Karol G Is Bigger Than Reggaetón
The urbano hitmaker spent over a decade making a name for herself in Colombia, slowly evolving into the global pop artist she's ready to become.
The front room of a Brooklyn cocktail den is bathed in an uncanny late-in-the-day glow, the sun not quite ready to fully descend. Seated a few tables in, unintentionally cornered by a team of management and publicists, Karol G peruses the menu. She confers with them about matters of crème fraîche and crème de peche. Then, considering previously arranged dinner plans, she settles ascetically on a glass of water.
No one bothers her, but such public anonymity would not be possible in other parts of the world, or for that matter in other parts of the borough. After all, the 28-year-old Colombian artist born Carolina Giraldo Navarro happens to be one of the biggest stars in música urbana, the still burgeoning global scene that includes reggaetón, Latin trap, and other Spanish-language hip-hop/pop hybrids. In a room full of predominantly white imbibers, not even rolling into the bar nine Latinxs deep earns more than a few raised eyebrows and the quiet impatience of the venue's hostess. Understandably, precautions have been taken, including a black SUV idling down the block. (Just the other week, her hotel room was robbed during her concert in Chile.)
"I'm excited that now I can sit here and tell you my story," she says, as she gestured in a way that draws attention to a left wrist wrapped in black gauze. Somewhere in the middle of this whirlwind day of press throughout New York City, she managed to get a tattoo—during an on-camera interview, no less. When asked about the design, she flashes a smile more proud than polite and replies, "The ocean."
At first glance, Navarro's tattoo choice might come across a bit like performance art or, less charitably, a marketing stunt to promote her new album Ocean, released earlier this month. Yet you can read it differently knowing the story of the recording of her follow-up to 2017's Unstoppable in spots throughout the Caribbean. She elaborates on the peace she draws from the beaches and their waters. "I went to Turks and Caicos, to Saint Martin, to get that vibe," she says. "You can feel that I was pushing my soul and my heart out to get that album realistic [and] natural."
Amid a whirlwind period of activity promoting Unstoppable, its standout single "Ahora Me Llama" with then-nascent Latin trap artist Bad Bunny, and her subsequent Billboard-charting hit "Mi Cama," Navarro had an epiphany. It was during her European tour, on the Spanish island of Tenerife, as she gazed out at the Atlantic Ocean. In that moment, she felt the serenity of the beach, and knew it and its relaxed pace needed to factor into how she worked on her next full-length project. "When I get by the ocean, that’s the only moment that I get that silence and that connection, not with the ocean, but with myself," she says. After more than a decade of hard-fought efforts in music, Navarro's motivations, unlike those espoused by her more overtly materialistic peers, seem unpretentious and honest.
While Navarro’s romantic relationship with trapero Anuel AA has yielded creative results, including the popular duet "Culpables" and their joint Hot 100 hit "Secreto," she remains her own artist. After all, she was making considerable waves of her own in Colombia and elsewhere before they got together. Both "Ahora Me Llama" and "Mi Cama" have been YouTube smashes, with nearly 1.3 billion combined plays for their music videos. Throughout the clips, she exudes a sex positivity that reflects a powerful diva image front and center, rather than the eye candy tropes often found in urbano visuals.
In the ongoing narrative about música urbana and its extraordinary rise from regional taste sensation to global pop powerhouse, the conversation too often focuses on male artists. Since before reggaetón even had a name to call itself, visibility issues have bedeviled women operating in this particular musical space. Crowded out by machismo, misogyny, and negligence, women including Jenny La Sexy Voz experienced erasure from song credits, while others dealt with sexist criticism or stereotyping in a machismo-propelled scene. "The lyrics, they were about drugs and sex. Very aggressive," she says.
Navarro speaks somewhat hesitantly about that early period of her career, during which she alludes to instances of institutionalized sexism that suppressed her artistic ambitions. Reggaetón’s prevalent subject matter didn't speak to her life experiences, and her involvement in that scene opened her up to abuse. "It was super super hard. And as a girl I became, like..." she says, interrupting her flow to ask her manager for translation help. The term she is looking for is "indecent proposals," creepy quid-pro-quo offers she resisted to the point of exasperation. With hindsight, however, she expresses a genuine love for where this music has taken her. "We didn't think it was going to be a big movement," she says. "But over the years it became stronger and stronger."
While you'd be hard pressed to find much of Navarro’s early catalogue on streaming services, YouTube offers context through official and unofficial videos for tracks like "En La Playa," which dates back to 2006, and "Dime Que Si" from 2009. The material sounds very much of its time, neither exceptional nor dreadful by any means, but definitely lacking the individuality present in her current work. On 2013's "Amor De Dos," she's paired up with famous reggatonero Nicky Jam, who had moved to Medellín to regroup and revive his then-flagging music career. Ten years Navarro’s senior, his presence in the video weirdly serves to infantilize her and, as she sings on a bed littered with stuffed teddy bears, ramp up the skeeviness factor by exaggerating her relative youth. This display seems to mirror her relative powerlessness in directing her career, something that affected her personally.
"I used to hate to be a girl," Navarro reveals. "I used to feel embarrassed about myself, 'asking should I sing that, should I say that in my songs?'" Nonetheless, even in these older songs we can still catch occasional glimpses of potential, a vague sense of the type of artist she could and would become. On the aforementioned "Amor De Dios," she comes across better than her more seasoned counterpart, her coyness an asset in its execution.
Her frustrations with the state of her career in Colombia led her to New York City five years ago. Not long after making the move, Navarro came across a subway poster advertising music business courses. That education provided not only a great deal of insight, but gave her the motivation to stay the course as an artist, albeit one with increased control of her direction and a greater understanding of the machinations of the industry. "I learned that different point of view about music and I came back to Medellín and started working," she says. "I realized that this is what I love to do."
"Ten, 15 years before, the Latin industry was singing Anglo music, trying to get an opportunity with them," Karol G says. "Everything changed, and now around the world everyone is listening to our Latin music."
Navarro has more than earned her current moment as one of urbano's contemporary leading lights. In her view, the natural if unexpected fusion of a format rooted in Jamaican dancehall with more specifically Latin styles, including regional pop, opened the proverbial doors that made her come up possible. "Ten, 15 years before, the Latin industry was singing Anglo music, trying to get an opportunity with them," she says. "Everything changed, and now around the world everyone is listening to our Latin music."
Without question, Navarro’s own contributions to that fresh state of affairs played no small part. Since 2016, she's proven herself with hits in the U.S., Colombia, and throughout Latin America, including team-ups with Mau Y Ricky and Ozuna. A game changer in terms of her visibility, the aforementioned "Ahora Me Llama" with Bad Bunny reached RIAA diamante status, in recognition of 600,000 certified units in sales and streaming equivalents specifically in the U.S. Prior to the release of Ocean, which debuted on Billboard’s Top Latin Albums chart at No. 2, Navarro accomplished that feat an additional three times, for "Culpables," "Mi Cama," and "Secreto." "This is the best moment [that] my music could blow up," she says.
With that success come the interlopers and opportunists. "I'm trying to be super strategic," Navarro says of the options she's been presented with to collaborate both within and outside of the Latin music ecosystem. "If I do something, I want to make it big." She shares a cautious wariness of artists jumping from feature to feature on all sides, clearly uninterested in being part of one more loose single in an overly ambitious artist's vault, or worse—someone's token Latina.
While few were surprised in January when Navarro announced a co-headlining tour of Latin America with Anuel, the revelation of upcoming fall plans here in the U.S. opening for veteran Mexican singer Gloria Trevi left some mouths agape. The intergenerational lineup positions the younger artist in front of an audience conceivably less familiar with, and less attuned to, the comings and goings of música urbana. It’s a savvy move, and one that led to the equally unexpected "Hijoeput*#," a duet that bridges their respective musical styles. "I grew up listening to her music because of my parents," she says of Trevi, who released her major label debut ¿Qué Hago Aquí? two years before Navarro was born. "All the time, I’m trying to show people that women can be super strong, and I saw that in her moves, in her songs, in her attitude."
For Ocean, Navarro applied this shrewdness to her choice of guests. Though Anuel appears on two tracks, including the uncharacteristically balladic (for him) "Dices Que Te Vas," she hasn't loaded up on new urbano features. On "La Vida Continuó," she taps Brazilian duo Simone & Simaria for a touch of their native música sertaneja. Towards the record's end, she delivers a stunning and faithful rendition of "Yo Aprendí" in duet form with its Latin Grammy-nominated original Cuban singer Danay Suárez.
Perhaps the most gratifying left turn on the album, "Love With A Quality" finds her paired with Damian "Jr. Gong" Marley, son of Bob Marley and a reggae music star in his own right. With an Ovy On The Drums beat aesthetically closer to that of Drake's "One Dance" or a Major Lazer cut than anything of the more conventionally dembow-driven variety, it reflects the expansive potential of modern pop. "That one was important to me," she says, citing the positivity of its messaging. In keeping with that spirit, she pivoted away from the glossy and polished physical presentation of Unstoppable’s cover art when approaching Ocean’s aesthetic. "I did the picture with no makeup, super natural," she says of that decision. "Because that's the way I want people to listen to my music now."
Navarro doesn't want to be pigeonholed by genre nor by geography. Matched by evident talent, her aspirations go beyond the limitations of urbano as she cites groundbreaking artists like Rihanna and Shakira favorably as exemplars, inspirations, and potential models for pushing herself forward artistically. "She perfectly sings a pop song, a reggaetón song, one in tango style," she says of the latter star’s range. "If we want to get to the next level, let’s take a risk and try something different."