On February 22, 2019, REGO handed me a press release. Yes, handed. It was printed on nice, thick paper stock from Staples. Color me impressed. REGO, 23, and I met on that balmy day in February after I had finished speaking at an event geared towards artist development in Philadelphia. Press release in hand, I went back to my girlfriend’s apartment in Kensington, and I pressed play on REGO’s debut EP, To Be Determined. I’m glad I did.
REGO’s brand of sweeping and grand popish trap fits nicely into the cultural moment. She finds herself in the same vat of emotion (“You Don’t Say My Name No More”) and purple tones (“Joy”) as Chicago’s Ness Heads, making music from the soul with a twinge of the electronic and the eclectic. Her writing is guttural and gritty, with an emphasis on self-actualization and barrelling through emotions as opposed to running from them. Each song on To Be Determined feels realized and oozes potential. The crackling wails on “Call It Love” are enough to secure life-long fans, for instance. From track to track, there’s great anticipation to see what trick REGO will pull out next.
In 2018, REGO, born Rebecca Gonzalez, graduated from Temple University and was planning on pursuing a Ph.D. in Race and Politics. Some intentional soul-searching and one breakdown later, she decided her path in life had more to do with music than academia. REGO’s story is one highlighting the bewitching power of music.
“Senior year, I was applying to Harvard,” REGO tells me over the phone. “I was at a point where I had to type in the debit card number to send the application in, and I remember… I was crying. That whole week I was depressed. I was so wrangled up inside. Why do I feel not at peace? Everything seems to be, this is the path I’m supposed to do: Get into a Ph.D. program; everything’s set for you. I took a step back, and [thought] the reality of the situation is: I do not want to get a Ph.D. What, the rest of my life is doing research? Which I love, but it didn’t feel right.”
Instead of sending out the application, REGO wrote “Insane,” which spread around campus and racked up 7,000 plays in a week—big numbers for a former Ph.D. candidate. The bump of external validation activated something in REGO and gave her the push she needed to pursue the path she had felt inside herself all along.
Listening to To Be Determined, we can see why REGO felt the music deep within her. REGO’s visceral deliveries and blooming arrangements leave us astounded and, selfishly, happy she put down the books and picked up the mic. Playing shows all over Philly, growing her audience, and working to increase representation for women of color in the industry, REGO seems like the perfect rising hometown hero.
Our conversation, lightly edited for content and clarity, follows below.
DJBooth: At what point did you realize you had to make music?
REGO: That moment was in 2018. I went to Temple University, and I studied political science and thought that was going to be my route. I had gotten into this elite program my junior year, which was meant to usher students of color to get Ph.D.’s in Race and Politics. That was my route. Senior year, I was applying to Harvard. I was at a point where I had to type in the debit card number to send the application in, and I remember… I was crying. That whole week I was depressed. I was so wrangled up inside. Why do I feel not at peace? Everything seems to be, this is the path I’m supposed to do: Get into a Ph.D. program; everything’s set for you. I took a step back, and [thought] the reality of the situation is: I do not want to get a Ph.D. What, the rest of my life is doing research? Which I love, but it didn’t feel right.
So I had a mental breakdown and decided to write a song during that period. The name of the song is “Insane,” and all of the people at Temple were like, “Wait, you’re trying to rap? Let me tune in. Last time I talked to you, you were getting a Ph.D.” I remember it got 7,000 plays after the first week. That was the encouragement I needed.
How did your family react to your change of plans?
They reacted with hate. My parents are immigrants. My father immigrated illegally from Guatemala, Mexico. My mother immigrated here legally, and she’s from Vietnam. With that upbringing, they were very poor. My parents didn’t grow up understanding exactly what art was. They knew entertainment, but not art, and they thought you couldn’t get famous. When I told them I was going to do this, they were like, “No! We came here to have you live a better life, and you’re throwing it all away. What are you going to do? You’re not using your degree anymore.” They were not happy, but now, they’re growing more to the concept that art can change things culturally.
In an interview from 2019, you talk about the importance of women of color seeing themselves in media. What role do you hope to play to that effect?
Recently… I was watching Awkwafina’s new show, and I just watched Parasite. After watching that, I felt so proud to be Asian. Before, I almost felt ashamed, and I would tell people: “My last name’s Gonzalez! I’m half-Spanish.” But I’ve been growing strong in the fact I am a multi-racial woman of color in America. I’m hoping I can offer representation so that in the future if there’s another girl out there who is feeling self-conscious, I hope I can be on a screen and represent her.
You sound fearless in your music and conversation, but do you have any worries just embarking on a music career?
Am I scared? Yes! Imposter syndrome is huge in my life. My biggest fear is rooted [in] faith. I don’t want to claim I’m doing this in God’s name, and that this is my God-given purpose, but have [my career] be a facade I’m convincing myself of because I want to be famous. Sometimes I get scared I’m wasting my time because this is a field where you wake up every day, and you have to restart. With interviews like this, it’s like I planted a seed, and it’s starting to grow… But a lot of my seeds haven’t started growing yet. That scares me. How much time will this growing process take? How many bills? How many student loans do I need to pay off? Is time running out?
Conversely, what’s been the high of your career so far?
I have two. My “Pray For You” music video reaching 10,000 views on YouTube. That made me proud, because when we filmed it, I said, “I hope at least 1,000 people watch it.” It was great to see people in India, Japan, commenting. People around the world! My second big high is a month ago; I headlined my first show at World Cafe Live. We sold 100 tickets. I have a little resume now. I have stats I can build on. And it’s 100 tickets! I was so blessed to do that show.
What’s the biggest lesson of your career thus far?
One: show up. Two: don’t panic. Those are [the] biggest lessons I have to relearn every day.
How will you know when you’ve achieved success?
It’s gonna be when I can put my mom in a house. When I’m able to make money off of my music to a point where I could [generate] wealth, that’s when I’ll be happy.