Maluma / Малума

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#ELLE 2021

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It's Maluma, Baby!
The Latin pop star finds an increasingly global audience—and himself—while spending time at home in Medellín with his family, old friends, horses, cows, chickens, and dogs.
The sky behind Maluma is a swirl of dense, gray clouds swabbing the rounded peaks of the Andes mountains like balls of wet cotton. But the Colombian singer-songwriter, seated on a balcony with views of lush foliage and downtown Medellín in the distance, is unfazed and committed to his look—which, aside from all-black Nike Air Force 1s, an Audemars Piguet watch, and a black denim jacket, features large, ski-goggle-like Kenzo shades. After a few seconds of tinkering with the Zoom technology, he unmutes himself and offers a cheery “Wassup, wassup!”
It’s an appropriately megawatt getup (and greeting)—despite a somewhat ominous backdrop—for the 27-year-old artist, whose seductive blend of reggaeton and Latin trap has suddenly found a massive worldwide audience in the midst of a global pandemic. When we speak in mid-November, “Hawái,” the second single off Papi Juancho, the album Maluma recorded in quarantine and released over the summer, newly remixed with vocals (in Spanish and English) from The Weeknd, has just jumped 48 spots to number 12 on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart. Meanwhile, his clubby collab with Black Eyed Peas, “Feel theBeat,” is feeling the number one spot on the Latin Airplay chart. While a tour may have to wait, there’s no doubt fans the world over will be singing his lyrics back to him in Spanish when it happens, the way they did a few years ago during a sold-out show in Tel Aviv.
Maluma acknowledges that “of course 2020 has been a very difficult year for all of us, but I feel like this was my best year so far, musically, artistically, and personally. I feel like I was reborn.” Like many, Maluma spent much of the past year at home, rethinking his priorities. “I was talking the other day with my parents, and they were very happy because I’ve stayed a long time in Colombia, but they were also a little bit worried because they didn’t know what was going to happen with my work,” he says. “My job is being on tour, but for me this has been very positive, being here in Colombia. I feel very connected again with myself.”
Maluma’s parents need not worry, because 2021 is looking like it will be another banner year for their son. In May, he’ll star alongside Jennifer Lopez and Owen Wilson in Marry Me, a sweet rom-com about an unlikely romance between a platinum-selling pop star (Lopez) and an unassuming math teacher (Wilson). Maluma plays Bastian, Lopez’s character’s fiancé, until it’s revealed that he’s cheated on her with her assistant.
Marry Me director Kat Coiro knew she’d found her Bastian after watching a clip of Maluma on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon (the late-night host also makes a cameo in the film). “I said, ‘Oh my God, this is definitely Bastian,’ because it was really important to us that (a) he could go toe to toe with Jennifer as a pop star, which very few people in the world can, but also that (b) he was likable. Yes, he betrays her, but we didn’t want him to be a one-dimensional villain,” Coiro says. “And Maluma is just about the most likable person I’ve ever met—which is surprising because he’s this very young, incredibly famous pop star, and that comes with certain connotations about behavior, but he was humble, sweet, open to notes, on time, and just lovely to work with.”
Maluma’s feature film debut marks another rarity, in that few recent mainstream movies in the U.S. have featured two Latin leads. According to the University of Southern California’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, only 4.9 percent of the speaking roles in 2019’s top 100 films went to Hispanic/Latino actors. The screenplay wasn’t written that way, Coiro admits. “When we first started looking at people, [having a Latino actor play Bastian] wasn’t part of the consideration, but when we found Maluma, this new layer was added to the story,” she says. “Beyond their shared language of fame and understanding what it’s like to live under a microscope, they also shared a language and a culture, which makes Owen’s character feel like even more of an outsider.”
Lopez, who serves as a producer on the film, proposed Maluma for the role. “We talked about a lot of different people for that part,” she said during her cover interview for this issue. “From Adam Levine to John Mayer to Drake. And then I was like, ‘You know what—it would be great to have a bilingual album for the movie. Why don’t we get a Latin superstar?’ ”
It’s clear in the film, and in Lopez and Maluma’s recent AMAs performance, that the duo shares what Coiro calls “a palpable chemistry.” Says Maluma, “Jennifer, she’s not only a work partner—I would say she is my friend. She is someone I admire, and she is someone I’ve followed since I was a little kid. So for me, being part of this movie was almost surreal. It was a big surprise when they called me, but I was ready for it.”
He was ready, perhaps, because Marry Me is not Maluma’s first brush with an icon. He’s recorded multiple times with fellow Colombian (and JLo’s Pepsi Super Bowl LIV Halftime Show cohort) Shakira, someone he describes as always “on point.” And he also partook in a steamy collaboration with Madonna for their “Medellín” song, video, and 2019 Billboard Music Awards performance. “Madonna loves doing things in an organic way—she is very spiritual,” Maluma says. “When we were doing the ‘Medellín’ video, it was almost 48 hours working nonstop, and I was surprised, because Madonna, she was 60 years old, but she looks like she is younger than me.” The good vibes were mutual. “When I first met Maluma, I was drawn to his positivity and good energy,” Madonna tells me via email. “But when I got to know him, what surprised me was his work ethic. Being in the studio with him was effortless, and performing with him on ‘Medellín’ was a gratifying collaboration. We proved to be creative kindred spirits and had a fun time doing it.”
The word spiritual comes up a lot when speaking with Maluma, which feels like a bit of a departure from earlier in his career, when songs like “Cuatro Babys,” about four lovers who bend to a protagonist’s sexual whims, gave him a reputation for being a bad-boy Lothario. These days, he appears ready to shed that persona. “I feel like the artists right now, the modern artists, are losing their spirituality, and that’s kind of sad,” he says. “I don’t feel like they pray or meditate, and that’s why I feel connected with artists like Madonna, Shakira, and Jennifer. Sometimes people tell me that I’m an old soul because of that, but at the end of the day, you can be the biggest star in the world, but if you are not spiritual, you are empty inside.”
Knowing whether he might be emotionally aligned with a fellow artist is “an energy thing,” he adds. “With Ricky Martin, you just feel his aura is so blue, so clear. But then you go to a music session in Miami with these guys my age, and they’re talking about material things, and I’m like, ‘Okay, it’s nice to have a Lamborghini, it’s nice to have a big Rolex, it’s nice to have a huge house, but when are you going to have a big soul?’ ”
In 1994, three years before Lopez’s star-making turn in Selena, Maluma was born Juan Luis Londoño Arias in the Envigado neighborhood of Medellín to a homemaker mother and a father who worked for a logistics company. “My family, we were not rich,” Maluma says. “We had what we needed, but then my dad lost everything, and my parents got divorced.” He doesn’t like to go into the details, but that experience at age 12 is what inspires his strong work ethic. “It’s what made me realize I had to work super hard so my family could have food and a house to live in,” he says. “But between everything, I was a very happy child.” He recalls playing a CD he’d made at a local recording studio for some high school classmates. “When I showed it to my friends, they started laughing, but then they started dancing. I was so confused, because I was like, Are they joking or do they really like the songs? At the end, they were like, ‘Bro, you know what? We are laughing because you are talented and you are going to make it happen.’ ”
While Maluma has split much of his time in recent years between a modern apartment in Miami and a private jet headed to various concerts and appearances, home is with his family in Medellín—whether it’s at his dad’s place, where he’s hanging out today, or his mom’s, or the large ranch 30 minutes from here that he shares with several horses, cows, chickens, and dogs. As if on cue, I see a flash of white in Maluma’s reflective sunglasses—his two Siberian Huskies, Bonnie and Clyde, have joined him on the balcony and will soon be spoiled with chin scratches. “Medellín is chill,” he says, looking out at the tall trees dotting his father’s idyllic property. “Of course, people know Medellín around the world as a very violent city, but it’s not anymore. We are more than that. [Drug kingpin] Pablo Escobar is not Medellín. There are so many beautiful things to tell about it.”
Home and family have always been important to Maluma. After all, his stage name is an amalgamation of the first two letters of the names of his mother (Marlli), father (Luis), and sister (Manuela). “In the States, I was surprised to discover that when you are 16 years old, it is almost like you forget that you have parents—you go out and work for your things, you move out, live alone,” he says. “My sister, she is grown, but she is still living with my mom. It’s not because she doesn’t have money to go and live alone. It’s because she loves being with my mom.” As kids, a five-year age gap precluded much hanging out, but now, Maluma and his sister are almost inseparable. “We love going to the farm, riding horses together, talking about life,” he says. “My sister is a psychologist, so it’s beautiful having someone like that close to me. This is a crazy industry, and you always need someone who can support you and listen to you. She is like a spiritual guide.”
"I always say that music saved my life, saved my family’s life. For me, music is everything.”
Maluma’s love for his home city also inspired his foundation, El Arte de Los Sueños, or The Art of Dreams. “When I started my career, I wanted to help the people who were helping me, and the people helping me were these kids from the hood—they were listening to my music, they were my fans. But they were also selling drugs, carrying guns.” His foundation offers dance and singing lessons and hope for more than a life of violence. “I always say that music saved my life, saved my family’s life. For me, music is everything,” he says.
Another childhood memory—lighter but no less formative—involves Maluma’s insistence on dressing himself, despite some questionable fashion choices. “When I was eight, my mom wouldn’t let me, because I’d wear hats and boots with, like, boxers and a tank top, but I’ve always wanted to select my outfits,” he says. Before long, Maluma was attending shows in New York, Paris, and Milan—and still making some-what “out there” requests, often sending his stylist, Ugo Mozie, on a wild goose chase. “Ugo is such a machine,” Maluma says. “I’m like, ‘Bro, you know what? I dreamed about a pink suit with pearls,’ and he’s like, ‘Holy shit, where am I going to find this? Just give me one sec.’ A couple of calls and he texts me back, like, ‘Okay, we are going to have to make it.’
No matter what he wears—or doesn’t (see: the thirst-trappy spring 2020 Calvin Klein underwear ad featuring the popstar and a spouting garden hose)—Maluma pulls it off. It’s no wonder he’s become a muse for designers such as Balmain’s Olivier Rousteing and Dior Homme’s Kim Jones, who designed some of the looks for Maluma’s 11:11 world tour. “I love his unique energy, his abundant creativity, his passion for life,” Jones says of the artist, and it appears the inspiration goes both ways, as Papi Juancho’s Miami Vice–esque visuals took cues from Jones’s prefall 2020 presentation. “The Dior show in Miami is where I met Winnie Harlow, and Kim and Kourtney Kardashian. That was such an amazing experience,” Maluma says.
"Sometimes I feel like [industry people] want to be my friends, but once I show them my back, they stab me."
But it’s also clear that he gets just as much joy out of wake surfing with old friends on a reservoir in picturesque Guatapé, about two hours from home. It’s where he was yesterday, when our first attempt to connect was thwarted by a faulty Wi-Fi connection. He’s happy to report that his friend group today is the same one that laughed at (or maybe with) him back in the day. “I don’t really like having new friends,” Maluma says. “I try to make friends in the industry, but it is very hard. Sometimes I feel like they want to be my friends, but once I show them my back, they stab me. I prefer staying safe with my friends, where I always feel comfortable. When I didn’t have any money, they were there for me, inviting me to their house for lunch. They’re the ones who were laughing at me, and now they are enjoying my success. That’s life—just being grateful for everything that has happened.”

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