Cuco performs at the Outside Lands music festival in San Francisco, Aug. 11, 2018. (Estefany Gonzalez )
Cuco had the microphone, but you could hardly hear him over the resounding chorus of young, mostly Latinx people singing his 2017 viral hit, "Lo Que Siento," back to him.
The hundreds of voices in the audience of his sold-out show at the Regency Ballroom in San Francisco on Saturday, Feb. 16, drifted between English and Spanish seamlessly as they recited his twinkly, earnest confession of love: "Our hands interlock / Nuestros labios se conocen / Nuestra noche es corta pero hermosa / We'll be okay."
Some have treated Cuco, born Omar Banos, like a novelty. But the first-generation, Mexican-American artist doesn't sing dream pop in Spanglish because it's an act of revolution. He does it because it's normal.
"It sounds like what I hear at home," one fan with appropriately romantic hearts on their cheeks told me while pressed against the guardrail in the front row.
Cuco—like myself and a lot of other young, first-, second- or third-generation Latinx people who grew up pulled between two cultures—wound up creating a third space unto himself. In that world, it's perfectly ordinary to oscillate between the two languages. It's unconscious the way you start a sentence in Spanish, only to end it in English. Or, to answer your parents in English when they asked you something in Spanish. Sometimes, the words are even made up—like "conflei" for "cornflakes" or "cereal," or "parquear" when you want to say "park."
But I get the fanfare. In a landscape where marginalized people are systematically shut out of creative industries, leaving audiences starved for representation, it's the way Cuco has been able to reflect the banalities of everyday life that makes him transformative for the young people of color who adore him.
The adoration vibrated through the Regency Ballroom on Saturday. Heart balloons and cutouts dotted the audience, and casual fans were few and far between in the space. The crowd hardly missed a beat as Cuco ran through tracks from 2016's breakout Wannabewithu to last year's Chiquito EP. While Cuco rarely moved from his centerstage station, save for when he opted for his trumpet on songs like "Amor de Siempre" (whose recorded version features the all-woman ensemble Mariachi Lindas Mexicanas) and "Lover is a Day," a simple beckoning motion or hand pressed to the ear was enough to elicit cheers.
This was especially true during "Lava Lamp," where a stream of whoops and whistles nearly drowned out the song after one of the band members started waving a Mexican flag across the stage.
Although Cuco's cult following has grown in size, his Regency Ballroom show felt as intimate as when the 20-year-old Hawthorne, California native was packing backyard house shows throughout the Los Angeles area.
He first caught the internet's attention with a blip of a slide guitar cover of Santo & Johnny's "Sleepwalk" that went viral. Then came the tours, the millions of Spotify streams, the Lollapalooza and Coachella slots and, due out sometime year, his debut full-length album.
While Cuco makes use of his platform to champion causes—he advocates for immigrant rights and has played benefit shows organized by his manager, Doris Munoz, for undocumented families at risk of deportation—his music isn't expressly political. Instead, he sings with tremendous emotional honesty about the kinds of things all young people worry over: love, heartache, anxiety and loneliness.
"It's kind of crazy—being this Chicano artist, people put all this weight on me," Cuco said in an interview last year with NPR's Alt.Latino, acknowledging that he's breaking barriers by virtue of existing. "...it's cool to break those industry stereotypes, because with the little knowledge I have politically speaking, I don't necessarily know how to be a representation yet, you know? But I'm hoping that eventually I can do more than just be an artist of color."
Cuco's live show, much like his music, is a reflection of a wealth of influences he draws from. When he picked up his trumpet for songs like "Amor de Siempre" or "Lover is a Day," I heard the patient, romantic boleros of La Sonora Santanera and Trio Los Panchos that echoed through my childhood home on the weekends. In Cuco's frank vulnerability with his feelings, I heard the Ranchera tradition of men like Vicente Fernandez and Jose Alfredo Jimenez turning to song as an emotional outlet. Only for Cuco, the expression comes absent of the filter of machismo endemic to Mexican culture.
Beyond traditional Mexican ballads, Cuco's work also draws from generations of Chicanx artists who've made imprints on American pop culture. With his confessional approach to romance with tracks like "One and Only," I heard elements of MC Magic from NB Ridaz, Lil Rob and other Chicano rap played on late-night radio dedication hours. The synths running through Cuco's melodies recall freestyle heavyweights like Stevie B.
And then, of course, there's the influence of Cuco's SoundCloud rap contemporaries like Lil Yachty, whose "1 Night" Cuco has covered. Somewhere in the middle of the show, Cuco's opener and collaborator J-kwe$t joined him onstage for "Lucy," Cuco's foray into rap. The pair breathed new life into the otherwise laconic track as they bounced around, flinging water into the crowd and making clear hip-hop’s hold on culture.
Cuco's dreamy pop pushes back on one-dimensional narratives of what it means to be Latinx, and the pressure of being an artist of color. Because the reality is that the immigrant experience, and the process of fashioning together multiple worlds, is far from monolithic.
The last song of the night, the ebullient "CR-V," was the perfect encapsulation of that ethos. It's a simple, syrupy ode to the blissful moments of aimlessness that kids experience in their late teens and early 20s. As the night came to a close, Cuco, his band and his friends sprung around the stage totally enamored with the moment, looking just as at home as they might have during a directionless cruise through Los Angeles in a Honda CR-V.
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