It's a muggy Sunday afternoon in Boyle Heights and 19-year-old Rhyan Lowery is dressed for showtime: Italian shoes, black pants, a black long-sleeved shirt and a white blazer with black trim. He's standing outside the historic El Mercado de Los Angeles, singing his heart out with closed eyes to a small crowd of curious onlookers. A camera crew from Univision is filming his every move.
"Mas vale solo que andar mal acompañado/Si un amigo pesado de Tijuana y no le busquen ..."
The song is a cover — "El Cholo," a corrido by Larry Hernandez, one of today's top regional Mexican singers — and Lowery's voice perfectly mimics the original. Customers emerge from inside the historic mercadito, many of them first-generation Mexican, and are startled to see Lowery is the singer. Because although Lowery sounds and even dresses like other norteño stars, he is not Mexican, or even Latino.
Lowery is African-American — a baby-faced black kid born and raised in Compton, who moved onto his family's land in Perris as a young teenager and fell in with the rancheros whose culture dominates the small Riverside County community.
"There were no streetlights, no sidewalks. It's like Mexico," says Lowery, who performs under the name El Compa Negro. In Perris, he was able to keep roosters, birds and his favorite animals, horses, which he trained and rode around the dusty town every night after school. "Yo soy de rancho. I can actually say that."
During his a cappella performance at El Mercado, Lowery is closely watched by his manager, Antonio Lopez, a 30-something producer and singer originally from Mexico City, who last year left a career as a financial adviser to pursue music full-time. Lopez wrote all of the original songs on El Compa Negro's debut album, Negro Claro, and performs onstage as Lowery's segundo voz, a backup singer/hype-man role common in bandas.
Lately, Lopez has kept El Compa Negro's schedule full. Lowery has been interviewed on most of the major Spanish-language TV networks and made several appearances as a guest performer with Hernandez. At least three nights a week, he also performs at large-capacity nightclubs across Greater Los Angeles, where second-generation Mexican-Americans come to dance and drink Buchanan's Scotch at private tables. Sometimes Lowery and Lopez travel to Chicago, Texas or Arizona and play similar gigs there, with a group of backing musicians called Los Mas Poderosos.
"When I first started playing with Rhyan three years ago, a lot of people laughed in my face, but they didn't see my vision," Lopez says.
Lowery specializes in corridos, a small segment of regional Mexican music closely related to banda and norteño, but with a narrative twist. Originally used as a way to get important news across the U.S.-Mexican border before the advent of mass media, corridos today are more known for a dark subset called narcocorridos, which focus on the violent activities of Mexico's drug cartels.
El Compa Negro does not claim to be a narcocorridos singer, though many songs on Negro Claro reference guns, contrabando and "el mayor" of an unspecific cartel. It's a swagger that Lowery's simple life as a horse-loving teenager from Moreno Valley (where his dad now lives in a tract home) doesn't back up. But mostly, Lowery says it's the music itself that draws him, with its mix of polka, folk and even sometimes jazz.
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."
Once, Lopez suggested that Los Mas Poderosos do a really aggressive corridos album and have Lowery dress up like a gangster rapper and pose in front of a low-rider on the cover, like The Game's West Coast Resurrection. Lowery refused.
"He just wants to be himself," Lopez says. "And who is he is a black Mexican ranchero. He's all about that ranch life."
Born in Compton in 1996, Lowery grew up in a city very different from the predominantly black one in the public's consciousness. Even by the time N.W.A dropped Straight Outta Compton in 1988, the city had already experienced an influx of Mexican immigrants, who arrived seeking jobs in the blue-collar communities of Southeast and South Central L.A.
Today, Compton is 64 percent Latino; Latinos outnumber blacks nearly 2-to-1. In Lowery's old neighborhood at Santa Fe and Rosecrans, he estimates only around 25 percent of his neighbors were black. While his four siblings found other black kids to hang out with, Lowery's friends were all Latino.
"In Compton, the black gangs kill other black people and Mexicans, and Mexicans kill black guys," Lowery says of his hometown's racial divide. "I was lucky enough to fall in with a lot of open-minded Mexicans there. It was my fate."
Later, in Perris, Lowery rode his horses, crashed quinceañeras and began playing drums in a band with his older ranchero neighbors, whose kids were his classmates. Soon he was memorizing the lyrics to the songs and could imitate the voices of everyone from old-school singers like Chalino Sánchez to modern-day narcocorrido stars.
"I like Mexican music and the culture because it's unique and it's so different from my own culture," Lowery says. "It's beautiful."
There's no denying that being an African-American singing music that has deep roots in Northern Mexico is setting Lowery apart from other midlevel performers in Greater L.A. But it remains to be seen whether he can fully penetrate the intensely proud regional Mexican music scene.
"I think that being an African-American singing corridos makes him different. That's what's attracting people to him," says Edgar Muñoz, a Jalisco-born reporter with Telemundo who recently interviewed Lowery and produced a segment on him. "Nevertheless, it feels to me like he's missing the feeling of what he's saying. He learns the songs, he's in tone, but you need to feel the lyrics of the songs when you sing them. You carry that in your blood."
When Lowery performed on the Mexican television competition Tengo Talento, Mucho Talento last month (and won third place), one of the judges gave the young singer a stern reality check. While the other three judges cheered Lowery, music producer Pepe Garza refused to support what he said was not talent but instead a joke. He called Lowery a word that comes up a lot when talking about a black guy singing corridos — un novedad, a novelty.
Lowery laughs at that word. "I don't give a fuck what anybody thinks," he says. "I always compare myself to Elvis. He sounded black and everyone wondered how that was possible. People tell me all the time, 'If I didn't know who you were, I would think you were Mexican.' Music has no color."
For now, Lowery is just doing what any other 19-year-old musician on the rise would do — taking advantage of the opportunity to drink, pick up girls and relish the attention being heaped upon him. If rappers can do it, why not young black corrido singers?
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"The more time goes by, the more genuine he gets," Lopez says. "It takes more balls to be born American and say, 'I want to be Mexican, I want to speak Spanish and sing corridos.' We respect that if it's done right."