efe-epaBy David Villafranca Hawthorne, California

Cuco, a 21-year-old Mexican-American recording artist hailed as a rising star by Rolling Stone magazine and the Los Angeles Times, told EFE that the presence of artists with Hispanic and immigrant backgrounds in the music industry is a form of activism in itself.

"My music isn't necessary activist, but I think my presence in the industry and the presence of Hispanic immigrants and Latinos whose parents were immigrants is important," Cuco, whose real name is Omar Banos, said.

"Wherever they come from, they're representing a community that works very hard. We all want the same for our families: we want to help. And I think just being in this industry is a form of activism," he added.

Shy, unassuming and with a charming touch of tenderness and innocence, Cuco burst on the scene with singles such as the 2017 hit "Lo que siento" and on Friday released his debut album, "Para mi," a project featuring his romantic and dreamy blend of pop, R&B, psychedelia, hip hop and Latin rhythms.

But while reviews of his debut work were published this week in The New Yorker, The Wall Street Journal and Pitchfork, this California-born Chicano (son of Mexican migrants) marked his career milestone in his typical low-key style by attending an intimate celebration in his native Hawthorne.

"It's important because I grew up here. It's here that I had the most important experiences of my life," he said.

The mayor of Hawthorne, a town southwest of Los Angeles that was the birthplace of The Beach Boys, handed him the keys to the city in a moving ceremony in which Cuco soaked in the love and affection of his parents, friends, teachers and neighbors.

"There are two worlds: one is that of Cuco and the other is that of Omar. And I always want to be in Omar's world when I'm not working as Cuco," he said.

Omar's world started to change in 2016 when the singer and multi-instrumentalist uploaded a version of the 1950s Santo & Johnny instrumental tune "Sleep Walk" to the Internet and began gaining an online following.

Initially making his mark with homemade tracks in both English and Spanish, Cuco gradually moved on to performances at music festivals like Coachella (2018) and winning thousands of teenage fans in the United States and elsewhere.

"I've always been inspired by people who make their own music, who create their entire project themselves. I wanted to do the same, even though I didn't have all the money I needed to have a studio at that time ...," he said of his humble origins.

Cuco says he enjoys all different types of music, from the boleros that were his mother's favorites to genres such as metal and salsa that are far removed from his own compositions.

"It's something that simply merged in my subconscious and created my music," he said.

"Para mi" preserves that DIY (do it yourself) spirit of his first songs while incorporating more sophisticated production technology.

Highlights include the Tame Impala-like psychedelic pop of "Keeping Tabs" and "Far Away From Home," the emotionally charged R&B of "Feelings" and incursions into bossa nova such as "Best Friend," all imbued with a warm, pleasant vibe that makes the album ideal for a California afternoon.

"Don't play with me. You broke my heart. But I'm also so obsessed with you. I don't know if I love you. I don't know if I hate you," Cuco sings on "Bossa No Se," a track that is typical of the romanticism that pervades "Para mi."

"It's something that comes out easily. It's music. You express yourself more easily with songs," the recording artist said of his striking willingness to explore themes of love and profound feelings despite his admitted shyness.

Signed by American label Interscope Records, this atypical heartthrob has been classified alongside other on-the-rise "bedroom pop" recording artists such as Billie Eilish and Clairo.

But his work at times also calls to mind alternative Hispanic musicians such as Kali Uchis or Helado Negro.

A down-to-earth young man with no apparent interest in the limelight, Cuco said a car accident he suffered last year was a "brutal" way of forcing him to slow down and take a break.

"I think I'm going to start producing more. I want to be able to be at my home. I get really tired being out on tour. I'm a shy person. I prefer to be in the background," he said. EFE-EPA