By Jovane Marie
When Colombian superstar Juanes takes the stage, the atmosphere shifts. His influence is apparent, from the fanatic cheers of the audience as they sing along word-for-word to the permanent fixture of phones poised to capture each moment. With more than 15 million albums sold worldwide, to say he is a legend is undebatable.
This was the exact scene this past September at L’ATTITUDE, a business-focused annual conference, which focuses on how U.S. Latinos are fueling American economic growth. The artist was in attendance not only to serenade the crowd with a moving rendition of “La Camisa Negra” (a favorite from his ground-breaking album “Mi Sangre”) but also to share his thoughts on how Latinos are dominating mainstream music and the importance of their contributions.
It’s a perspective Juanes is more than qualified to speak on.
With a career spanning longer than three decades, 26 awarded Grammys and Latin Grammys combined, a history of philanthropic endeavors, and his naming last June as the 2019 Latin Recording Academy Person of the Year, Juanes has firmly positioned himself as one of Latin music’s leading global ambassadors and a committed voice for advocacy and inclusion.
It may seem a massive undertaking to be such an influential artist—maintaining a long-standing industry presence, constantly expanding your creative artistry, supporting new artists, and managing philanthropic efforts—but Juanes insists that only one thing is necessary to make it so.
“Si quieres ser artista, sigue tu corazón,” he told the L’ATTITUDE crowd. “If you want to be an artist, stick to your heart.”
Follow the Music
Considering Juanes’ background, it comes as no surprise that he ended up so fully enraptured by the magic of music. Raised in his native Colombia, he began playing the piano when he was only 2 years old, and at 7 learned the guitar from his father and brothers.
“I started to play guitar and sing because of my family, really—my brothers, sisters and parents all loved music,” he told NPR. “They were always singing folk music, so those beginning years were filled with sambas and chacareras and vallenatos and tangos.”
By the time his teenage years rolled around, however, his tastes had changed, leading to the start of a career with a musical sound far removed from the folk songs of his youth. At age 17, along with friends André García, Fernando “Toby” Tobón and José David Lopera, he formed the rock band Ekhymosis (Greek for “bruise”).
Inspired by the music of Metallica, the band aimed to “create
Colombian rock” through their thrash and heavy metal rhythms. Their first demo spoke to a simultaneous effort to describe the troubled environment of their hometown in Medellín, marking the beginning of a consistent pattern of speaking out against injustice and violence through socially conscious songs.
At the time, Medellín, influenced by the reign of Pablo Escobar and civil war, had the highest homicide rate in the world. Juanes was not spared from the effects of this harrowing environment, losing a cousin to violence in the early 90s. The experience encouraged him to try to use his gift of music to effect change.
“I realized that music has the power to bring people together, to change things,” he said. “That has been my mission.”
By the time Juanes made the decision to go solo in 1998—ten years after the band’s formation— the award-winning group had released eight albums.
“I just felt like I was missing something—that I needed to go back to my roots, my essence,” Juanes said of his solo journey. “And that’s what I’ve done ever since. I try to mix both the folk side and the rock side to create a contemporary sound.”
The formula has certainly paid off…in spades.
Released in 2000, his first solo album, “Fíjate Bien,” earned him two Latin Grammy Awards, while his second, “Un Día Normal” (released in 2002), was certified multi-platinum in multiple countries across Latin America.
It was his third album, however—”Mi Sangre”—that positioned him as an international force and cemented him as a global ambassador for the Latin music genre. The album debuted at number one on the Billboard Top Latin Albums chart, produced three consecutive number one singles, was certified Gold, Platinum, or Multi-platinum in 14 countries, and won three Latin Grammy Awards.
Since the release of “Mi Sangre” in 2004, Juanes has released four more albums, including 2017’s “Mis Planes Son Amarte,” a full visual concept album featuring the artist’s first song in English.
His eighth solo album, set for release in November 2019, has already produced a Latin Grammy- nominated single in “La Plata”—a Colombian folkloric tune mixed with pop reggaeton that is close to the singer’s heart.
“This song is light and happy…I’m very excited,” he gushed about the single, which features emerging Columbian trap artist Lalo Ebratt of the collective Trapical Minds. “It has to do with Colombia, and with my roots, and with who I am.”
The Juanes Effect
Juanes’ worldwide appeal is undeniable. He has performed everywhere from the Nobel Peace Prize concert in Oslo to Sesame Street, and has been recognized by TIME Magazine as one of the World’s 100 Most Influential People.
And while many Latin artists eventually “cross-over” to record English language albums in an effort to expand their audiences, he waited almost 30 years to record “Goodbye for Now,” his first English song. The move was deliberate and based, he said, on a desire to respect his fan base while adapting to the changing musical landscape.
“Singing in Spanish is very important because it is the language in
which I think and feel,” he explained. “But I am also conscious of the fact that the world and the way we communicate is changing. I do love Anglo music, and now that I’m a little bit more familiar with the language, I feel like it’s more honest for me to do it.”
It may have taken him some time to release a track in English, but Juanes has effortlessly maintained a presence in the mainstream American music scene, nabbing several groundbreaking firsts in the process of building his musical empire.
His performances at the 84th Annual Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade (2010), The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon (2014), The TODAY Show Plaza concert series (2014), and The Late Show with Stephen Colbert (2017) marked the first time any of these platforms had featured a performing artist singing exclusively in Spanish. And, in 2015, he performed “Juntos”—the first Spanish song featured in over a decade at the Grammys.
For Juanes, these historic performances speak to the ability of music to transcend language.
“It’s really a magical feeling,” he explained. “People come to our shows or listen to these performances, and they respect the fact that we sing in Spanish. They are paying attention to the melodies and the arrangement and the music itself, and it’s a beautiful gift. It’s just the magic of music.”
A Voice for Change
Growing up a witness to prevalent violence in his hometown of Medellín had a profound effect on Juanes that has reverberated beyond his lyrics into a passion for philanthropy.
In 2006, he created the Mi Sangre Foundation in response to Colombia’s needs in the treatment of landmine victims. Under the umbrella of psychosocial support, peace education, and peace building project programs, the organization “helps children, teenagers, and youth heal wounds of the soul by creating safe environments and strengthening social fabrics while enabling the participation of families, the community, and the educational sector.” The venture, which has provided support for thousands of landmine victims, is a labor of the heart.
“The name Mi Sangre [My Blood] is inspired by the same sentiment as my album of the same name—it’s about my children, my children’s children, my land, my roots. It’s what’s important to me,” Juanes said of the foundation. “When I heard firsthand the stories of people who had been directly affected moved me to the point that I said, ‘I want to do something.’”
The artist also co-founded the Paz Sin Fronteras (Peace Without Borders) effort, a series of free outdoor concerts aimed at uniting people across borders and promoting non-violent conflict resolution.
His efforts have earned him a multitude of humanitarian awards, appointments, and recognition, including Colombia’s National Peace Prize, a position as a Goodwill Ambassador for nonprofit organization United for Colombia, France’s highest cultural honor for social activism (L’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres), and a namesake recreational park in Medellín, which provides rehabilitation space for people with disabilities.
For Juanes, however, the recognition isn’t the end goal. In his eyes, it’s all about making a difference.
“I do these things because they matter for me and to me,” he explained. “I often think about what we as a people are doing here in this world and why we are here. And what I know for sure is that we are not alone…we need to help each other.”
A Continuing Legacy
Juanes’ legacy of artistic innovation, support for emerging artists, and humanitarian recently manifested into yet another recognition—one reserved for the most culturally impactful Latin musicians.
Last June, the Latin Recording Academy announced that as part of its milestone 20th anniversary, the singer, composer, musician, and philanthropist would be named the 2019 Latin Recording Academy Person of the Year.
Bestowed upon musicians of Ibero American heritage in acknowledgement of their artistic achievements in the Latin music industry, fellowship, and philanthropic efforts, past honorees have included Gloria and Emilio Estefan, Shakira, Ricky Martin, and Carlos Santana.
“Juanes is young, but legendary, an artist who has inspired us through his amazing music for many years and—while doing so—he vigorously campaigned for political, social, and positive change around the world,” said Gabriel Abaroa Jr., president/CEO of The Latin Recording Academy. “His leadership and his philanthropic work, in addition to his positive messages that transcend music, speak volumes about his many contributions to the community, and we are truly honored to recognize him as this year’s Latin Academy Person of the Year.”
The designation is just the latest addition to the multi-talented artist’s ever-growing legacy, and a reaffirmation that he is fulfilling his destiny.
“I’m doing what I believe I was brought to do—to create music that raises awareness, renews hearts, and generates change,” Juanes shared. “And I hope I have many years left to connect through art, to play my guitar, and to continue chasing the sun.”