I'll admit right up front that I have totally become a total Latin pop queen.
On my Rio MP3 Player that I take to the gym, there is always a Latin mix to keep me pushing through my cardio workouts. Ricky Martin, Jennifer Lopez, Marc Anthony, Chayanne, and Shakira keep my feet moving and spirits high. My workout is always more intense with Latin beats propelling it.
I'm not going to dwell on this, but we all know that Martin is constantly referenced in pop culture as being gay, in part due to his non-committal responses to the question, but the only openly gay Latin pop star that I'm aware of right now is Jade Esteban Estrada, whose album Angel with its hot tracks Bella Morena and Reggae Twist, has also found its place in my Latin mixes. Estrada recently spoke with Oasis in his hotel room after a performance in San Francisco. Of course, I couldn't resist bringing up Martin's vague sexuality to begin the interview.
"As an artist, that's perfectly your right to disclose whatever you want and make that a part of your art. We paint a picture for you. My style of painting a picture is telling you what my life is," Estrada says. "For the year 2001, I thought it was incumbent on me to be out. If someone young could identify with me and think 'I'm just like that, I'm Latin and I'm gay, too. That's not a bad thing. There are other people like me.' My homosexuality is a small part of who I am, a very small part, but it's there. I can't deny it."
Estrada grew up in San Antonio, Texas, the Tejano music capitol of the world. Estrada, who now lives in Brooklyn, appreciates Tejano music but was drawn more toward Latin pop. He says Latin culture is pretty consistent about how it deals with sexuality issues.
"It's never talked about. It's never said," he says. "We live in a very old world. I tell my mother that if my grandfather, God rest his soul, had not passed away I don't know if I would be out - or I don't know that I would have come out as early as I did. I'm very close to my grandmother, and I was very close to my grandfather as well, but in a very respectful kind of way. But he was the one person where, it's just an unspoken thing, you didn't go there."
After being in the boy band The Model Citizens, starring on Broadway, and scoring an international hit with Reggae Twist (which is also on his new album), Estrada now runs his own record label and manages every aspect of his career. He is well aware that Latin music is hot right now, but he said it comes in and out fashion.
"It gets popular and then it gets shelved and then it's popular again. It's always been like that in America, which is a melting pot," he says. "It won't last forever. We'll have to evolve ourselves or just keep releasing stuff in Latin America."
One of the biggest reasons Latin music has taken off recently is due to the number of Latino/a artists releasing albums recorded in English. The merging of Latin beats with English has brought a whole new audience to artists who have been well known in the Latin culture for years.
"I can love Russian music, but if I don't understand the language there's a huge part of it that I'd be missing," Estrada says. "My story, as far as why my album is in Spanish and English, is that I, myself, am bicultural. Jennifer [Lopez] is like that, and she does the same thing. She was born and raised in the United States and she speaks Spanish, well, she doesn't speak it very well, but it's part of her life. Ricky [Martin] is from Puerto Rico. Marc Anthony is also American. But for someone from Colombia, like Shakira, that's clearly wanting to expand your audience and bring them more of an understanding of what your work is all about."
With so many Latin artists being pushed by major labels with full-time PR staffs and radio connections, Estrada says he still thinks he can find his own niche in the market.
"My performance, my personality onstage, and my message is so clearly different from any of the other Latin artists that are out there, because I'm so pro-American," he says. "I am an American. I happen to be Hispanic. I'm very close to my culture, but I'm very aware of my rights. And my rights have a lot to do with who I am sexually, so I try to make that a big part of the presentation of who I am. I'm not attempting to emulate anyone else. My music is very timely. I know a lot of my writers and my producers know what's going on in the industry, that it's time to release things like this. But artistically, I feel really good about the production. I feel it holds up to what everyone is doing. And, what I can say is that I have complete artistic freedom and complete freedom - in everything sense of the word, where others don't because they've gotten big and have the monopoly of Sony or whoever watching their every move. I don't want to ever get in that position. I never want to lose that kind of artistic control."
An early run-in with Chris Kirkpatrick of 'N Sync, before they were famous in the states, serves as a reminder to Estrada about the realities of fame. Estrada was doing some performances around the same time 'N Sync just started performing at the same industry showcases.
"Lance [Bass] is the sweetest guy in the world... genuinely a really nice person. And he's a Taurus so we're really compatible. He was the one I talked to all the time. Justin [Timberlake] was still underage at the time. But Chris was the one I had a crush on from the beginning," he says. "There was a moment at the Millennium Broadway Hotel in New York, and he was with a bodyguard. We hadn't spoken yet, Lance and Justin were the only ones I had spoken too at that point. There was a conversation I witnessed about Chris wanting to go do something and he wasn't allowed to go, and I remember thinking 'He's not mega-famous; it's not a big deal. In New York, people respect the privacy of celebrities for the most part.' He just threw his arms up in frustration, and there was a moment where our eyes met. It was a moment where we both realized what the his reality was going to be, and it wasn't an exciting thing either. This is your life now. I'll never forget Chris' face, there was a moment of what seemed like regret."
Having been in a boy band in the early 90s, Estrada remembers the clash of egos that resulted in his leaving the group.
"We were just these kids, always fighting over who was the best-looking, who was going to be in the front, who was going to sing this song, and it got really ugly sometimes," he says. "And I thought, you know what? This is bullshit. So, one day, I just said 'I quit.'"
Now, Estrada calls all the shots. He describes his new album as Latin pop ("They're all high-energy love songs, with a couple of ballads. I love singing about love, and I love the Latin beat. That's who I am.") But he doesn't want the emphasis of his music to be whether he is singing about a boy as the object of his desire during a song.
"The one thing I'm really big on is cultural integration. I don't know if it will happen in my lifetime, who knows how long I'm going to live, but hopefully we will see it in our day. My purpose for living, and being here and doing what I'm doing, is to be everything that I am, to be Latino, to be gay, to be American. Those three things are very powerful things," he says. "You go the South sometimes and people are still like, "Ahh, you spic!" You go almost anywhere and it's like, "Hey, you fag!" I used to say in some of my shows, "We're here, we're queer, and we speak Spanish." So, sure, if a boy wants to hear my music and fantasize about a boy he likes at school, but it doesn't exclude the girl who wants to think about the boy. Love is blind."
Given that some of his songs are sung in Spanish, Estrada went out of his way to remove references to gender, which are a basic part of the language (many words ending in o refer to the male gender, words ending in a, female. So, novio would mean boyfriend, whereas novia would be girlfriend. End of Spanish lesson.)
"I fought really hard in the studio that 'I'm not going to say girl here. I'm going to say ooh or baby or something else.' And I had many a heated discussion about this," he says. "For instance, Bella Morena, which is the first single, means beautiful, dark-skinned girl. I love the song and I have no problem singing about a beautiful girl because women are very beautiful. Of course, personally, that's not my thing. But for the show, I'm a man singing to a woman. That's fine, too. But what really made me go 'this is going to be alright,' is when I went to sing in Montreal and I performed it to a beautiful Dominican drag queen. I thought, 'Bella Morena… that's perfect. ' From that moment, I had no problems.
"For a long time, I wasn't sure if I could record the song because it's not who I am. But what is diversity? I'm talking about integration and there are all sorts of interpretations for everyone who is listening to this," he says. "I want a grandmother to be able to relate to it, going 'Remember when…' I want a little girl to wonder 'Wow, maybe one day, I can…' I want a white man and an African-American woman to feel the same thing that a gay guy on Castro feels. We all feel the same way, and I believe in integrating the society through art."