¿Téo? on His Friendship With Jaden Smith and the Meaning Behind His 'Neo-American' Genre
For Atlanta-born Colombian-American artist ¿Téo?, genre feels stifling. He describes feeling like he grew up between worlds and make music that resists compartmentalization.
"I've seen people in the past who kind of anti-champion for their roots and where they come from," he tells Billboard. "For me, it is important to express the reality of my life. That's the DNA of my music."
¿Téo?'s bilingual, self-titled, nine-track debut garnered millions of digital streams and launched him on his first-ever cross country trek, the Américano tour. With viral hits including "Palm Trees" and "Américano," ¿Téo? smoothly melds elements of hip-hop, bossa nova, alternative, and R&B. His video for "Uno Dos" boasts nearly two million views, 17-bars from Jaden Smith and a complex plot fit for the silver screen.
Billboard caught up with the actor-turned-headliner to discuss selling out his New York and L.A. shows, plans for a summer EP, and more.
¿Téo? is vulnerable and garnered the support of millions. Did its success serve as an affirmation?
It serves as an affirmation in the sense of it [being] a beautiful way to express myself. The singles I dropped prior to releasing the project were definitely catering in a different direction. For my first body of work, I wanted to be as sincere as I possibly could -- this project showed me that the world was open to receiving it.
You're headlining your first national tour. How has being on the road impacted your music?
The audiences really influence the way the music is being made. The affect the way that I see the music now. When you relate, you can interact with the crowd. You get to see what works, what doesn't, what people really feel. I can see what they're enthusiastic about.
You can see when people want to dance, or when they're open to receiving what you have to say. Touring has drastically changed the way I perceive music and the way that I create.
What's the significance of the video for "Uno Dos"? How important are music videos to you?
I come from an acting background, so music videos and their cinematic aspects are very, very important. That music video really expressed where I'm trying to take my vision. It [represents] how I want to soar to new heights that I have not reached.
That scene is an expression of the takeoff, and that final moment was me stating something more subtle. I want people to interpret in their own way. It planted a seed for the future we have.
How did your time acting on the Disney XD series Kickin' It and in other roles prepare you for our career now?
It helped me in so many different ways, especially now that I've been performing. Growing up on camera, and on sets, let me be tuned into [what I want to convey artistically].
It's allowed me, essentially, to transcend to a certain boundary -- whether it be tension, insecurity or whatever some people feel. It's totally natural. Luckily from a young age I was exposed to that at Disney and individual films. Shooting videos is something I can do while feeling comfortable and grounded.
How would you explain your genre, "Neo-American"?
I'm coming for a Colombian background -- I always say I grew up in the pseudo-Colombian culture in Georgia. I was born in Atlanta. I grew up in Lawrenceville, Georgia. Mainly, I didn't speak English until I was about four years old.
All of my family is Colombian. I never really got the full American experience, nor did I ever get the whole Colombian experience. So I consider myself a Neo-American in the sense that I am a hybrid of those particular cultures. I embrace that and I bring that into my music. I see some people ignore Central and South America. Because Spanish was my first language, I'm able to communicate with most countries of the Americas. Therefore, I consider my music to be Neo-American.
I pull inspiration from Brazilian music, being in specific [communities], bossa nova, and beyond. In the future, [I plan to draw on] more reggaeton, cumbia, and the genres we have here in the United States. Neo-American is a fusion of all the American sounds, and by American, again, I mean North, Central, and South America.
You are apart of Jaden Smith's MSFTSrep collective. What's that mean for you?
It's been life-changing for my brother and me. I met Jaden when I was relatively young, when I was about 12. We met at Dylan and Cole Sprouse's 16th birthday party. It was a very authentic interaction.
We hit it off and went from hanging out to working together. That led to basically living together and creating this movement called MSFTSrep. It consists of my brother, Jaden, Willow Smith, and I. It's beautiful to be surrounded by creatively free people. Luckily, my brother and I have been creatives since we were very young.
It was like the same DNA existed within Jaden Smith and within myself. We created music together, scenes together, and mostly we're just good friends. I played at Coachella 2019 for a portion of his set [both weeks]. I feel very blessed and honored to be around his energy, and obviously, his inspirational family.
What was your reaction to selling out your New York City and Los Angeles shows?
Honestly, I can't explain the way that I felt when that happened! [Laughs] For a minute, I don't know why [I was scared]. Again, coming from the acting background, I was used to being on set, around people, and in front of cameras. Still, I think there is more of vulnerability to [live] performances.
At one point in my life I was very fearful of performing. Perhaps I was apprehensive about it. I did not know if it was something that I wanted to do. When I started performing, I began to realize; I am getting better at it. That excited me!
For this first tour to sell out NYC and LA, then to perform in those cities, with the energy of the people there, it just tripped me out. Honestly, NYC was a really epic experience. It showed me that people enjoy my music. It is fantastic to be in these venues and have them sing my songs.
Being there together made me feel like the fans are my family. They are tuned into what I am trying to say. It is a crazy feeling for people to be there to see you. It is different when you are an opening act for someone or when it is not directly a ¿Téo? audience. Being at a ¿Téo? show is an incredible experience. So, I feel blessed.
You're a bilingual Colombian-American and songs like your latest single, "Américano," express that pride. Why is that important to you?
Because I've seen people in the past who were kind of anti-champion for their roots and where they come from. I have a passion for my family, friends and the rich culture of Colombia, and several different countries.
Those are my roots. I always speak to both of my parents in Spanish; it's part of my everyday life. For me, it's important to express the reality of my life. Essentially, that is the DNA of my music. I want to connect with people of the same essence. I want people to relate to it whether you are from Venezuela, Ecuador, Argentina, or wherever you come from. The energy of the lyrics "I am Américano-Colombiano." It is not precisely about being Colombian, per se. The music is about that fusion.
This is a new generation of identity coming to fruition. It may feel a bit awkward: "I am not fully from this culture. I am not fully from that culture." You're in this weird in-between. I have to own it: "Yes, I am Américano-Colombiano. Yeah, I am in that middle ground, but it's fire!"
How do you feel when you see mainstream platforms group Latinx artists under Latin, as if the culture from all these different places and peoples make sense as a single genre?
I've never been a fan of genres. People always feel the need to label things -- but that's more for mechanical and technical usage. I never felt the need to give that much attention to it because it has its practical usage.
However, there definitely will be days of evolution that need to happen. To just say, "Because they are of this ethnicity or because they are speaking Spanish, let's just put it into one genre" -- there is obviously more to it. As for right now, it just is what it is.
It does need to evolve. I don't have the answer. I don't really like genre placement or talking about genres, because music is so expansive these days. There is so much fusion happening.
What can your fans anticipate next?
The next EP I want to drop will be catered more to the rage a little bit. It'll include a bit more of the baile funk, reggaeton, and uplifting dance wave.
I think people can expect evolution. It's going to be something special, always. I plan of dropping about two more EPs before the next album, and the upcoming EP will be called América. Hopefully, I'll be releasing it in June or July.