Welcome back to Inspired By…, Tostada Magazine’s occasional series where we interview the artists, innovators, and leaders who are working to create change in our communities. Each dispatch, we aim to chat with an influential figure in one of Detroit’s many food and drink places and find out what inspires their world. For this edition of Inspired By… we chat with RV Mendoza, the self-described queer disco pop artist who’s fast becoming a familiar voice in Detroit’s indie scene. He’s part of a growing number of millennial artists in Michigan, including the critically-acclaimed Tunde Olaniran and Flint Eastwood, who are openly celebrating their sexuality — whether it be through their voices or fashion. We caught up with him just ahead of his electrifying performance, opening for Colombian psychedelic cumbia act Bomba Estereo at El Club earlier this month. His lyrics — which highlight the importance of showing up in the world with bravery — punctuated the Latinx power group’s own message of empowerment in an era wrought with rhetoric against immigrants, Latinxs and LGBTQ people. We met up with Mendoza near his home in Midtown at Avalon Bakery, one of his favorite neighborhood spots.
Sitting down to talk with RV Mendoza and you instantly feel at ease.
At ease, because he has a way of reading those subtle signals that we all give off subconsciously that offer clues about who we are. Instead of exploiting those tiny indicators, he finds ways to relate and that makes for a candid conversation.
Like, somehow he picked up on the fact that I found my voice as a writer and a creator after six years of living in Detroit. It’s because he’s lived that journey too, of moving to a new city and learning to be comfortable in his own skin.
It’s that level of honesty that makes Mendoza’s poppy, yet introspective tracks stand out. And it makes our short conversation — just hours before he’s set to open for the iconic Latinx band Bomba Estereo — just flow naturally as if we’ve known each other for ages.
What I’m referring to is this connection that’s actually somewhat common among brown people. Even if we don’t share the exact same race, nationality or ethnicity there’s a familiar bond that we share, while trying to navigate in a world where we don’t quite fit into.
We were able to cover a lot of ground in our half-hour long conversation: his upbringing as a closeted queer Filipino immigrant living in the Flint suburb of Flushing; how he started performing when he came out about two years ago; and about his forthcoming Queer Dance Party series that he and fellow pop singer Jax Anderson of Flint Eastwood are throwing together at El Club beginning Sept. 7.
Mendoza, 27, describes the experience as part Britney Spears, part Knuck If You Buck, a little poppy, a little left of center dance music, and more than anything, a safe space where other LGBTQ millennials can learn to be the queer they needed when they were growing up.
Detroit has this long legacy for music, whether it be Motown or soul or techno. But with you and Jax and Tunde Olaniran (in Flint), there’s this growing momentum around identity and queerness and celebrating your sexuality in an open way through music. How does that play into the Detroit sound?
I think for me, Detroit had the community that helped me find myself and so the music that I present is music that sounds like me. Finally, for the first time in my life, the way I talk sounds like me, the way I sing actually sounds like me instead of what a lot of queer and closeted people do, which is to extract ourselves to a point where it’s like as acceptable as possible to the mainstream. I think what you’re seeing with Tunde and Jax and I is we’re starting to find ourselves, we just also happen to live in these cities.
It seems like you really came into your own here in Detroit. How did that manifest in your ability to write and sing and perform?
I’ve been performing for about two years. I started performing when I came out. The first very public thing I did was, I performed at Dally in the Alley, and I was wearing heels, I was doing the whole thing and my friends were in the crowd and they were tearing up because it was just like, they would never have seen me do that just a few months ago. When I started being honest about myself and say like, this is me and I’m no longer going to explain the space that I fill up, then was I actually able to write music in the way that I wanted to write.
Your music definitely has a lot of those pop tendencies, but at the same time, I don’t think I’ve ever heard a man sing so openly about his sexuality. Like, you’re comfortable in your own skin. What did it take to remove the layers, so to speak, to be able to write and sing like that?
I was looking in the mirror one day and I realized that I am becoming the adult that I always needed when I was younger. I am becoming the kindness that I needed, the representation that I craved, and it was in that moment where it was just like I could time travel and go back to that five-year-old RV and start healing and putting those things together. We experience a lot of things when we’re younger when we don’t have the tools to healthily process it. A lot of times it’s not anybody’s fault because you can’t control everything so in my music and everything I do when I come out, it’s this idea that if you continue to be brave, if you continue to show up in life as best as you can, you will also become the person you always needed.
How does that message resonate with your fans?
I think they feel that, I hope that they do. I see it in the way they respond to me. I think there’s something radical in somebody becoming everything they want to be, where it’s like if I can do it, this fat Asian kid, that’s super insecure and learned and found tools to figure out how to show up in life, then you can do it. I think it’s one of those things where I’m not trying to be a role model for anybody like I want to teach you how to become your own role model, how to figure that out for yourself. I think the way to show people that is by trying to become the person I need for myself and earnestly try to seek that.
I think for a lot of us who grew up in diaspora, there are all these layers, these different intersections that take place that can be difficult to navigate. Growing up as a Filipino immigrant, how do you navigate through all of that?
I’m kind of stuck on this thought that you mentioned about being in diaspora and having that feeling of like I’m too foreign for here but too foreign for home and I feel like I’m not enough of any of it and it’s really frustrating. You feel like you’re just floating in space, you feel like you don’t belong anywhere or as well as you could. You try your best and I think that’s the call for diaspora, is you try your best to connect and maybe something new comes out of it.
How do you honor your identity as someone in diaspora?
I guess it’s really looking into my culture and my history even beyond like, I’m Filipino. I was born in the Philippines, so looking even beyond the colonization of the Philippines because we have a way bigger story than that. Like our story doesn’t begin with the ships coming. A lot of ancestry work has really helped with understanding the cultural norms of my ancestors and to realize that like after doing a bunch of research, learning from people about what my ancestors were like, it’s so healing to realize that my ancestors would be proud of who I am right now, they would be excited to see the person I am and that’s super healing.
One of the big things that stood out to me was that you did a song in Tagalog. Did you grow up speaking the language?
I spoke Tagalog in the household, it’s one of those things where I left to go to the United States when I hadn’t really mastered any language so a lot of it is very instinctual for me. I can translate TV just fine. I stayed in the Philippines for three months as an adult, I just got back in May and I was able to interact with people fine. It’s a weird diaspora thing, where it’s like you have the sentence in your head if someone were to tell you, you knew exactly what they said but when it’s time to make the words, it’s all like jumbled up.
What was it like to be able to sing in your family’s native language?
I think that’s what the song is about. Sa Puso Mo means “in your heart” and it’s like no matter how far your home is, like it’s still your heart, your home is there. The poem is called “The Diaspora Blues.” It’s about feeling too foreign for here. I got to write that song with my mom. I wrote it as best as I know how and then I would talk to my mom, and she would be like, “well, this grammar’s not right” so I was like. “alright let’s figure it out.” And then I would come back to her and say, “oh, we can’t have that many syllables in a song (hahaha).” It was really fast, actually. It was like a two-week process. It just fit really well together.
One of the things that has always helped me feel connected to my culture is music. That’s why this Bomba Estereo concert is so exciting for me. When I see some of these acts those come through Detroit, for me, it feels like a little piece of home in a city that otherwise doesn’t always feel like home. And I have noticed just from some of the concerts that I’ve covered that that’s kind of a common experience for other Latinxs who go to these shows. What do you feel about being part of this larger community of artists who are coming into the city and providing that little piece of home or connectedness for their audiences?
I’m excited about that cross-pollination with this influx of people coming through. I think that’s gonna be really important for the future. I read this quote today, it was like, you have to die to who you are in order to become who you need to be. And I think that cross-pollination and that being willing to evolve as a sound, I think that’s the future of Detroit sound. Detroit has a bunch of people in it, there’s a lot of different ways to sound Detroit. Detroit is not just rock, Detroit is not just EDM, it’s a bunch of things, there’s a lot of talented people in this city. I think what I would love to see Detroit as it sounds authentic, it sounds like the person creating it, whatever style it is.
This article was made possible by the Detroit Journalism Engagement Fund, a project of the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan, that’s working to increase quality journalism and help better inform communities.
Author: Serena Maria Daniels
Serena Maria Daniels is an award-winning journalist based in Detroit. She specializes in reporting on issues that intersect food, identity, and culture.
Find her one Twitter and Instagram @serenamaria36!