It’s been nearly a quarter century since the world lost Tejano music icon Selena Quintanilla, but she continues to live on in popular culture today just as much as she did in the years following her death. As Selena rose to stardom in the early ‘90s, she embodied the identity paradox that countless Latinxs in the United States face: that although she was Mexican American, she spoke little to no Spanish, and felt more “American” than anything else. Though a traditionally American experience, this feeling of limbo (sometimes called “ni de aquí, ni de allá“—not from here, not from there) often affects people in Latin American countries in the United States’s cultural shadow. For Brooklyn-based Colombian singer Manchado, it’s a sensation that characterized his youth, and drives the creative forces behind his work. I got a chance to sit down with Manchado to talk about how neocolonialism has affected his personal and artistic development over the years, and how he’s come to embrace his latinidad now more than ever as he looks towards the next chapter in his career.
Tell me about your beginnings as an artist. Did you grow up in a musical home? How did the sounds of Bogotá affect you?
I didn’t really grow up in a musical home at all. Everyone in my family is either a lawyer or in finance, and no one’s really creative at all. So I was always like an oddball, because I was always creative from the get-go. I was always singing as a kid; I was always painting or creating something. As far as sounds from Colombia that have influenced me, for a big while I was trying to get rid of my Colombianness in a way. I went to a private school and I feel like in my surroundings we were always kind of pushed to thinking things that were American or European were better. I realize now that that’s imperialism and colonialism literally manifesting itself from the beginning stages of my childhood. I was very intrigued with American culture, so I learned English very easily, and I sounded American. I didn’t have an accent unlike everybody else. Everybody always kinda praised that about me, and even moving here I was never trying to mix Colombian aspects into anything. There’s something that I’m excluding from my narrative that my whole life I kinda didn’t pay attention because I thought that Latin music wasn’t as good or as artistic or worthy of incorporating in my work. Then after having a moment of being like “Wait, that’s not true!” I just started experimenting and listening to more Latin music and kinda taking in things that I blocked in my head for so long. And I do think with a lot of my new music you can really see the influence of not just Colombian music, but cumbia and other types of Latin music.
What led you to move to America from Colombia? Did you know that you wanted to be an artist and that the States was the best place to do it, or did you move first and fall into music afterwards?
No, I had a mission. I was very determined since I was a child. I knew that I wanted to be an artist and that I wanted to be a singer, and I just felt like New York was the place: all the people that came out of New York just seemed to me more genuine and more artistic. For me, the reason why I wanted to come to America was to do my own thing. I always saw how every trend, every thing that came to Colombia was a thing in America first, and by the time it got to Colombia it was kind of over. And I was like “I don’t wanna do that! I wanna do my own thing. I don’t wanna be following a trend that someone else came up with; I wanna innovate.” So I felt like New York was the place where that could happen and I could create a platform from there up, whereas in Colombia I feel we’re just accustomed to not innovating, and always subjugating ourselves to what we’re fed from the outside, instead of looking from inside and driving culture ourselves.
How did you get your start in music when you got here?
I finished high school and I wanted to go to college for music, but I couldn’t afford it; altogether it added up to almost $150,000 a year in Colombian pesos. I could have just stayed in Colombia and gone to a really good school there, but I was like “or I could just go [to the US].” So I came here and didn’t know anybody, and started going to open mics everywhere. I would just go to every open mic every night, I would rehearse my songs during the day, talk to everybody, and little by little I started getting friends, I started knowing the different venues and places, and started creating this whole community. And then I started learning more about how to make music. At first it was just me and a guitar, and then I’d write songs and perform with a friend that played the guitar. I got a beat machine and I started making beats, and singing more. I got better at producing, and then I put out my first song. It kinda just snowballed, but it was a lot of daily effort and always doing the most that I could.
What’s the meaning behind your stage name Manchado?
I wanted a name that was in Spanish, and one day it just came to my head. I feel like I liked it just because I’ve always been the different one, the oddball. And people always think that’s bad, but I wanted to reclaim that and make it dope that it’s “stained,” that it’s different. Nobody was artistic in my family, and I was so out there. I was making clothes since I was like 13, and I would go out in Bogotá with the most extravagant looks. My looks now are tame to what they were back then in Colombia, because I was just creating! I didn’t care! When I was really little, if I had an idea I would just do it. I wouldn’t care if people looked at me weird. I wanted to put whatever I had in my mind out there.
What was the road to producing your first album Pegasus?
I’m always writing songs, because that’s how I process my life, and I had been writing songs ever since I got here. I was writing, going to open mics, doing demos, all of that. And little by little I feel like I started having a sound. I just kept accumulating songs, and I put out singles for like two years, and it’s a weird thing where it just happened. Most of the tracks I wrote around the same time, and then had two others that I wrote a year after I wrote the first batch. I just had a vision for it; it just kinda made sense. I feel like with everything that I do, I always know. I kept writing, i had all the songs together, and I was like “This is it; this feels cohesive. This feels like it tells a story.” It just happened how it was meant to be. This album was kind of my coming of age where I discovered myself, because it was me learning how to produce, learning my sound, learning how to be creative, and how to put something together.
Who are some of your artistic inspirations?
Growing up, I always loved people who were just different and would step out of the box. I loved Madonna, just because I feel like she sort of invented this whole modern version of what a pop star is. Recently, I had this whole moment where I started listening to Spanish music and recognizing it as also having artistic value because, like I said earlier, I really didn’t think like that before. I like Rubén Blades a lot, and Silvio Rodríguez. I feel like lyrics in Spanish are so much better; you just feel it a lot more. I love people like that who really have thought out lyrics that say something.
So what led you to cover Selena’s “Como La Flor”? Was she an inspiration as well?
It was very weird: growing up, Selena—at least in Colombia—was not very big. I feel like also because I was brought up in an upper middle class environment, people saw her as someone for “the people,” and lesser because of that. Even some of my friends now don’t get why I’m doing a Selena cover. I didn’t get it either for a while—not until living here and understanding the experience of being a Latinx American and understanding what she meant for the people. She was Mexican, but she was born in America, and she could barely speak Spanish. And that’s something that a lot of Latinx Americans could relate to, because it’s a very specific experience. You’re kinda in this limbo of “Who am I?” So I feel like she was an icon because people could be like “Oh, she’s all of this and also a big superstar?” This is all new experience from last year to now, kinda me catching up with everything, and I just feel so validated watching her experiences. I remember so much this one part in the movie where her dad talks about having people accept you both in your country of origin and in America, and I related with that so much because for so long I felt like I had to know everything from hip-hop to pop music along with everything else from my own culture, and something wasn’t clicking. It wasn’t until I started really accepting my own latinidad and seeing how doing that has brought a community around me that I truly feel like I can start building something out of. Now I love Selena, but I had to go through a whole process to understand what she meant. I did a cover of “Como La Flor” because I feel like what she represented is something that I also want to represent for the people. It’s a song that everybody knows, and it opens your mind to the whole thing that I’m doing now.
You always bring tight choreography to all of your live performances. Where does this love of dance come from?
For me, I grew up really admiring real pop stars like Michael Jackson and Madonna. I grew up seeing all of that, so for me that was always the thing to do, you know? I admire the artistry that it is. So when I was first here in New York, a lot of the ways that I would meet people was that I would go out dancing, and whoever was dancing with me, I would talk to them. So when I was singing I was like “Wait, everybody else in these open mics is doing that. I need to do more; I need to stand out.” For me to be able to live in America (since I couldn’t go to a real school), I’ve been in dance school: it’s cheaper than college, and it also gives me time to work on my shit. So I just started training as a dancer and it’s just been such a discipline that I’ve had to learn. Sometimes I hate it just because I have to do it, and I have to do it for so long. But seeing how I’ve improved, I feel like I have a deeper understanding of art because I’ve studied dance and different types of dance styles. I feel like I have a specific type of understanding of art and how to do art and how to be an artist, and how art works through culture. I feel like a lot of the times because of dance I’ve realized that my music isn’t really about me. Every time as an artist you’re just taking whatever is from the past and you’re kinda making it new, passing on the torch. I always wanted to be so inventive and do something new. I don’t like just singing into a mic; anyone can do that. For me, I always try to do the most. I always want to bring an experience; you’re taking people’s time who are coming to see you, so at least let it be something worthy!
What other music do you have in the works for this year?
So this song “Courageous” is really the first of all the new songs that I started writing that I really liked. I remember “Despacito” and “Mi Gente” had just been so huge, and I was like “Maybe I should try that: a Spanish track.” I came to my friend that I was writing songs with and I was like “I wanna do songs like this,” and I showed him “Despacito,” along with Maluma and a bunch of other artists. We just started playing, and it kinda just happened. He played a piano thing and some guitar parts, and it sounded like a bolero. The song is me mixing two different things. You hear reggaetón and you feel like it’s sexual, which was another reason why I didn’t appreciate it as much growing up: because I didn’t see it as art. It was just party music about trying to make you fuck, and I was like, “There’s no artistic value to that.” But then I started analyzing it, and then I started working on it in my own music. So this song was kind of what opened a lot in my head to seeing the artistic value in all of it, and being like “There’s so much to do with this.” And then I started listening to boleros and salsa and everything to just make the song, because I didn’t understand how Latin music worked. So it was a whole discovery process through music about myself and about my culture. If you hear the track, it’s kind of like a bolero. I have a tiple which is like a Colombian guitar. The song is about wanting to have courage and wanting to be a better person, which is also another subject that was kinda going through my mind at the same time. Also, from my background, you’re kind of taught to not speak out, not address issues and sweep them under the rug. So I was like “No, I wanna be courageous; I wanna really go beyond that.”
Is there a reason you wanted to do it in Spanish and in English?
I was just experimenting and came up with a hook. I tried to do the hook in Spanish but it didn’t really work. So I was like, “Let’s do both,” so I have some Spanish in the verses. And I’m doing that in a lot of my new music; it gives a piece of something to everybody. It took seeing artists like Luis Fonsi and J Balvin being on the same level as Justin Bieber for me to want to sing in Spanish. It’s kind of a mindfuck, because I never grew up seeing that. I always thought that I had to adapt, like I had to be a Justin Bieber to make it in America. But then seeing this happen, it just opened up my mind. This has happened to a lot of people just recently, and I find that it’s part of my responsibility in this day and age to represent. Great art comes when you’re your most authentic self, and the fact that I was ignoring that part of myself meant I was cutting such a huge part of who I am. And it’s funny because so much of my audience already is Latinx and brown; it was kinda just like me putting the dots together of everything that was happening.
What would be your dream for your career years and decades down the line?
I would love to make at least three albums that are just amazing, and to be able to work with the best people there are to make amazing music. To play stadiums and have the craziest show; there’s so much technology and stuff that you can do, and I feel like the most successful pop stars are not really pushing hard enough. I would also love to put people on: being in a position of power truly helping people of color the way I wished I had been helped, and trying to create ways for other artists to thrive. I would also love to invest in not just Colombia but other developing countries. If I had a lot of money I would try to invest in ways to solve poverty in a lot of these countries; I feel like a lot of people sometimes just donate money, but it never really does anything because you’re not ending the problems on a deeper level, truly trying to change the economic problems on and creating platforms and infrastructure for people.
What does all this success mean to you?
I feel like I already am living the American fantasy. Recently I’ve thought about going back to Colombia and just doing the thing there—especially now that my music’s in Spanish—but there’s just so much opportunity in America that there isn’t anywhere else. I’m so blessed that I was able to be supported to live here and build a life here, and also that I have a family and a group of friends that help me with everything and truly believe in me. It’s so interesting when I hear Americans say America sucks so much, but America is great. It does come with certain difficulties, especially if you’re a person of color, but there are so many pros. There’s just a lot of opportunity here that there isn’t anywhere else.