Omar Apollo Frees His Mind
THE MEXICAN GEN Z HEARTTHROB AMERICAN PROUDLY REPRESENTS HIS CULTURE. BUT FIRST HE HAD TO LEARN TO BE TRUE TO HIMSELF
here he comes now, sauntering down the sidewalk in L.A.’s Westchester neighborhood, a few blocks from LAX — iced coffee in hand, friend by his side, and a Whitney Houston song on his mind. “I’m saving all my love for youuuu,” he hum-sings with effortless soul and a soft smile, a friendly giant at 6 feet 5 inches. He introduces himself as he approaches: “Hi, I’m Omar.”
Omar Apollo leads us into an unassuming house that looks like it should be hosting a college party, with strange doodles on the wall, misplaced Xbox controllers, and a car door leaning against the kitchen bar. For now, he’s dressed casually, in gray sweatpants, a dark flannel over a white tank top, and Birkenstock clogs. It’s about 11 a.m. on a Tuesday in March; in a couple of hours, he’ll be shooting the video for “Tamagotchi,” the latest single from his magnum opus, Ivory, which came out in April.
With its bouncy Neptunes beat, flirty, bilingual lyrics, and effortlessly catchy chorus (“You with somebody, or are you cool?/ I want your body, you want me too”), “Tamagotchi” is a perfect example of the qualities that have made Apollo, 25, one of the most exciting artists of his generation. A self-taught Mexican American musician with a remarkable vocal range, he saw nearly overnight success after uploading a smoldering, D’Angelo-style R&B song called “Ugotme” in 2017. Since then, he’s collaborated with everyone from Bootsy Collins to the Strokes’ Albert Hammond Jr. to Spanish rap star C. Tangana (the latter earning him a Latin Grammy Record of the Year nomination); won comparisons to Prince and Frank Ocean that, amazingly, don’t feel hyperbolic; and built a devoted, diverse base of Gen Z fans, largely Latino, often queer, who feel represented by his work.
One thing Apollo hadn’t done, until April at least, is release an album. Ivory is his full-length studio debut, and it’s been a long
time coming. He had a version done last September, but it didn’t feel like his own. “I was just not excited to release it, nor perform it,” Apollo says. “I didn’t set boundaries with anybody. Everything I made, I’d send to my management and to people at the label, and gave them direct access to the whole process. It was no longer my music. It was more like a bunch of opinions.”
Apollo says it took some advice from a close friend for him to learn to protect his space. “I need the creative process for me,” he says. “I had problems with confrontation growing up. Now, I can just say how I feel, no matter what.”
The final version of Ivory is laced with funky, psychedelic, R&B sounds, raw, relatable emotions, and a tribute to his Mexican heritage. It’s a record meant to be listened to from start to finish. It’s Omar being Omar. “I love someone who knows the worlds they want to create with their music, instead of guessing them,” says Ivory’s main producer, Carter Lang, the production mastermind behind much of SZA’s Ctrl. “Omar has ideas just frozen within him waiting to come out every single day.”
Minutes after arriving on set, Apollo finds a quiet moment in the garage, surrounded by some decorative Coors Light and Tecate beer-can boxes mounted on a wall, presumably the property of the three white dudes in their early twenties who lent their house for the shoot.
Before he moved to L.A. three years ago, Apollo was living in his parents’ attic in Hobart, Indiana, where he was born Omar Apolonio Velasco, his middle name a tribute to his grandfather. One of his tíos, Tomás, lives in a similar garage to this one back at the Velasco home; the singer’s mom, Enriqueta, worked as a lunch lady at Omarcito’s school, while his dad, Roberto, delivered food for the same cafeteria. His parents immigrated to the Midwest from Guadalajara, Mexico, with his dad coming first, circa 1979, to get away from gang violence and to seek new opportunities. After years of sending each other love letters, Roberto returned to Mexico to help Enriqueta cross the border. A 12-year-old Omar, the youngest of three siblings, later helped his parents memorize the names of the states so they could pass their U.S. citizenship tests.
Apollo recently taught his dad how to use Apple Music, so Papa Velasco could listen to some of his son’s new singles on his phone. “He just called me the other day. He’s like, ‘Mijo, I don’t know why you’re always stressed. Your music sounds good. You have no reason to be stressed. You have no reason!’ ” the singer recalls. “It was supersweet.”
During Apollo’s childhood, songs by Vicente Fernández, Pedro Infante, and Juan Gabriel filled his home. The colorful, beloved Gabriel, also known as Juanga or the Divo de Juarez, became an international icon in the decades before his death, in 2016, and served as the main inspiration for “En El Olvido,” an emotional, strippeddown corrido that’s a welcome twist on the psychedelic R&B sounds of the rest of Apollo’s new album.
Apollo’s Mexican American roots are key to Ivory. Around the time he decided to scrap his original version of the LP, he grabbed his bags and spent time in Mexico City, thanks to an invitation from Alberto Bustamante, a queer architect from Oaxaca who performs as a DJ under the name Mexican Jihad. He’s now Apollo’s creative director. “We just clicked,” says Bustamante, who helped make Ivory’s black-and-white cover art, an homage to the galán telenovela actors of the 1950s. “And we became amigas.”
At the “Tamagotchi” video set, Bustamante shows up wearing an explicit T-shirt of Satan fucking a man flaunting an erect penis on a pentagram. “It doesn’t get better than satanic gay sex,” he says with a smile. His explicit approach to queerness and eroticism seems to contrast with Apollo’s more low-key take on expressing his sexuality. “It’s superpowerful but complicated,” Bustamante says. “If you define yourself as a gay artist, you only fit in the gay-artist box. That doesn’t happen to other artists.”
Apollo doesn’t like to label himself. “It is what it is,” he says matter-of-factly. “I’m very open about it in my music and on Twitter. But when it comes to identifying myself . . . it feels good to say ‘queer.’ I don’t know. I’m complex.”
Queer love is laced throughout his lyrics on the new album, and it’s a big part of what’s made his music resonate with fans. In the trippy video he released earlier this year for the melancholic ballad “Invincible,” he sings about a “Latin boy” with a “Frida Kahlo brow,” as two men in masks (made by Costa Rican artist Andrés Gudiño) hold hands and caress each other’s bodies. Bustamante says they weren’t trying to be too literal with the visual, “but at the end, people caught the message.”
Later in the afternoon, friends of Apollo who will appear as extras in the video trickle into the backyard, where there’s a rippedapart sofa and a chicken-wire sculpture. Apollo — already in some black Nike Cortezes and baggy pants for the video’s next look — greets them with the same soft smile and a hug before giving the halfpipe a try. Homeboy can skate.
On the set, as he takes direction from Jake Nava — the British director behind Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies” and “Black Is King” videos —
“KIDS WOULD TELL ME, ‘YO, MY PARENTS ARE FROM MEXICO TOO. WE’RE FIRSTGENERATION,’” SAYS APOLLO. “THAT’S WHEN IT FELT LIKE, ‘OH, WOW. THIS IS BIGGER THAN ME.’“I DIDN’T HAVE ANYONE LIKE THAT.”
the quiet Mexican American kid in love with music takes over. As Nava shares tips and directions, Apollo nods and listens and follows along.
I tell him that I can relate to him — my parents, too, immigrated without papers from Mexico — and ask if he feels a responsibility in representing our culture. He pauses to think, then names several other young Mexican American artists making their mark while staying true to their roots. “You got Jean Dawson, Cuco, Miguel, Niko Rubio,” he says. “It’s supersick to see, because there wasn’t that when I started.”
Through his first two EPs and mixtape, Apolonio, Apollo had already found a voice for the intricacies of being “ni de aquí ni de allá” — not from there nor from here. “Kids would tell me the exact same thing you did and be like, ‘Yo, my parents are from Mexico too. We’re first-generation,’ ” he says. “That’s when it felt like, ‘Oh, wow. This is bigger than me.’ I didn’t have anyone like that.” When he announced “Tamagotchi,” a fan quotetweeted him with a Mexican-flag emoji and wrote, “The Mexican kid got a track with the Neptunes. We up.”
Apollo’s eyes light up as he reminisces about the “vamos pa’ Miami” trip he took to meet with Pharrell last April. “I was like, ‘Say less,’ ” he recalls with a smile. “He started making a beat, like, psh psh psh. Like Pharrell. He goes downstairs, so I just start writing and recording. I make the whole song in 30 minutes. And he comes back in and goes, ‘How’s it going?’ He pressed the space bar and got so excited. That’s when there started to be chemistry. He was like, ‘Oh, that’s what you’re on!’ ”
Pharrell then disappeared and came back with 20 people, including Pusha T. “He went, ‘Y’all gotta listen to this shit, man. He went crazy,’ ” Apollo remembers. They ended up making a handful of songs together before Pharrell asked him to extend his stay. They made five “from scratch,” one of which Apollo promises is “living somewhere else, but is gonna come out.”
Apollo nonchalantly mentions that he’s planning to move to Mexico City after his tour wraps, “probably just to chill.” For the son of Mexican immigrants, a move like that could be a return to the mythical Aztlán — a way of resetting his life in a place that feels like home on a profound level, but one that also provides a new environment for the singer to explore his creativity. “I did start planning my life recently,” he adds. “I’m going to move to New York in 2024. I need the change. I need to move around. If I’m comfortable, I get nothing done. . . . You gotta manifest it.”