From my city to yours: Detroit through the eyes of Motown musician Omar Aragonés

Omar is Detroit born and bred, and the love he feels for his city goes hand in hand with his passion for music. From listening to live beats at Cliff Bell’s to dining at Supino Pizzeria, he reveals how to get under the skin of Michigan’s largest city.

By Charlotte Wigram-Evans
Published 19 Jun 2020, 08:00 BST, Updated 6 May 2021, 11:21 BST
Motown singer-songwriter Omar Aragonés. 

Motown singer-songwriter Omar Aragonés defines Motown as soul music mixed with the essence of innovation that defined Detroit's development as an industrial powerhouse in the 1900s.

Photograph by Visit USA

What got you into music?

My family was very loud and musical. Growing up there was always noise in the house, someone singing or laughing. My dad played the guitar, too, and he encouraged us all to perform at church. When he died from stroke, I was 22 and that changed me. I realised life’s too short and I wanted to put all my effort into doing something I loved. That’s when I decided to pursue music as a career, and it’s been fun — in Detroit there are always new opportunities and ways of expression.

You’re a Motown singer. What does that mean to you?

I would define Motown as soul music mixed with that sense of innovation that was happening in Detroit in the 1900s. Motown was born here, and there’s still that feeling of grit and hard work — often it’s history written down. But as well as that soulful, vintage sound, now it’s also incorporating lots of other genres. That really defines Detroit’s music scene at the moment; this amazing mix of sounds from hip-hop to jazz to electronic. You can hear the hustle; you can hear what Detroit meant — and still means. That’s what lights a fire in a lot of people.

Omar loves to perform on the Dequindre Cut, an old railway that’s been converted into a greenway, running from Eastern Market down to the Detroit River waterfront. 

Photograph by Visit the USA

Tell us about Detroit.

Detroit has that Midwestern head-down, hard-work attitude; you won’t find any pretentiousness here, but it’s also a city full of creativity. The conversation is constantly moving here, and with influences and communities from all over the world, it’s a fascinating place to be. The two biggest, most important elements of the city are the automobile industry and the music scene, and in a lot of instances the two go hand in hand. After all, when you think of Motown, you picture a nostalgic scene with Bel Airs and other old Chevrolets. I look at the city as a motor, churning and pumping and creating. Even though it hasn’t been at the forefront of industry since the mid 1900s, the motor is there and people are still building off that power.

Outside lockdown, talk us through your ideal day in the city.

I love Belle Isle. It’s on the eastern side of the city and was landscaped by Frederick Olmsted, who also designed Central Park in New York. You cross a bridge and suddenly you’re on an island almost exactly halfway between the United States and Canada with views stretching out across both countries. There’s a conservatory on it and a yacht club, but it’s also just a really beautiful park to chill in or have barbecues in or cycle around. Of course, I’d have to do something musical, too, so I’d call the boys and we’d do a little jam session on the Dequindre Cut. It’s an old railway that’s been converted into a walking path down to the river, and little stages have been set up along it. Often, we’ll bring our instruments, and I’ll get out my microphone, and we’ll just perform to whoever passes by.

Detroit's lively Eastern Market is famous for its stalls selling everything from jewellery to tacos — and its thought-provoking street art.

Photograph by Visit the USA

When we can travel again, where should we go to experience Detroit’s diverse music scene?

Music permeates everything here, so normally at least you don’t have to look hard to find good tunes. Cliff Bell’s is the place to go for live music and new talent, and I perform a lot there, too. Then there’s Bert’s Warehouse Theatre which is a proper neighbourhood spot with a really old school flavour. People go in there and just let rip on their instruments. The Apparatus Room at Foundation Hotel, meanwhile, is more modern, and they get a lot of younger acts performing there, anything from hip hop and R&B to neo soul music. For electronic music, TV Lounge in Midtown always has a line outside, and normally every June there’s an electronic festival with afterparties all over the city. Third Man Records isn’t far from there, either; it’s a great place to pick up some vinyl, and there’s even a vinyl pressing plant out the back. Elsewhere, El Club, in Mexicantown, southwest Detroit, is a nice-sized venue. You can only fit about 200 people in there so it’s very chilled, plus it produces some of the best sounds in the city.

Before lockdown, the culinary scene was booming. Where would you recommend we go when the city opens up again?

Dime Store is my favourite restaurant, and it breaks my heart that I haven’t been there for a minute. It’s old-school American — a proper institution, and I normally go there for brunch. Supino Pizzeria is another classic — I’m pretty sure whoever you ask in Detroit will say you have to try a Supino pizza. Before lockdown, there were also a lot of new places opening up: Detroit Vegan Soul was making a real buzz, along with Saffron De Twah, which serves modern Moroccan food. One of my homies from the neighbourhood also opened up Flowers of Vietnam, which is amazing and is still doing takeaway. There’s nothing like being in the actual place, though, so I’m really looking forward to the time when I can visit again.

How would you sum up Detroit in three words?

Innovative. Soulful. Powerful.

Detroit's Henry Ford Museum of Innovation showcases the people, artefacts and ideas that changed the world. Omar says, "The two biggest, most important elements of Detroit are the automobile industry and the music scene, and in a lot of instances the two go hand in hand."

Photograph by Visit the USA

Omar’s top six Detroit artists and playlists

1. Shigeto
This is a blend of jazz and hip hop that’s great to leave playing throughout the house for quarantine.

2. Curtis Roach
These tunes bring a fresh youthfulness to Detroit hip hop, along with great wordplay. 

3. Cousin Mouth
What can I say? These are soulfully moody rnb grooves with a well-defined sound. 

4. Liquid Monk
A great fusion of jazz, house and R&B, with rich collaborations.

5. Asante
He’s a versatile singer and producer who brings a blend of soul, R&B and African rhythms.

6. Omar Aragonés
And lastly, there’s my music!

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