Puerto Rican–Dominican singer, songwriter, and actor Nicky Jam is one of reggaeton’s most prolific talents. Following his 2019 full-length release, Intimo, he kicked off the year with a feature role alongside Will Smith and Martin Lawrence in their latest blockbuster, Bad Boys for Life. In this edition of “The First Time,” the Latin Grammy–winning artist opens up about his first movie role and the music scene in Puerto Rico, as well as his rocky road to international pop stardom.
Born Nick Rivera Caminero in Lawrence, Massachusetts, the 38-year-old was in for a major culture shock when he moved to San Juan, Puerto Rico, at the age of 10. “It was very hot,” he said. “I saw a lot of lizards [on the ground]. I’m talking about thousands of lizards. I was so scared, I went to my dad like, ‘There’s a lot of crocodiles!'”
“My birthday’s on Saint Patrick’s Day,” adds Rivera. “They would always do a parade in Massachusetts, because it’s a very Irish state. My mom told me the parade was for me, so I told my dad that people in Puerto Rico were rude because they didn’t do parades for my birthday.”
It wasn’t long before Rivera grew acclimated to island life. After spending his middle school years scrapping with other kids in the streets, he finally set his sights on a recording career. He was just 14 when he recorded his first album, …Distinto A Los Demás (or Not Like the Others), and gradually rose through the ranks of Puerto Rico’s burgeoning hip-hop, and later, reggaeton scene.
“I was a big fan of Daddy Yankee,” says Rivera. “He was the killer of all the mixtapes. [I saw him] at the club, so I went up to him and said, ‘Imma sing with you one day.’ He looked at me and said, ‘I know who you are. You’re that little kid that sings rap in a little Mickey Mouse voice. I like your style.'”
By the late Nineties, the duo began collaborating unofficially as Los Cangris. Yet Rivera, a mighty MC in his own right, struggled to break out from beyond Yankee’s shadow. By the late 2000s, he gave his music career a total reset by moving to Medellín, Colombia — and within the next decade, he would evolve from local reggaeton act to pan-Latin superstar.
“I knew I made it when Enrique Iglesias called me,” says Rivera. Their joint 2015 single, “El Perdón,” would eventually win him a Latin Grammy — Rivera’s first ever — for Best Urban Performance. The success was followed by a steady procession of urbano-pop hits, including 2016’s “Hasta el Amanecer,” 2017’s “El Amante,” and 2018’s “X (featuring J Balvin),” which all scored over a billion views on YouTube.
It was during this time that Rivera also began to flex his charisma on the screen. He made his acting debut in the 2017 film XXX: Return of Xander Cage, the third installment of Vin Diesel’s XXX action series. “I was in the Dominican Republic,” says Rivera of shooting the film. “Everybody was like, ‘Vin Diesel’s here!’ He was flying in on a helicopter. I was so nervous… ‘I’m about to do a toe-to-toe scene with Vin Diesel.’ The helicopter landed and this guy comes out, six foot-something. He saw me, he hugged me, and said, ‘Hey — do what you do, man.'”