Latin music

Dominican-American pop star Prince Royce opens up about his cross-cultural inspiration and his new album ‘Soy El Mismo’

In many ways, Geoffrey Royce Rojas is like millions of other young Latino Americans. He was raised by Dominican parents who came to New York looking for the American dream and struggled to keep their four children out of trouble in a South Bronx neighborhood rife with gangs and drugs.

Rojas, 24, grew up listening to techno and hip-hop, the Beatles and Jay-Z — and to the sweet, bouncy lilt of Dominican bachata at home and on summer visits to the Dominican Republic. He is matter-of-fact about balancing between two cultures.

“I can’t tell you if I’m Latino or if I’m American,” he says. “I’m both. I speak Spanish just as much as I speak English and I write English just as much as I write Spanish.”

He sings in both, too. Rojas, known to millions as Prince Royce, is the hottest new act in Latin music. He’s a teen girl’s dream of a baby-brown-eyed heartthrob whose sweet and soulful renditions of pop- and R&B-flavored bachata have proved irresistible to young Latinos who share his bicultural identity. In 2010, Royce’s Spanglish, bachata-beat cover of the Ben E. King standard Stand By Me became a surprise hit, turning the singer-songwriter into the first major new star in years in the calcified U.S. Latin pop scene.

“It was exciting, overwhelming, scary, emotional — a little bit of everything,” says Royce, who now calls Miami home.

He’s lounging on a couch in a recording studio at the luxe Setai Miami Beach, assistants scurrying to fetch coffee and schedule promotion for his just-released third album, Soy El Mismo (I’m The Same). On full display are the pouting lips, honey-toned skin and perfectly placed dimples that drive his female followers to tackle concert security guards and tear apart stores where he appears. Not that his looks did the then-shy Royce much good back in high school.

“There were a lot of girls I wouldn’t be able to date and a lot of girls who didn’t like me,” he says, smiling. “I would be like ‘Man, maybe if I was older, maybe if I changed my hair or my clothes.’ ”

Or maybe if he was a pop star.

“It’s weird, but at the same time it feels good,” he says. “When I see the girls screaming and yelling I know it’s because I’ve done something with my music.”

Which includes a string of hit singles, multiple sales and songwriting awards, tours with Pitbull and Enrique Iglesias, millions of YouTube views, eight million Facebook and two million Twitter followers who can send Royce trending in an online heartbeat.

His success stems from shrewd instincts, determined hard work, a talent for writing and a strict but supportive family. His father, a taxi driver who started work before dawn, and his mother, a part-time beautician, walked their kids to and from school and kept them home at night, trying to shield them from the 3 a.m. shootouts and gang battles that often erupted in their public-housing project.

“My parents were very strict with me and we brought our children up the same way,” says Royce’s father, Ramon Rojas. “People say it’s impossible to bring up kids like this in the Bronx and not have them come out delinquent. It’s not easy. My son is still the same person he always was. I’m very proud of him. From the beginning he had these aspirations and he always said, ‘I’ll get there, I’ll get there.’ ”

But breaking out of the Bronx did not always seem certain to his son. “When I look back now I understand, but at the moment it was very frustrating,” Prince Royce says. “You want to go hang out, you want to go to a house party. You don’t think about people getting drunk at the party or grabbing a knife or a gun.

“It was frightening … but it was normal at the same time. I love where I’m from, because I learned so much. But I didn’t realize until I got out that this is not what’s supposed to happen.”

He escaped in two ways. One was via summer visits to his grandmother in the Dominican Republic, where he joined cousins, aunts and uncles packed into her small home in the country, sleeping on floors and couches, venturing to the beach and woods, washing with buckets of water.

“It was poor but not that bad — we had electricity, we had furniture,” Royce says. Instead of hip-hop, he heard bachata, which has grown from a raw, rollicking country music to a more melodic, romantic style that has usurped merengue as the D.R.’s dominant music genre.

“Those are the songs that really make me think of the Dominican Republic,” he says. “Enjoying the natural things — the water, the beach, looking at trees. Getting bit by mosquitoes.”

His other outlet was writing. He joined a poetry club in his early teens, and was in the first class in the Bronx Academy of Letters, a public high school with a rigorous literary and writing program. On graduating, he began studying to be an English teacher at Manhattan Community College.

But by high school, he had switched from poems to songs. He’d sung in the shower and to girls at school. Now he began writing a song every day, hooking up with a friend to record and sing at clubs.

Aventura, a Dominican American group from Washington Heights, was having enormous success with its R&B-influenced bachata. It was another step in the form’s evolution from the sophisticated pop- and jazz-influenced version Juan Luis Guerra had popularized in the early ’90s. In recent years, it has become common practice for Latin artists to do bachata remixes of their songs, and Royce was determined to put his own stamp on the music.

“I felt like I could bring the genre something refreshing, what I learned in New York, my passion for hip-hop, R&B and pop, to give it a different twist — and at the same time represent where I’m from,” he says. “Bachata you get to dance and go crazy at the club, but you also get to be passionate and talk deep with your lyrics.”

He used $7,000 he had earned selling cellphones to record a demo and make hundreds of CDs that he’d put in a backpack and hand out in Washington Heights and at the Dominican Day Parade. Eventually he was taken on by Top Stop Music, a small independent label whose founder, producer Sergio George, helped develop Marc Anthony and other New York-based Latin crossover artists.

Royce was disappointed that his first hit was a cover (although he speaks admiringly of Ben E. King, who performed his classic with Royce at the 2010 Latin Grammys).

“I was like, ‘Really? I have all these songs I wrote, I recorded, I paid for using my money from selling so many cellphones and doing so much overtime, and you’re gonna come out with a cover?’ ”

But his lilting, falsetto-voiced Stand By Me propelled his 2010 debut to triple platinum sales in the U.S. “I owe a lot to that recording,” he says. “It’s amazing to see how this song that’s 50 years old, from a whole other generation, can be in a whole other genre and whole other language and still be a hit.”

Since then, his songs have been his own. While many are about romance and heartbreak, others take a more thoughtful and unexpected turn. They include Dulce, about a single teen mother, and Corazon Sin Cara (Heart Without a Face), which he wrote on the subway as a teen, inspired by the anxieties he saw in the women around him.

“I would see so many women that would be so insecure and self-conscious, always in the mirror, I need to save my check to buy this purse because that’s what’s in … my makeup isn’t good, am I getting fat, oh my God, am I too skinny. And I wanted to write a song that told them that it’s OK.”

It has been one of his biggest hits, striking a chord with girls anxious about their weight and looks. One of them is Leslie Filpo, 21, born in New York to Dominican parents and raised in Miami and Chicago, where she is working at a currency exchange as she studies business at Elgin Community College.

“He’s saying, ‘I don’t care how you look, dark or light, fat or skinny’ — which I like because I’m really skinny,” Filpo says. “And I say, ‘See, Prince Royce accepts me!’ ”

The song is one of many reasons Filpo feels a connection with Royce and pride at his success. “His parents are Dominican, he’s from New York — it’s my story,” she says. “I had a customer the other day who said, ‘Where are you from?’ and I said, ‘Dominican Republic,’ and he said, ‘Oh, like Prince Royce.’ ”

The new album touches on another problem Royce saw in the Bronx — Invisible, about growing up without a father. When he sings it mid-interview, his soft, a cappella rendition brings out the poignant details in the Spanish lyrics: “I missed your hand when I was sick, Mamí was working and couldn’t come, so I was alone in my room thinking of you. I dreamed so many times that one day you would pick me up from school, but it never happened.”

“It’s really sad,” Royce says. “I have so many friends, so many close family members who told me, ‘I wish my dad would have been there during my graduation, during this important birthday party, during this crucial moment in my life when I really needed somebody to talk to.’ It was something I’ve always wanted to write about. It’s to show love to those people and let them know they’re not alone, that so many people have experienced this.

“But it’s also a song of hope … that it’s never too late to go back and apologize, to go back into that person’s life.”

The new record also has plenty of more conventional pop fare, like the sensual, reggae-tinged first single, Darte Un Beso (Give You a Kiss) and two songs in English, the booming dance-pop Already Missing You, with Selena Gomez, and the ballad You Are Fire.

Royce, who produced the album in New York and Miami, talks proudly about including saxophone, harmonica and harp, instruments not usually found in bachata, and doo-wop, funk and disco sounds.

“It’s very funky, going back to James Brown and Earth Wind and Fire with bachata,” he says. “I definitely got creative while still keeping it commercial and down to the roots I really love.”

El Mismo leaves Royce poised for a new phase in his career. Last fall he broke with Top Stop; a lawsuit was resolved this spring, and Royce signed with Sony. RCA will release his first English album next year. This week he was nominated for an American Music Award for Favorite Latin Artist along with Anthony and bestselling former Aventura frontman Romeo Santos.

Several months ago he moved to the Coconut Grove area, lured by the way Miami combines the tropical ease of the Dominican Republic and the urban intensity of New York. And he plans to keep following that combination of cultures into his future.

“My music has attracted a lot of kids like me, born and raised in the United States, who still enjoy their Latin roots,” he says. “I was just going with the flow and I’m still kinda going with the flow. I still haven’t really taken it all in, and I don’t want to. I know I’m blessed and I’m so grateful.”

Read more Jordan Levin stories from the Miami Herald

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