In a post-modern, deconstructionist society that’s supremely concerned with labels and identity, it’s refreshing to see any entertainer who actively works to avoid them. AB Soto is a great example. Born in East LA, but living in New York, he manages to embody the best of both coasts. He’s at once both butch and femme. He’s a dancer, a fashion designer, a musician, and an artist. His music could be called dance pop, hip-hop, or new wave. Sometimes he’s nearly naked, and others he’s performing in a party dress. He’s a performer who defies definition, especially when you ask him about it.
“I’m Latin, and I grew up in East L.A., but I’ve always had an East Coast vibe,” he offers. “I’m Mexican, but people think that my name is Arabic. But then, because I have a banjee swag, people think that I’m Puerto Rican and I was born and raised in the Bronx. And people think that I’m a drag queen because I’m wearing a dress. I would just say that I’m a performance artist, if that makes it easier for someone to comprehend.”
It can sometimes be a struggle for an artist trying to get their point across. It’s even more of a struggle when you’re looking for an audience that’s willing to put a little thought into your work, like AB is doing.
“There’s this thing,” he says, “where weak minds want to instantly understand something. When they don’t understand something, they run away. It’s really lazy! And our society is becoming lazier and lazier. The music industry seems to be dumbing down music, and it’s dumbing down society.”
Looking at the state of pop music today, it’s hard not to agree with that sentiment. Take a few formerly strong indie artists, like Grimes or Brooke Candy, and throw them into the the pop music machine, and suddenly they end up sounding like everyone else on the radio. Still, AB acknowledges that defying definition can also impede people from understanding just who he is.
“When an artist like me comes along,” he explains, “they ask if I’m a singer. No, I say. They say I’m a rapper, that’s what it sounds like. Well I don’t see myself as a rapper. So then they ‘Wait, you’re gay, so you’re a gay artist! I want to label you, and categorize you right away, and I’m done thinking. I don’t want to think.’ And no, I’m not that, you know? I am just doing what I love, and what I love is dance music, house music, and R&B. I love dance, fashion and music.”
If I wanted to have a career in Hollywood as a cute Latin pop star, I know which door to knock on and I know how to get that record deal. But it’s not who I am.”
AB uses fashion very effectively in his performances, which is natural, given his roots as a designer. But it’s also part of how he expresses himself, and a part of how he discovers more about who he is a person and a performer.
“I play around with dressing feminine. For me, I see it as a fabric covering that I’m putting on my body. I find it really interesting that, when I first started making music, I’d wear a lot of baggy clothes. Nobody was wearing oversized, baggy clothes at that time. I didn’t think that the world needed another shirtless, gay rapper, so I decided to keep my clothes on. I wanted the music to be about my art. I didn’t want it to be about my body and what’s underneath my clothes.”
It’s really the role of the artist, after all, to challenge the audience to broaden their perception of things, even if only a little bit. It’s a challenge that AB has clearly embraced.
“For me,” he offers, “that’s the performance, and what I want people to take away from that is that they’re killing off a lot of possibility by thinking ‘Oh, I can’t give this person the time of day because he’s wearing baggy clothes, or he’s wearing a quinceañera dress.’”
While he does still parade around on stage in a lovely ball gown or two, his current attire has evolved from his earlier looks. Or, perhaps, the better word is devolved, since his current attire includes wearing a lot fewer clothes.
“Once I got everyone’s attention,” he admits, “I thought ‘Fine. Now let’s play with this.’ So now, when I decide to show a little bit more skin in my work, people are like ‘Oh my god, when did this happen! Holy shit, you’re really cute!’ But maybe I’ve always been that, and you just never really saw that.”
After all, for AB, it’s about the art, the music, and the performance. He may be ok showing some skin on stage now, but only because it’s on his own terms. And that’s important to him.
“If I wanted to have a career in Hollywood as a cute Latin pop star,” he confirms, “I know which door to knock on and I know how to get that record deal. But it’s not who I am.”
If he’s anything, he’s certainly a successful, self-made performer. He self-produced his previous two albums, Fag Out Vol. 1 and Vol. 2, as well as his recently completed Huntress world tour. He’s also a man with an incredible amount of drive and ambition, especially when it comes to breaking down barriers that others have put up around him.
“I’m basically trying to reinvent every element of music that doesn’t accept me,” he says, “or that I don’t fit in. Someone said that I couldn’t rap. I did that. Somebody said that I couldn’t have performance in pop music. Alright, I did that. Somebody said that I couldn’t be gay and do house and booty bounce music. Ok, did that. Hollywood didn’t embrace me, so let me write a song about it: Butch Beat.”
Dealing with barriers, especially as a gay man, is something that he has had a lot of experience with. And it’s something that has strongly influenced his current career in music and performance.
“I was a backup dancer for several years,” he recalls, “and they were always like ‘You can’t be gay, you have to go back into the closet because you’re dancing next to a female recording artist.’ First of all, this picture is completely wrong. This female recording artist is styled by a gay man. Her lyrics were written by a gay man. She’s basically trying to come for our gay dollar, and all these gay guys dancing next to her have to go back into the closet? No thank you, I quit.”
For me, making music, someone said I couldn’t be myself. Watch me.”
The result, though, is that he’s become a performer who’s used his platform as an independent artist to honestly express his grievances with the music industry, and to help change what he feels is an unfortunate status quo.
“Now let me challenge that,” he offers, “and reinvent what it is to be mainstream. Are we going to continue to idolize these female pop stars that don’t give a shit about us? They just want our dollar. How many little boys are gonna continue to grow up looking up at only females? I just feel like future generations of gay boys need to be able to idolize males. Feminine males, masculine males, father role models. There’s something really wrong about the cattiness of us not supporting each other.”
It’s not surprising that AB feels that way, given his troubled relationship with his own father. He’s spoken before about how his father was never really able to accept the possibility that his son was gay. It was the day his father passed away that he finally had the courage to come out of the closet, but that time of his life did leave its scars on him.
“I was a loner. I was very introverted, and really quiet. The TV was basically my outlet. When nobody was watching, I would put on these huge shows in my room, with choreography. We didn’t have any money, and there was just this bed sheet that I would put up as a curtain. My dad would always catch me, and it got to a point where my dad would say ‘Son, do you want to use the living room, because the living room is a bigger space. I’ll go outside and do yard work, and you just tell me when you’re done.’ And I’d be like ‘Ok, great, Dad!’ So other boys would be out playing football with their dad, and I’d have an hour of performance time in the living room by myself.”
It was as much of a concession as his dad was willing to make. While AB never felt like he could really be himself in front of his father, at least he was allowed that time in the living room.
“My dad was very loving,” he says, “but at the same time, he never really did accept me being gay.”
That was really a beginning, then, of a life spent trying to expand people’s horizons any way he could. Now, as a performer, he seems to have settled into a solid groove of disassembling the dysfunctional boundaries that he sees society setting up around him.
“For me, making music, someone said I couldn’t be myself,” he states. “Watch me.”
AB is now preparing to produce his third album. Based on the success of his Kickstarter funded world tour, he’s in the midst of running another campaign to fund the new album. Rewards for contributing include everything from advance copies of the album, once it’s completed, to T-shirts and other swag. You can check out the Kickstarter, and make a contribution here.