How a young Angeleno finds purpose through music.
“Can we get a picture with him?”
Two children, a boy and girl around nine or ten years old, whisper their request to the small group of people hunched around a bench at the edge of Echo Park Lake.
They’re asking about the lone seated figure in the center, the teenage musician Cuco, who was in the middle of a video interview.
The kids look to the film crew for an answer; we look to Cuco. “We can do it right now,” he says.
He walks over to them, posing between the pair as their dad snaps away with his phone.
“We love your music!” they tell him afterwards.
“Hell yeah! Thank you, guys. Appreciate it,” he replies. “Have a good day.”
Later that afternoon at the nearby Echoplex, Cuco’s scheduled to perform as the secret headliner of LOUDfest, a free event thrown by the LOUD Program, a non-profit that provides music and arts education to low-income students. With a few hours to go until showtime, he’s eager to grab lunch.
But first, he has to finish this interview.
Even at 11:45 A.M., it’s been a long day for Cuco, born Omar Banos. We’ve been shadowing him since before 8 A.M., practically the crack of dawn for a teenager, especially on a Saturday, and especially for one who’s spent the last few days fighting sleep not because of finals and term papers, but a combination of meetings, cross-country travel, and studio time.
In the last two years, Cuco has gone from making music in his bedroom to playing festivals nationwide such as Coachella, Lollapalooza, and Governors Ball. His songs, which feature lyrics in both English and Spanish, are unabashedly earnest in their tales of love and heartbreak, prompting media to call him a “teenage heartthrob” (“I’m too insecure for that,” Cuco says of the label) and “LA’s new romantic.” All the coverage, as a result, has made him very visible to the public, as is made clear when yet another fan at the park — this time a 20-something guy walking his dog — approaches him for a quick chat.
“Honestly, I have no idea how I’m able to handle this attention,” Cuco later tells me. “It still hasn’t hit me. I feel like a regular-ass person.”
Cuco grew up in Hawthorne, California, a suburb in South LA that was once home to American pop culture icons such as the Beach Boys and Marilyn Monroe; Sonny Bono was even married at the local church. Hawthorne was also a “sundown town,” one of many majority-white settlements throughout the United States that practiced racial segregation by mandating that African-Americans (and in many cases, other minorities including Native Americans, Latinxs, and Asians) leave the area before dark, if not banning them from living there altogether.
After sundown towns became outlawed in the late 1960s, Hawthorne subsequently saw a significant influx of African-Americans, Latinxs, and Asians, most of them working and middle-class. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that in 2016, Latinxs made up 56 percent of the city’s 86,938 population. That number includes Cuco’s own parents, who, as he recalls, immigrated separately to the US from Mexico at 18 and 19 years old.
“That’s my age,” he says. “Damn.”
Cuco’s dad is a limo driver, and his mom cleaned houses until she fell ill. When he wanted to drop out of college to pursue music, they were wary.
“They know the industry does not cater to us,” Cuco says. “It’s rare for us to make it. They didn’t want to say it, but they worded it like, just go to school.”
It wasn’t until his mom saw the money he was making from his music that she gave her blessing for him to leave. (Secretly, though, he already had.)
It’s the kind of high-risk, high-reward story to which many artists can relate, and the stakes seem even higher when family’s involved.
“Immigrant kids and kids with immigrant parents want to do everything so that their parents don’t have to do that stuff anymore,” says Cuco, “because they give us everything, you know?”
“Being not only first generation, but also an only child, you’re either going to be the pride of your family, or the disappointment of your family. So it’s like, I really gotta do it.”
At the Echoplex, LOUDfest is in full swing. Thirty-eight student bands have traveled from across LA County to showcase all they’ve learned throughout the year. “Saturday night and we in the spot / Don’t believe me, just watch!” a boy belts onstage. It’s only early afternoon, but one group is already funking up the place with a cover of Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars’ “Uptown Funk” followed by Sublime’s “Santeria.” The rest of the students cheer them on from the audience while others crowd the small backstage area, waiting for their turn in the spotlight. For some, it’s their first time performing in front of a live audience.
The LOUD Program seems like something Cuco could have used himself when he was younger. “I never had money to buy all the equipment I liked, even as I was getting older,” he says, “but I liked music so I continued it.”
He started playing guitar when he was eight, over the years adding the trumpet, mellophone, bass, drums, and keys to his skill set, even playing in his high school marching band. It wasn’t until he got his hands on Ableton Live a couple years ago that he started making his own songs and posting them on Soundcloud.
After self-releasing his debut mixtape, Wannabewithu, in the summer of 2016, his music caught the ear of Doris Muñoz, then a recent college graduate working in A&R at a record label. In February of 2017, she traveled across town to Commerce to watch him play at a house party. The next day, they met up and she proposed managing him.
“I just fell down the rabbit hole and fell in love with his music,” Muñoz later tells me. “I really resonated with it, you know? I was going through kids’ comments on Instagram and it was so tight to see all these little Latinas fawning over this geeky kid from Hawthorne.”
After all the student bands have performed, it’s time for Cuco to close out the event. The all-black venue takes on a deep blue glow as the band begins with “Lonelylife,” a song with shooting-star synths and drawn-out vocals that stretch across the Echoplex like bubblegum. “I know that you're waiting for me / No girl, this ain't make-believe,” he sings to a chorus of high-pitched cheers from the crowd.
From there, songs such as “Dontmakemefallinlove” and “Summertime Hightime” take the mood from heartbreak to rapture and back again, ultimately ending on the latter note with the psychedelic, rolling rhymes of “Sunnyside.” His movements onstage are small rather than sweeping, his eyes closing for seconds at a time when he sings or steps forward for a trumpet solo. At times, there’s almost a nervous energy to him, like that of a person who’s been made to read the very private and most vulnerable contents of their journal.
In a sense, Cuco is.
“[Love] always seems unreachable to me,” he mused earlier. “Even now, I’m trying to believe that people love me. It feels unreal… I feel like I write about heartbreaks and shit that I went through, and things I dreamed of going through, like, I want to be in love.”
The love he seeks is well reciprocated by his fans. On his Soundcloud page, the comment sections are filled with one-line admirations, both in English and in Spanish: “i love u omar,” “mi corazon va a explotar <3” (translation: “my heart is going to explode”), “Can I dedicate your own song to you?” One comment in particular, from the user Maki, stands out: “I don’t speak Spanish but I vibe.”
“I think I’m doing my job right if people are like, ‘Oh, I don’t know what he’s saying, but I fuck with it,’” he says. “Kind of like when you listen to opera if you don’t know Italian, or bossa nova if you don’t know Portuguese, but it still makes you feel a type of way. It’s dope that I can stimulate that feeling.”
Cuco’s rise comes at a time during which songs by Latinx artists are topping Billboard charts, breaking streaming records, and frequenting American pop radio airwaves, a phenomenon last seen nearly two decades ago. Though Cuco is of Latin descent, he doesn’t necessarily see himself as a “Latin artist.”
“I feel like being a Latin artist falls into this box category where you’re just making reggaeton and Spanish pop music,” he says. “But being a Latinx artist in the general music industry is something way different.”
Spanish music is one of Cuco’s influences, but he’s also inspired by styles such as psychedelic rock, jazz, and rap. Romantic ballads are his specialty, but he can ride a beat, too, as he shows in 808-anchored rap songs such as “Lucy” and “CR-V.” There’s even metal material in the works, he shares, something he imagines most people wouldn’t expect from him.
“It’s so easy for major labels to box us in, like, oh, even though you’re making this [type of] music, we’re just going to put you under ‘Latin artist,’” Cuco says. “But it’s like, no, I don’t want to be stuck playing only Latin festivals. I want to make music for everybody.”
His presence on stages alone makes a statement. The U.S.’s Latinx population was estimated to be nearly 58 million in 2016, making it the second-fastest-growing racial or ethnic group. Cuco says Latinx fans at his shows often tell him how “dope” it is to see him onstage because he looks like them, or because they also come from immigrant families or are immigrants themselves.
“It’s important for me to hear that, because it validates my work,” he says. “I do it for the impact I can have and what I can do for my parents, family, and friends around me.”
After Cuco’s set ends, he walks outside to the venue’s patio area where Muñoz and his friends are hanging out. In between celebratory hugs and handshakes, he suggests they all go bowling later that night. (A friend’s suggestion to instead head to a house party, however, wins out.)
Bowling, Cuco tells me, is one of his few interests outside of music, along with dogs and Legos. “I wasn’t able to buy all the expensive Legos I wanted, so I’m buying them all now,” he says. “I’m just a kid, low-key. I never had to go to college so I feel like I’m just a kid, just enjoying simple shit.”
His endgame is also simple, and maybe even surprising, mostly because he’s open about not wanting to be an artist for the long term, or, as he puts it, be “on some Paul McCartney shit.” He’s less concerned about achieving musical milestones and more about helping his parents retire early, as well as himself, and to have a family with a nice house and a bunch of dogs. He also wants to to give back to his community, possibly by creating local teen centers to provide musical resources to young musicians like him, and like the ones for whom he’s just performed.
“If I can inspire one of them to be like, ‘Oh damn, I want to do that when I’m older,’ that’d be really cool, you know?” he says.
One might suppose all that’s a fair trade for teenage tears. As one of his friends quips, “Broken hearts take you places.” Cuco laughs. “It’s true. Literally, I wouldn’t be shit without that heartbreak.”
Watch “A Lonely Heart,” an original Majestic documentary featuring Cuco, below.
Produced by Majestic Casual
Director/Cinematographer: Scott B. Siracusano
Editorial: Krystal Rodriguez
Audio: Hairulizad Yacob
Edit: Chris Dolt
Special Thanks: Doris Munoz, Mercedes “Sadie” Birts, Chris Cuff, Rhyan Santos