Karol G Fought Her Way to the Top of the Reggaetón World. What’s Next?

·17 min read

2020 was supposed to be Karol G’s year.

As she rang in the New Year, she was still riding the high of “Tusa,” a triumphant team-up with Nicki Minaj that marked a number of milestones. It was the first Latin song with all women artists to reach a billion streams on Spotify, and it was also the first song with a female lead artist to debut atop Billboard’s Hot Latin Songs chart since 2016. Yes, 2020 was off to a great start for Karol G — she was regularly collaborating with stars both within Latin music (J Balvin, Ozuna, Anuel AA) and well beyond it (Jonas Brothers, Damian Marley), seemingly destined for crossover success and mainstream fame. And then — well, you can guess what happened next.

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As the COVID-19 pandemic shut down parts of the music business, along with the rest of the world, the artist born Carolina Giraldo Navarro started to worry she had lost momentum. “I was feeling all this pressure because I thought, ‘I will never be able to top ‘Tusa.’ I feel blocked,’ ” she says while sipping a cappuccino at Fi’Lia, a hip brunch spot in Miami’s bustling Brickell neighborhood. Though she’s trying to fly under the radar on this July day, her wavy hair, dyed a mermaid teal, makes her hard to miss. “I stopped making music and told my team to take advantage of this song as much as we could because I would probably be a one-hit wonder,” she continues. “All my concerts were canceled. I thought everything was over. I became depressed, and it’s a feeling I don’t ever wish on anybody.”

But after spending the first two months of the pandemic doing “absolutely nothing,” the 30-year-old did something unusual: She started watching old interviews she gave and listening to old songs she had written. She was impressed by how fearless her younger self was, and that turned out to be exactly what she needed to pull herself out of her funk. She grows teary as she recalls her early days scraping together a career back in Medellín, Colombia. “It’s hard to explain,” she says, “but I fell in love with myself all over again.”

Karol G already had plenty to be proud of. Although she is not the first female artist to find success in reggaetón — Ivy Queen helped pioneer the genre in the 1990s and early 2000s — Karol has achieved an astounding level of success in a particularly male-dominated field. She has amassed 1.2 billion on-demand U.S. streams, according to MRC Data; scored a dozen top 10 hits on the Hot Latin Songs chart; and won best new artist at the 2018 Latin Grammy Awards. Still, she has yet to achieve the type of global mainstream stardom that her male counterparts — like Balvin and Bad Bunny — have enjoyed in the last few years. As language and genre barriers have dissolved in the streaming era, other assumptions about what female Latin artists can achieve, and how they can get there, have been harder to shake.

“For a long time, we used to think men owned this genre, but we were completely wrong,” says Puerto Rican radio personality Jorge Pabón, better known as Molusco. “The thing was that our ear wasn’t fully developed, and we didn’t want to hear a woman singing reggaetón. There were times when I was in a car with other people and a reggaetón song by a female artist would come on the radio, and someone would quickly change the station. Now, there are women like Karol G who are defying this machismo culture that still exists today. They all have talent — and the right to be part of this genre.”

Today, having vanquished her self-doubt, a fired-up Karol G is ready to take her career even higher — and prove she’s so much more than just reggaetón’s current leading lady. In March, she released her ambitious, genre-hopping third album, KG0516, which debuted at No. 1 on the Top Latin Albums chart — dethroning Bad Bunny’s El Último Tour del Mundo and earning the biggest debut week by a female Latin act since Shakira’s El Dorado in 2017. (The album also reached a career-best No. 20 on the all-genre Billboard 200 chart.) In October, she’ll embark on her first headlining North American tour, which includes two sold-out shows at the Coliseo in San Juan, Puerto Rico — one of the most important venues for reggaetón acts to play — then perform back-to-back stadium shows in December at Medellín’s Estadio Atanasio Girardot. It’s all a dream come true for an artist who has been plotting a path to stardom since she was a teenager.

“The artists of today don’t want the process, they want immediate results, and the problem is that a building without a solid foundation will fall,” says Karol. “The opportunities haven’t always been there. But from the very beginning, I imagined myself as this huge artist. I thank God that I got to go through visiting little towns to personally hand out my CDs, knocking on doors. Because I can now sit with authority and proudly say, ‘I’m here because I worked hard.’ It wasn’t easy, but I’m here.”

Conquering the music industry is only the start of her ambitions in entertainment, though. She envisions herself as a multihyphenate, just like her idols, Rihanna and Selena; she even has tattoos of the pop star and the late Tejano icon on her right arm. “I’m super focused on becoming an entrepreneur, launching a makeup brand, clothing lines and making my debut on the big screen,” says Karol. “I want to see how far I can get as an artist and as a businesswoman. I want to be at a point in my life when I can say, ‘I’ve done it all, there’s nothing else I can do.’ ”

It’s a mission she takes very seriously: Right next to the Rihanna and Selena tattoos is one of her own face.

Karol G was 18 years old when she considered quitting the music business. In 2007, following an unsuccessful audition for Colombia’s X Factor equivalent, she signed a multiyear recording contract with Puerto Rican label Diamond Music. She recorded some songs, but after two years, she says she hadn’t seen much success for her efforts. (Diamond Music could not be reached for comment.) That’s when her manager-father, Guillermo Giraldo — known to her fans as Papá G — decided to buy out the contract. “It was a bad contract,” Karol says now, “but we also didn’t know much about what was a good or bad contract back then.”

Feeling lost and defeated, Karol sought a fresh start in New York, where she planned to study marketing. But one day, while riding the subway, she noticed an ad for a music-business conference in Boston and couldn’t resist giving it one more try. “I attended the conference and that’s when I knew: I really do love music, and I can actually make a living off this and look at it as my own business,” she says. “I went back home with this new knowledge, and that’s when I made a commitment to myself to give music another chance. My dad and I created a home studio where I started writing and recording songs.”

That ignited a spark: She started to think of herself as more than just an artist and stopped waiting around for her big break. While studying music at the University of Antioquia, she released songs independently and played every stage she could book — nightclubs, colleges, festivals. She also realized that collaborations and male co-signs could make careers in reggaetón, so she became a savvy networker. She worked as a backup singer for Reykon and approached Balvin and Nicky Jam at different events in hopes of getting into the studio with them. They would eventually become some of her biggest champions. “I was at a show in Medellín, and she asked me if she could hop on the stage with me — and she did,” remembers Nicky Jam, who later collaborated with her on the R&B-tinged 2013 track “Amor de Dos.” “Even back then, she was a dreamer. She had a clear vision of what she wanted and has worked relentlessly to achieve it.”

It was also during this time that she made perhaps her most important connection yet — with producer Ovy on the Drums, who would become her closest collaborator and produce most of her solo music to date. He was impressed by her hustle early on. “We hit it off right away,” says the producer (real name: Daniel Echavarría Oviedo). “I loved her energy, her mentality, and that motivated me to propose an idea. I told her, ‘I’d love it if you gave me the opportunity to be your producer and become a team like Maluma with the Rude Boyz and J Balvin with Sky [Rompiendo].’ I knew Karol would be a major artist, and I wanted to be part of her team.”

Karol credits Ovy with helping her sharpen her songwriting skills to match her mainstream ambitions. “When I started writing music, I had no idea how to make something ‘commercial,’ ” she says. “I would write whatever came to mind, and then Ovy would add the instruments, and that was that. But I knew that if I wanted to be part of the industry, I had to learn how to write a song that would be more commercial.”

That work soon began to pay off. In 2015, after realizing that she and Papá G “were going in circles and needed someone else to help us get to the next level,” she signed a management deal with Alex Rodriguez, a former label manager for Universal Music Latino who had stumbled upon one of her videos on YouTube. She also signed a recording deal with Universal Music Latino after a group of executives — including Angel Kaminsky, Aldo Gonzalez and Jesús López — recognized her potential and the way she stood out as a female reggaetón act.

“She was on my radar as a rising star in Colombia,” says Kaminsky, now president of Universal Music Latino. “J Balvin, whom I was already working with, told me she was going to be the ‘next big one.’ The first time I saw her was at a Universal new artist showcase in Miami, where I was fully impressed by her energy, her vibe and performance, and her [dedication to being] the leading female voice in Latin urban music.”

Though she had the Universal Music Group machinery behind her, Karol didn’t have to change much to break through. She and Ovy wrote and produced her 2017 debut, Unstoppable, almost entirely by themselves. The project debuted at No. 2 on the Top Latin Albums chart, spawned high-profile collaborations with Bad Bunny and Ozuna, and showcased her range with forays into R&B, pop and reggae — though her versatility wasn’t always what jumped out to listeners first. “You had all these Medellín artists who brought in a male perspective and had started making waves in the industry,” says Ismar SantaCruz, vp/managing director of radio strategy at Univision. “Then came Karol G, who had a refreshing vibe and, on top of that, a female perspective and angle that made her even more interesting. She stands out not only as a general artist, but as a woman even more.”

As much as Karol’s “female perspective” opened doors for her, it also subjected her to additional scrutiny. In 2019, she released her second album, Ocean, which featured the hit single “Mi Cama.” The track, powered by a squeaky horn that mimics the sound of a creaking bed frame, entered the top 10 on the Hot Latin Songs chart and was remixed by Balvin and Nicky Jam. Yet the song also drew criticism from Spanish-language media outlets over its sexual lyrics — the kind male artists record all the time without getting so much as a raised eyebrow. In conversation, Karol acknowledges the double standards she faces but she’s not much interested in unpacking them. Understandably, she doesn’t want her gender to define her career any more than it has already. The fact that she’s one of the few successful women in reggaetón is something her male collaborators and business partners frequently cite as both a reason for wanting to work with her and a challenge for her to overcome.

“I’ve been through some really horrible things as a woman in the industry, but I don’t even want to talk about that anymore because I don’t want to victimize myself,” she says categorically. “Whatever happened, it’s all in the past. Those experiences helped shape the woman and the artist I am today.”

And her career path is already doing the same for the other women looking to establish a foothold in Latin’s urbano scene. “You have artists such as Cazzu, Nicki Nicole, Mariah Angeliq and Snow Tha Product who are changing the game with their contributions,” says radio personality Molusco. “It’s incredible that they all share the same story: [overcoming] machismo and the men holding them back. But all these women have come together to create a battalion. In Karol G’s case, I still don’t think we’ve seen her best years. This is just the beginning of a beautiful career, and that only means we’ll see more women coming in through doors she has opened for them.”

In the middle of last year, Karol G had an idea. She called up singer-songwriters Lenny Tavárez and Justin Quiles and told them, “I need to write a song that says I am la más dura” — the baddest of them all — “and that there’s no one else.” After struggling with her confidence during the pandemic, she was ready to take control of the next chapter. Together, the three of them — along with Ovy on the Drums and co-writer Cristian Salazar — came up with “Bichota,” an attitude-heavy track whose title refers to a strong woman leader. It would become a mission statement for both KG0516 and her career at large.

“Ever since ‘Bichota,’ I am even more connected to my music,” says Karol. “Gone are the days when someone would just send me a song and I’d say, ‘OK, I’ll sing it if it’s any good.’ Now, even if there are other songwriters involved, the direction of the lyrics and style are in my hands because I am at that point in my career where I know what I want to and don’t want to release.”

She’s hands-on behind the scenes, too. In 2020, she assembled a new management team, headed up by Noah Assad, the founder/CEO of independent label Rimas Entertainment and longtime manager to Bad Bunny. (Raymond Acosta, head label manager for Rimas, and one of Karol’s sisters, Jessica, are also part of the team.) “There are two managers in the industry that I truly respect and admire: Noah and Rebeca León [co-founder/ CEO of Lionfish Entertainment],” she says. “I’ve loved watching Noah evolve, and I love his work ethic. Same with Rebeca, and as a woman in the industry, she’s huge and very committed. But Rebeca already has her main projects [clients Rosalía and Lunay], and Noah didn’t have a female artist project. So I called him and said I was interested in working with him.”

The two had crossed paths nine years ago at a recording studio in Puerto Rico and loosely stayed in touch. “I don’t remember us speaking much at the time [when we met],” recalls Assad, “but I can tell you that as I continued to see her work, I grew respect for Karol and the drive she has to continue growing and breaking the stigma of being a female in a male-dominated genre.”

On the first day they started working together, Karol gave Assad a list of career goals that included headlining her first North American tour, which she announced nearly a year later. While talking about the tour, Karol gets so animated that she briefly starts referring to herself in the third person. “I knew this would be Karol G’s year,” she says. “I mean, I hope to continue to grow, but it has been the best one so far.”

For AEG Presents, helping Karol become a headliner in North America meant choosing venue sizes carefully. (The tour will hit a mix of theaters, amphitheaters and arenas.) “We’ve been following her as an artist not from America for years, so we understood that the market was strong,” says Gary Gersh, president of global touring and talent. “But we all agreed that whatever we did, we needed to try to create heat and leave people wanting. The fact that we were able to sell out so many places, it left us knowing we did the right thing for her first tour.”

The company also knows that, when it comes to growing her touring business, there are few precedents to follow. “It’s remarkable [to have] someone who doesn’t have a lot of female peers in her space and is willing to take a risk and go out and play large venues, and the audience agreed; it’s exciting for everyone involved to launch this tour,” adds senior vp global touring Rich Schaefer. “If you can get an artist that is fearless like Karol G, she’s not thrown off by what has come before her, she’s not thrown off by male superstars — she’s got her own lane.”

That lane, she promises, will go far beyond reggaetón. “If I’m going to go onstage and sing reggaetón every single time, then how am I innovating? When will I give my fans something so different that truly challenged me?” she asks, sounding a little frustrated — she tends to bristle when people suggest she has already shown all she has to offer. In the past few months, she has tried to stretch her comfort zone, performing with a mariachi at an awards show in July and teaming up with EDM star Tiësto to release “Don’t Be Shy,” her first English-language song, in August. “He told me I could sing it in Spanish,” she says of the DJ-producer, “but I saw it as an opportunity to look beyond [Spanish-speaking listeners]. With this song, we can bring in a new audience.”

With an eye toward expanding into film, Karol says she has hired an acting coach, and she’s also enrolled in business courses so she can be directly involved in the expansion of her business. She believes that Karol G can be so much bigger than Carolina — that career longevity will require thinking of herself as not just an artist, but a brand. “Artists aren’t really idols anymore,” she says. “Now it’s all about moments. If your song is a hit, they’ll talk about you, but because the industry is so saturated, they’ll forget about you when a new artist comes along. Selena died more than 20 years ago, but her albums are still charting, she’s still getting awards. That’s a legacy. My goal now is to create a product that will connect with many people and for people to remember me.”

For now, she still has people talking. Two years after “Tusa,” and one year after worrying her career was over, Karol G is happy to report she’s not the one-hit wonder she thought she might become. “I always wanted to be the biggest in Latin America, and I thought that was the biggest I could get,” she says. “But ‘Tusa’ shook me up. It came to tell me, ‘You’re ready for the world, not just Latin America.’ ”

This story is one of Billboard’s two 2021 Latin issue covers, dated Sept. 18, 2021. To read the other cover story on Daddy Yankee, click here.

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