Do foreign artists need to sing in English to cross over in the U.S.? J Balvin and Sean Paul say no
"It took us years, but we did it," says the Colombian reggaeton star, who became the first Latin-music solo act to headline a main-stage performance at the music festival, which is almost 20 years old. "It was crazy. I'm so grateful."
Jamaican dancehall king Sean Paul, who joined Balvin to perform their single "Contra La Pared," says he was "glad to witness it and to be a part of it. Music's supposed to bring people together, and that's what he did."
Balvin made his Coachella debut last year during Beyoncé's set, where they sang a remix of his smash "Mi Gente," but he and Paul — who, coincidentally, collaborated with Queen Bey on 2003's "Baby Boy" — each recognize what their performance last month signified for their genres of music.
"There wouldn't be reggaeton without dancehall. It started in Africa and then Jamaica," says Balvin. Paul piggybacks, explaining: "Dancehall, reggaeton, Afrobeat, and even soca music, it's all a groove that's very urban and for the people. And it's also crossed over to being very pop right now."
It's with that mindset — and mutual respect — that the two set out to collaborate on a track. They first met while buying slices of pizza at an album launch for Farruko years ago; later, each featured on Major Lazer's 2017 track "Buscando Huellas." But it wasn't until "Contra" that they crafted something together.
"[Music producer] Tainy gave me this track and I instantly knew I needed to send it to J," says Paul. "There have been other songs that people had told me, 'Yeah, yeah, send it to him.' But this was the one that everyone said, 'Yo, this is fire. He's gonna blaze this.' " Balvin appropriately responded with a text comprised solely of fire emojis.
"Sean is a legend. He was the first to take dancehall to another level," says 34-year-old Balvin. A self-described
"big fan" of Paul's, he also looks at El General, Daddy Yankee, Tego Calderón, and other "OGs" as idols.
"It starts, for me, with people like Bob Marley, who paved the highway for me," adds Paul, 46. "I'm
just walking on that highway and I'm trying to bring as many people with me as I can."
But even as they strive to honor their musical predecessors, Paul and Balvin embrace what makes them unique. Both list Nirvana as a big inspiration ("and the Beatles," adds Paul, who is spending the summer performing across Europe). And Balvin has bucked the crossover trend of translating Spanish-language hits into English.
"It's not that I don't want to sing in English—I've done it, but that's not part of my plan. I really want to take Spanish as far as I can," says Balvin, who will become the first Latin-music headliner at Chicago's Lollapalooza festival in August. "I think the world keeps getting smarter. What happened with Coachella was that we didn't cross over—the people crossed over to us. Even though most of the people didn't understand what we were saying, they just vibed with us. And I think that's beautiful."
Paul adds: "And it's not just Spanish. [Korean pop star] Psy took the world by storm. I didn't know what he was saying, but I got into it. I was doing the horsey dance." Hearing this, Balvin playfully whaps him on the arm and exclaims,
" 'Gangnam Style!' "
To see Balvin and Paul in the pages of Entertainment Weekly, pick up the latest issue of the magazine — on stands Friday.