Junior Zamora_R&B

INTERVIEW: Junior Zamora’s Smoldering R&B Beams With Black, Caleño Pride

Courtesy of La Ruta Studio.

It was a rainy afternoon at the gargantuan Estéreo Picnic when a haute couture jellyfish stepped perilously through the mud and into the press room. Ending everyone else’s festival fashions in one fell swoop, Colombian R&B singer Junior Zamora wore a burgundy ruffle coat and gravity-defying braids, complete with custom gold accessories. He’d taken the stage for his dreamy performance, looking like a hybrid of Prince, Halle Berry in the film B.A.P.S., and RuPaul’s Drag Race superstar Symone. But even though the maximalist outfit teetered on camp, his keen eye for aesthetics has always prioritized references that are unmistakably Black.

“The stories we tell with our hair are so powerful, it can be hard to fully grasp,” Zamora tells Remezcla, speaking from home a year later and reflecting on the bigger picture behind his festival show-stopper. “So much of this expression is a reconciliation of my former relationship with my hair. Thinking about narratives of ‘good hair,’ mine was bad because it was not soft. But everything we were told was bad is actually good. [When I sing], I engage with stories about our hair, our lips, our skin. Of proper behavior, of how we look, and how we’re supposed to look. [Self-conscious] thoughts are universal Black experiences whether you’re in Colombia, the United States, or Ethiopia.”

Putting a voice to social conundrums is nothing new for Zamora, a native of the bustling city of Cali, Colombia, and one of the most vital crossroads of Afro-diasporic heritage and resistance in the Americas. He grew up in Vallado, in the district of Aguablanca, absorbing gospel and spirituals at Christian Sunday services. He started playing drums at church at the age of eight. And though his family tried keeping secular music at bay, vallenato and salsa choke blasting from neighboring windows fostered his curiosity and a profound Caleño pride. As a teenager, Zamora snuck out to cyber cafes and explored the realms of soul, blues, and, of course, R&B. He basked in the glory of Usher, Nina Simone, and Aretha Franklin, igniting a desire to share his truth through their evocative melodic language.

“Many of us found our place in music through collectivity,” he adds. “I think about [my first band] Alto Volumen, where I played with Dawer X Damper. This was Cali in 2013, when local artists like El Bloke 18, Element Black, and Los Farandulay were rock stars, so we came up seeing each other collaborating and succeeding. Alto Volumen was an outlet for our experiences and frustrations in el barrio, and while DXD later put a fresh spin on those stories, it’s been a longer process for me. My relationship to the community was as a coordinator and organizer rather than an artist showing up with lights and cameras, trying to talk about socio-political issues. Eight years later, I feel much more comfortable approaching that organically.”

Early word-of-mouth connected Zamora with Medellín rap icons Alcolyrikoz, popping up on their 2021 LP Aranjuez and singing the silky hook for “La Caza de Nariño,” which has become a national anthem against systemic racism and economic inequality. His 2022 debut album EGO brought together homegrown hip-hop and R&B trailblazers Lianna, El Arkeologo, and Alexis Play with rising stars like Lil Keren and Jambeau for a 15-track experience of burning romance and even hotter grinding. By the time the LP dropped, the prolific singer-songwriter was already knee-deep in his next project: a three-part EP series titled Drama that broadened his rhythmic palette with trap and afrobeats.

Zamora’s boundary-pushing and exceptionally researched work has also underscored the glaring lack of melanin in contemporary Latin American R&B. Vibey tastemakers in Mexico, Argentina, and Chile attempting soulful vocal runs and seductive body rolls on social media are often clueless about the genre’s Black roots. Brazil has always been a notable exception — just look to the foundational catalogs of ‘70s icons Tim Maia and Sandra de Sá, or contemporary standard-bearers Tuyo, Mahmundi, and Liniker. And Black R&B en español artists such as Jesse Baez (Guatemala), Lalo Cortés (Colombia), and Daymé Arocena (Cuba) are finally receiving their flowers on the international stage. 

[When I sing], I engage with stories about our hair, our lips, our skin. Of proper behavior, of how we look, and how we’re supposed to look. [Self-conscious] thoughts are universal Black experiences whether you’re in Colombia, the United States, or Ethiopia.

But Zamora understands his own role as a bridge, connecting legacy sounds that originated in the African-American underground with the unique rhythmic and cultural nuances converging in Colombia. “Back in 2016, I remember thinking R&B would be my path forward because it’s what came honestly and naturally,” says Zamora. “In those days, R&B en español wasn’t even niche; it was an illusion. So now, as interest grows in this sound and making it our own, I want to be a leader of the genre at a continental level.”

Zamora’s master plan is well underway. In November 2023, he pulled superstar reggaeton producer and Karol G right-hand-man, Ovy On The Drums, into his smooth-crooning world for “Mala Costumbre”— a percussive banger powered by Spotify Colombia’s Radar Andino program. He also recently signed with Sony Music Colombia. The first taste of his major label metamorphosis arrived last month on “Hielo,” fusing his gospel roots with sleek, futuristic visuals that hint at the voracious motifs of his next album, slated for release later this year. And while the hype is plentiful, Zamora radiates the confidence and eagerness of a pro athlete ready to make history.

“The name of the game is R&B Caleño, R&B Colombiano, and R&B Latino,” he says with aplomb. “This album has me digging into a lot of new sounds and ideas, injecting that future vibe, and you can hear that on ‘Hielo.’ I’m still digging. I always am.”