From flipping burgers in McDonalds to making beats with Dominic Fike, overnight success story Omar Apollo is dancing to the beat of his own drum.
Omar Apollo has always sought to be the centre of attention. From celebrating other people’s goals at school football matches to being somewhat of a child prodigy in the world of Mexican Folk Ballet, he knows how to catch people’s eye. For me, after three failed attempts to pin him down for our interview, it’s fair to say he’s piqued my curiosity.
When we do finally link-up via a crackly Google Hangout, he’s just returned to LA from his native Indiana, where he was visiting family and friends for the first time this year. It’s undeniable that much has changed in the few years since he moved to the City of Angels. Before his foray into music, he had a pretty traditional Midwestern upbringing, filling his days by skating with friends and working odd jobs at various retail spaces in his local town. As for music, that was always something he was fiercely passionate about.
He first started playing guitar when he was 11 years old, a skill he learned by watching the hands of someone who played in his local church. “I didn’t know how to read music so I would just look at this guy’s fingers and copy whatever he was doing,” he says in a low, laidback hazy voice. “So I started playing guitar but it got stolen when I was like 14. I was really tired coming back from a gig. I came in the house and left my guitars in the car, and when I woke up the next morning they were gone. We couldn’t leave anything out or it would get stolen. My house was robbed, the garage was robbed all the time, even our car, they stole that.”
It wasn’t until he was 18 and secured a job flipping burgers at his local McDonalds that he was able to save enough money to replace his stolen kit. After graduating High School, he spent a few weeks at college before dropping out to focus on music full time.
By chance, Omar decided to upload one of his early tracks, the smooth and hypnotic Ugotme, onto Soundcloud. Despite going to bed expecting nothing, he woke up the next day to find that the track had clocked up more than 40,000 streams. His majestic tones had viral potential, and he was, in essence, an overnight success story. “I was pretty surprised. I had no expectations, but it blew up,” he explains of his first foray into sharing music. “I remember going into work the next day and my friend was like ‘dude, do it again!’ so I dropped another one and the same thing happened and then I did it again and the same thing happened, so it was pretty crazy.”
But despite his clear potential for international success, his viral beats on Soundcloud weren’t earning him any money, so he was still met with doubts from friends and family. “I feel like I never really had that [support]. I only had a few friends that were cool about me making music. Literally every single person in my life [was apprehensive about me pursuing a career in music]. I just had to shut them up. Even to my family I had to be like ‘I’m not going to listen to you, I’m sorry’. I just knew.”
And it’s clear to see that dancing to the beat of his own drum has paid off. After his success on Soundcloud, he’s since released two EP’s, 2018’s Stereo and Friends, which he dropped in 2019. Honest and soul bearing, both projects are hard evidence as to why Omar Apollo has had such a rapid rise. With note-perfect yet raw vocals and vulnerable lyrics, Omar makes music for the masses, ensuring that in each track, you see a little bit of yourself. There’s something subconsciously relatable. The emotional vulnerability in his vocals are the kind that catch you off guard. For him, music writing is somewhat of a cathartic experience. “It’s so emotional and subconsciously present. It’s your emotions that you don’t talk about enough or don’t mention at all and then it comes [out in lyrics]. It’s kind of like a flow and you have to allow that to happen. I’m getting a lot better at writing, like a lot better. I understand it more. I see it from a bird’s eye point of view rather than just coming up with words, which is how I used to do it.”
His burgeoning talent has quickly caught the attention of his contemporaries, and he’s started to work with some of the best new names breaking into the music industry. Aside from singing alongside Brockhampton collaborator Dominik Fike, he’s also building a firm working relationship with producer Kenny Beats, who is responsible for the sounds of FKA twigs, Rico Nasty and Slowthai. “Kenny and Dominic are homies. It’s cool having talented friends. I love them to death. I’m about to go to the studio with him right now. I got my whole project coming out soon. I’m always making new shit. And it’s fire. Good as fuck! I’m just excited!” But when I quiz him further on his upcoming projects, he’s intent on staying tight-lipped. He just assures me that he’s already working on his “next next music”.
But his recording output is only half of the story. The extent of Omar’s musical prowess comes when he’s on-stage. A born performer, he says that he feels most comfortable and confident when he is in front of an audience. After the release of Friends, he embarked on an extensive 30+ date tour which saw him travelling the breadth of America, starting in Texas before wrapping up in New York and Connecticut. It’s rare that an artist at the start of their career with limited material would embark on such a monumental headline tour, but with Omar, seeing is believing. “It was fun. I’m in my early 20s now, but I was barely 20 when I started touring. It was just cool as fuck. It’s a dream. We were literally just getting fucked up every night, putting on a cool show, getting on the bus, going to a hotel, sleeping and then doing the same thing tomorrow.”
Part of that performance are his hypnotic dance capabilities which are reminiscent of a young Mick Jagger or Ed MacFarlane, but perhaps with a bit more rhythm and classical training. “I did Folklórico which is Mexican Folk Ballet,” He laughs, nodding towards why he’s such a confident performer. “I did that for a couple of years when I was going to elementary school. They used to pull me out of class to go and do performances and stuff. After that I got really into choreography and hip hop. I would just dance, imitate and learn new shit.”
As we reach the end of our conversation, I want to touch a little on another string to his bow; the fact that he sings and releases music in both English and Spanish. Born to Mexican parents, I wonder how important it is for him to acknowledge his heritage in his work, especially when we’re living in such turbulent political times, and mere moths away from the next presidential election in the United States, where the man seeking re-election has expressed some horrendous views towards the hispanic community. “I come from immigrant parents. For me, and so many other first generation Mexicans, or anybody who is an immigrant, it’s just super important to talk about [your heritage] because we didn’t have the same opportunities,” he says sternly. “It’s important to address. I remember going to shows and having kids coming up to me with the same story: ‘My parents are from Mexico, they came [to America] and they had me here.’ It’s super important. Coming from hispanic homes, we have grown up where we’ve had to work hard. We’re just not lazy. My parents overwork themselves. My dad works 16 hours a day, two jobs and it’s the same with my Mom. [She was] getting money any way that she could, so I’ve always had this example of hard work and I wanted to do that too, but I wanted to enjoy it and by them coming here and taking that risk, they gave me that opportunity.”
With all that considered, I ask him directly if he sees himself as an actively political person. His answer perfectly hits the nail on the head, and highlights that Omar Apollo is much more than just his musical output, more than the tours and the dancing. “I think that being first generation Mexican and touring the world and telling my stories is political in itself!” Omar Apollo is here to make a statement, and it’s one we can all get onboard with.