It’s 6:30 a.m., and 15,000 people are at Rockefeller Plaza singing at the top of their lungs about the bittersweetness of watching your ex move on. Whether or not they speak the language, they are singing in Spanish. Many are rocking pastel colored wigs; others are clutching Colombian flags to their chest as they shriek at their loudest possible volume. The fact that the sun has barely risen into the sky deters no one, because superstar Karol G is on the TODAY concert stage.
What matters more to this crowd than caffeine or sleep is witnessing Karol G’s soundcheck. This is essentially just a dress rehearsal, but that doesn’t matter to these fans, who immediately release goosebump-raising shrieks as soon as Karol walks out. She takes the stage in jeans, a T-shirt and her latest signature hair color — a rosé wine pink, adorned with a single braid dotted with dangling silver accessories. Her eyes are round with genuine shock, at times glistening with tears as she takes in the size of the crowd. She and her band do a run-through of the planned songs for the morning: “Amargura,” “TQG,” “Mientras Me Curo del Cora” and “Tus Gafitas.” The electricity in the air is palpable.
Beside me, two girls who arrived at midnight to secure their spot are hoisting a sign announcing it’s one of their birthdays. Behind them is a group of friends who flew in from Miami specifically for this occasion. A few rows back is an older gentleman rocking a sombrero vueltiao, a traditional Colombian hat painted in the country’s colors. Karol makes a point to walk over to him, bending down to try on his hat before giving it back, a huge smile on her face. Later, Hoda Kotb will surprise a hysterical 12-year-old fan by bringing her on stage to meet Karol. When Hoda asks the preteen what it means to get to meet her idol, she responds through sobs: "Algo muy bonito." Something very beautiful.
After she steps off the stage to change and prepare for her actual set, which will air live on both TODAY and Telemundo’s Hoy Día, the crowd gets increasingly antsy. Every few minutes, chants of “Karol! Karol! Karol!” begin. The standing room for attendees gets smaller and smaller as last-minute arrivals squeeze in, and everyone tries to get as close as possible to the stage. Security scrambles after multiple barricades are pushed through. There are rumors floating around that the fire department might shut down the entire thing. I can no longer see the Starbucks that flanks one side of the plaza, because 49th Street is now overflowing with people trying desperately to get just a glimpse of pink hair; a few are even standing on top of cars before they are quickly flagged down by police.
I’ve been to many concerts in my lifetime, and during my two years working at TODAY, I’ve been to several here on the plaza. But I have never experienced anything like this.
It’s clear that Karol G fans don’t play, myself included; if my Spotify streams weren't enough proof, the fact that this extremely non-morning person arrived promptly at 6 a.m. wearing a flower in her hair as an ode to Karol should tell you everything you need to know.
Of course, many of us in attendance are Latino, which automatically guaranteed this New York City crowd was going to be huge. Anecdotally, the only crowd TODAY staffers can remember coming anywhere close to the size and energy of this one was Ricky Martin in 1999. As Karol G will later put it in an interview on stage: “As Latinos, we support what we do around the world — we feel proud about all of us.”
But we are, specifically, proud of our girl. Born Carolina Giraldo Navarro, Karol G has the kind of underdog origin story that was destined for pop stardom. Growing up one of three girls in Medellín, Colombia, her musician father saw her talent at a young age and quickly started involving her in his local performances. After he showed her the biopic “Selena,” featuring Jennifer Lopez as the late Tejano singer Selena Quintanilla, a young Carolina officially decided she was going to be a star.
But of course, it wasn’t that simple. After some initial success making a name for herself and a brief stint on the Colombian spin-off of “X-Factor,” endless YouTube covers of popular songs, and later, performing with artists like J. Balvin, Karol G’s career seemed promising. Yet a meeting with a record label ended with a “no” and feedback that there simply wasn’t enough interest in a woman in the male-domininated reggaeton music genre.
As she explains in a sit down with TODAY’s 3rd Hour hosts, in 2012, Karol gave up on her dream entirely, deciding that the industry was too hard. “It takes a lot out of you, your soul and everything,” she tells Sheinelle Jones, Al Roker and Dylan Dreyer. So, she explains, she moved to New York to study English, but soon couldn’t ignore the fact that every day on the subway, she’d see an ad for a music business conference in Boston. Eventually, she took it as a sign and decided to attend the conference. “I realized that this, what I love and what I feel passion to do, can be my business too. So I went back to Colombia…” and the rest was history, as TODAY’s anchors finish her sentence.
So to see Karol, now 32, taking the TODAY show stage — this time officially for her set, decked out in a belted mauve top and cream skirt, a bedazzled red cross sparkling from her chest — means a lot to both Karol and her fans.
And whether they fully understand the lyrics or not, there isn’t a single person in the audience who can’t relate to her songs. She’s no stranger to bops that will make you perrear, or dance. But thanks to her most recent two albums, Karol has become the queen of making soundtracks for, as she puts it, “the heartbreak girls.” She’s expert at writing and singing songs for those of us who will forever remain romantics, despite being intimately familiar with soul-crushing heartbreak. Later, for our video series “8 Before 8,” she will tell us: “For sure if I’m gonna be in a relationship and I’m gonna be happy, I’m gonna be singing about (being) a heartbroke girl, because it’s just my vibe, it’s like my muse … I love to sing about that.”
But in addition to cheering her on and loving her music, the No. 1 thing I bond with other fans in the audience about is our love of Karol’s authenticity, despite her international megastardom. She might have more than 64 million Instagram followers, but that doesn’t stop her from posting funny videos about how hard it is to say no to cake. She might accept awards in front of a mostly American crowd, but that doesn’t stop her from poking fun at her English. And she might be breaking records here on the TODAY stage, but that doesn't stop her from tearing up, shakily doing her best to answer interview questions over a deafening crowd.
It’s that genuine spirit that makes me nervous that Karol might actually be a diva behind the scenes. Never meet your heroes, as the saying goes. But throughout her morning with TODAY, she is nothing but gracious. Between moving backstage between her performances, hustling upstairs to film our video series “8 Before 8,” and then back to the studio for her sit-down with the 3rd Hour, she constantly shares her disbelief at the crowd and the energy. She never hesitates to pose for dozens of selfies with fans and TODAY staffers. When we finish wrapping her “8 Before 8” video, she shyly asks with a laugh whether she can rethink her answer to the rapid fire question asking whether she prefers drinking tequila or aguardiente. And after her interview, when she finally has a private moment behind the closed door of her green room, a cheer of elation erupts from her and her team.
As her band begins the opening chords of “Mientras Me Curo Del Cora,” or, “While I Heal My Heart,” somehow, Karol manages to calm down the frantically shrieking crowd. Soon, we are all swaying in time to the song’s soft, upbeat ukulele strums. With her signature breathy voice, she croons in Spanish: “Give me time/ I’m not in my best moment/ But I’m improving little by little/ Today I’m down, but I know that tomorrow will be more beautiful.”
After several more songs and a whirlwind morning in New York City, one thing is clear: Right now, Karol G is in her best moment. And this morning was very beautiful, indeed.