I catch Colombian singer Karol G in a rare moment of calm, while she is in a car on her way to a hotel. She has just landed in New York to film a music video, but home is Miami, she clarifies, the engine humming in the background. “I love it there because there are so many Latinos!”
Born Carolina Giraldo Navarro in Medellín, Karol G, 30, is one of Latin America’s biggest pop stars, an expressive performer who uses beautiful hooks for lyrics that explore female desire and sexual agency – a rarity in the male-dominated Latin music scene, where, she says, women have historically been treated like “products”.
With more than 32 million monthly listeners, she is among Spotify’s Top 50 artists worldwide; the video to her first single from her new album KG0516, Tusa (a collaboration with Nicki Minaj), has been watched more than a billion times. Her success demands the sort of schedule where interviews are done in transit, and means she has attracted scrutiny, including for some misjudged comments about her continent’s complex racial inequalities.
Having appeared on Colombia’s X Factor, she made a name for herself with a string of singles in the late 2000s, but it was Ahora Me Llama (Now He Calls Me), with Puerto Rican star Bad Bunny, that brought her international attention in 2017. Streaming and globalisation are partly responsible for Latin pop’s recent reach, Karol says, but mostly, the singer chalks the genre’s success up to its magnetic appeal: “Latinos have such a fun, lively personality – you can feel it in [our] music.”
Karol credits her family with catalysing her career. “My dad was in a band and wanted to be a singer, so we’d listen to songs he put on at home” – everything from salsa, to metal, to the Bee Gees, to vallenato, Colombia’s take on country music. Father and daughter performed together at small shows: it made her realise that she wanted to pursue music professionally. “At first, I thought that it would be easier for me because there weren’t many women in the industry, but when I started working I understood why things were the way they were.”
Business executives made her feel inferior in those early years, leaving Karol baffled and angry. “As women – as humans more so than as women – we fall in love, we fall out of love; we have sex, we like it, or we don’t; we make mistakes. Why should people ask me to limit how I express myself as a human just because I’m a woman?”
I ask why she thinks that kind of candour bothers people. The word that comes to my mind is machismo, though she wavers in agreement: Karol says she’s 100% pro-women’s rights, but sometimes fears that “dividing” society, be it by gender, race, or sexuality, isn’t productive.
But isn’t it even less productive to ignore the fact that certain divisions exist? Last summer, the Black Lives Matter protests spurred new conversations about race in the Latin music industry. Reggaeton and trap are rooted in Black culture, but many of the Latin artists profiting from these rhythms are white or light-skinned. It didn’t help that many prominent Latinx artists’ responses to the movement were tone-deaf, Karol G’s included. In June, she sparked controversy when she tweeted a photo of her dog, citing its colouring as the “perfect” example of why black and white look beautiful together. She later said: “There is only one race and that is the human race.”
“I acted in a really ignorant way,” she confesses. “That somebody would discriminate against someone else because of the colour of their skin … it’s something I can’t understand and that wasn’t a part of my household.” Karol says that because she comes from a country where “the percentage of racist people is so low it’s almost imperceptible”, she only realised the extent of the problem when she went to the US, where “things are different”. After the post, she started “studying, looking into the history, watching videos [to] understand why people were feeling pain and anger, and understood a lot”.
But Colombia, like the US, is a country with a violent racial past and present – something that Afro-Indigenous artists such as Lido Pimienta denounce. Is that something she came to realise? “Yes, I started researching because of what happened in the US, but later understood that it was a global problem.” She cites examples of racism in Colombia, which only gained more exposure after the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020, but insists the situation there is “different”, somehow.
Karol says the experience saddened her – “people really judged me, I lost a lot [of opportunities]”. Her future seems bright, though. She’s taking acting classes, working on building her own fashion and beauty brand. As the car approaches the hotel, I ask Karol what her goals are, short-term and long-term. “That’s easy,” she says. “I simply want to do it all.”