How Reggaeton Got Its Groove On: Jay Wheeler Brings ‘El Amor’ to Arenas

ROBOT LOVE: Wearing a futuristic space suit with a heart on its chest designed by DJ King Arthur, Jay Wheeler sings to fans spreading a message of positivity and love as he tours the world.
(Photo by Matt Christine / Santander Arena)

Years from now, there will be books written chronicling the current meteoric rise of Latin music, specifically the subgenre known as reggaeton – or what awards shows now like to call “música urbana” – that would certainly highlight pioneers of the music that fuses together Caribbean rhythms and rap such as Daddy Yankee and Ivy Queen, as well as artists like Bad Bunny who ushered the genre to new heights artistically and in popularity. Longtime Puerto Rican promoter José “Pepe” Dueño, a legend in the business who has worked with Billy Joel, Bon Jovi and Madonna, tells Pollstar that another name will be added to the ever-increasing reggaeton pantheon.

“Six months from now, you’re going to call me and say, ‘Pepe, I believe Jay Wheeler has become one of the top five artists in the reggaeton industry,’” Dueño says with confidence.

It actually may be sooner than that. Wheeler, who fittingly embarked on his first global tour on Valentine’s Day, recently sold out shows at Santander Arena in Reading, Pennsylvania, and Hard Rock Live in Hollywood, Florida – a strong indication that the Puertorriqueño is ready to take his career to the next level.

“All these things that I’m experiencing right now have been crazy,” says Wheeler, a humble but confident 28-year-old who has come a long way from the kid who feared singing in front of others and is averaging $690,000 and 11,500 fans per show, according to Pollstar Boxoffice reports.

Growing up in Salinas, Puerto Rico, music was always a part of Wheeler’s life. His father was in a merengue band and his mom and grandmother sang for the local church. He was always drawn to melodic, romantic music from Latin artists such as Camila and Sin Bandera and learned to play piano at a young age. Wheeler had the voice to accompany it but was afraid to put his talent on display in front of churchgoers and his classmates.

“I didn’t sing because when I was a kid, I was bullied,” says Wheeler, who was also inspired by R&B music. “They made me feel insecure to sing, and I thought they’d make fun of me. … A little later in life, I dared myself to try it.”

READY FOR THE BIG STAGE: Jay Wheeler opened the most extensive tour of his career on Valentine’s Day in Orlando and has gone on to sell out shows in Davie, Florida, and Reading, Pennsylvania. (Courtesy Jay Wheeler)

It turned out to be a life-altering moment when he shed his insecurities in 2016 and recorded a video in his car of him performing a breakup rap ballad called “Ahora Estoy Mejor” (“I’m Better Today”) to the music and melody of Justin Bieber’s “Love Yourself.” Wheeler’s friend uploaded the video and it quickly garnered millions of views on YouTube, inspiring the talented singer to seriously pursue a career in music.

“With time, I came to realize that it didn’t matter what people thought, and what it’s all about is trying to be happy. If singing makes me happy, I’m going to sing,” Wheeler says. “… I would do beats and freestyles in the car, singing songs that I wrote in my notebook.”

It was only fitting that a song from Bieber – a superstar who was discovered through performance videos on YouTube – would help put Wheeler on the map. With newfound social media fame, he was determined to break into the industry by using platforms such as Instagram to grow his fanbase and release music. He eventually caught the attention of DJ Nelson, who helped popularize reggaeton and produced Wheeler’s albums.

Since 2019, Wheeler has gone on to record five studio albums, most recently Emociones, which is also the name of his tour. His success comes at a time when Latin music is booming and reggaeton is at the center of pop music. It’s nearly impossible to ignore songs being played across radio stations from artists like Karol G and Bad Bunny.

“The thing is that we hadn’t evolved reggaeton as much as it has evolved now,” Wheeler says. “In its current state, we’re starting to reach a broader audience in other countries, and that is why it’s so big.”

With more than 15 million monthly listeners on Spotify and sold-out shows to start his tour, Wheeler’s stock is continually rising in the reggaeton market. But what’s impressive is how he and the current generation of Latin stars have done it. Reggaeton artists who came before him typically sang about growing up in the barrio and glorifying the party lifestyle, while today’s singers are more inclusive and diverse.

Though fans can certainly move to Wheeler’s beats, they can also cry or feel immense joy because his lyrics tend to be about matters of the heart. His lofty goal is simple: to promote love and kindness through music.

“It’s been a journey from when everything started to now, and it’s incredible how it has just evolved, [including] this little romantic kid in an urban setting,” Alvin Baez, Wheeler’s manager, says. “A lot of people are wowed by where he is today because it’s not the normal. Normal in the genre is not that the kid with romantic music is the one that ends up killing it; it’s the guy with the gangster verses talking about the street life. It’s weird and unexpected, and that’s the magic of what Jay Wheeler is.”

MAKING A CONNECTION: For Jay Wheeler says “there’s nothing more gratifying” than having fans sing along to his songs, and adds that it’s just as good as winning a Grammy. (Photo by Matt Christine / Santander Arena)

Music has helped the Puerto Rican singer persevere during the most challenging of times, and he hopes his songs can do the same for fans.

“I like to sing romantic music because I’ve realized that the world needs more love and to believe in love again and give it the priority we used to,” Wheeler says. “I just want all the young people to know that they’re not alone, that heartbreak happens to all of us. I, too, went through it and suffered, but I overcame it.”

It’s that sincerity that has drawn millions of fans to the artist, and Dueño is one of them. The promoter’s first encounter with Wheeler was three years ago when the singer filmed a music video at his home.

“When I saw the dedication, the devotion, the time, the effort of everybody there and the love and energy they were putting into that, at the end I said to them, ‘Look, I’ve seen all kinds of videos and artists, but you guys have a future. If you guys need any help, give me a call,’” Dueño recalls.

Two years later, Dueño received a call from Wheeler himself asking him to produce his tour, and he couldn’t say no. He swung for the fences and set four dates last October on the biggest local stage: the Coliseo de Puerto Rico in Hato Rey.

“They told me, ‘What? You’re crazy if you’re going to do the coliseum with Jay Wheeler,” Dueño says. “I said, ‘No, I am 100% confident that he’s bigger than that, and we’re going all the way.’”

The shows ended up selling more than 52,000 tickets and grossing nearly $3 million, according to box office reports submitted to Pollstar, and that was all the assurance Dueño and Wheeler needed to move forward with a worldwide tour.

“The audience is the confirmation for me because they are singing your songs back to you and they feel compatible with you – it’s a confirmation that you’re doing things right,” Wheeler says. “That, to me, is my Grammy, my trophy. There is nothing more gratifying.”

Wheeler’s living the life he always dreamed of but isn’t resting on his laurels. He continues to evolve as an artist and is excited to release new music, including a song inspired by ranchera music from Mexico. He has a way of fusing his other cultures and eras into the world of reggaeton, and such works are bound to expand the reach of the genre and create additional legions of fans.

“I think reggaeton will conquer the world and all the worlds to come, and we’ll make everyone a fan of reggaeton,” Wheeler says.

With the “Emociones Tour,” Wheeler is doing his part to promote the genre that he cares for and expects to be on the road through 2024, planting his reggaeton flag – with much love – one city at a time.