Meet Omar Apollo, the blue-haired, gender-rebellious, Mexican American Prince
Somewhere in Brooklyn, an aspiring Mexican American heartthrob is making his rounds. Towering at 6 feet 5 and crowned with a punk shock of teal hair, Omar Apollo emerges from a COVID-19 testing site, then ducks into the back of a black cab and heads for the Soho Nails salon in Manhattan. When Apollo answers my video call, he’s a little short of breath and, after getting impaled in the brain with a nasal swab, he looks forward to something that will make him feel human again: a manicure.
“I’m excited to get my nails done,” says Apollo, his brown eyes peeping above his powder-blue face mask, scrutinizing his long, unmanicured hand. “Like … girrrl.”
Pandemic be damned — Apollo is an artist in constant orbit. Fueled by the buzz surrounding his two independently released EPs, 2018’s “Stereo” and 2019’s “Friends,” the 23-year-old R&B artist spent the better part of his last two years on tour, spanning the U.S., Mexico, Europe, Asia and Australia, and signed a deal with Warner Records. It was during a brief respite in his apartment in Glendale that COVID-19 brought the world to a grinding halt, and it seemed that Apollo would be grounded, indefinitely.
“I had my friends and cousins visiting when L.A. went on lockdown,” says Apollo. “There were so many of us in the house — we put on gloves, stocked up on food and said, ‘We’re not leaving.’”
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And so he hunkered down in his bedroom-slash-studio to begin writing and recording his upcoming mini-album, “Apolonio,” out Friday. “Apolonio” courses with a lava-like funk groove that playfully shape-shifts across various genres, and features collaborations with an eccentric assortment of guests: Colombian singer-songwriter Kali Uchis, Parliament-Funkadelic bassist Bootsy Collins and Strokes guitarist Albert Hammond Jr. At its gooey core, Apollo describes the record as “some rock s— with a little soul,” an autobiographical stream-of-consciousness written in the spirit of Prince, patron saint of genre-flouting freaks.
The album was christened with Apollo’s middle name, which he inherited from his grandfather Apolonio. Born in rural Indiana to immigrants from Guadalajara, Omar Apolonio Velasco taught himself how to play guitar from YouTube and kept up with the latest dance moves at the occasional quinceañera. (“That’s where I learned to dance bachata and cumbia,” he says.) His mother worked in his school’s cafeteria, while his father delivered the food by truck. Apollo swears he was never too cool to give his folks hugs in front of his classmates. “I would come up and kiss them,” says Apollo. “My mom always made me a nice, big plate of food every day.”
It was after a stint working at a local Guitar Center that he decided to start sharing his own original music, which he’d diligently written and recorded in his bedroom. In 2017, Apollo uploaded the song “Ugotme” to his Soundcloud page. Since then, the song has clocked over 30 million listens across multiple streaming platforms. Apollo soon leveled up from playing basement shows to headlining tours — and eventually shared the stage with Selena’s widower and former lead guitarist, Chris Pérez, at a 2018 Selena for Sanctuary concert in New York City. “God, I was a nervous wreck,” says Apollo of that night. “I was a little boy!”
Much like fellow Latinx newcomers Cuco and Kali Uchis, Apollo is part of a rising generation of self-starting Spanglish-language artists who have captivated pop fans with their bicultural cool. But it’s not your abuelo’s brown-eyed soul: Much like his purple predecessor, Apollo pairs sensual riffs with lyrics that toy with sexuality, gender and the myriad labels people use to define the two. As for Apollo, he doesn’t subscribe to any of them. When I ask how he might identify under the LGBTQ umbrella, he simply says: “I’m just chilling.”
For all that he doesn’t tell, he much prefers to show. In the video for his 2020 single “Stayback,” Apollo exchanges furtive glances with a presumably straight guy at a party — and inner turmoil ensues. “I get lots of beautiful messages from people,” says Apollo of his LGBTQ fans. “It feels good to know that people find comfort in me expressing myself. If I want to wear a skirt, I wear a skirt. If I want to put on glitter, I’mma wear glitter, you know? I can’t make people like my music, or like me as a person. I put it out in the world, and you do what you want with it.”
Omar Apollo performs “Stayback.”
We meet again two days later, this time in person, on the streets of Chinatown. Apollo flashes his new nails, now whimsically adorned with tiny lightning bolts, smiley faces and 8-balls. Although he grew up in a fairly strait-laced, religious family, he says that his parents “just wanted [their] kids to be good … they’re pretty open-minded now.” When his father last visited him in Los Angeles, he got a taste of Apollo’s rock-star-in-quarantine lifestyle: surfing in the morning, watering the plants he bought during lockdown and eating caldo de pescado with a member of the Strokes.
“It all started with a phone call,” says Albert Hammond Jr., who shared songwriting and production duties with Apollo on his lo-fi ballad “Useless.” After swapping a couple of demos, Hammond came over to record at Apollo’s house, where his father was making the tilapia stew. “I ended up staying longer to hang out and eat,” says Hammond. “I was just absorbing a cool new energy. I felt very welcomed.”
“I told my dad, ‘Papí, he’s famous!’” Apollo says with a laugh. “My dad had no idea, he just said, ‘Ah, sí, wow!”
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While most of Apollo’s output is sung in English, he pulls up the roots of his working-class Mexican upbringing in “Dos Uno Nueve (219),” a corrido, or narrative folk ballad, which juxtaposes the austerity of his Midwestern childhood with his newfound success as an artist in Los Angeles. Strumming at his acoustic guitar with a fluttering swiftness, he sings in Spanish, “Quiero ganar mucho más ceros, y disfrutar de lo que tengo” (I want to earn more zeroes, and enjoy what I have).
With his official debut LP due in 2021, he’s just wrapped up a sleepless week of recording sessions at New York’s Electric Lady Studios. Apollo will then bound back to the Midwest on Oct. 28, where he’ll be the first in a series of up-and-coming stars to perform a livestreamed concert at Paisley Park, the home and studio of Prince. To carry the torch for his funk heroes in 2020 is no small endeavor, but Apollo says he’s been well-schooled for the role.
“Bootsy Collins gave me lots of advice while recording,” he says. “We talked for like, two hours on the phone. He [said], ‘Making music is like making love.’”
Apollo sheepishly darts his eyes towards the street and grins. “I’m not saying that in the L.A. Times.”
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