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J Balvin knows a thing or two about starting from the bottom in the United States. Before becoming a staple in reggaetón, he was Jose Álvaro Osorio, an undocumented worker painting houses, trying to make a living in the U.S.
Fast-forward to 2022, and Balvin — now a Grammy-nominated musician with countless hits — has found a way to give back to his roots.
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On Tuesday, Miller Lite announced a new iteration of the brand’s partnership with Balvin: a streetwear collection, named BodegaWear, designed for the runs to the neighborhood convenience store. Most importantly to Balvin, all proceeds from the streetwear line sales are set to go to the Acción Opportunity Fund, which supports corner stores and Latinx-owned businesses.
“Even though I have this different life today, I can’t forget about my beginnings and where I come from,” he tells Rolling Stone. “When you go to the bodega, there are a lot of people there that don’t have papers — that’s just the reality. Imagine a day without Latinos. The day would be frozen.”
To celebrate the launch of the new line, we spoke to Balvin about his favorite fashion trends this summer (“Every time I pull up in all-black I feel just like Batman.”), his recent collabs with Anitta and Ed Sheeran, and the meetup he had with his hero, Jay- Z:
J Balvin is all about the Latino gang. Talk to me about BodegaWear. Why is giving back so important?
With us Latinos, that’s our thing. Going to la tienda. We just transferred our DNA to this collab, keeping it street. I know the struggles. I used to be [undocumented] working here, painting houses. I know how it feels. I have this empathy for my people because I know how much they go through.
My family came here sin papeles, so it means a lot talking about this subject.
I’m talking real with you. I’m not here telling you stories. I’m telling you reality. I was working illegally. My aunt was [undocumented] working for 10 years in New York. Half of my family were [undocumented] in Queens. Thank God they have papers, but we know the hustle. They pay us way less than half of what people get in an hour. I know the feeling. Every time I’m in the streets, I’d rather run into someone from the streets than someone that is famous. I have this love and connection because I went through it.
When you think of somebody who has reached celebrity status like you, sometimes it might be easy to forget about that. How do you stay connected to those roots?
I have a really close circle. They always keep me grounded. They’re my best friends since I was four years old. I think that says a lot about who we are as a person. I’m not saying that I’m a great person because I have a lot of mistakes, but sometimes people get famous and they forget about the real people. Right? Because they get lost in the cloud. I don’t. My best friend since I was a kid is still around me. They keep me real. And also my mom. My mom always is like, ‘Hey, don’t forget where we come from.’ I don’t come from poverty, I got to be real. We were middle class, but my friends and the people that started with me in music, they were really poor in the barrios of Colombia. They taught me a lot. I started valuing the real things.
Since we’re talking about style, you’re also an icon when it comes to that. How would you describe J Balvin’s style this summer?
This is funny because it’s summer, but I just want to be in all black. People recognize me as being a colorful guy, which is always playing out in my hair. But I love to be black on black. Even if it’s summer. I love it. It just makes me feel way more confident. It makes me feel good. But I do throw some color here and there because that’s part of my DNA. If you look bad with black, you have a problem! [laughs] You can be in the street but also you can go to a nightclub on the same day with a black T-shirt.
Is there any style icon today that you’re impressed with?
I met the creative designer of Vetements, Guram Gvasalia. When I met him, we had a great connection and he was black on black all the time. There was something special there. Guram from Vetements is really, really, really, really cool. And different.
You’re known for great collaborations, but in the last few months, you’ve worked with Ryan Castro, Quavo, Pharrell, Anitta, Tainy and Ed Sheeran, to name a few. Which songs have been your favorites?
Basically, all the people that I work with, I have a really great connection. Anitta, that’s my sister. Period. Quavo, I’ve always been a big fan of Migos. We don’t have a relationship, you know, but I respect him so much. Ed Sheeran became one of my closest friends in the industry because he’s as real as it gets. And Ryan Castro is like, the new school of reggaetón: great guy, hard worker, disciplined, and super talented. I love to support the new generations: It’s all about unity and elevating our culture.
I feel like you grew up on the old school. You brought in a new school, and now we’re seeing another generation of reggaetoneros. What are you seeing in this new generation of artists that’s different from you and the people who came before you?
I like their personality more than anything. It’s more about the good vibes. The music always has a full circle with the way it was, like in the Nineties. But they’re also refreshing it, like Rauw Alejandro with the dancing. We needed that type of artist in our game. When we did Oasis with Bad Bunny, I wanted to support the new thing. That’s why I’m in the middle: I’m not old school because I wasn’t with the OGs, the ones who started it. And I’m not new. I understand both styles pretty well.
You posted this really cool photo with Jay-Z about looking up to him and now being able to meet with him. What’s that like for you? What advice did he share with you?
It is a dream because I grew up with Jay-Z. I think he’s the most powerful artist that has touched different aspects of business and culture in the world. He has made what I want to make. I want to create businesses that can elevate our culture, based on Latinos and immigrants. Today, I can be part of any room, and be proud of who I am and what I have done, and have these conversations with Jay-Z. He had to get to that too. Right? And he’s got so much love and respect for what we have done. It’s really cool having a mentor that can teach me and tell me what should be the next steps. He’s the GOAT. He made it. I want to be that guy representing Latinos around the world.
You tweeted that the most important song of your career has yet to drop. Is it a specific song that’s coming? Can you tease it?
No, because there’s no formula music, right? All the hits that we have made, some of them caught us by surprise. That’s what I’m saying: my biggest song hasn’t come out yet because tomorrow I might drop something that will go beyond what I expect. It’s cool to see all your accomplishments, but I’m always like, what’s next? If I say ‘My best song is this,’ then that’s it. That’s as big as I could get it. I want to have more statements around the world to globalize our music. And that’s what I’m saying: it hasn’t even come out yet because we don’t know!
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