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Omar Apollo on His Best New Artist Grammy Nod & That NSFW Viral Tweet

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Omar Apollo — who kicked off his career in 2017 when he borrowed money from a friend to upload his first song to Spotify, the heartfelt “Ugotme” — went from working at McDonald’s and Guitar Center to becoming a Grammy nominee for best new artist at the upcoming Feb. 5 ceremony.

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He’s one of the industry’s most exciting names thanks to his unique musical shapeshifting, effortlessly moving between viral tracks that drip with soul and R&B to overtly pop jams to alternative rock, reaching a crescendo with the release of debut album Ivory in April. Along the way, a generation of fans readily see themselves in Apollo, from his proud Mexican heritage to his authentic openness about his sexuality.

Hot off his nationwide Prototype tour, Apollo spoke candidly to Billboard about the evolution of his sexuality (including his trials and tribulations and that recent viral tweet), as well as his close relationship to his Mexican culture and the new video for his Hot 100 hit “Evergreen (You Didn’t Deserve Me At All).”’

Congratulations on being a best new artist Grammy nominee! What does that mean to you?

It’s such an honor to even be nominated. I mean that’s insane. I was definitely very, very excited. I called my parents and told them the news, and so many friends reached out. It was a crazy feeling.

Where were you that morning? Did you watch the announcement?

I was watching it in my hotel room in Atlanta. Me and my team were watching it. My manager tackled me, and I fell on the bed. Everyone was “Ahh!!” They were recording it, it was so funny. And then I really had to use the bathroom, so I kicked everyone out and called my dad. He was so excited; he had a little cook hat on. He was so excited, just saying congratulations and he started to say, “You’ve been working so hard.” Dad stuff. And then I called my mom and she was super excited, and we started talking about what we’re going to wear.

How did your tour go? You played the biggest rooms during the biggest run of your career so far, but I know you had to cancel a date because it was taxing on your voice.

Yeah, totally. Oh my gosh, that’s the biggest stress, your voice. I have a lot of things I do on the road to be able to take care of it, but I’m going to have to go harder on this next tour to really, like, have a regimen. Your voice is these two little vocal folds in the back of your throat that are so, so, so sensitive and delicate, and touring is so not delicate. And, you just have to be able (to get through it). Right down to the food you eat.

As anyone who’s seen your tour can attest, you really don’t encompass one genre. There’s R&B-forward songs like “Evergreen (You Didn’t Deserve Me At All),” but you also have more alt rock, hip-hop, pop and you even threw in some traditional Mexican songs. Was it a conscious decision to have a discography that zig-zags through genres, or just the general evolution of your music?

I grew up on soul and R&B and that’s where my soul and heart is. I also just have a general interest in music itself. I can’t help but attempt to try out all of these different styles. I grew up rapping and I did that before I started singing. That turned into writing and all that. Honestly, it’s a discovery. There was a point in time I was putting things out because they felt good.

The traditional Mexican songs have become a highlight of your show. What made you incorporate them into the tour in the first place? You performed them when you were a kid, right?

Yeah, so I was in Ballet Folklórico, which was like a Mexican folk ballet. So I wasn’t singing; I was dancing to very similar music when I was in third grade or something like that. So it’s always been a part of my life and I grew up watching videos of Folklórico and stuff like that, so I was like, this feels genuine to me, this feels like something I want to do at my shows. I just had to try it. It turned into being this moment in the show where I would amplify (the culture).

An artist like Selena grew up in Texas and (at least at first) didn’t speak Spanish, but her heritage was important to her and it seemed like she represented the Latin community in the States. Meanwhile, you’re from Indiana and tapping a similar fanbase. What does it feel like to juggle that part of your heritage, and do you feel a responsibility?

I was born and raised in Indiana; my parents came from Mexico with the intention of having a better life here. Some things my parents would always tell me were to not forget where I came from, so the family and our traditions and the culture has always been super important. It’s its own culture, because it’s mixed with this American culture. To have this visibility…. A lot of the people who come to the show are all Latin. It’s great because that’s something I wanted growing up. An artist who represented my people, who looked like me and could actually have my story of how my parents came here and their kids could be successful. There are so many different ways success can be. It’s just wonderful to know that my parents’ intentions were pure, true and I was able to change my family’s life forever.

Speaking of Hispanic culture, I want to talk about your partnership with Buchanan’s Whisky, which you always post about on social media. It’s a brand that is popular with the Latin community, and I know it’s one that’s close to your family.

Yeah, well I only really like to partner with brands that are authentic to me and my family, my uncles, my friends all drink it. So it’s been a brand I’ve already been connected with and I really love how they celebrate the Mexican culture. When they asked me to support 200 Percenters, which is 100 percent Hispanic and 100 percent American [their 200% Futuro Fund which raises money for Hispanic and Latin organizations], it just felt like a no-brainer. Honestly, it was great to tour with them. They joined a few of the dates and had some stands for drinks, so I’m excited for everything that’s to come with them.

What does your family think? For the Buchanan’s drinkers this must be a dream. Free Buchanan’s for life!

Yeah, totally! They just sent my dad a bottle; he was so excited. I was with him when he received it. He tells everyone.

Your queerness is also a major part of your identity. I wanted to ask you about your viral tweet in which someone accused you of queerbaiting and you had a NSFW response and you clarified, in an NSFW way, “No, I’m actually gay. This isn’t just some marketing thing.” What made you tweet that?

I’m gonna be honest with you man, that tweet had zero thought. I saw the tweet and thought, this is actually comical because it’s so untrue. So opposed to being defensive, I just thought of something…. Twitter is literally a place where I have so many tweets like that. It’s kind of funny that it keeps being brought up because it was my little vulgar moment! (Laughs) What did Jay-Z say? “What you eat don’t make me sh-t.”

I think the shocking thing is not that you tweeted it, but the fact that it wasn’t too long ago that an artist would hide the fact they were gay as much as they could. But there you are being 100 percent honest, essentially saying: “I’m gay, this is what gay people do, what are you gonna do about it?” The gay community reacted to that like, “Yes!”

I’m totally aware of the privilege we have now to be ourselves and still have a career. Honestly it had a lot to do with me growing up in Indiana which is very conservative. Everyone is always tiptoeing around it. As opposed to trying to defend myself, I embraced the sexual aspect of it. I don’t normally think when I go on Twitter, it’s reactions. Everything on there is just a bunch of reactions. But people thought I was queerbaiting before (early in my career). I wasn’t super open about my sexuality, but people were hearing things. In Indiana people were saying “He’s not even gay, he’s just doing that to be artist-y.” I always thought it was funny because the reality of my life is not that; it’s not a choice, it’s just what I am. You have to laugh at things like that. I didn’t think I was going to get this far in-depth talking about that tweet.

I remember my first time writing about being gay in a public forum; it was a milestone for me considering it was something that was so personal. Do you remember your first time incorporating it into your music?

Yeah… I don’t know if I ever said this, but I put out music when I was 18 and it was a song called “Beauty Boy.” That was the first time I ever said anything about it. I made it subtle. I didn’t say, “This is my gay song!” I just kind of put it out. I was feeling confident; my friends knew, I told them and they were like, “Do it.” In my town it started to get a lot of criticism and it got back to my family. I started getting really discouraged because the way it was received didn’t make me feel good…. It’s still kind of tough to talk about it. So (after that) I stopped putting pronouns in my music for a couple years, I think. But then I just realized, I can’t let other people’s opinions influence my life. I can’t let them dictate my life. That’s silly. I grew up very religious, so I was dealing with that too. Eventually, I put out a song called “Stayback” and the video had…. homosexual undertones. I remember being terrified. It was really hard for me. I almost didn’t put it out, but luckily my friends were very supportive. It wasn’t that I wasn’t out; I had been out for years. But when you come from this very conservative, Catholic upbringing… I experienced a lot. There’s a lot of things people don’t know about. Those things just stay with me. To be able to go and talk and be myself is a blessing. I’m very fortunate and I don’t take it for granted.

It’s a personal evolution for everyone, but for you your personal evolution has doubled as an artistic evolution through dealing with that. But culture is a mirror held up to society, and you’re giving other people who have gone through those same experiences a voice.

I mean, that sort of thing makes me really happy. It feels like that was, like, robbed from me. I didn’t get to experience this open, high school love. That was type of thing that I had to experience later in life. I had to develop it later. So yeah, it’s a lot.

In The Velvet Rage it says if you’re gay, even if you experienced dating with a member of the opposite sex, you inevitably have to do it all again at some point with a member of the same sex.

The Velvet Rage! That’s a good book.

Tell me about the video for “Evergreen (You Didn’t Deserve Me At All),” which just came out and has so far collected over six million views on YouTube. You’re insulated in this room and then there’s a collapse. What was your thinking behind its concept?

Honestly, I hate explaining things just because it kind of puts it in a box. Literally, in the video it was a box I built (laughs). But I was working with these directors, rubberband [jason sondock and simon davis]. Super talented producer and cinematographer. Everything couldn’t have gone better and it was a great day. The video was made to amplify what is being said in the song. I always had a tough time with videos, things like trying to work in a love interest. But the directors were so talented and they thought everything through. We worked really hard on the edit and coloring and tried to get to feel how I wanted it to. It was perfectly executed. I love it.

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