As a Latino gay millennial singer-songwriter, I believe I can make a difference.
I’m here because I can become one of the reasons why things get better.
We will fight and we won’t stop. The powers that be will not control us.
Those are lyrics that feel to me more relevant now than when I wrote them years ago. They are words that I live by and that motivate me. As a singer-songwriter, I want to create content that genuinely dismantles white supremacy, racism, toxic masculinity, sexism, and homophobia. I’d like to share my story.
Having grown up in the DC area, I always felt moved by the political activism I witnessed as well as the arts scene here. When I was starting out as an artist in the DC area, I started learning a lot more about politics. Befriending people in the political world seemed inevitable. Through my friends and colleagues in the political world, I learned a great deal about the function of government, how bills become laws, and how local and state governments affect our everyday lives far more than the federal government does. One friend who helped me learn all of this was vocalist and congressional staffer Brian Duckworth, who sings with Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington, DC, and works for U.S. Representative Colin Allred from Texas’s 32nd Congressional District.
Studying political activism helped me grow into my political beliefs and develop my voice as an activist. My work as a singer-songwriter complemented that journey by helping me become more vocal and less shy about presenting my beliefs to people. I sometimes face opposition and rejection while standing up for my political beliefs, but as an artist, I’m already used to facing that type of response. My work in the arts and in activism helped me become a bolder and stronger person, firmer in what I stand for.
The more I learned about politics, the more I saw that it permeated all areas of work. I saw politics in the hiring process, business partnerships, how to conduct business, and how to market a business. I did see, however, that politics at times played a negative role in the arts.
The more I worked in the arts, the more I noticed that some of the politics involved was advocating for the big donors much more than advocating for the artists. It seemed that the companies were doing whatever it took to please donors and the status quo even if it meant mistreating artists, or mistreating artists just because they thought they could get away with it. When I was coming up as a singer-songwriter, I was taking whatever gig I could get. I worked several times for little to no pay. I even did paid engagements where I was doing most of the work but was making far less than what the venue was making. When I was developing as an artist, I wasn’t as open about myself as I am now. I was more guarded and just put up with the system because I thought that was what it took to be successful. It became apparent to me that with politics, it was a game of power.
Power is a motivator for people. It seemed that the only thing that a lot of arts professionals and venues cared about was how they could get ahead professionally, even if it meant putting their colleagues down. Politics has its place. But if politics should be infused in art in any way, it should be genuine activism.
When you’re engaging in genuine activism, you build everyone in your team up. In genuine activism, what you do on stage is also reflected in your life off stage. Clinging to those in power will not make you a genuine activist in the arts. Fostering negative behavior and toxicity in your workplace will make your business a high school clique and not a true arts organization. Pandering to your audiences, which certainly occurs in politics, will not make you a fighter for equality. Hiring a few token BIPOC performers will not cut it either. Politics can really prevent genuine activism from happening in the arts world.
Petty politics is also a problem when it comes to race relations. When the arts groups and venues focus only on building themselves and not their greater community, they lack in diversity and equity. We are America, a diverse and culturally vibrant nation. Our organizations’ activism should be in seeking to be naturally diverse and culturally vibrant. After the tragic murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and others in the Black community, we now see and hear many organizations make statements about how they want their company to be more inclusive and equitable. But leaders of the arts community should think more of how they walk their talk. It is not enough to send out press releases, make website updates, and email campaigns talking about their devotion to a more equal environment in the arts.
One of the things artists and arts groups need to have is guides or collaborators when presenting works by BIPOC so that we properly honor the culture. I learned that from the Chorus America Annual Conference this year. Chorus America suggested that choruses have mentors/collaborators work with their groups so that they add educational value to the experience. For example, if a chorus is performing First Nations music, they should bring in someone who specializes in that music to coach the chorus so that choristers can expand their knowledge about that music. It is unsatisfactory to present content created by BIPOC and not receive any guidance from BIPOC professionals.
What we need is to hire highly qualified BIPOC professionals to be directing, producing, and creating works that are connected to BIPOC cultures. What is bothersome is to see presentations of works created by Black artists, presented by Black artists, but somehow have a crew of mostly white people who do not even specialize in that type of art. What is troublesome is to see companies scout Latinx people to sing salsa music, to scout Black people to sing gospel music, but virtually never scout either group to perform music from the Western European tradition. This is the politics I’m referring to: pandering, maintaining the status quo, making the appearance of equality but not genuinely seeking it, seeking power over principle, using those already on your majority white staff to produce works by BIPOC for the sake of convenience and profit.
Pre-pandemic, we heard the same stories being told the same way so often that we got used to it. Post-pandemic, when the arts fully reopen, I think and hope that we will finally hear more BIPOC stories that we never heard because they were never brought center stage to the spotlight before.
I want to see more BIPOC in front of the camera and behind the camera. It’s not enough to hire Black people to be on stage and then have a largely white team behind the scenes dictating all the content. This goes beyond racial issues. There are also problems in the arts with the way women and members of the LGBTQ+ community are represented and treated. We have to make sure that the arts community is doing all it can to maintain an equitable and ethical work environment, especially for BIPOC groups, the LGBTQ+ community, and women.
We need to hear the perspectives of those who have been marginalized, hurt, and oppressed. Their voices matter and their voices make magnificent art. So what are we waiting for? Why not create a stage and backstage that looks more like America? There is so much work to be done, and I want to help. I am hopeful that we will make changes to our arts world, just like the world at large will change due to the pandemic. Let’s make the removal of petty politics in the arts imperative. Let’s make the hiring of diverse creatives and crew members for projects imperative.
This plea for diversity is not to fill quotas. Filling quotas is the status quo. We don’t need more of that. We want to genuinely hire teams of people who can excellently do the job, and powerfully share their story. Each story is singular and cannot be told the same way by another. Let’s not tamper with the storytelling process; let’s promote it. I want an arts scene that makes everyone in the room feel like their voices matter and that they are not being used as tools for a greater business venture. Because it does feel like that at times.
I have decided to be part of the solution. We in the arts community can all make a difference and I can only imagine the positive changes that will transpire once we all do that.
I have changed my stage name from Chris Urquiaga to JChris and have also decided to move from an adult contemporary sound into a more Latin urban sound. I want my music to reflect my roots as a Latino. I believe that my work as a singer-songwriter will now be more universal because of this change. When I came out as gay, some close friends told me they noticed that my music became freer and richer. But now it’s time to go even further in expressing who I am and where I came from. This is part of being an activist artist, fully embracing who you are and not being afraid to show it. It is vulnerable, but you can move a lot of people by doing it.
I also need a team of like-minded people to take this movement to greater heights. I want to make my music more collaborative and have other professionals with similar stories work with me on this. To make this transition successfully, I decided to hire those who know more about the Latin urban style than I do to assist me in the art-making process. I have partnered with Johnny De Jesus, who is an awesome Latino audio engineer from Dominican Republic. I have also partnered with Chastity Corset, who is a fantastic Black music video director from the DC area. Some compelling messages will be spread through my art with the help of my awesome collaborators.
My new music in Spanish will break from the machista, chauvinistic norms traditionally found in a lot of Latin pop music.
My first video, “Macarena,” features an all Black and Latinx cast, including actors from the DC area. The song is a reimagined version of the 1993 song of the same title. Some of the chorus lyrics are “…dale a tu cuerpo alegría Macarena…,” which means “…give your body joy Macarena….” The song is about being happy and dancing. The cast for “Macarena” ranges from elementary school age to young adults. “Macarena” is about ethnic diversity and it breaks away from ageism. I want to show that people of all ages are welcome to our artistic platform to participate and dance with us. One of the things that will foster this welcoming environment is the TikTok dance challenge that we are presenting for this song! We want to see people of all ages participating and showing off their dance skills, whether they are professional dancers or just like to dance as a hobby.
With my second video, “Ya Yo Te Olvidé” (I Already Forgot About You), I want to break gender norms. The Latinx culture is traditionally machista and I want to stray away from that. “Ya Yo Te Olvidé” will feature me in drag, something that is uncommon in urban Latin music. But it’s time for change and it’s time to influence people to open their minds and think differently. I don’t want my music to reflect oppressive, traditional values. It’s a new America. I want to present work that promotes liberal values and tears down toxic masculinity. I want the Latinx community and LGBTQ+ community to be represented in this video.
My third video, “Solo Tu Y Yo” (Only You and Me), will be about interracial love relationships. The video will also present same-sex relationships and will tear down heteronormativity. I want women and gay people to feel empowered by this song. I want those in interracial love relationships to feel represented in this video. This type of representation should be present in all levels of music, theater, dance, and visual art. The more we see work that represents minorities and breaks norms, the more it inspires artists to be more bold in their work and break from the traditions.
These videos could not be possible without the help of our generous donors Holly Hassett, who funded two music videos, and Mike Blank, who funded one music video. Holly and Mike are tremendous forces in the DC area. I really appreciate how they seek to promote diversity and equity in the arts. When I spoke with Holly over the phone about this project, she was so enthusiastic about helping me achieve my fundraising goals and fulfill my artistic vision. Holly is my “fairy godmother,” or “FG,” and I’m very grateful for her helping me set this project up!
I can’t do it alone. None of us can do it alone in whatever we do in the arts. It is all about teamwork and encouraging each other. Teamwork and building people up is so essential in the arts. It is what makes the arts richer. I have learned from my mistakes, and I choose to let my past errors dictate how to move forward.
We must get rid of petty politics, surface-level activism, cliquey behaviors that belong in middle school, and toxicity. We must rise up and become the arts community that we are fully capable of being, a bright, diverse, and equitable one.
JChris—born Chris Urquiaga—is an award-winning singer-songwriter, pianist, composer, music director, and producer from Silver Spring, Maryland. He has performed in many different venues throughout the United States and internationally. Some of those venues include The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, The White House, The Library of Congress, The United States Capitol, Strathmore, Signature Theatre, and Conservatorio Nacional de Música in Lima, Perú.
In 2017, JChris received the Montgomery County Hispanic Heritage Month Award in Maryland for his achievements in the performing arts and for his help in shaping his community. In January 2019, he was the featured performer for the Hispanic Swearing-In Ceremony for the 116th U.S. Congress, which was organized by the CHCI (Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute). He was an Artist in Residence at Strathmore for the 2016–2017 Season.
In August 2018, JChris released a Latin pop album, I’m Here. In 2017, he released the album Complete, consisting of original pop songs in English, Spanish, and Portuguese.
JChris graduated from The Eastman School of Music in 2014, where he majored in Music Composition. During his time at Eastman, he recorded, performed, and wrote music for his own band, a cappella groups, orchestras, choirs, and various chamber ensembles. He has had interviews and live performances broadcast on ABC News, CBS News, C-SPAN, Fox News, Telemundo, Univision, and WUSA 9. He has performed the U.S. national anthem for NBA and MLB games and also for the international tennis tournament Citi Open. In August 2013, Chris was invited to perform at The White House for the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington Commemoration, which was hosted and organized by President Obama and the First Lady. He has also performed for U.S. Senators Bernie Sanders, Chuck Schumer, and Chris Van Hollen; U.S. Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Joaquin Castro; Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi; and Attorney General for the state of Maryland Brian Frosh.
Composition is a passion for JChris. He has been commissioned by the Congressional Chorus, in Washington DC, to compose three original works; in 2012 for their 25th Anniversary Concert, in 2013 for a concert entitled “Shakespeare Sings,” and in 2016 for a concert entitled “Young, Hip, and Global.” In 2011, he was commissioned by world-renowned soprano Carmen Balthrop to
compose two original compositions in Portuguese. He was also commissioned by the Prince George’s Philharmonic in 2013 to compose a piece as their featured season world premiere. In 2008, he received the Kennedy Center Award for Excellence in the Performing Arts.
JChris is currently composing a musical comedy about gentrification called Mr. Manhattan! with lyricist Jordan Silver in New York City.