Photography by Mariam Ansar
Omar Apollo is feeling dancey.
It’s no surprise, considering he’s hours away from playing a sold-out London show, and fresh from an American tour which left fans of the 22-year-old Mexican-American singer drunk on his slick and swoony collection of genre-defying songs.
“It’s like this,” he mumbles mid-demonstration of how people got down one night in Cologne, “Spinning, dance circles, pop-pop-pop.” Omar moves quickly, brown-eyed and buoyant, before settling into the murmurs of a bustling East London restaurant. “I’m just happy when people enjoy our shows,” he says, nursing the last of a cold-brewed matcha tea in his hands. “And afterwards, we usually play this one song by The Gap Band. It’s called ‘Outstanding’. And it’s a real dancey song.” He falsettos with impressive ease: “Outstanding, yeah. Girl, you knock me out…”
Omar is a rising star right now, with both his EPs – 2018’s Stereo and this year’s Friends – the source of exciting, game-changing acclaim. Music, he tells me, always felt natural to him. It’s evident in the string of streaming hits he’s earned since uploading songs from a borrowed attic in his hometown of Indiana. It’s clear in the eclectic mixture of genres he says he was brought up on, and how they manifest in his sound. A wildly innovative streak tears through the ice-cool derision of early track ‘Hijo de Su Madre’, made richer via the inclusion of bass guitar, a stabbingly serious electric, and an infectious beat breakdown. Meanwhile, the newer ‘Hearing Your Voice’ presents a near-spiritual evoking of fatalistic fantasising, and evidences an expansive vocal range.
“I have too many influences,” Omar says, elaborating on his mentions of Mexican folk music, Prince, Sly and The Family Stone, Alicia Keys, and Neil Young with more than a few K-Pop stickers on his phone. “Like, way too many. Sometimes people listen, and they’re like, this is very David Bowie. And I’m like, that’s cool, I love David Bowie. But sorry,” he laughs, “This isn’t David Bowie.”
“When I was very young, and I wanted to do music, or singing in general, I definitely felt like no one would take me seriously because I was Mexican”
As the youngest of three, and the self-described “rebel” of the family, Omar seems keenly aware of all that makes him different – despite any well-intended comparisons. He’s flippant about perfectionism: he’s a self-taught guitarist, singer, and producer who speaks about music with a combination of livewire enthusiasm, and highly affectionate attention. “You know ‘Ugotme’, right?” Omar refers to his most-streamed song, a soulful crush ballad, which – like a lot of his songs – is heady and heartfelt all at once. “It’s terribly mixed. I mixed it. The hi-hats are so loud.” He drums imaginary cymbals, mimicking chaos. “But that’s why people like it, I think. You can tell someone made it. It’s the beauty of it.”
It seems music is something that both chose Omar and was chosen by him. It was an informal education he couldn’t help but dedicate himself to, and the evidence of this rings through his words.
“I think my parents thought I was the bad kid,” he says, a little awkwardly, “I didn’t go to college… everyone goes to college, y’know? My sister has a master’s degree, my brother’s about to get married and graduate. And I’m like, eh, nah, I’m not doing school!” He laughs, then demonstrates a fierce, first-generational empathy. “I just ended up doing something my parents weren’t familiar with. I mean, after they came to a show, they were like oh, okay. We get it. But it was just a different lane. Uncharted territory. They were obviously nervous about it.”
“You’re not born hating people. You’re just not”
Omar grows more serious as we discuss what it meant for him to lean into his artistry, and he elaborates on the ‘spark’ which translated into dance classes, teenage freestyle videos and, eventually, his own songs. “When I was very young, and I wanted to do music, or singing in general, I definitely felt like no one would take me seriously because I was Mexican,” he says, “It was a thought going through my head. And then I think I became more like, ‘I need to, because I am.’ It was tough. You go to New York and LA, and everyone’s like, ‘my dad’s a film director’, ‘my parent’s a supermodel.’ You go to Indiana, everyone works at the mill, or at a restaurant. That other stuff just doesn’t exist. You say you wanna be an artist, you’re basically insane.”
He drops a few matcha-coated ice cubes in his mouth. Regrets this decision. Lets out a chokingly infectious laugh and apologises twice – boyishly, innocently, and still with a little laughter. The same qualities reveal themselves as we discuss his growing up darker-skinned, earning teasing songs from other Mexicans as a result, and his experience of being the only brown kid in his early school days.
“Man,” he takes a breath, “these kids would call me shit like ‘spic’ or ‘wetback’, and I didn’t even know what these words were! Like, at all. [They’d say] ‘Mow my lawn’, all that shit. I mean, I kind of understood, because my uncles did landscaping and stuff, but I was still like, ‘what?’ until I got to middle school. Then all our schools got mixed up, and we had more brown kids. One day, this kid called me a ‘spic’, and I was like, ‘huh?’, but this other kid was like, ‘you gonna let him call you that, bro?’” Omar makes a face. “I was like, ‘what are you talking about? I don’t know what that means.’”
“My mom explained that I look different, and that people will look at me and my brother weird if we speak Spanish in public.” He relays all of this with unfortunate clarity. A back-catalogue of teachers banning non-English languages in classrooms, strangers accosting his mother in supermarkets, yells of ‘border-hopper’ and ‘he’s the only Mexican that can’t jump’ in physical education classes. “I was like, oh shit. Y’all have been racist to me since forever.” The laugh that leaves Omar’s mouth is a little tired. “It was just like… fuck. So bad. And it got worse after that. I’d start noticing it more because I understood it, but it just didn’t occur to me before that. Racism is fucking taught. It’s from how you hear your family talk, y’know? Then it just keeps going. You’re not born hating people. You’re just not.”
“Kids started coming up to me at our shows like, ‘my parents are from Mexico, too’, ‘I’m singing too,’ ‘I experience everything you did.’ I didn’t really have anyone like that when I wanted to be an artist”
It’s some consolation, at least, that his gigs sometimes prelude similar confessions of solidarity. Omar brightens at the mention of a graduation cap, backgrounded with a Mexican flag, and adorned with a reworking of one of his lyrics: ‘You ain’t ever seen a brown boy like this.’ “I saw that shit,” he nods. “I didn’t even realise how much of an impact things have until kids started coming up to [me at our] shows like, ‘my parents are from Mexico, too’, ‘I’m singing too,’ ‘I experience everything you did.’ I didn’t really have anyone like that when I wanted to be an artist.”
Back then, Omar hadn’t shortened his middle name – Apolonio – to a cool-sounding Rocky reference. He didn’t stand on stages, guitar-in-hand and grinning, surrounded by the sung-back echo of his own evocative songs. He just watched the music channel on his parents’ TV for hours, filling his mind with the glossy R&B visuals he and his sister liked so much. “I’d walk down the street with my headphones in,” he says, “Just making music videos in my head. A performance. Everything.”
I ask if it’s how he imagined it, a little before he has to leave for soundcheck. Omar doesn’t pause to think about it – he responds with unwavering confidence. The resilience he’s already made so much of.
“100%,” he says, “It is.”
You can find Omar Apollo’s tour dates, releases and socials on his website.