More than 25 years ago, N.W.A. put Compton on the map as the nation’s gangsta rap capital, a place that would go on to birth some of the most seminal black hip-hop artists of the late 8os and 90s (Eazy-E, Dr. Dre, Ice Cube). But the Compton of 2015 is a far cry from the one Jazzy from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air lived in. Today, Latinos are the largest ethnic group in the historically black city, representing an estimated 65% of the population.
This is the Compton where a nineteen year-old singer named Rhyan Lowery was born and raised. Lowery is African-American; he didn’t know a word of Spanish until he heard Daddy Yankee’s “Gasolina” on the radio as an eight year-old. But growing up in a primarily Latino community surrounded by Mexican friends made him fall in love with ranchero culture. Today, he’s a corrido performer who goes by El Compa Negro, and his story – featured last week in LA Weekly – is causing a stir.
Under the watchful eye of his Mexican manager Antonio Lopez, Lowery, who sings in near-perfect norteño Spanish and dresses the part, has been making the rounds on Spanish-language television and at regional nightclubs, where he’s occasionally dismissed as little more than a novelty act. But to me, he’s thrilling – a case study for what the future of US popular culture inevitably holds.
Lowery is a symbol of what the future of US popular culture inevitably holds.
Every week it feels like a new story breaks about the growing influence of Latinos in the United States: we now outnumber Anglos in the state of California, the U.S. now has more Spanish speakers than Spain, and Hispanics will play a huge role in the 2016 elections. But still, I often come up against the same frustrations. Just a few days ago, riding high on a wave of heartthrob vibes after attending a three-hour Romeo Santos concert, I was disappointed to discover that most of my Anglo friends still hadn’t heard of Santos. We’re talking about an artist who has sold out Yankee Stadium twice, putting him at Madonna and Paul McCartney-level pull; a man who got Drake and Nicki Minaj trying to sing in Spanish.
When will mainstream America start paying attention?
I daydream (and dayscheme) about a future where Latin culture has social capital, and Lowery is a symbol of what that could look like: a place where biculturalism is the norm.
In his own way, Lowery’s manager Lopez has that same vision. LA Weekly reports: “Lopez sees something bigger in El Compa Negro — the possibility of bringing an African-American singer into a world that has always been created exclusively by and for Mexicans. To him, the crossover is a natural one.
‘Corridos can be as hard-core as gangster rap,’ Lopez says, noting that many Mexicans love hip-hop, too. ‘They talk about cars; we talk about our trucks. They talk about drinking, smoking weed and doing drugs, and we do, too … it’s the exact same lifestyle.’
Read the full feature on El Compa Negro at LA Weekly here.