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Interview: José Rivera, Jr.
Queer Latinx Artist Reclaims Queen’s “Somebody to Love”
Of all their songs, “Somebody to Love” is one of Queen’s most famous. While it does not hold the operatic and theatrical qualities of “Bohemian Rhapsody,” the song is powerful, emotional, and shows the remarkable range of Freddie Mercury’s voice. The song was released in 1976 on their album A Day at the Races; it sits alongside another powerful song, “White Man,” which discusses the inhumane treatment of Native Americans by European immigrants. “Somebody to Love” is a monologue by a nameless person who is desperate to find love. The lyrics are poignant and pleading, with the singer declaring, “Each morning I get up I die a little. Can barely stand on my feet. Take a look in the mirror and cry, ‘Lord what you're doing to me?’” While the lyrics don’t offer specifics on the narrator or his story, that did not stop them from speaking to José Rivera, Jr.
Born in the Bronx in 1992, José Rivera, Jr. works as a queer latinx recording and visual artist. His videos are lively, with modern choreography, costumes, and vocals by Rivera Jr. himself. He previously covered Adele’s song “When We Were Young,” proving his talents as a vocalist. Now, Rivera, Jr. is taking on Queen with an impressive cover and a message about gay conversion therapy.
The music video tells the story of a young gay man (played by Rivera Jr.) who is sent to gay conversion therapy by his religious parents. Two gay men and two lesbians are in therapy with him as well. They are all under the control of a stuck-up therapist (only named “Ms. Pinster”), who is disgusted by their homosexuality. Ms. Pinster tries to force the men to have sex with the women and discourages the same-sex couples from flirting with one another. We also see Rivera Jr. throughout, singing while dressed in an homage to Freddie Mercury. The song ends in liberation, with the subjects tying up their therapist, kissing in front of her, and escaping out the window.
After watching this brilliant piece, I spoke with Rivera, Jr. about the video, the band Queen, and his thoughts on the current US administration.
When did you first hear the song “Somebody to Love?”
I first heard “Somebody to Love” when I was five or six. It was 1997, and I lived with my Mom and Grandma. It was my Gram who played the original on a cassette on this giant system she has hidden on the bottom 2 shelves of our wooden China cabinet. My grandma was a super hippie rebel chick, born in the 50s, and still lives for Queen, Stevie Nicks & Fleetwood, ABBA. I was raised on all of that. My mom was the one who played George Michael's “Somebody to Love” cover at least once each morning, in addition to the Evita soundtrack, and unending amounts of freestyle.
What did you feel?
I fell in love with it. The entire A Day at the Races record really. It's almost like a day in the life of these incredible rock legends, who were so fearless in their voices they shared with us; even in sharing their fears.
This song was the hit single from the album and was #2 in UK and #13 in the US. Why do you think this song stood out on the album and got so popular?
Well, Queen had just had “Bohemian Rhapsody,” and “Somebody to Love” was the lead single. So not only were they already dominating the airwaves but the context and meaning within the song is so personal, and so universal. I think we all have resonated with those words at some point, in some way in our lives – can anybody find me somebody to love? I'm still asking...
What made you want to cover this song?
I sing a lot, and this particular song has been one I've been singing for a long time. There's no comparison to Freddie's voices, Brian's guitar, etc. I wanted to be myself on the cover, and I felt the lyrics incredibly timely.
Gay men are being incarcerated and murdered by the masses in Chechnya. The Trump Administration continues to belittle all minorities with its absurdist media-politics, inciting violence and hate against the LGBTQIA+ community and so many others. So many people, everywhere (America included), have to hide who they are to be accepted into the environment in which they reside.
“Somebody to Love” became about what, why and how can we as a community come together and realize that all we are doing is loving, and giving our hearts so effortlessly to one another. There is a real absurdity to anyone who doesn't understand this, and so I decided to make fun of just how absurd that is.
The song makes many references to God and religion, as does your music video. What are your thoughts on religion? What are your thoughts on religion in regards to homosexuality?
I think religion is there for people who need it, in the same way that music and dance is there for me. I have nothing against religion, but I do have a problem with those who practice religion and use it as a license to discriminate. People have no right to suggest their story or their identity is all more important than another's – we all live, and we all love.
Is there a moment in your life that you think about when you hear this song?
Now, I'll always think of the video I made accompanying this song! I felt really inspired to create the concept for this visual cover right after Donald Trump was elected and all the shit about Mike Pence being pro-conversion therapy and the "religious freedom" act was coming out. The video was very reactionary of that time, around November - December 2016. I was so angry, there was (and still is) so much uncertainty as to what is happening in my country.
Before my video, I'll always think of my mom blasting the George Michael version. I'd dance around and sing along with my mom in my underwear with a giant hairbrush, and I'd get really sweaty because I was so energized by it as a kid… Listening to music from the late 80s/early 90s was our getting ready for school ritual. In addition to me screaming about not wanting to wear clothes, particularly socks.
As a queer person of color and a musician, what does Freddie Mercury mean to you?
He's an icon of total fearlessness, self-acceptance, and rebellion.
What are your thoughts on the current US administration?
Trash. Incompetent. Unqualified. Underwhelming. Petty and insecure.
What do you hope this song will do?
I hope this song will make people sing along, which it already does without my help. I hope my visual cover serves as a reminder to other queer youth that you never have to hide who you are, and those that really love you will always be there and will never leave. You will always have somebody to love in me.
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