North Texans like to kick Plano around. To its detractors, it’s an area apparently devoid of culture or anything worth venturing north of LBJ Freeway for. But the Collin County town saved Ron Bultongez's life.
Bultongez, a singer-songwriter, was on the ABC reboot of American Idol. When he initially tried out, he was passed over to go to the next round. But thanks to a save by Lionel Richie, he returned and performed regularly until mid-April, when he was eliminated from the contest.
Bultongez’s dreams were not dashed by this decision. He had not convinced himself that it was either win the show or quit. He’d already had an adventurous life, and his time on the show was merely the next stop on the road.
He was born in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a war-torn country led by a dictator. When he was young, his family tried to flee the country, but they could not get to the United States for a year.
“It was one of the most craziest journeys, taking any form of transportation you can think of, walking miles and miles and miles,” Bultongez says.
His family eventually made it to New York. His mother had a newborn in tow, and his father had to flee ahead of the rest of the family. They overcame incredible odds just to find a way into America.
“Statistically speaking, it’s very difficult just for one person to get over here,” Bultongez says.
He only spoke French, and it was a major culture shock to be around all the skyscrapers in New York, but Bultongez knew what America looked like and sounded like in a broader kind of way.
“What’s funny is when I was in the Congo, there’s certain things that we all knew, even though we didn’t speak any English,” he says. “For example, Michael Jackson’s music. I would sing along to that stuff. I didn’t know what he was singing.”
His father wanted the kids to be in a great education system, which led them to Plano. He was living in a one-bedroom apartment in Euless before moving the family to Richardson briefly and getting the children into Plano ISD.
Bultongez joined choir in sixth grade by accident — he originally wanted to be in the concert band — and the choir teacher told him to stay after she heard him sing. He was required to be in the class for a semester, and then he dropped out. He later played football in high school and college. He didn't start singing again until after high school.
But things at home became troublesome.
"My father was a very abusive person," Bultongez explained on American Idol. "Back in the Congo, it's not considered abuse; it's just discipline. I would voice how I felt that it was wrong, and so I started to grow this personal issue between my father and I. I remember coming home one day, and he just told me, 'You're not my child. Stay away from my family.' When you're in the midst of a really crappy storm, you just have to step back and focus on the bigger picture."
Bultongez had spent time at City House, a homeless shelter for children, when he was asked to sing at a ribbon-cutting ceremony in 2016 for a new shelter building. He only knew Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” so he sang that with his guitar in hand, playing for the mayor and state representatives. After receiving a positive response, he decided to keep going.
Hitting up open-mic nights in downtown Plano, Bultongez started to craft his performance. He was booked at a nearby restaurant and did a residency. Later, he did corporate gigs. People were moved by his story and his voice.
“Anyone who knows anything about me, it’s how much I love the city of Plano,” he says.
Bultongez’s first EP is titled Thank You Plano.
“If I’m going to start off this music career, the first thing I want to do is thank the city that made this all possible,” he says.
Bultongez studied the careers of all three American Idol judges this season, especially Richie’s and Katy Perry’s. He performed Phillip Phillips’ “Home” and later met Phillips in person. Phillips loved his take on the song.
“I’ve spent so much of my life having to create, find my own way and having to turn very little into much,” Bultongez says. “Whether I was on American Idol or not, I would be doing the same things I wanted to do anyway. I think American Idol has given me a much bigger platform.”
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He’s working on a new EP and hopes to have it out late this summer. He’s played gigs around the country and still plays locally with his backing band. He wants to see how far he can go without major label backing. He wants to partner with brands instead, so it makes sense he will play May 31 at the office of Frisco-based Music Audience Exchange for its monthly On the Record series.
But Bultongez says the best aspect of his music career is speaking and performing at schools. Sharing his life story has reduced many to tears. He stresses this to everyone he speaks to.
“Life is not fair, and it’s difficult,” he says. “I think the sooner we can grasp that, the better off you’ll be. On the same token, it’s important [to] us to know that you don’t have to go through it alone.”
Ron Bultongez plays May 26 at Trees and May 31 for On the Record”at the Music Audience Exchange.