After American Idol Breakthrough, Ron Bultongez Releases New EP
When one first meets Ron Bultongez, the first thing noticed is his cool grace.
The clatter of silverware hung over the room in a haze, dampening a well-lit room of men in cleaned summer suits and women in light pink dresses. Traditional Desi guests-of-honor wore their saris to the hum of intermingled conversation, photogs taking drinks from the cash bar with cameras hanging around their necks like ready revolvers.
Twos and threes walked between the tables which peppered the dining hall. The veins of the room throbbed with foot traffic as table-mates introduced themselves, waiters refilled early drinkers, and the stifling heat of the room grew.
I sat, observant yet off-duty. I was filling the chair of my recently-belated father, as an associate of one of the sponsoring organizations. The event was honoring immigrants who had made names for themselves in the Dallas area. I noted the diversity of the room, as the world itself had sent its best and brightest to this event on a hot June day in Texas, the interior of the country club offering no greater respite than the pools outside.
Over a Shiner and unsweetened ice tea, I sat with a longtime Nigerian friend and politely met the other members of our table as they arrived. To my right was an Indian businesswoman, and across from me, the seat remained open until a six-foot man in a cropped goatee and lean suit occupied it. The man was polite and unassuming as he said his social platitudes. It was not long before the other members of my table started asking where they had seen him.
American Idol was their answer. He was a finalist and songwriter from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Lionel Ritchie was a fan. The emcee of the event came over, smiling in a knee-length dress and masterfully-juggling introductions. She introduced us all to Ron Bultongez. The encore was in short order.
I had not watched ABC’s latest revival of the show, but several of the others had. They insisted that he perform for them. He was clearly not expecting to do so, but the emcee bent to popular demand, deftly spinning this spontaneous request into a “yes, all part of the plan” affair. As a former singer, I saw right through it. As did Bultongez, but he smiled in an easy and unruffled manner.
And so the night went on. An appetizer of an assorted salad with crushed walnuts -- in my case, drenched in a syrupy, creamy dressing -- offered itself to the hungry summer socialites. The conversations were tentatively about business, as the night was nascent for business cards. The salad was followed by an official introduction of the night’s succeeding events, though most were eagerly-awaiting the entree.
In Bultongez’s case, his mind was back at home with his young son.
“Baby James keeps me grounded,” he told me a few weeks after the event. We spoke on a July afternoon, shortly after he dropped his son off at his mother’s house. The singer had just returned from a recording session in Nashville for his upcoming sophomore EP, Learning to Love. Recorded with Warner Bros. and in preparation for a nationwide, thirty-city fall tour, Bultongez was being guided by little more than his natural ear for a positive message and its commercial value -- and carefully shielded by a handpicked entourage (read: Team Ron).
The Congolese émigré has already tasted stardom and is eager for more of it. With an impressive breakthrough performance on American Idol, he entered the national spotlight and now works full-time as a musician. Beneath this silver (soon-to-be-gold) veneer, a formerly-homeless immigrant, victim of paternal abuse, and football star had a story which took him from the bustling capital of Kinshasa, to New York City, to Plano.
A boyhood in a megacity of eleven million people exposed him to many truths at an age where truth is, perhaps, the greatest foe. Formerly Léopoldville, the capital of the DRC was founded by Henry Morton Stanley of Heart of Darkness fame. Named after the infamous Leopold II of Belgium, the early city was a colonial bastion; with time, it became a place of riots and rebel uprisings -- one of which, in 1997, led to the downfall of the Dictator Mobutu’s regime.
The capital of the Central African dictator was also the heart of the region. Music and the arts still found a way to flourish in the late 1990s. This was the home of Ron Bultongez, who lived most of his French-speaking boyhood in the city which had ousted a dictator and was home to an underground scene of a different sort of rebellion: self-expression.
Following the contested election of 2006 -- the country’s first multiparty election in forty-one years -- violence broke out in Kinshasa. It was this latest act which helped convince the young Bultongez family to immigrate to the U.S.
Talking with Bultongez, I could see how the thoughts moved carefully through his mind, like plucking the strings of a guitar one at a time -- but in such quick succession that the resulting sound was unique and enlightening.
We spoke of politics and the (overstated) negative nature of social media. We spoke of comparisons between his style and Kanye's. We spoke of Hollywood and its trappings.
“I don’t want to be a part of the cycle,” he said as he carefully drove around on a bright Plano afternoon. His passion is for the young -- perhaps, born out of his concern for his younger self, his son, or just a pure heart for those who follow in our stead. “I’m passionate about the youth, as they’re very quickly exposed to garbage and negativity online.”
I asked him why he cared so much for them.
“They’re still figuring themselves out. I want to try and encourage them, and everyone, to be better people.”
Looking around the room as the events of the night had entered a pre-entree lull, it was hard not to see a room of those who embodied that very ideal. Breaking out a dulled and hammered cliche from any discussion about immigration, they personified “the American Dream.” It was what had pulled the Bultongezes to New York. It was what led the keynote speaker, a longtime CPS investigator who reflected on her unusual Desi upbringing in New Mexico, to be where she was that night. But, me?
I wondered how “American” this dream was. In truth, what distinguishes the dream of a man on the street of some forgotten city and that of a man dining the night away? What distinguished the dreams of the man who sat across from me and the dreams of my own? Can a dream truly have a nationality -- a definitivity -- to it?
That very truth -- the truth of relativity to that question -- is reflected in Bultongez’s music. With raspy vocals and tinges of everything from country (hello, Nashville) to melodramatic pop, he sings his truth, as Kodak raps his, as Swift confesses hers.
Bultongez’s truth is his authenticity. And what distinguishes his dreams from mine is not our differing birth language nor the first stamp in our passport (for there is no difference) -- and it is that brotherhood without boundaries that allows the interpretation of Bultgonez’s music to be a thousandfold. That is just how Bultongez wants it. And that’s how he likes it.
Bultongez’s immigration to the U.S. was soon muddled by domestic abuse at the hands of his father, leading him to go from homeless shelter to homeless shelter, before he found his roots again in Plano. Despite his early love for music as a side passion, his path seemed to be headed to the collegiate football level, following several scholarship offers. It was after a number of injuries and concussions that his path turned to his true calling.
Bultongez was a musician for several years before he was on Idol. He admits to not being able to read music, but his lack of formal instruction in music didn’t stop him from becoming a local favorite in Plano. His entrance on ABC’s revival of the iconic franchise was almost killed at the audition phase, before a late save by Lionel Ritchie sent him to Hollywood.
Once in Hollywood, Bultongez was eventually exposed to crowds in the thousands, performing in venues like the coveted Madison Square Garden. It brought his musicianship (and his personal fashion) to a new level.
“Everyone kept comparing my clothes to Kanye,” he laughed.
He credits Scotty McCreery (a past Idol winner himself) for bringing him into the national spotlight. On Good Morning America, McCreery was asked about who his favorite auditioner had been thus far, and he told Michael Strahan that Bultongez was his favorite.
“It was super weird, man,” Bultongez told me. This mention made Bultongez the buzz of the fanbase and the radio circuit. He was featured on stations that ranged from R&B, to hip-hop, to Christian music.
I asked him what he thought of the attention from the different genres, and what it was like being famous overnight.
“It’s funny [because] I’m not really an artist in any of those categories,” he grinned. “And, I get asked all the time about my genre and my inspiration for my music, but the truth is that I really listen to Beethoven.”
I was surprised and took my notes. He continued.
“But, I don’t believe the fame got to my head, because of my son.”
Bultongez’s son, the infant James, is an obvious source of inspiration for the young musician. Like some other notable young artists, fatherhood has taken its hold on his music -- a direct reflection of his perspective on life.
“In Hollywood, you’ve got yes men all around you, people are recognizing you on the street, and it’s very easy for it to get you -- you know, coming from nothing to suddenly being a somebody.”
He paused for a second.
“But, I’d return home after doing stuff for Idol, and while everyone else was out partying and enjoying themselves, I’d return to my hotel room, where James and his mother would be waiting for me. Going from Idol to changing diapers or bathing my son kept me grounded, for sure.”
As a thirty-city tour, from Hollywood to New Jersey, awaits Bultongez in the fall, one can’t help but notice his diligence toward his son. And, perhaps, this quality lends itself to the title of his new EP.
After the entree of chicken and steamed potatoes, the emcee returned to our table. Bultongez turned to her, not too quickly -- as if every motion were an emotion that came in its due time. She smiled at him and told him that they had prepared the stage for him. He looked behind him, his eyes dancing with slight amusement, at the trio who had initially wanted a performance from the most famous man at the gala.
He turned back to the emcee, nodding and saying he was ready. He looked at his date and handed her the contents of his pockets. With that, the professional took over and strode to the stage with purpose. The emcee quickly announced to the crowd of the spontaneous performance, and, with that, the room was Bultongez’s.
The lights dimmed slightly in the corners of the room, and the instrumental began to play after Bultongez stood in silence, microphone in hand. James Bay’s “Let It Go” had been one of Bultongez’s breakout songs on Idol, making it a natural choice for the evening.
I had never heard the song before, but the moment Bultongez opened his mouth and the raspy vibrato conquered the room, I knew he was the man for the song. The powerful instrumental took its gentle progression to the chorus, where Bay’s natural raspiness matched Bultongez’s. The room was quietly engrossed. The truth of the song was interpreted a thousandfold: Bultongez style.
For some, perhaps their thoughts traversed thousands of miles to their homes of old. For others, perhaps it was the thought of difficult times past. For me, it meant something else. The hand of my friend grasped my knee as if he knew where my mind had fled.
Bultongez’s rendition was far more powerful than Bay’s original -- and, I found, the better one (Hendrix over Dylan, anyone?). I thought of my father. I thought of the evening that had brought all these separate strands together, twisting and mingling in an embrace to create a new picture of a hundred different flags.
As the song began to fade, so did Bultongez’s voice. He was not retreating from the song; rather, he had told his story a thousand times. And so it ended, and the room erupted.
I asked him in our conversation some weeks later what “Learning to Love” meant, after we discussed a music video he had shot for his debut EP, Thank You PLANO.
“Every song is a different story about learning the different types of love, and how I had travelled that journey. [It’s] an authentic sound.”
Authentic is the one perfect word to describe Ron Bultongez. As he has his sights on the fall tour, he looks even further to T.V. acting, songwriting for others, and fashion, he looks toward his son’s growth as a young man. He looks toward learning the different types of love he has yet to conquer. For a man who never truly felt love from a father, it was not natural for him to learn how to give that sort of love to his son. But, he tries (and succeeds).
He looks to push all the boundaries he can, like a boy from the Congo coming to the U.S., finding fame in a second passion and continuing to fight for recognition from the industry he loves. It is that fearless voyage that endears us to him in his latest EP (out on August 1st) as he tells us who Ron Bultongez is now that he’s had his big break.
Learning to Love is simply his newest sound. I doubt it’ll be his last.
Curtis Stratton can be contacted on Twitter @Curtis_Stratton
Photos by Diane Marie Phillips
Header image layout designed by Mateo Granados