019 as anti-government protests were erupting across Colombia.
"The Boy From Medellin"
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Amazon Studios
Reggaeton superstar J Balvin (in sunglasses) visiting fans in a barrio in his native Medellin on the eve of his stadium megaconcert there in 2019 as anti-government protests were erupting across Colombia.

In "The Boy From Medellín," superstar J Balvin must find his social voice as Colombian street protests erupt before the biggest show of his life — in his hometown.

The protests on the streets of Colombia right now are really a continuation of the anti-government demonstrations that began back in 2019. The social unrest erupted that year just as Colombia's reggaetón superstar José Alvaro Osorio Balvín — known as J Balvin — was about to give a stadium mega-concert in Medellín, his hometown.

The singer suddenly found himself under intense pressure to speak out on the protests and the socioeconomic inequality that's driving them.

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“I thought I knew what kind of artist I was going to be, but now I just don’t know what to do because I really don’t know the reality that is happening in my country,” J Balvin tells U.S. filmmaker Matthew Heineman — who captures that political and artistic drama in his documentary “The Boy from Medellín,” now streaming on Amazon Prime Video.

Heineman, an Emmy Award-winning an Oscar-nominated director, spoke with WLRN’s Tim Padgett from New York.

READ MORE: In South Florida, Colombia's Turmoil Morphs (Again) Into 'Socialismo' Scare

Below are excerpts from their conversation, edited for clarity:

WLRN: This J Balvin documentary is not the film you set out to make. What was the original idea — and then what happened?

HEINEMAN: Most of my documentary subjects are pretty serious. I wanted to do something different, and I’d always been interested in making a doc about music and the effects of fame. And the original conceit of the film was following José for the week leading up to the biggest show of his life in his hometown, Medellín.

But when we landed in Colombia, we’re suddenly witnessing the largest protests the country has seen in decades. And so the film completely changed and it became a sort of meditation on the public role of an artist. Many people were looking to José to speak out about what was happening in the streets, and he was sort of tortured by this. ‘”You know — 'I'm just an artist, like, why do I need to say anything?'”

J Balvin is one of the most famous singing artists in the world – 47 million Instagram followers – so the decision to speak out or not speak out does have massive ramifications.
Matthew Heineman

Give us a sense of how big and influential a reggaetón star J Balvin was at that moment in 2019 – and still is, really.

He's one of the most famous artists in the world. You know, he's got — let me check here — 47 million Instagram followers. So, you know, the decision to speak out or not speak out does have massive ramifications.

DESTIGMATIZING DEPRESSION

So he sees social media erupting with messages like “J Balvin is too busy selling his show to give a damn about what's going on in his country” — which is strange because, as the documentary shows, he spends a lot of time visiting the sort of working-class barrios he comes from. But at that point in the film, he tells you this:

“I don't want to get into political things because that's not my thing. I just want to focus on giving light to the world.”

Does he have a point? Or is he being naive?

You know, my opinion doesn't really matter. I think, really, my goal is to put you in his shoes and make you feel like, “What would I do if I was in that situation?” I don't think it's necessarily the first time he thought about it; but I think it's the first time he has really thrust into the spotlight to deal with it practically.

And I think a huge part of the tension was that José was trying in his career and his life to change the image of Medellín — to show the world there's more to Medellín than just drugs and Pablo Escobar. It's a beautiful place; it's a colorful place; it's full of energy. And so I empathized with him as he struggled with this.

MatthewHeinemanJBalvin.jpeg
"The Boy From Medellin" director Matthew Heineman (left) with J Balvin

That struggle was made harder for J Balvin by his clinical depression, which is something he's been remarkably open about. “The Boy From Medellín” itself does a remarkable job of showing him dealing with his condition. How did you know how to approach that?

I've … I've suffered from depression myself. And I think that's … that's a big reason why we connected as human beings. I think his attempts to de-stigmatize depression as a male in Latin America was quite a big deal. And he was very comfortable with opening himself up.

I don’t want to give away what J Balvin ultimately does but I’ll point out the film's ending is driven by outrage over the killing of a teenage protester by Colombian police — and then by a talk J Balvin has with his American manager, Scooter Braun, in which Braun tells him:

“Yeah, we didn’t sign up for the responsibility, but when it shows its face, you have to do it. And if you look at the history of musicians, artists have always been on the forefront of moving things forward, because they're the voice of people … You're here because of those kids.”

And J Balvin replies:

I get the meaning.”

Were you surprised by that sudden moment?

It’s why I love making verité docs. You never know what's going to happen. I don't script things; I don't plan for things. When I was 21 years old a mentor of mine said, “If you end up with the story you started with, then you weren't listening along the way.” I think that's good advice for life, and it's good advice for filmmaking: you know, be open to the story changing.

Tim Padgett is the Americas editor for Miami NPR affiliate WLRN, covering Latin America, the Caribbean and their key relationship with South Florida.