I moved to Chicago in the fall of 2013. The goal was to get into the music scene, but to be honest with you — I had no idea what that meant.
I found my first gig on Craigslist at Argo Tea. All glass, the teahouse where I played a couple times a week looks like a small greenhouse in this big city. From there, I got connections for weddings and corporate events and eventually transitioned to a full-time gigging musician.
A year or two later, my manager hits me up and says American Idol’s going to be in Chicago and asked me to do a private audition. I tried out for The Voice back in high school, and one of the producers transferred to American Idol and remembered me. I guess he said, “Let’s see what this kid’s about.”
That really changed my perspective of the game. I got a taste of the real scene, performing in front of a live audience, having to travel, having to do interviews. It was like a high. But the greatest thing that Idol offered me was publicity. That stamp on my resume gave me some credibility.
There was a year period after the show where I couldn’t release any music, but in the meantime, I was finding my sound. And that’s where I’m at now — that John Mayer-Bruno Mars vibe, but with the type of instrumentation where you’ve got electric keys, organ, guitar, and more soul. I’m also trying to go the live route because, who doesn’t like a live band?
My dad has been a pastor my whole life. The church was where I was introduced to music and developed my voice. When I moved to Chicago, it was my first opportunity to pursue faith for myself. There was no, “Son, you’ve got to go to church.” I thought, “there’s no rush to find a new church home,” but I went to one church and by the next week, I was playing keys at a different campus of theirs, and within the next three months, I was on staff. The church took a really cool approach to their music. Different bands would switch from campus to campus so that you wouldn’t hear the same music every week. They also encouraged creativity. If you want to do an acoustic, folk-type thing, do that. Funk? Gospel? Do that. They gave me freedom. I served at the church and really grew in my faith. And then I was diagnosed.
I was back in Flushing for my sister-in-law’s birthday party and was having some lower back pain. When I went to the ER, they found a mass and I was immediately taken to Beaumont Hospital for more tests. The doctors found another small mass on my right testis and decided to do a biopsy. They confirmed that it was testicular cancer, and within a couple of months, I started chemotherapy.
Then 22, I thought I had nothing but life to live. It was around the time that I got released of my Idol contract, so I’m in Chicago running, I’m hustling, I’m doing shows, I’m serving at church, I’m really working on music and then, boom: I’m forced to move back home.
A lot of loud thoughts go through your mind when you’re diagnosed with cancer, but I saw it as my opportunity to reevaluate. To refocus, to read, to sit back and reexamine why I’m doing the things that I’m doing. Because you can get caught up in the hustle and forget the whole point. I got this dose of reality and had to put my faith to the test. Being faithful has been a journey, but it’s something I haven’t and probably never will give up on.
On His Support System
I come from an old-school Puerto Rican family, so when a relative is sick, you take care of them. Family members flew in from Pennsylvania and from Florida to check up on me. It was great. My girlfriend was also there every step of the way. We’d go to the gym or out for a walk after treatments. Simply having someone to lean on was crucial. Those days when I was at my lowest, those are the days where thoughts like, “What does this mean for my future?” would creep up. But the days that I had my mom, my dad, and my family there, they gave me strength.
I was going through EP, etoposide and cisplatin, two different chemotherapy drugs, and my treatments were about five hours long every day for a week and two weeks off to let the chemo do its thing. That would be one of four cycles. I’d get strapped into a chair, then wrap up in blankets and read a book or watch Netflix to keep my mind distracted.
I was hitting the gym at least three days a week for the first two cycles: lifting weights, doing squats, running. But as the cycles went on, the more difficult it became. By the third and fourth cycle, I was just going for 30 minutes to keep moving.
If you’re going through chemo, take the time to really educate yourself. Don’t accept what people say blindly. Get a ground line of what you have and what the basic treatments are so that when you’re going through this, you have a sense of what’s happening.
I made sure that I trusted the oncologist who was giving me chemotherapy at Beaumont. He came highly recommended by a lot of people and I got a good sense of his character — who he is and what he’s about. He was serious about my health.
On Musical Healing
Music is my therapy. The Fridays that I felt good, I’d play at Exodos, a rooftop lounge in Greektown. I would try to write, but my body was under a lot of treatments. I would try to force the creative flow, but it never really came the way that I expected it to. Listening to worship songs gave me a sense of hope.
Now that I’m in remission, those songs that I started while I was undergoing treatment are coming along. I’m finishing those missing pieces that I couldn’t put together at the time and, man, it feels divine. I’m understanding a bit more of the big picture and why God had me go through what I went through.
In 2018, I’m trying to ideally release a new single every couple of months. I’ll be recording, releasing, and performing simultaneously. (Gotta keep the people engaged.) I’m going to be releasing an EP in April. A single called “I Still Stand” pertains to what I was going through. The lyrics give the imagery of feeling like you’re giving life all you’ve got, but you continue to get hit. Through the rain and through the famine … I’m still standing.”