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Jessica Hernandez On Her New Motor City Sound

Jessica Hernandez describes her music as "Latin-punk-Motown-soul — it's a little bit of everything."
Taylor Bonin
Courtesy of the artist
Jessica Hernandez describes her music as "Latin-punk-Motown-soul — it's a little bit of everything."

There's no doubt that music is in the DNA of the city of Detroit. People around the world know this Michigan city for the classic Motown sound; the city also nurtured a vital rock scene and is often cited as the birthplace of techno. But along with Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Iggy Pop and Eminem, an up-to-date roll call of Detroit's music scene would have to include Jessica Hernandez & The Deltas.

Hernandez is a Detroit native, the daughter of a Cuban father and a Mexican-American mother. She and The Deltas have been making gritty, soulful music in their local scene for a while now — but on their latest record, they tried something a little different. The band released two albums simultaneously: Telephonein English and Teléfono in Spanish.

As part of Weekend All Things Considered's trip to Detroit for the 50th anniversary of the 1967 riots, NPR's Michel Martin spoke with Hernandez about the city's influence on her sound and why she felt it was important to make her new music bilingual. Hear their conversation at the audio link, and read on for highlights.

Interview Highlights

On the many musical influences she drew from her family and her city

I grew up in a household with a father who was Cuban but came to the States in the '60s when he was really young, so he grew up in the '70s punk and garage-rock scene that was really flourishing at the time. So he was huge into Alice Cooper and Iggy Pop and MC5 and all the things that you think of when you think of Detroit rock music. ... And then my mom's young — we're only about 19 years apart — so for her, she was introducing me to The Cure and Joy Division and '80s new wave. And then my grandmother on my father's side, who's Cuban, was introducing me to salsa and merengue ... and then my mom's parents, who are Mexican-American, grew up in Detroit through the '50s and '60s, and they had The Four Tops and Temptations [and] Supremes playing at their high-school dances.

On developing her own sound

Because I had so many influences ... I had a really hard time deciding what I wanted to be as a person and an artist. And I think once I stopped trying to figure it out and just told myself, "Write whatever you wanna write, whatever you're feeling that day. Let it happen. If it's a salsa song, cool; if it's an R&B song, cool." ... Once I let go of trying to define myself and my music, it definitely made it a little all over the place, but it also felt way more natural.

On why she decided to create a double, bilingual album

One of the big things was really my family. I think my grandmother — it was a hard thing for us, with wanting to get closer and with the language barrier. I speak Spanish and she speaks English, but my Spanish isn't great, her English isn't great ... And she's always said, "I want you to sing in Spanish so I can understand what you're singing about ... I want to be able to enjoy it in a different way than listening to your music in English."

And then I think with everything going on today, too — I think it was even more of a reason for me to want to kind of tap into my own heritage, feel more connected with who I am. ... A lot of my fans are Hispanic Americans: Puerto Rican Americans, Mexican Americans, Cuban Americans. And they come to concerts, and I've had younger girls come up to me and say, like, "You've helped me feel comfortable with being Mexican-American. And I've wanted to reject being Mexican because I wanna be American, I wanna be accepted as an American. I'm proud to be here and have my citizenship, but I also feel sad that I'm not able to embrace where I'm from, and where my parents are from." ... And so I feel like that was something that really pushed me to want to do something like that.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.
Dustin DeSoto