Girl Ultra is the Mexican artist your R 'n' B playlist is begging for
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Mexico City's emerging star Girl Ultra explains how disparate influences and innovative artists are giving R 'n' B a new day in the sun.
There’s something exciting bubbling in Mexico. Over the past few years, its budding R ’n’ B underground scene has ushered in an inspiring new era for the country’s rich sonic landscape. Pulling influence from future bass, hip-hop and soul, collectives like the one based around Finesse Records have been reshaping the country’s relationship with R ’n’ B – pushing a musical subculture that’s not only emerging in Mexico, but thriving across the rest of Latin America, too. And there’s one star at the centre of the movement: Girl Ultra.
Born Mariana de Miguel in Mexico City, Girl Ultra – one of three musicians, alongside the UK’s Flava D and South Korea’s CIFIKA, asked to collaborate remotely on episode two of Check Your DMs – has always been attracted to the smoother edges of music. First introduced to records as a child by her music-collecting father, she grew up listening to the soulful, affecting croons of Nina Simone and the fluid psychedelia of Pink Floyd. She was instantly hooked.
“Once my dad opened me up to this musical world, I immediately became a digger. I even started downloading music illegally on Napster!” she laughs. With this newfound musical awareness, Miguel’s curiosity for music reached new heights, inspiring her to write songs herself. “I developed this intense hunger to create, I just couldn’t figure out how,” she admits. Soon after, she fronted her first-ever project – a disco group called Affer. The band was short-lived, but it gave her the musical jumpstart she was craving.
Watch Check Your DMs, featuring Flava D, CIFIKA and Girl Ultra in the video below.
UK house and Korean electronic meet Mexican soul
Around this time, she was also obsessively watching cartoons on the US network Nickelodeon – she was, after all, a ’90s kid. It was the shows’ theme songs that stood out. “I didn’t recognise this style of music at all,” she remembers. “It was like finding a whole new world.” Before long she realised what the genre of music was and discovered the expansive world of R ’n’ B and hip-hop.
The first song she fell in love with was Beyoncé and Sean Paul’s 2003 hit, Baby Boy. “Hearing Beyoncé’s voice for the first time was life changing,” she beams. “It made me realise that this is the music I wanted to pursue.”
Listen to Watching You created by British DJ Flava D, South Korean artist CIFIKA and Girl Ultra from Mexico in the player below.
Studious as she is, Miguel familiarised herself with the genre’s greats: J Dilla, Stevie Wonder, Sade. Their music opened up a portal for self-expression and experimentation that she never knew before. “What drove me to R ’n’ B is that it’s such a digestible genre, one that feels very open and honest,” she explains. “It didn’t matter what language it was in, it was all about the melodies, chords and progressions. No one song sounds the same, yet it belongs to the same family.”
And so came her eureka moment. After discovering that R ’n’ B was such a multi-faceted world, Miguel wanted in. She realised it was a scene that a young woman from Mexico could be a part of.
Miguel began experimenting with production software on her laptop, writing heartfelt songs in the same bedroom in her family home that she still lives in today. After connecting online with David Oranday, the founder of Monterrey’s Finesse Records, she was signed to the label in 2016 under the moniker Girl Ultra. The following year, she released her debut project – Boys EP.
Across six slick songs, she laments relationships loved and lost to a backdrop of twinkling keyboards, glossy synths and rolling basslines. It had all the makings of R ’n’ B, sung in her native Spanish. “With my first release, I had to take baby steps because nobody really knew what R ’n’ B was here,” she says. “They were telling me things like, ‘Oh my god, you're the worst trap artist.’ Well, because I'm not a trap artist! It was very confusing at the start of my career.”
Mexico had this approach in the ’80s and in the ’90s, it was infiltrated by pop music. There was never an R 'n' B scene
The tide has changed since then. As Finesse Records and Girl Ultra’s profiles began to swell, they picked up an army of unknowing R ’n’ B fans along the way. The label later signed Guatemalan singer Jesse Baez, who found success in Mexico. And it wasn’t long before the northern Mexican imprint became known for pushing homegrown R ’n’ B, future electronica and trap out from the underground. “It’s funny, [Finesse] were a group of guys producing electronic music and beats, and me and Jesse were actually the first singer-songwriters they signed,” she explains. “We were their first experiment!”
That experiment snowballed into a full-blown subculture. Young artists from cities all over Mexico joined the movement, following in the trailblazing footsteps of its leaders. Monterrey acts like Fer Casillas, Méne and Finesse signees Kiddie Gang gained traction nationally and beyond, while Girl Ultra and Jesse Baez were commanding attention globally. But if you take a closer look at Mexico’s vibrant R ’n’ B underground scene, you’ll find that some of the country’s most compelling musicians remain hidden gems to most. Miguel is determined to change this.
“Mexico had this approach in the ’80s and in the ’90s, it was infiltrated by pop music,” she continues. “There was never an R ’n’ B scene.” So she and Finesse decided to label what they do explicitly, to make a point. “We were not afraid of labelling things in the era of information. If you just tell people what they're going to consume, they just wake up to it and think, ‘Okay, so this is it.’ And it just simplifies it.”
Although R ’n’ B is the touchstone, interpretations of it vary all over the country. While Miguel finds herself leaning into the more classic iteration of R ’n’ B – all smokey and sensuous in production and delivery – others have peeled off into more experimental lanes.
It’s very rare you hear an artist here say, ‘I did it alone.’ Even if there are no features on the track, we are in a constant state of collaboration
“There are unknown bedroom producers in places like Guadalajara and Yucatán Peninsula who are totally shaping and reshaping the sound,” she tells us. From seamlessly blending traditional R ’n’ B chord progressions with metallic electronic flourishes to silky grooves gliding atop dark hip-hop beats, Mexico’s R ’n’ B scene is a diverse and bountiful ecosystem, turning the genre into something all of their own.
It hasn’t always been a smooth ride. Most people won’t immediately associate Mexico, a country that pioneered folk genres like mariachi, corrido and duranguense, with R ’n’ B. “I have a pushback every single day, we are so stereotyped as Latinxs,” she sighs. “Because a corner of Latin music is now popular in the mainstream, people don’t see that we are a full spectrum. We’re not a trend, you know? We have varied interests and tastes. With R ’n’ B, we just want to be able to open up using a different avenue.”
Miguel’s output as Girl Ultra is wide open. Confessional and sultry, her music is a beacon for the vulnerability that R ’n’ B is so widely loved for. “I want to take Spanish language R ’n’ B to the next step so people can actually listen to a song just like they listen to Bad Bunny, even when they don't understand a word,” she explains. “They empathise with the emotion behind it.”
Tracks like Discreción and Morena Mía are quintessential examples of this mantra – silky, lovelorn numbers that effortlessly create a mood. Last year’s Damelove, a collaboration with Mexican-American indie artist Cuco, released on Girl Ultra's Nuevos Aires LP, saw her flit between Spanish and English for the first time over syrupy guitars and a sleepy call-and-response chorus. This collaboration was significant for her – it signalled that her underground scene was truly making moves.
Collaboration is integral when it comes to R 'n' B in Mexico. Using digital tools to connect – like Miguel did with Finesse Records, Jesse Baez and Cuco – has propelled the community forward. This exchange of ideas and inspiration, Miguel says, is fundamental to her output as an artist.
“It’s very rare you hear an artist here say, ‘I did it alone.’ Even if there are no features on the track, we are in a constant state of collaboration,” she declares. “Often it’s as easy as gathering together with friends and saying, ‘Let’s make a song!’ Next thing you know, we have a song and it feels right.”
But it’s also about finding unexpected moments of inspiration, a special sort of alchemy. It's something she explores in the latest episode Check Your DMs, utilising her global outlook to connect and create online with like-minded artists Flava D and CIFIKA.
“Sometimes you listen to a genre of music that is so far removed from what you do and it sparks creativity. I love bossa nova, darkwave and hip-hop, which sounds nothing like my music, but it helps me grow,” she enthuses. “It’s this exchange of ideas of interests and that is so important for artists.”
For now, Miguel’s focus is squarely set on building a new future for Mexican R ’n’ B. Along with her peers, she’s committed to taking their music global and expanding their artistic reach far beyond home. “I really hope people are noticing the community we’re trying to create to help others,” Miguel says. “Ultimately, I hope we’re all growing together. That’s what I want the most.”