Soy El Compa Negro
The streets are pretty much dead at 1 a.m. in Moreno Valley, a fast-growing city just east of Riverside in Southern California. But here in the parking lot of a vast shopping plaza are dozens of heavy-duty pickup trucks. Most are bright white, and many have large crucifix decals on their rear windows. Men in cowboy hats and Western shirts lean against their vehicles, laughing with women in minidresses.
The businesses in the strip mall have all been closed for hours. Except for one: Caliente Bar & Grill, a family-style Mexican restaurant that hosts live music on weekend nights. The band inside has been playing banda and norteño hits for the past couple hours. The sound from their accordion, bajo sexto, bass, and drums travels into the vacant streets.
Rhyan Lowery stands by his car, his shoulders twitching to the tunes. The 20-year-old singer, who lives just a few miles away, is getting ready to hit the stage. “I’m feeling it tonight,” he says, clapping his hands. A couple of guys pass by on their way into the venue. One points excitedly and shouts, “Negro, Negro!” He’s referring to Rhyan’s stage name, El Compa Negro — Spanish for “the black dude.” Even the people in the parking lot who haven’t heard Rhyan sing know who he is. He’s the black dude.
Rhyan’s the only African American here tonight. He’s used to standing out, and he says the attention makes him feel good. His manager, Antonio Lopez, says he’s feeling good, too, but, honestly, he looks a little nervous. “The musicians we usually play with are all out of town. So I had to hire these guys at the last minute,” he says, gesturing at a quartet in black jackets with El Compa Negro y Los Más Poderosos sewn onto the backs. Antonio also admits to feeling a bit apprehensive about how the crowd will respond to Rhyan. “They usually love him,” he says. “But there are some people who just don’t want to see a black guy doing this music.”
The group enters the steamy restaurant through a side entrance. Antonio kicks things off — he’s not just Rhyan’s manager, he’s also a member of the band, a combination of hype man and backup vocalist. “Y’all ready for El Compa Negro?” he shouts into a mic. The crowd of about 150 roars back. Several dozen people rush onto the dance floor. The band, the guys Rhyan and Antonio just met in the parking lot, start playing a rendition of “Los Principios,” a hit by Jesús Ojeda y Sus Parientes. A spinning LED projector installed in the ceiling beams colorful lights all around the room.
Rhyan introduces himself with a wide grin — “¡Soy El Compa Negro!” — and then launches into an hour-long set of corridos, songs that resemble polkas and are usually about larger-than-life characters (often drug smugglers). Rhyan’s voice is clean and clear, a commanding and silvery low tenor. Even though he didn’t learn Spanish until he was in his teens and still isn’t entirely fluent, his pronunciation when he sings is nearly flawless. “If you didn’t see him, you wouldn’t know he’s black,” my waitress says.
Halfway through the set, Rhyan hops off the stage and glides across the dance floor, elegantly maneuvering between couples as he sings. Antonio crouches to make eye contact with a group of women who are seated in a booth that lines a wall. The duo closes with an anthem called “La Marihuana.” People in the room laugh and cheer.
After the performance ends, the crowd spills out of Caliente. Almost everyone heads home, but a few folks stick around in the parking lot to blast the radio. Two guys race their Tacomas from one side of the strip mall to the other. Inside the restaurant, Antonio collects an envelope of cash from the show’s promoter, then hands out payments to the musicians who backed them up. Rhyan walks out, and the stragglers cheer, “Negro! Negro! Negro! Negro!”
Rhyan grew up in Compton, where he sang and played piano in a church choir from the time he was 4 years old. When he turned 14, his mom, a social worker, and dad, a restaurant manager, moved him, his brother, and three sisters out to the Inland Empire, where the family owned land. Rhyan says he always had lots of Mexican friends and felt at home in Perris, a predominantly Latino city. Not long after he arrived, Rhyan joined a band that some classmates had started. He played drums. “I didn’t know much about the songs they were playing,” he tells me, “but I caught on quickly.”
One day, the group had a gig playing in a friend’s garage. A bandmate noticed Rhyan mouthing the lyrics as they played, even though he barely knew what any of them meant, and convinced him to handle the next song’s vocals. “Nobody could believe it was my first time singing this kind of music,” he says. “I loved the reaction. It was an awesome feeling.”
Over the next few months, Rhyan taught himself to sing a handful of popular corridos. One day at school, a friend made a video of Rhyan singing. “Someone put it up on YouTube,” he says. “He called the video ‘El Compa Negro Gettin Down’ — that’s how I got my name — and really quickly people started seeing me all over the world.”
The sight of a black American teenager singing Mexican songs earned Rhyan fans and social media followers in places as far off as Australia. It also caught the attention of Antonio, who’d been recording and performing regional Mexican music around Southern California for the past decade. He tracked down Rhyan on Facebook, and they’ve been working together ever since, playing throughout California and across the Southwest. They also regularly tour in Mexico and recently sang before 25,000 people at Tijuana’s county fair — their biggest show yet. Last year, Rhyan was a finalist on the reality-competition TV series, Tengo Talento, Mucho Talento, and in April, he released his debut album, Negro Claro, a collection of songs written by Antonio.
Rhyan stresses that despite being frequently asked for autographs, not everyone’s a fan of what he’s doing. As he poses for photos outside Caliente, he tells me about a recent encounter. “A guy got in my face after a show, and he was really upset,” Rhyan says. “He was like, ‘Hey, why our music? ¡Somos pobres! ¡No tenemos muchas cosas! This one thing we do have. Why do you want to take it away? We don’t need you to show the world our music.’”
He says that criticism like that bothered him at first, but he’s decided he can’t dwell on it. “I’m not doing it for them,” Rhyan says. “I’m doing it because I love this music. I’m doing it because I love, literally, everything about it. The melodies, the instruments we use, the fact that it has its own style.” He looks around at the crew gathered around him. “And I love the people who come to see me play.”