BY NICK DEPAULA, The Undefeated
Initially, Jordan Brand sought out reggaeton artist J Balvin as a partner in a series of Hispanic Heritage Month campaigns, with photographs of him in upcoming products and key releases.
But J Balvin didn’t think the brand was thinking big enough.
After all, he was the first Latin artist to perform on the main stage of Coachella. First Latino artist to headline the Lollapalooza festival. First urban Latino artist to surpass a billion views on YouTube. Most nominated artist in a single year for his 13 nominations at the Latin Grammys in 2020. A regular in the front row at fashion week.
“Showing them the fact how global our presence is, our numbers and the reach we have,” he said in an interview with The Undefeated and ESPN Deportes for Hispanic Heritage Month. “It took a year to explain, that it was going to be a statement to have me on it.”
So finally he went straight to His Airness.
The Colombian artist was in Paris for fashion week in 2019 at the same time basketball legend Michael Jordan was in town for the brand’s annual Quai 54 streetball event. A marketing executive made the connection and the two men were able to meet, tucked away in an exclusive lounge, just as midnight struck. Jordan — cigar in hand — was joined by his wife Yvette Prieto. Of Cuban descent, she had long enjoyed J Balvin’s music and even attended his concerts.
The group talked for nearly four hours, trading stories of their upbringings, their work ethic and their drive to the top of their respective crafts. J Balvin told Jordan about landing in Oklahoma as a high school exchange student, sharpening his English and later linking with cousins in New York for his first taste of American culture. It was there, in the early 2000s, that he’d find his love for sneakers, getting his first pair of Air Force 1s just as Nelly’s instant classic celebrating the sneaker had been released, and taking in the style of New York’s streetwear scene.
And he described the influence of Latin music and the impact he could have on Jordan’s brand.
No matter what time it happened to be some 5,000 miles away in Beaverton, Oregon, Jordan texted his brand execs: “We’re giving J Balvin a shoe.”
“I was really blessed to close the deal with Michael Jordan by himself,” J Balvin says now. “It’s a real blessing.”
After a process nearly three years in the making, his official Air Jordan 1 collaboration — he likes to call ’em the “Air Balvins” — was released in December 2020, the first Latin artist to launch his own Jordan sneaker.
It was a dream come to life for the longtime sneakerhead and Jordan Brand fan. Not long after he had beaten out Drake in 2018 as the world’s most-streamed artist on Spotify, with nearly 50 million monthly listeners, he told an audience in New York what he was aiming for.
“I want to have sneakers with my name,” he said at a YouTube TV event. “I want to do something with Jordan. … Have you ever seen a Latino collaboration with Jordan or Nike? Never. So we gotta change the game, and make it global. I’m not going to do sneakers for Latinos. I want to make the J Balvin collab with Nike or Jordan, [available] to the world — because they’re ready.”
Like many of his dreams and goals, which he’s jotted down and dated in a detailed notepad over the years, he was looking to speak his aspiration into existence.
Around the same time, Jordan Brand had also taken an interest in J Balvin, whose chart-topping success was equally matched by his growing sense of style, his front-row fashion week visibility and his global influence rooted in promoting a positive, fun and vibrant expression of his native Colombia.
“We come from a beautiful country and a beautiful city, but it used to be also known for being one of the most dangerous cities on the planet,” he said. “Medellin was the most dangerous city on the planet 40 years ago. It’s like, how can we turn the darkness into light?”
His music has helped make that turn, with record-setting streaming numbers, an extensive collection of awards show trophies and sold-out live dates around the globe. Yet still, brands were reluctant to fully embrace him as a collaborative partner.
The list of musicians to receive their own Air Jordan is brief. While the brand has made friends and family special editions of its retro models for multiple artists, before J Balvin, only Eminem, Justin Timberlake, Travis Scott and Drake had released their own Jordan shoes to the public.
“I always dreamed to have my Jordan 1. I was born in ’85, that’s when they were officially released,” J Balvin said. “It’s iconic. When you think about Jordan, you think about Jordan 1, period.”
From the white and red “Chicago” colorway to the black and royal blue original execution, J Balvin has been buying up original 1985 pairs in his size 9 in recent years. He’s also been spotted in every colorway of the Off-White editions by Virgil Abloh and the brand’s more recent remixes on the classic silhouette.
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