To watch a skilled craftsman perform at a fraction of their full health, fighting through sickness to create a memory that lasts far longer than what affects them, is a galvanizing achievement.
We remember Michael Jordan’s performance in game five of the 1997 NBA Finals versus the Utah Jazz not only because he scored 38 points in a must-win game, but because he did it while violently ill, chugging fluid like his life depended on it and being dragged off the court by teammate Scottie Pippen in what would famously be dubbed the “Flu Game.”
At the 2018 Outside Lands Music and Arts Festival, Janelle Monáe dazzled the crowd with her intricately choreographed set and commanding vocals, a feat made even more impressive since mere moments before her set was scheduled to take place, she was throwing up backstage due to food poisoning.
Last week, upbeat blues singer-songwriter Omar Apollo found himself in a similar situation as a severe illness threatened to derail his SXSW performance at FADER Fort. Bed-ridden throughout the day of his scheduled performance, Omar was unsure if he’d be able to take the stage but decided to try his luck and see what he could muster.
For most of his set, Omar was a bouncing bundle of vitality, pouring out whatever energy he had in the can. Despite being sick, Omar put on a show the only way he knows how—energy cranked up to 100—only pausing between songs to hack up corpse-rattling coughs to the side of the microphone.
The day after his performance, we met up at Omar's Airbnb. He was feeling slightly better, rejuvenated by additional rest and several bowls of Tom Yum soup. Still, the effects of his illness are apparent.
“I had crazy body aches in the morning; the day before the show I was dead. I don’t even remember much of it,” Omar says. “When I first opened my mouth during vocal warm-ups, all of a sudden, I was like ‘Dude, this sounds so bad.’ I was just hoping people would look at the moves, like ‘Look at me, I’m vibing,’ but it was frustrating, for sure.”
The live show has been integral to Omar’s progression from an aspiring artist living in his friend’s attic to one of music’s most promising talents. Earlier this year, he crowd-surfed for the first time in Houston, an experience he cites as an early career highlight.
“I’m so large, I’m big as fuck,” he says, laughing. “I didn’t want to hurt anyone, so I pointed in the crowd like ‘Okay guys, right there,’ and they were like ‘Yeah, yeah!’ I just jumped.”
While crowd-surfing is fun, many of his shows have been special for a much more profound reason. For a first generation, Mexican-American artist who strives to be a model for how others who relate to his story can pave their own path in life, touring has allowed Omar the chance to connect directly with his fans and hear firsthand how impactful his success has been in their everyday lives.
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That group includes members of his family, who, after seeing Omar perform in front of more than 1,000 fans at Metro Chicago, finally understood how his passion had become a fully sustainable career.
“They had seen me less than a year ago in a 100 cap room, and they were like ‘This is nice, cool hobby,’” he says. “And then they saw me in the big ass room, with everyone singing the lyrics back to me, that was a moment for them. They were crying and shit, they had signs, too. It was tight. I think that’s when they for sure knew.”
Omar Apollo's journey to stardom started with singles “Ugotme” and “Unbothered,” and continued last May with the release of his seven-track EP, Stereo. Throughout the tracklist, Omar showcases his vast musical ability, whether he’s casually rapping on “Hijo de Su Madre” or trying his hand with synths on “Stereo (Intro).” The title of the project alludes to his affinity for record stores while growing up in Indiana, referencing the phrase he often saw on the various LP covers and felt was a fitting way to capture the freewheeling nature of his project.
“There was no theme to that project,” he explains. “I didn’t give a fuck. I didn’t know if it was going to work out or not, I just threw some shit together. We talked about the order and how we thought it would flow the best, but in terms of the music and the genres, I just did whatever.”
Earlier this month, Omar announced he was finished working on his new EP, which he says will be more “theme-y” than Stereo. His two 2019 singles, “Trouble” and “Ashamed,” are a good indication of the duality to come on the next body of work; the former a downtempo love song with ethereal riffs and warm crooning, the latter treated with twanging guitars and blood-curdling yells.
“Stereo didn’t really have any ballads, so they’ll be on this one,” he says. “There’s also a lot of funk, dude, I’m so excited. A lot of spacey, open sounds; if you have your headphones in on the plane or a road trip, you’re going to love it.”
More than just developing an increased conceptual vision for his music, a lot has changed for Omar over the past 12 months. After growing up in the small town of South Haven, Indiana, with a population of just over 5,000, the 20-year-old recently relocated to Los Angeles after growing weary of the limited options afforded by his hometown.
“When I first got my place, I was like ‘Damn, this is crazy,’ but then it became the most stressful thing,” he says, speaking to the transition from living with his manager's family to finally having a place of his own. “I had no tables, no furniture, no desks, no bed, nothing in the fridge, no pots and pans... Dude, I could keep going. It was super frustrating at first, but the actual area is cool, I really love it.”
Omar admits his rapidly shifting situation has been at times tough to deal with. The abundance of career tasks and responsibilities, combined with being more than two thousand miles from friends and family, has made navigating the latest chapter of his story a challenge. Still, for Omar, knowing his music is making an impact means his journey is bigger than just himself.
“So many kids have come up to me with the same exact story, even from the same city,” he says. “Someone told me in Dallas how much it meant for me to be a brown person doing what I’m doing, that’s the greatest feeling. That’s what keeps me going, it’s not about me anymore. I just want everyone to be cool, and to be inspired.”