Oct. 18--When Beyonce declared, "A diva is a female version of a hustler" in her 2009 hit single, she was talking about herself (or her Sasha Fierce alter ego). But the immortal pop phrase could apply to another Houston singer.
Morena Roas, a soulful, bilingual singer and rapper, is starting to make waves by pushing her sound and image to anyone who will pay attention. The Houston native was this year's Pride Superstar runner-up and was crowned the East End Idol, a lead-up to the East End Street Festival. A new dance single is picking up play in local nightclubs.
"I've always been competitive. I wasn't necessarily the smartest kid in school, but I was into sports. I played hard," says Roas, who graduated from North Shore Senior High School in 1997. "I was a freshman playing varsity soccer, varsity basketball. I had coaches that pushed me. But I'm also a self-motivator. If it's somewhere, and it's reachable to me, I'll go get it."
She first networked and met artists as a choreographer for quinceaneras. Roas moved to Los Angeles in 2000 to pursue dance with fellow Houstonian Gilbert Saldivar, who went on to tour with Jennifer Lopez and Christina Aguilera. But Roas didn't enjoy the frantic pace and returned to Houston.
Music was always a passion for the "Afro-Latina," who grew up with a keen interest in Tejano music. (Roas is of African-American and Puerto Rican decent.)
"Selena was probably the biggest influence of my life. Between her, Jerry Rivera and Celia Cruz -- I loved them all. Merengue was very heavy in my life. But Selena was the primary force," Roas says. "I always wanted to be the first black Tejano star. I used to go to Hallabaloos (Tejano nightclub). I used to wear Wranglers. I was vice president of the Spanish club in high school. It's just always been a part of me. It made me want to be a performer, to have a band."
Roas eventually gravitated to R&B and rap, picking up on everyone from Mariah Carey and Janet Jackson to Ace of Base and Lauryn Hill. But her look and sound weren't easy to categorize, which resulted in a lot of head-scratching.
"I got a little lost, being compared to other female rap artists. I didn't look like them. I didn't sound like them. I didn't rap like them," she says. "I would go to labels, and they saw me as this reggaeton rapper. I wasn't just a rapper. I just began to sing and mimic the women that I liked.
"I had this eclectic musical background. I felt like I was like no other black girl growing up."
Those sounds, styles and singers blended into what Roas is today: a pop and soul vocalist who can expertly handle almost anything that's thrown at her. Her raspy tone gives familiar pop hits a new edge, and her connection with lyrics and mood are perfect for a weepy ranchera. There's a bit of a Hill vibe in her look and presence, and she wears a single key earring in homage to Jackson.
She started entering karaoke contests about four years ago and has won several, from inside the inner Loop to Kemah, gay clubs to straight bars. But it's not just about jumping onstage and drunk-belting "I Will Survive." (Roas even has a pre-performance ritual of crawfish, chicken pho with garlic beef and a shot of 151 Puerto Rican rum.)
"Karaoke gave me performance experience, and it was a way to make good money. I'm serious about it. I'm there for a win. I'm trying to support my artistry and what I want to do," she says.
"A lot of music is very new to me. I study that song so much that I figure out how to make it mine. I sing the hell out of that song until I've flipped it enough. It still has elements of the original, but you can feel little pieces of me. It's nice when people say, 'I like the way you did that song.'"
That approach made her a fan favorite during this year's Pride Superstar singing competition. (She placed fifth in 2011.) Roas expertly turned well-worn hits from Radiohead ("Creep"), Rihanna ("Stay") and Journey ("Faithfully") on their heads with smart delivery choices and bilingual lyrics. Though she didn't win, that experience helped Roas clinch the East End Idol title amid fierce competition from across the city.
"We had a really high-caliber group of artists that signed up and participated. It was total excitement," says Lupe Olivarez, director of programming and production for the Cultural Stage at the East End Street Festival. He also emceed the competition. "Morena is one of Houston's most soulful signers, and I would not be surprised to see her doing big things soon."
Roas says she's probably recorded, including duets and collaborations, at least 100 original songs. She acknowledges that a lack of organization, both professionally and personally, has prevented her from moving forward and releasing a proper album or EP.
But recent momentum has inspired her. A new single, "Molly (Where You At)," is picking up play at local clubs. It's a campy, high-energy dance track.
"Morena is a great talent. Sometimes it's a challenge to use that talent in just one way because she is so diverse. Being bilingual is an added dimension, and one we plan to capitalize on going forward," says DJ Kutz, Roas' longtime producer. "I believe once she is settled down enough to focus on just herself, she will find great success."
Roas says she's putting "gas and miles" into promoting the new tune, and a video shoot is planned for this month. And, yes, the song's title is meant to raise eyebrows. Molly is the street name for the drug MDMA, a reference that has popped up in hit songs from Miley Cyrus, Kanye West, Lil Wayne, Rihanna and Nicki Minaj.
"It doesn't mean I'm a party girl. I'm looking for a good time," Roas says. "I love that it's a fight, that people immediately go to it as a drug-related song. 'I Will Always Love You' is a drug-related song. Think about it. The woman is obsessed with someone, and she will always love him. All songs are infused with a high frequency of emotion. I believe that emotion is a drug. It can lead to a lot of things."
More music is in the works, but don't expect pure party tunes. Roas promises to break your heart with a ballad in the near future. It's all just part of the package.
"I am the mixed-peanut canister. Some people just buy all cashews or all peanuts. But in this jar, you have almonds, peanuts, pecans," she says. "Even them other little nuts that people don't like."
Here's a video of Roas performing "Stay" for the artist showcase at the House of Dereon:
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Original headline: Versatile singer Roas grabbing attention
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