Rafa, 27, was born and raised in Brownsville, a city he says inspired him to incorporate elements of Latinx culture in his music.
“I would spend half of my week in Matamoros on the other side of the bridge, with my father, seeing family and staying at friends' places,” Rafa says. “In high school, I would be like, 'Oh, I'm going to crash at a friend's place on the other side and come back with him in the morning before school.' I never really realized how lucky I was to get those sights, the sounds and the experiences.”
Although Rafa is grateful today for the cross-cultural opportunities, he says he had trouble forming an identity of his own when he was younger, calling himself “the most Mexa gringo and the most gringo Mexa.” He loved emo music, but hated tucking in his shirt and wearing polos for school.
But school is where Rafa found one of his earliest inspirations, a young woman on whom he had a crush. In order to impress her, Rafa told her he knew how to play guitar. He then he had to learn it, so he began teaching himself to play.
“It's actually really funny because I learned the wrong way,” Rafa says. “I'm left handed and I learned right-handed guitar. And it's too late now to go back and rewire my brain.”
Rafa also dabbles in keyboard. He says he’s the only musical person in his family, but remembers always being surrounded by music as a child. His mother would always play music when she was cleaning, cooking or working. At parties and family gatherings, Rafa was often captivated by the sounds of live music, even the output of DJs.
“If there's one thing about Mexican DJs, it’s that they do not care about volume,” he says. “Everyone is going to hear the music. And those melodies would get imprinted in my brain.”
Rafa began writing music when he was 16. He would write songs in English and in Spanish and record the lyrics on the Soundcloud app.
“I didn't realize [the recordings] were public,” Rafa says. “So I had all of my song ideas out there. It was kind of like a diary journal, just somewhere to store all these ideas, and hopefully one day go back to.”
When he was 18, Rafa moved to Dallas to study emerging media and communications at University of Texas at Dallas. He thought it was the ideal place for him, as city life allowed for new experiences but wasn't too far from his friends and family.
Making his songs public might've been an accident, but it wasn't a mistake. One day, a U.K.-based producer named Kev La Kat reached out to Rafa after finding his music online.
“[Kev La Kat] had mixed [the recordings] and attached them in an email,” Rafa says. “He said, ‘Hey, if you like these, we can put them out.' And I really liked them. I was so surprised someone found them online from across the world and did something with them.”
So, Rafa kept going at it. One day, as he was writing a song for his mother and about to upload the recording, he received a notification that Urban Outfitters had used his recording with Kev La Kat in a New Year’s campaign. He took this as a sign that he should pursue music as a career.
He started by posting homemade recordings on Instagram, and his followers asked him to upload his songs to Spotify. He was hesitant to do that, until last year, when he discovered Spanish trap music. He fell in love with the subgenre and with the help of his neighbor, pop-R&B singer Sudie, he linked with producer Gomey.
"Here in the U.S., Mexicans are super proud of being Mexican, and it's a shame that some people think that there might be some language barrier keeping them from embracing their country.” – Rafa
Last year, Rafa released “Plata Bebe,” a song influenced by his love of trap and the emo music he grew up on. On “Plata Bebe,” he croons over a woman he loves, and laments not being able to afford her tastes.
This past June, Rafa released a song called “Abajo,” which is about rising to the top from the bottom. “Abajo” is accompanied by a visual directed by German Torres, showing Rafa driving and dancing around Oak Cliff, embracing the neighborhood’s Mexican culture and his own roots.
“Abajo” precedes Rafa’s upcoming album NeoMex, a project, he says, that was inspired by questioning his Latino identity. As a child, Rafa remembers being told he wasn’t “Mexican enough” as he was raised in a “non-traditional way.” The album is planned for release later this year and will contain songs in both English and Spanish.
With NeoMex, Rafa hopes that Mexicans are able to enjoy his music, regardless of their ability to speak Spanish.
“One of the things that I know about being Mexican is that people give you shit for not being able to speak Spanish,” Rafa says. “One of those things I want to show people in Texas that are Mexican is ‘Hey, you know, just because you might not know Spanish, that doesn't mean the country of Mexico is cut off to you.’
"Here in the U.S., Mexicans are super proud of being Mexican and it's a shame that some people think that there might be some language barrier keeping them from embracing their country.”