Ozuna is well aware he stands out, in more ways than one.
Chacho, en Los Backstreet Boys no hay negrito a classmate once told Ozuna. He was prepping for the talent show at the time when his peer pointed out the obvious–there’s no black kid in The Backstreet Boys. Ozuna smoothly replied, “Well there’s a black kid in the group now.”
This is perhaps one of his earliest memories related to music, but it foreshadowed the unapologetic approach Ozuna would come to have as an artist.
It’s been three years since Ozuna’s mystic voice first hit airwaves. He appeared on the scene with natural locks and sharp vocals that complimented him as a swift rapper and accomplished singer–a style that crossed borders and caught the likes of French tastemaker DJ Snake (“Taki Taki”) and Canadian rapper/singer Tory Lanez (“Pa Mi”). Following the success of his first album Odisea, the record-breaking 20-track Aura made Ozuna the first act to replace itself at No. 1 on Billboard's Latin Albums chart since the late Jenni Rivera did in 2013, bumping Odisea to No. 2 in Aura’s debut week as well as placing him at No. 7 on the all-genre Billboard 200 chart in his first-ever top 10 spot.
I talked to Ozuna over months at a time—meeting him for the first time in late March, a month away from the 26th Billboard Latin Music Awards. He led the awards with a record-breaking 23 nominations in 15 categories including Artist of the Year, Latin Rhythms Album of the Year and Latin Album of the Year with both Odisea and Aura listed under the latter two categories. Half an hour before his photoshoot, I walk into the makeup room where he sits, skimming through a magazine. He looks up and smiles as I enter. Though friendly, he’s a bit reserved. As we start, I tell him el español mio es un poco machucao jokingly pointing out my sometimes-broken Spanish. My comment breaks the ice, causing him to chuckle as he casually moves into a laid-back posture.
Dripped in uptown swag, the Puerto Rican-Dominican singer wears an all-black fitted ensemble paired with black and yellow AJ1’s, a sneaker synonymous with East Coast streetwear. There’s no doubt his years spent in New York’s Washington Heights, specifically 189th and St. Nicolas–having moved there from Puerto Rico in 2012–influenced his style. Infatuation with sneakers and clothes caused a go-getter mentality that developed young. Whether it was selling water or shining shoes, his work ethic shaped during his youth. “My first [official] job was McDonald's,” he recalls as we sit in the makeup room. The 20 months he spent working at the establishment in Puerto Rico enabled him to purchase his first car, a 1992 white Mazda Protege. “I swore I was grown,” he says, laughing at his 16-year-old self.
When he first moved to New York City, he supported himself by working at a restaurant. At the time, he wasn’t using the moniker Ozuna yet and went by the artistic name “J Oz.” Three years later, he ended up back in his homeland. The singer-songwriter’s nomadic moves were always determined by where he could make music and find work.
“[Manhattan] was great, but it wasn’t tropical,” he says, an important aspect that can’t be ignored by the Piscean who understands he’s at his creative peak when he’s surrounded by natural elements like water and the sun which give him life. “I feel like it’s the place where one can best create because you’re at peace, it’s a different kind of peace.”
As Ozuna stepped into the photo studio, he made his way towards the galactic-inspired setup, one with a similar aesthetic to his upcoming project Nibiru, dropping Friday. “He’s fast, and goes straight to work,” his publicist commented proudly. She’s right. He takes direction easily—smoothly transitioning to his next pose with each shot. Softly singing along to “Tu Foto,” a song from his debut album that fills the air, he is in his zone, moving with a self-assurance that had not been projected just moments earlier in the makeup room.
A few days after the shoot Ozuna attended the BMI Latin Music Awards 2019 ceremony where he was awarded Contemporary Latin Songwriter of the Year following the success of his mega-hits including “ El Farsante,” “Criminal,” “La Modelo” and the wildly popular “Te Bote Remix.” Moreover, he would walk away as the biggest winner of the night of the Billboard Latin Awards, with a total of 11 awards.
But these are just a fraction of Ozuna’s accomplishments. Following his acting debut as Jose Miguel Leòn in 2018’s Dominican movie Que León, it was announced that he landed a role in Fast & Furious 9. And he’s racking up Guinness World Records Awards, too—four and counting— as the artist with the most weeks at No. 1 on Billboard’s Top Latin Albums chart, the most videos to reach one billion views on YouTube, the most Billboard Latin Music Award nominations for a single artist in a single year (23), and the most Billboard Latin Music Award wins for a single artist in a single year (11).
Born Juan Carlos Ozuna Rosado in San Juan, Puerto Rico, the 27-year-old is part of a generation that came of age witnessing the evolution of reggaeton as it transitioned from underground to mainstream media. His miti-miti (half and half) background, Dominican on his father's side and Puerto Rican from his maternal side, is an identity he chooses to embrace equally. “There are so many similarities amongst Puerto Ricans and Dominicans,” he says. Drawing influences from both islands, music played a huge role in his upbringing. “It’s in my blood, in my genes,” he says. “God has a plan for everyone and it’s engraved in our genes." His dad danced for Vico C, he explains, noting a close connection to the iconic artist and pioneer of la vieja escuela—old school urbano—who’s known as the “Father of Latin Hip-Hop.” Ozuna’s father was fatally shot when he was three years old. He is often reminded of their similarities: “[Vico C] will be on the phone and he’ll tell me the things my dad would do and say and he’ll be like, “I saw you in a photo and you even pose like your dad.”
Reggaeton’s popularity is at an all-time high, boasting a global acceptance unknown 15 years ago. Evolving as an Afro-diasporic rooted genre originating from an organic mix of reggae en Español, hip-hop, and dancehall in the '90s, reggaeton’s history is one filled with resistance from the Puerto Rican government and industry elites who deemed the genre as “low class.” Similarly to how rap and hip-hop were ridiculed in the U.S., reggaeton has also been overlooked by award shows—causing a boycott against this year’s Latin Grammys for its treatment of the genre.
Though the Recording Academy's history of unfair handling towards reggaetoneros dates back to the early 2000s, the disregard for its recent cultural impact caused many to question the support and representation within the organization. Reggaeton and Latin trap are two of a few sub-genres that fall under el genero urbano, the umbrella term that links the urban music created in the Spanish-language which has dominated airplay for the past few years on streaming apps like Apple Music, Spotify, and YouTube. “We have to apply our best efforts as artists: How are we going to work? What does the academy need for us to be there?” he says of the disconnect between artists and industry gatekeepers. “It’s years-long work, not just when it’s time for the awards. As artists, we need to do more. We need to give it importance so that our genre can be seen and heard worldwide. And that won’t happen if we disrespect other platforms.”
Ozuna’s rise in 2015 proved to be a crucial moment for reggaeton and its glowing marriage to the streaming market. Streaming became a necessity for reggaeton artists and the global audience vying for a seamless platform to hear their favorite artists. YouTube Artist Relations Manager, AJ “El Kallejero,” stands by this. Helping launch the first reggaeton station in the world, WXNY-FM La Kalle, he’s been at the forefront and the first support line to many reggaetoneros and their careers. “I called Ozuna ‘the golden child of the digital age,’ thanks to platforms like YouTube and Spotify,” he says.“Ozuna was able to grow and explode to be the phenomenon that he is right now due to the demand for streaming platforms. There was a demand from users wanting more music of Ozuna. He didn't break in radio first. The radio adapted to Ozuna. He made movements on the digital platforms, which transcended into the streets.”
“I didn’t measure it all in terms of how huge it could become,” says Ozuna when I speak to him again in November over the phone. “l saw that all the platforms wanted to thrive, and everyone was willing to work together and do things together. It’s so important to work as a team—and this is responsible for so much that is happening today. Not just on the radio, but everywhere. And today, those platforms are massive.” Over the summer, the artist had the chance to see just how many people were absorbing his music by way of an international tour across Europe.
As one of the best-selling Latin music artists of all time, and the only Afro-Latino to earn a spot at that level, the presence Ozuna reclaims against the industry’s Afro-erasure is significant. He’s hopeful of a changing industry, one that does not see age or color. For black Latinx, what he symbolizes is greater than his music. Reggaeton historian and founder of Reggaeton Con La Gata, Kathleen Eccleston, credits Ozuna’s success to not only his special pen game but his confidence to be unapologetically himself.
“Ozuna is important to today's world of streaming and music because of visibility,” she says. Culturally, in Latin America, pet names like chiquita which means shorty, gordita translating to fatty, and negrito/a for an Afro-descendant are often used as a form of affection—it’s a cultural practice to address someone by their appearance. This is not to say that the affectionate tone of the approach restricts it from racism—those words may be perceived differently depending on linguistic and cultural background. So although English speakers may find the term offensive, Afro-descendants in Latin America often reclaim the word.
Negrito is a nickname Ozuna holds with pride, as you will always hear el negrito ojo claro (The Negrito with light eyes) in his music. "I recognize it as a quirk, maybe a testament to the power and desire to see ourselves represented in media,” says Eccleston in regards to the phrase. “There is more that is relatable with Ozuna visibly than any of his white counterparts. Ozuna's rise is rare; he is unique in regards to what he has been able to achieve considering his racial roots."
The fabled nickname almost became the debut album’s title. “The first album we had in mind was El Negrito Ojo Claro," says right-hand man and main producer Jean Pierre Soto, aka Yampi, who created the concept for each album. “We didn’t move forward with it because we understood that he mentioned it so much in his music.” Yampi, who is also Puerto Rican-Dominican, had established an online platform and sharing database, FL878.net, with over 30,000 subscribers, before getting his start professionally with Mambo Kingz. He first crossed paths with Ozuna when the artist was overseeing a studio space. The two clicked and have since been inseparable, building a kinship of over a decade.
Ozuna’s breakout single after signing to Golden Family Records, 2014’s “Si Tu Marido No Te Quiere,” is a track that purposefully uses Dominican phrases and slang like dale banda which means breaking ties with someone, but also includes phrases known universally in the Spanish language. At this point, the artist was performing as many as four parties a night in Puerto Rico. The frequent obstacles faced before a show became common, leading Yampi to call those moments the “Odisea de Ozuna,” he explains, “We would go through a thousand and one things before finally making it to a party. Once on stage, everyone was happy. But we would always experience an odisea before arriving.”
A trip to Europe would later influence the concept for Aura and solidify Ozuna’s mission to make his sonic world habitable to all. “We were in Greece during his Europe tour, and we entered a church,” says Yampi. Though they were incognito, the producer felt everyone staring at them as if they seemed to be transmitting an aura. When creating the second album, Ozuna knew exactly what message he wanted to send out. He empowers his aura, and wherever he goes, people feel it.” With fame, he will always be his authentic self, and that authenticity is what those around him will always feel. When building the tracklist, Yampi told the singer: “The concept is ‘aura.’ What you’re transmitting in this album is something positive.”
All three studio albums represent different stages of his career. Odisea reflected his journey to get to his first album, and then Aura was his transition to full adulthood and a recording that gave him access to the music business along with the benefits of its education. For Nibiru, Ozuna aims to encapsulate the wisdom, experience, and frustrations of recently-lived experiences accompanied with the reality that the “the street wants to party.” “There needs to be an incorporation of new sounds because everyone is falling in the same sound—romantic reggaeton,” says Ozuna. “If you notice, in 2015, it was a different era of music until we made tracks like “Dile que tu me quieres” and “Corazon de seda”—these are all romantic reggaetones.”
For this, Yampi envisioned an extraterrestrial concept based in the year 7000. Complementing the idea, Ozuna visualized an album that was more global and trailblazing. “I love innovating and being ahead,” he says. The intro to the album opens up with an active track, different to his traditional soft intros. “I made it into a trap because people never really heard me on a fast trap. Rapping is something I love.” His cantao [singing] rap style is an element he wanted to add to the start of the project. The opening track of Nibiru personifies Ozuna—the star. A scene in a club is quickly depicted as the singer describes the lights, the women and the intensity of a packed club—all over an upbeat instrumental. It’s his track “Que Pena” that stands out the most and embodies the “traditional” intro style of his past albums. In a sea of dance tracks, the violin and piano-led song evokes pain. “‘Que Pena’ is the reflection of anger, but at the same time it’s what a person will feel in their heart,” he tells me during our last conversation mid-November. “I composed this when I was going through certain personal situations, business problems, and media—it was many things.”
The murder of openly gay Latin trap artist Kevin Fret sent waves across urbano music and Latinx communities. Many popular artists in the genre were blamed by critics for failing to become vocal allies for LGBTQIA+ artists in the urbano space. As the conversation continues about violence in Puerto Rico, artists like Residente and Bad Bunny have called for better education to the youth to prevent tragedies against all people of the island.
To date, Ozuna is unable to speak on the topic but has allowed the recording booth to be his open diary to the court of public opinion. “Music is like that, it’s what your heart feels. I was feeling so much anguish, so many people pointing the finger, without any knowledge, without knowing what happened, without reading, without researching,” he says about Nibiru track “Que Pena,” which addresses his battles with critics.
“It’s a shame because the society we live in today is all about how well you’re known, what you possess. We don’t value people who maybe no one knows, but they have amazing hearts. Maybe they have no money, but they are the finest people in the world.”
Sonically, Nibiru presents a lineup of hip-hop and R&B-incorporated sounds with the consistent celestial theme of mythical Planet X. There’s the Hi Music and Mally Mall-produced track “Hasta Que Salga El Sol,” a number that dropped along with an otherworldly visual directed by Colin Tilley—the high-tech video displays Ozuna crashing into Planet X, a mystic planet filled with glowing plants and bewildering inhabitants.
For the nostalgia, there’s “Eres Top”— sampling P. Diddy’s 2002 bop, “I Need a Girl (Part Two)." The song opens with the Mario Winans-produced beat, which continues to loop along with the dembow. “Snake sent me the beat, and said, ‘I have a track to make with a sample.’ We did it and we thought, why not include Diddy?” says Ozuna. The mogul arrives for the last verse. American singer-rapper Swae Lee is added on the wave for “Sin Pensar,” in which half of Rae Sremmurd finds himself singing, Yo sé que sin forzar tu eres mia in Spanish.
His romantic essence is present in “Temporal” a classic reggae performed with Cultura Profetica’s Willy Rodriguez, while reggaeton is implemented in tracks like “Yo Tengo Una Gata” with Sech. That singer was also brought in for the “Amor Genuino (Remix).“I was introduced to Sech’s [music] many years ago on my first trip to Panama. I knew he would be big because he had la gana de trabajar and the motivation to make good music,” he comments on his colleague’s rise. Ozuna joins Nicky Jam and new talent Dalex for “Reggaeton en Paris,” a track designed to commemorate reggaeton’s worldwide impact.
The compilation illustrates Ozuna, who as a result of global success, is immersing himself in newer sounds and techniques, catering to a wider audience. With a merging of tropical pop, alternative rhythms, reggae, and R&B, he’s creating a new blueprint to follow for years to come.
As the year comes to an end, we reflect on what he has accomplished and he’s thankful overall. “I’m thankful for God and the blessings, all the work, wisdom, and patience to stay firm with everything that has happened in my career," he says. "Many fruits, success, and many more songs, videos, many more important things that have happened in the past years. We are seeing everything we worked hard on years before. We are receiving many nominations and recognition and that motivates us to make more music, more big things, and like I say, ‘Here we are.’”