Bilingual R&B Star Omar Apollo Welcomes You Into His 'Ivory' World
By Lucas Villa
The appeal of the rising star Omar Apollo's artistry is his authenticity. In his songs, which fold his experiences as a Mexican-American and queer singer-songwriter into progressive R&B and laid-back funk, he's not afraid to wear his heart on his sleeve. His debut album Ivory captures the journey from his indie beginnings to his breakout as a Chicano pop musician. Later this month, Apollo will be taking his music career to the next level on the Coachella lineup.
"It's my first time [performing] at Coachella," the 24-year-old artist tells MTV News over Zoom. "Oh man, it's going to be so crazy! I can't wait!"
Before hitting the Coachella Valley stage, Apollo, born Omar Apolonio Velasco, was writing and recording music in his childhood bedroom in Hobart, Indiana. As a kid, he was inspired by the soul of American pop artists like Mariah Carey and Prince, which melded with the traditional sounds of Mexican icons like Pedro Infante and the flamboyant Juan Gabriel that were always on repeat in his family home. Apollo learned to play the guitar as a teen, but at 18, he began crafting his own songs. He moved into a friend's attic and recorded there.
When a friend lent him $30 in 2017 to upload "Ugotme" to Spotify, the bluesy love song became his first hit on Spotify, where it has since amassed over 56 million streams. That led to the release of his first EP, Friends, and performance slots at festivals like South by Southwest and Lollapalooza. "I'm just trying not to waste the opportunity," Apollo says. "I'm trying to honor it. I'm out here just working. I'm just trying to keep going off of that."
Apollo was becoming a festival regular when the COVID-19 pandemic halted touring in 2020. Nonetheless, he kept pushing on with his music career. While in quarantine, he wrote and recorded the mixtape Apolonio, which was distributed through Warner Records. Across the nine eclectic tracks, he flexed his versatility. Apollo gave the balladry of Mexican corridos a heartfelt spin in "Dos Uno Nueve" and touched a bit on his relationships with men in trap-tinged "Bi Friend." In October, Apollo received a co-sign from Prince's estate, which selected him to be the first artist to perform at the late pop icon’s former home, Paisley Park.
To entertain fans who were stuck at home, Paisley Park opened its gates to Apollo, who channeled the late pop icon during a sexy performance that was streamed live. In a deep purple suit that bared his chest, he gyrated across the stage. "That was tight," Apollo recalls. "We were there for a couple weeks and it felt like camp because I was just rehearsing there and getting ready for that show."
After years of generating buzz with bombastic single releases and sold-out live shows, Apollo recorded an album that was initially set to drop last year. In the process, he was paired with producers and other artists with whom he didn’t immediately connect, and so he felt the resulting LP wasn't true to his vision or who he was as a person. He scrapped it and started over from scratch.
"I just wasn't excited about the music," Apollo says. "I made this whole first album. It was cool, but it wasn't what I wanted to perform. It was kind of part of the process [of getting to Ivory]."
"That was a dream come true," Apollo says about working with the Neptunes. "Pharrell's the best and we got along super well. I can't wait to make more shit with him."
Apollo is feeling himself throughout Ivory. Its title is "a metaphor for a bond or trust," he says, referring to the material’s strong durability. Throughout the album, Apollo coos about romance and erotic trysts in fiercely personal lyrics, unafraid to use male pronouns when referring to his partner, whom he offers to sing to sleep in the title track. Apollo tries to win back his man in the sweeping "Evergreen" or describes his dream guy in otherworldly "Invincible" featuring Daniel Caesar. ("Latin boy, Frida Khalo brow," by the way.) The surreal music video for the latter features caricatures of two men embracing in love. While Apollo prefers not to publicly label his sexuality, he lets out his queerness in his songs and through his playful tweets to his fans on Twitter.
"It feels so good to be actually honest," Apollo says. "The fact that I get these DMs, and these young kids and people my age are like, 'Thank you so much for saying what you say and using pronouns the way you do,' it just makes me feel so good. There were a few people, but I didn't have anybody in the Latino community doing that when I was a kid or growing up in high school. I was reading a DM last night when somebody told me that, and it's an affirmation for me that things are on the right path."
Across Ivory, Apollo embraces all the intersections of his identity, including his Mexican roots. Last November, he received his first major nominations from the Latin Grammy Awards for his work with Spanish rapper C. Tangana. Their breezy collaboration "Te Olvidaste" was up for Best Alternative Song and Record of the Year. "It was my first time being embraced by any part of the music industry," he recalls. Apollo sings fully in Spanish in the heartbreaking "En El Olvido," his sparse take on ranchera music, a genre traditionally rooted in life on the ranches in Mexico.
"It feels good [to sing in Spanish]," Apollo says. "It feels long overdue. I feel like I was just waiting to get a little more comfortable. Now I can't stop. I was in the studio last night making some shit in Spanish."
Apollo recently kicked off his Desvelado World Tour where he's performing songs from his catalog up to this point. He promises the tour, which includes those two stops at both weekends of Coachella, will be a safe space for fans. “There's going to be a lot of surprises and I'm excited," Apollo notes. "I'm definitely going to be dancing on stage, for sure. I miss it so much.” He’s also hard at work on a deluxe edition of Ivory. Surging throughout the tracks is a refreshing confidence that he hopes is empowering for listeners, as it has been for him.
"I want to keep making music forever," he says. "I would just hope that people feel inspired. Even if you're inspired to get up, go outside, go to a show, sing a song, or pick up the guitar, whatever it could be. That's the only thing you can hope for when it comes to releasing music."