More than 20 years ago, Juan Esteban Aristizábal Vásquez, frontman of the hard-rock act Ekhymosis, was itching to break out of Colombia. As civil war and narcoterrorism raged back home, the Medellín band took their unique blend of cumbia rock to Los Angeles, hoping to follow in the footsteps of the American bands who inspired them. But after a change of heart, Aristizábal would reinvent himself as the solo artist Juanes. Through the power of his rootsy, everyman anthems like “A Dios Le Pido” and “La Camisa Negra,” he helped fortify Colombia’s identity in the global pop imagination.
“I was crazy about rock music,” the 47-year-old superstar tells Rolling Stone. We meet in November at the Aria in Las Vegas, just prior to the 20th annual Latin Grammys, where he would be named Person of the Year.
“I loved guys like Metallica so much,” he continues. “But I was never gonna be like them, because I was me, you know? I started my own journey. … And I’m still trying to find my place.”
Juanes got the shock of a lifetime when Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich appeared onstage at the Latin Grammys — “I thought he was a ghost,” says Juanes — and presented him with the Latin Recording Academy’s most prestigious honor. Having already claimed 20 Latin Grammys (and two mainstream Grammys) for his riffs over the past two decades, Juanes was also highlighted for his lifelong commitment to rebuilding a war-torn Colombia. Founded in 2006, his Mi Sangre Foundation has since raised millions of dollars to remove deadly anti-personnel mines from the countryside, as well as rehabilitate survivors of the conflict, many of whom are children.
Just days after the ceremony in Vegas, Colombian students and union leaders kicked off a national strike in protest of the current president, Iván Duque Márquez, who they say has undermined the 2016 peace treaty used to quell the country’s 55-year civil war. The recent upheaval incidentally coincided with the release of Juanes’ new album, Más Futuro Que Pasado, or More Future Than the Past — a forward-thinking thesis on the enduring, universal groove of Colombia’s folk tradition.
From vallenato to guasca, Juanes draws from the sounds that raised him to craft a well-traveled guitar album. He also enlisted help from a new generation of Colombian trailblazers, including Sebastián Yatra, Crudo Means Raw, and Lalo Ebratt — plus some new faraway friends, like regional Mexican singer Christian Nodal, Dominican-American MC Fuego, and Canadian hitmaker Alessia Cara, who sings in Spanish for the first time on the “Querer Mejor.” Together, Juanes and his cohort capture the spirit of progress by courting each others’ pop methodologies, and sowing the seeds for new genres yet to be discovered.
“I’m not radical about music,” says Juanes of his latest work. “I’m all about being connected with everybody.”
What made you name your album Más Futuro del Pasado?
Porque for me, it gives me a lot of hope. Esperanza, you know — Más Futuro Que Pasado is about having the drive to keep experimenting. I want to keep writing music, I want to live more. This is the point of my life when I want to live so much. But before I do anything, I start from the roots. And from there I build my vision.
Throughout your music career you’ve spanned so many genres, from metal to reggaetón. But even when it’s not the most popular, the guitar has always remained central to your craft.
For me, that’s the most important thing. Ever since I was a kid, I was connected with the guitar. My first approach to music was actually through folk music. I grew up on cumbia from the Seventies, and vallenato and guasca — guasca music because it’s from my region, in the mountains. That’s all in my D.N.A.!
When I discovered rock music, I got really crazy about it. But after many years I just realized that I was not gonna be like James Hetfield. I loved guys like Metallica so much. But I was never gonna be like them, because I was me, you know? So I started my own journey… And I’m still trying to find my place.
I’ve never gotten the sense that there was someone to compare you to. Like there’s no historic rivalry — there’s no Beatles to you, there’s no Stones to you, you’re just Juanes.
I am not radical about music — at this point in my life, I just enjoy everything. It’s good to have music for every moment. I can listen to Slayer and then the next song, Residente. Or I just can go to Ruben Blades and Silvio Rodriguez, then go to Caetano Veloso. And then I go back to Metallica!
In the Nineties, it used to be a sign of inauthenticity if you played more than one genre. “You’re not a real rocker because you make pop music, or folk.” But it’s the opposite now, don’t you think?
I think you owe a lot of your success through blending so many different genres and being able to share across cultures. Your new music is just this mix of . . . guitarratón.
When people go to my live shows, what they hear is rock. The energy that comes from the drums, and then the guitar, and the bass… It’s rock, but influenced by all these different genres. I like what is happening now in music, you know? Rosalía just blows my mind. Tego Calderón, J Balvin does really cool stuff too. I work with the producers that worked with them as well. I’m all about being connected with everybody.
I understand Billie Eilish, for example. I get her. It reminds me of rock 30 years ago. When I see Travis Scott at his shows, people are moshing [the way] we did to rock in the Eighties. There’ve been some changes in the way people make music, but the attitude is still there — even though kids are growing up with the phone, with internet now. Their imagination is just totally different, but the desire for freedom is still there.
You have such a good eye for recognizing a promising young talent. How did you even find Rosalía? Because only two years ago, she was making very traditional flamenco music.
I was in Madrid and a friend of mine invited me to go to a flamenco festival. I went to this little theater for, I don’t know, like 500 people. I just thought “OK, I’m gonna see Rosalía,” because I saw her in a video with C. Tangana. But when I [saw] this girl… my mind was blown! [Her] kind of singing is not very common. It’s not very often that you see something like that — like every 50 years. I don’t know, I’m just exaggerating now, probably.
But when Rosalía sings? It’s like witnessing Edith Piaf, or Carlos Gardel singing. It’s not every day you see that kind of talent, you know? So I called [Rosalía’s now-manager] Rebeca León saying, “Rebeca, you have to see this woman.”
You’ve been especially supportive of young Colombian artists coming up. Your new album opens with “Aurora,” which features rapper Crudo Means Raw.
I love Crudo so much! I never heard Crudo, never in my life, until probably last year. And I noticed the lyrics he was writing, the taste he has. And I said, “Who the fuck is this guy…?”
When I met him, he told me he started with Balvin, at the same time. It’s just that Balvin went to do reggaetón and [Crudo] stayed with hip-hop. The hip-hop energy inspired me so much. The same happened with Lalo Ebratt and Christian Nodal, though they technically make another kinds of music. Christian Nodal, for example, does rancheras. But he brought the attitude from the hip-hop world into his rancheras, you know? To combine urban music with this folk tradition, it’s fucking cool.
Speaking of crossovers: something that was super powerful to witness was when you performed with John Legend at the immigrant detention center [in Eloy, Arizona]. It’s in events like this where your music meets your compassion.
I think metal music planted that seed. When I was 15 years old and I was in Medellín, that was like back in the Eighties — it was the worst time for our country. And at the same time, metal music came. Slayer, Anthrax, Metallica, Slayer… all of these bands, and we were just so crazy about it. And we found that this music was kind of our escape from reality. There was no internet, no radio playing that music. It was all like cassettes. Cassettes, and maybe some guy that came from United States with vinilos, or vinyl I guess. [laughs] But that was so important for me. When young people in my city started to write music, we were not writing about love. We were writing about our anger, our fear, our frustration.
What was it like to grow up in Colombia in the Eighties, when the cartels ran things?
I lived in downtown Medellín, it was very dangerous. I never had the opportunity to go out of my house and just play with my friends in the neighborhood — I went to school and came back home everyday. I was living in a bubble! But in my house, it was all about music from Latinoamérica. Tangos, boleros, vallenatos. That was the only music my family would teach me about.
There was a Beatles album in my house, Let It Be, and a Rolling Stones album. In high school, I finally discovered rock music [through] my friends, who were musicians. They gave me cassettes. And then I started to discover this world, my God! I just wanted to bring all those things together. That was the beginning of Ekhymosis. We were a band for 12 years. And then we started to introduce congas and pianos. We started to experiment with salsa, with everything. By that point people hated us so much, they thought we were selling out. But still, music always helped me connect with reality.
Many artists feel conflicted about venturing into politics. When there’s a political crisis, it’s easy to feel like you don’t have a lot of power as a musician. Do you agree?
I released my first single as a solo artist 20 years ago — “Fíjate Bien” — it was a song about the landmine situation in my country, about the displaced people in Colombia. Colombia had [the highest number of] victims from landmine accidents than any other place in the world. So I started to explore that through music — then I thought, “I can do more than just sing and record!” So I started the [Mi Sangre Foundation].
My new album is very positive, it’s optimistic. But that doesn’t mean that my next song or my next album is going to be the same. I already know it’s not, because I see what is happening now in all of Latin America. What we are going to do? The world is crazy right now, so I think I’ll do something different next time.
Ten years ago you performed a [Paz Sin Fronteras] concert in Cuba. But many people, especially the exile community in Miami, were angry with you for going there. There were death threats. How did it feel to have people turn on you like that?
That was the first time that I met hate. Like, really in front of my face. Like I never [experienced] that kind of violence… In my life, ever. And at the same time, social media was new for me. So I didn’t understand how it really works. If today, somebody said, “Fuck you, I want to kill you” — I don’t give a fuck. I don’t care. But at the time, I was like, “Oh, maybe they’re going to kill me for real.”
And you live in Miami, correct?
Yeah! The craziest thing was that… somebody on the street, or un mesero, or a driver… They would say things like, “Hey man, thank you so much for going Cuba to sing. My family was there.” But it was the media. Like, TV, news, ba pa ba pa pá [blah blah blah]. I was just trying to connect. Honestly, there was no other reason. We just wanted to go there and say, “Hey, let’s do something together to connect with the people.” I know the politics are so dark. Politics are so dark, they’re dark everywhere.
Not everybody knows how to talk about politics. But there is a power in being a musician who has a message, and who makes room to explore those tensions. How do you use that power in [a time of] conflict?
You have to study, you have to understand the whole situation before you speak. Years ago, I was on a plane and somebody [came up and] said, “Aw man, I love your music so much. You are so cool.” And on the same plane, somebody came up and said, “I don’t like what you said in the interview. And you support this guy… And I don’t want to listen to your music anymore.” When I spoke up about the landmine issue, [people] were saying “You are, you are a terrorista, un paramilitario…” I didn’t understand, you know?
Now it’s the same. It’s like every country you see, you go to Bolivia, Chile, Colombia. It’s totally divided. Like 50-50. Half goes against the other half’s freedom and the other half is like, “No, we can only do this like that.” Then the artists… What we do is share feelings with people.
Art is something that goes beyond religion and politics. There is a political scientist in Colombia, Gilberto Tobón. He said, in the future, politicians are going to be artists. God bless him if we could ever get to that point! But if you look in every country in Latin America, and the U.S., the budget for culture is the lowest. They never think that’s important. They wanna build the military, they want to invest in getting richer. But they never think, “Let’s help people go to school and have better opportunities.” Or teach them to play piano, or paint, or… they don’t care. They don’t want people to be smart. They don’t want people to be awake. People are waking up now.
You grew up in a very difficult time for Colombia. But as an artist, you know that from necessity comes invention.
Social media is changing everything. Now in Colombia, they know what is happening in Chile, what’s happening in Puerto Rico. Everybody knows what is happening everywhere. Now all of a sudden people say, “If they can do it, why can’t we?” And they feel empowered.
Our imagination is changing because we have to hold so much information [at once]. And we question everything. It’s not like before — if someone on TV news tells you, “This is the reality, this is the verdad.” [Nowadays] you know that there are many different verdades.
What’s a recent musical discovery you’ve made?
It’s a band from U.K. — Black MIDI. Madre mía! They blew my mind. They’re teens who play guitar and drums like total beasts. You know, they reminded me of Arctic Monkeys. They called my attention because the [Mercury Prize] nomination. That gives me a lot of hope, the fact that young people are playing guitar again.
If you could form your own dream metal band, who would be in it?
Oh my God. Such a good question. For a singer, Bruce Dickinson. And the bass player, Robert Trujillo, me encanta. I love his sound and his attitude. For a drummer… Dave Lombardo? There is another drummer that calls my attention so much — the drummer of Sepultura [Eloy Casagrande]. That guy is so fucking animal. I mean, Igor Cavalera también. But this guy is like a machine.
Slipknot has two drummers, so you can have two drummers!
Slipknot! Another great band. Now Corey Taylor, he’s a singer. He’s fucking amazing. He sings like melodies… and then when he sings like, rahhh! It’s so fucking powerful.
I can just be the manager. Or the engineer, the mixer. Is that good?
No way. You have to be in the band!
OK. I play guitar, Jack White plays guitar — is that too many guitars?
There’s no such thing as too many guitars.
And James Hetfield can play the other guitar, OK?
This is my favorite band, now.
This is a kickass band.
This interview was conducted in Spanglish.