BY: ZOE ERVOLINO.
The first time I heard Sola by J Balvin, my tía showed me. Sandra was one of several tías that I would come to know over the course of my stay in Medellin over the summer of 2015, as I bore witness to the fragmented pieces of family precariously joined by place, time, and good weather. It was the first time I had spent any time in Medellin and I was getting used to the regular trips to the mall masked as recreational activity. For Colombians, malls seemed an object of casual socialization, a quotidian passage not only towards but through concentrated capital.
Outside of the JUMBO adjacent to the mall’s ground floor parking lot, Sola rolled over the sound system of Sandra’s car. The sonic passage was epic, and my first real exposure to the contradictory genre of Medellin-based Colombian reggaetón. Being my first-time hearing J Balvin’s music, this experience of melodic transformation resonates now. Indeed, with this so-called “act of transfer,” to use a term of Diana Taylor’s, I was exposed to the “Colombian Musical ImagiNation”—an act of cultural exchange that would leave a deep impression on my relationship with sonic moral landscapes and the polemic of reggaetón.
“Si tu estas sola, sola, so-le-ita, me puedes llamar,” J Balvin pledges earnestly, before continuing. “A cualquier hora. Si me necesitas, pa ti voy estar.” Now we’re getting a little desperate, don’t you think? This sultry performance of heroic commitment is as chilling as it is cringeworthy. Yet J Balvin’s command of rhythm and ethereal percussion moved me then, as I impulsively rushed to scribble the name of the song in a list that I had begun compiling based on my aunt’s recommendations. Sola would play uninterrupted in my head and, in retrospect, it’s a gross song.
Since this initial encounter with Balvin’s music and style, the artist has consumed a significant position in my mind as an example of where the transnational Latin American rubs up against the local U.S. Latinx. Take for example, a 2011 interview the young artist did with Music Voyager, where Balvin revealed his personal understanding of reggaetón as “hip-hop for Latinos:”
“I used to live in New York and I fell in love with urban music. And when I came back, I started listening to reggaetón straight out from Puerto Rico and I was like, this is what I’m looking for. I’m looking for something like hip-hop, but in my language. And definitely, to me, reggaetón is like hip-hop for Latinos” (J Balvin, Colombia: The New Medellin, 2011).
Leading the pack with 13 mentions, Balvin made history last Friday as the artist with the most nominations for a single Latin Grammy award show in its 21-year history.
Almost a decade after my inaugural exposure to Balvin’s ‘Sola,’ I listened to Kali Uchis’ single, ‘Solita.’ And from this experience I am certain that Uchis’ TO FEEL ALIVE EP is an extension of everything that’s right about Solita. Like J Balvin’s track, Solita yearns for romantic catharsis and is paired with the emblematic tri-beat reggaetón drumline. But Uchis’ track transcends Balvin where her alto-humming and sonic opulence is concerned. Her resonance is dark, melancholic, and metonymical to the track’s chorus where the song’s protagonist celebrates dancing alone as, she ultimately resolves, it is better than “with the devil”:
Bailando aquí sola, como a mí me gusta
Bailando aquí sola
Es mejor que con el diablo”
Allegorically vilifying this imagined lover, Uchis posits isolation as catharsis from evil. This celebratory vision of solitude says fuck you to J Balvin’s late night bootycall. Dancing alone is an actionable force of protection and pleasure for the song’s protagonist. Using the diminutive ‘ita,’ Uchis figuratively sweetens her portrait of petite solitude in opposition with her uncompromising lover’s tyranny.
Isolation is no new territory of artistic exploration for Uchis. Indeed, the artist’s own album on the subject catalyzed a drastic shift in the artist’s aesthetic representation towards an ostensibly “urban” xicanx visualization of Colombianidad. On the album, the artist longs to share intimacy—to fly both figuratively and literally—and laments the soreness of heartbreak. The album deals with the problem of place for the omnipresent author, as the artist longs for mobility through multifaceted vectors: dreamscapes, homecomings, nights in Miami with Puerto Rican rapper BIA. Uchis deftly resurrects and lays to rest flattening characterizations of Colombian deviancy, giving emotional resonance to her individual experience as an immigrant and subject of the Colombian conflict and beyond.
Perhaps she does this act of sensitive portrayal most acutely in her track “IN MY DREAMS,” which opens with the artist relaying, “I’m feeling happy inside I got no reason to hide I’m a dream girl / I’m never stressin my bills nobody ever gets killed it’s the dream world,” with a deadpan inflection. The artist takes a higher resonance to declare that “my mama’s never on coke, this isn’t my way to cope, washing my mind out with soap,” suggesting the vocalist’s suffering implied in her very denial. This formal cognitive dissonance corresponds not only with Uchis’ psychoanalytical state but is also embedded in the sonic character of a track. The divergent contrast between the singer’s desires and realities recur across Isolation and her newer TO FEEL ALIVE EP.
I am drawn to these artists in this particular moment as they meet at the intersection of solitude and self-soothing escapism, a crossroads that seems ever-present in the Colombian literary canon. The debilitating impact of solitude was the central focus of widely-acclaimed novelist Gabriel García Marquez’s work and he delivered a lecture on the matter in 1982 upon receiving the Nobel Prize in literature. The conceit of “The Solitude of Latin America”? That we must be brave enough to envisage a world that is not thwarted by solitude and its divisive consequences:
“Faced with this awesome reality that must have seemed a mere utopia through all of human time, we, the inventors of tales, who will believe anything, feel entitled to believe that it is not yet too late to engage in the creation of the opposite utopia. A new and sweeping utopia of life, where no one will be able to decide for others how they die, where love will prove true and happiness be possible, and where the races condemned to one hundred years of solitude will have, at last and forever, a second opportunity on earth.”
Scholars of popular culture have signaled the musical realm as a linchpin for such endemic solitude in the Colombian context. As Maria Elena Cepeda contends in her work, Musical ImagiNation: U.S-Colombian Identity and the Latin Music Boom, “[m]usic provides a collective space for imagining Colombianidad outside traditional geopolitical borders” (4). As such, the form offers complex portraits of the ways that community, nationalism, transnationalism, and citizenship are conceptualized within the Colombian diaspora. Popular music provides an alternative social dialectical space that invites Benedict Anderson’s process of “imagined community,” which Cepeda terms the ‘musical imagiNation’—both a noun and verb. The musical imagiNation embodies “[a] collective activity embedded in a definitive sense of place(lessness)” and suggests the specific importance of imagination as central to all forms of agency within the contemporary deterritorialized Colombian ‘communities of sentiment’ (8-10).
What strikes me, perhaps ironically, is the way in which solitude, in its multiple explorations, has emerged as a central theme that marks the collective project of the Colombian Musical ImagiNation. This peculiar fact gestures to a point that James Clifford articulated in observing that popular culture “by its very nature… conceals, rather than accentuates, its ideological and political potential,” (Musical ImagiNation, 4). Indeed, both J Balvin and Kali Uchis invoke solitude in their active creation of a collective process of identity production, regardless of their intentions of individual expression. Whereas a young Balvin proposes masculine devotion as isolation’s remedy, a contemporary Uchis embraces loneliness as tour de force in self-preservation and self-creation, pushing the boundaries of Garcia Marquez’s diagnosis of Colombian solitude.
The rise of Colombian reggaetón and J Balvin, in particular, serves as a distinctive site of Colombian diasporic identity as it draws from a genre typically associated with the history of Black social protest in Puerto Rico. While Balvin nods to these roots, the rise of mainstream Medellin-based reggaetón has signaled a whitewashing of the genre for some. While this criticism has been levied to invite a productive portrait of the genre’s history, it has also been weaponized against the country’s black musical artists. Indeed, the prominent Afro-Colombian Hip- Hop collective, Chob Quib Town, were denounced ‘vendidos’ (sell-outs) by a rival group who termed the music ‘reggaetón’ as opposed to ‘hip-hop real’ (Christopher Dennis, Afro-Colombian Hip Hop, 117). While this criticism has been considered a product of Chob Quib Town’s commercial success, the rift between so-called ‘hip-hop real’ and ‘reggaetón’ is not an insignificant one, marking a binaried ethics within the Colombian musical community (and beyond). Indeed, in the same stroke that J Balvin declares reggaetón as ‘hip hop for Latinos,’ he deprives it of the “authentic” status of ‘hip hop real.’
In spite of their differences, the popularity of artists like J Balvin, Kali Uchis, and Chob Quib Town allude to an important feature of globalization put forward by George Yudice (2003) that frames the transnational context surrounding Colombian artists: “globalization radicalizes and accelerates the transformation of culture into a resource and, therefore, into an expedient used by marginalized groups for a variety of social, economic, and political purposes,” (Afro-Colombian Hip Hop, 126). Under this paradigm, the ‘modern’ is hailed alongside the ‘authentic,’ producing a hybrid genre that appeals to mainstream Colombian consumers, all the while maintaining an inverse relationship on Afro-Colombian cultural capital and material wealth.
J Balvin, Colombia: The New Medellin, 2011, accessed December 11, 2019, https://fod.infobase.com/PortalPlaylists.aspx?wID=98527&xtid=145708.
Maria Elena Cepeda, Musical ImagiNation: U. S-Colombian Identity and the Latin Music Boom, 34.
Cristina Escobar, “Dual Citizenship and Political Participation: Migrants in the Interplay of United States and Colombian Politics,” Latino Studies, 2 (2004), 48.
Michelle Rocío Nasser De La Torre, “Bellas por naturaleza: Mapping national identity on US Colombian beauty queens,” Latino Studies 11, no. 3 (2013): 296-297.
Diane R. Garbow, “Crafting colombianidad: The politics of race, citizenship and the localization of policy in Philadelphia,” PhD diss., Temple University, 2016, 198.
About the Writer:
Zoe Morales Ervolino is a born-and-bred New Yorker and recent graduate of Yale University where she earned a dual-degree in American Studies and History (concentrating in Latin America). Zoe has crafted, directed, and performed in artistic projects of all stripes and she is excited to bring her unconditional love of the arts to The Ford Theatre this summer. Since graduating in the midst of a global pandemic, she has devoted her frenetic energy to making music and keeping a newsletter on culture and politics. You can find Zoe at @zozodotcom on IG.