Move over, Shakira: Meet Karol G, the Latin world's next big pop star

The Latin pop star on her long road to stardom, following in the footsteps of Shakira and why she wants to change perceptions of Colombia

Colombian pop star Karol G performed recently at Mawazine music festival in Morocco. Sife Elamine
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Success in the music industry is often a result of being in the right place at the right time. This is particularly true when it comes to Latin pop artists.

For decades, Spanish-­speaking singers have been viewed by the English-­speaking market as regional curiosities, and trailblazing figures such as Julio Iglesias, Gloria Estefan, Ricky Martin and Shakira needed to be strong-willed to break into the US and UK markets.

But the digital music landscape has erased these cultural barriers. Latin pop artists no longer need an elaborate marketing campaign or a change in musical direction, such as singing in English, to become popular with a global audience.

These days, a series of excellent music videos and some good placements on influential online playlists is all you need to make a name in the English-speaking market.

That blueprint has helped people such as Puerto Rican reggaeton stars Daddy Yankee, the man behind the 2018 hit Dura, and Luis Fonsi of Despacito fame, who took over YouTube before taking on the world.

The new generation of Latin pop stars

The music has changed, too, with the next generation of talents introducing a new sound. Defined by its liberal mix of Latin club styles – such as reggaeton, dembow, Latin trap, champeta and dashes of bachata – and channelled through a gritty hip-hop attitude, urbano is the next musical train coming our way from Spanish-speaking singers.

And among the many young stars leading the charge, including Colombia's Maluma – who collaborated with Madonna on her Madame X album – and Puerto Rico's Ozuna, one artist in particular stands out: Karol G.

She's still relatively unknown in the English-speaking world, but the Colombian, 28, is a huge deal in the Latin American market. She has more than 20 million Instagram followers and astronomical YouTube figures. For example, 2017's Ahora Me Llama has more than 732 million views on YouTube and this year's Culpables has clocked up more than 697 million views and counting.

With her second album Ocean released only last month, the artist, whose real name is Carolina Navarro, says it is her turn in the spotlight. "That comes with a lot of pressure," she tells The National. "A lot of that I put on myself. The new album came out, it debuted at number two in the American charts. That feels strange to me as I remember doing music by myself for years and now everything is happening. I want to follow the great artists such as Shakira, for example, by being a big star, and that bar is set so high."

Despite these challenges, when we meet her for an exclusive chat before her performance at Morocco's Mawazine festival last Saturday, Navarro appears relaxed and bubbly. She is soaking up the moment because it has been a long time coming. "What is happening right here in the past three years comes from the 14 years of work I have been doing. It seems to be happening fast but I have been working for this for a while and it was not easy," she says.

Don’t break Karol G’s heart

Born in Medellin and raised by a music-­loving father, who managed her career in the early years, Navarro spent her days in vocal classes and performing a range of gigs as a backing singer for local acts. After failing to win the Colombian version of The X Factor in 2010 and seeing a series of covers she released on YouTube go relatively unnoticed, she took a break from the music industry. She returned in 2016 with the stage name Karol G and brought with her a tougher attitude towards her art and business.

It was good timing, too, as her return coincided with the growing influence of streaming services such as Spotify and Apple Music. Her collaboration with Reykon on the track 301 in 2012 had already caught the attention of music fans in Latin America and she followed that up a year later with Amor de Dos, a star-crossed urbano ballad featuring American singer Nicky Jam. The buzz that created helped to make her 2017 album Unstoppable a success, with several of her songs featuring ebullient reggaeton hooks that disguised angry break-up lyrics.

In A Ella, Navarro addresses the woman her cheating beau was involved with ("She was a second / And I was forever") while in the freedom-celebrating Casi Nada, she declares: "I am having fun, I'm not looking for you, I can tell you that."

With Ocean, she diversifies her sound with more pop songs and ballads, and increases the lyrical intensity. Navarro is now engaged to Latin trap artist Anuel AA – they sing together on the single Secreto, which has been streamed more than 250 million times – and her latest album is laced with songs celebrating her femininity in ways people in Latin America have found problematic.

As part of a growing, yet still small, number of female urbano artists having an impact in the regional industry, Navarro says she's faced her fair share of backlash for her more brash song choices. "It comes down to culture," she says. "Because of the lyrics of urbano music, it has always been associated with men and people are not used to women doing it.

"And now that there are people like me singing in that style, there are people who are mad because I am singing about how I am good yet bad, how I love people but make mistakes and how I celebrate my body. I sing about everything and that's important. We need to have women putting forward these points of view in songs."

While pushing her feminist message forward in Latin America, Navarro also wants to use her art to change other people's perceptions of her homeland. As a Colombian performing in the Arab world, Navarro says she has a keen understanding of the damage that false perceptions can have on all communities.

"I completely get it, believe me," she says. "I know that for a lot of people, when they think about Colombia they think of the Netflix show Narcos and the violence. You have to understand that we are not proud of those moments. All of us know families who were killed in the violence. So I am simply glad that when people now mention Colombia, they don't immediately say Narcos or Pablo Escobar. They think of singers such as Shakira, Maluma and, I hope, even Karol G."