Precious Perez

The views and opinions expressed by speakers and presenters in connection with Art Restart are their own, and not an endorsement by the Thomas S. Kenan Institute for the Arts and the UNC School of the Arts. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Precious Perez is a singer, songwriter, educator and disability activist who has recently been performing and recording under the moniker “La Reggaetonera Ciega,” the Blind Reggaeton Singer. A recent graduate of the Berklee School of Music, she has already released one album, 2 EPs, one cover and eight singles, with a ninth on the way. Her single “Sin Preguntar” won Best Latin Song just last month at the Latin Music Awards KY.

Precious is also President of RAMPD, Recording Artists and Music Professionals with Disabilities, whose mission is “to amplify Disability Culture, promote equitable inclusion and advocate for accessibility in the music industry.” Founded just two years ago by recording artists Lachi and Gaelynn Lea, RAMPD has already succeeded in making the last two Grammy Awards more accessible than ever to participants, audience members and viewers alike.

Here Precious describes how from a very young age she learned to be adamantly her fullest self in private and in public so as to advocate for her needs and those of the blind musicians who will follow in her footsteps.

Choose a question below to begin exploring the interview:

Pier Carlo Talenti: I want to go back to the Precious Perez origin story. When did you decide you wanted to be a musical artist?

Precious Perez: My journey started when I was very young, probably around the age of five. I remember at my fifth birthday party I was gifted two CDs of very different artists — J. Lo and Eminem — and my mom put them on in the car for me. After that, I think when I was six years old, a family friend gifted me a pink Barbie karaoke machine. I would love to find that to this day and get one and replicate that experience because I think it’d be really wholesome.

Pier Carlo: You can imagine, given the movie, how expensive and in demand it would be now!

Precious: I can only imagine. I would love to get my hands on one of those. It had a little cassette recorder built in, and so I would listen to the radio in my room and I would have a cassette in and be recording myself singing to the radio. I think at that point is when I really knew like, “Hey, I like singing. I could be a singer. I think I want to be a singer.” 

That developed as I got older. I was in music classes in elementary school. I was in the Boston Children’s Chorus for a while. Then in high school I was in the Handel and Haydn Society as a scholarship recipient. I was part of the vocal-arts program, which gave me four years of private lessons through New England Conservatory and also four years in a Handel and Haydn ensemble.

Pier Carlo: Oh, so you were classically trained?

Precious: Yes. My formal training throughout high school was through them. It was a really important foundation for me because I learned how to breathe properly and the basic techniques for how to utilize my instrument that I could transfer to other styles, which is what I was able to do with my voice teacher in college.

Pier Carlo: Had Berklee educated blind students before?

Precious: Berklee has an assistive technology lab designed specifically for blind students. There were a lot of us. The more of us leave, a bunch of us come in. That was an amazing resource and an incredible group of people I was able to lean on. 

I will say that, depending on the major, accommodations aren’t succinct across the college. It really depends on what you’re doing and on your ability to advocate. I was the first blind student at Berklee to do the music-ed major program, and so I encountered a lot of questions about, “Well, how are you going to do this thing? How are you going to adapt a classroom? How are you going to do this activity?” My answer for the first little while was, “We’re going to have to figure it out together because I don’t know. You’re the professor, so you teach me what you know, and then I tell you what I would need to make that work.” 

My professors were incredible; I got really lucky with my professors. We were able to really work through a lot of that. It was a long road, of course, a lot of uphill battles, a lot of things behind the scenes, but overall I was able to complete my degree, so I’m happy about that.

Pier Carlo: What came easiest for you and what was the biggest challenge?

Precious: I always say the biggest challenge in anything is other people’s misconceptions. 

Pier Carlo: Which were what?

Precious: [She laughs.] I always get that reaction. That’s so funny. I now am at a point in my life where I know exactly what I’m capable of. I’m confident in myself, and I’m not afraid to ask for help when I need it. I’m just very comfortable in my own skin. The challenges that I face tend to be when somebody else decides that I’m not able to do something or thinks that I can’t accomplish something because of my blindness. That’s when I usually encounter challenges. 

Throughout my academic career, it was, “Well, you know this is a lot of work, right?” And I’m like, “Yeah.” And they’re like, “Do you have somebody that can help you?” This was my very first meeting with the chair of the department before I even applied for the major. This was just getting a feel for things. I walked in there, and that was the question I got asked. And I said, “Well, yeah.” And he said, “Well, do you have somebody that could help you?” And I said, “No.” [She laughs.]

I’m a very sassy human, and so in my head I was thinking, “Sir, you don’t know who you’re talking to.” Because my entire life, I’ve been taught to advocate for myself, and I haven’t let anybody else decide for me what I could do and what I couldn’t do and what I was allowed to do because of my disability.

Pier Carlo: That’s remarkable for any young person, let’s say at the age of 17 or 18, when you were getting into school, whether they have a disability or not. Where did that knowledge of self come from?

Precious: My mom, ever since I was young, always said, “You’re going to grow up like everybody else.” She knew how important my independence was and how important it was to teach me how to go through life and be able to keep up and be able to compete with my peers. The combination of that support and the support from all the teachers I had and everyone who believed in me really, I think, cultivated that confidence and my advocacy skillset. 

And so once I got to this point, I expected this to happen. I was like, “Well, here we go again.” My solution has always been, “Watch me. You don’t think I can do it? Here we go. I’m going to show you that I can, and I’m going to show you that I can do it 10 times better than you ever imagined.” From there, it just ended up being trial after trial. “OK, we’re going to overcome this. This is how we’re going to do it.” It was successful nine times out of 10.

Pier Carlo: Now of course it means that the next blind music-education student they have, it’ll be successful 10 out of 10 because of the systems you put in place, right?

Precious: I would hope so, yes. That was the plan. Every day that I felt like laying on the floor and dropping out, I would always think, “Well, I’m not doing this just for me. This is for the next person, because nobody should have to go through this. If I get through this, that means the next person will be able to get through it and not have to deal with these hurdles.” That really motivated me to keep going.

Every day that I felt like laying on the floor and dropping out, I would always think, “Well, I’m not doing this just for me. This is for the next person, because nobody should have to go through this. If I get through this, that means the next person will be able to get through it and not have to deal with these hurdles.”

I was a first-generation college student. I’m a blind Puerto Rican woman, low-income with anxiety and depression, all these different intersections. When I would think about giving up, it was my communities and my family that motivated me to really keep going because if I was successful, then my community could be successful too.

Pier Carlo: When you were studying the music-performance aspect of education, did you already have a sense of the type of music you were going to want to sing professionally?

Precious: I think for me it started very vague because I knew I wanted to be versatile. I knew that I was trained classically, but I wanted to do contemporary, pop, R&B, Latin, all of the above, all across the board. As I wrote my own songs, I released my first album during my first year at Berklee.

Pier Carlo: Wow! [Laughing] Because you had plenty of spare time, I guess?

Precious: Well, I had help with that too. My high school music teacher pulled me aside one day during my senior year and said, “I really think you have a gift. I want to help you make an album. I have a friend who’s a producer.” He helped me create a Kickstarter campaign, and the producer, Doug Batchelder, produced everything, brought in the session musicians, did all of that. We were lucky enough to raise the money in time, and I was able to release my first album in November of 2016. 

From there I figured out my sound. I kept writing, and I kept releasing things here and there. I think that was my journey, documented through covers or performances or different acoustic releases that I had produced myself or worked with the same producer from my first album to release. That was my growth. I was able to grow through my experiences. When I studied abroad in Valencia, in Spain, that really shaped, I think, my direction a little bit more. 

And recently I’ve just entered my new era, which I think is where I’ve always wanted to be, which is front and center in the Latin space.

Pier Carlo: Well, speaking of front and center, not only are you placing the Latin aspect of yourself front and center, but unlike many of your blind musician predecessors, you are also placing your disability front and center. You’re not hiding it in any way. For one thing, you call yourself La Reggaetonera Ciega.

Precious: Yeah, OK, look at the pronunciation. Yes! [She snaps.]

Pier Carlo: [He laughs.] Also you do not hide your eyes behind sunglasses, which a lot of blind musicians in the past have done. Can you talk about how you made sure that your full identity was part of your performance persona?

Precious: Absolutely. I’m not a person that can separate myself from my art or from my work, and so my art has always been a representation of who I am and where I am at that point. To do what I love, I have to be myself while I do it, or it doesn’t feel real or authentic. My disability is a huge part of who I am and where I am and why I am where I am, and so it’s so important for me to really put disability culture at the forefront. 

To do what I love, I have to be myself while I do it, or it doesn’t feel real or authentic. My disability is a huge part of who I am and where I am and why I am where I am, and so it’s so important for me to really put disability culture at the forefront.

That’s evident through my involvement as now President of Recording Artists and Music Professionals with Disabilities. That is a platform connecting the music industry to a global network of disabled music professionals. RAMPD is a hub where anyone in the industry can hire disabled talent. If you’re looking for a manager or a producer or a songwriter, there’s no excuse anymore as to where we are because now there is a place to find us.

RAMPD also does consulting. We’ve partnered with the Grammys and the Folk Alliance on accessibility. We’ve had a couple of different press features in Billboard and and all of these different things, really amplifying disability culture and advocating for accessibility within the music industry and promoting inclusion. I think my passion has grown stronger since being involved with RAMPD. 

I got involved before RAMPD launched officially. I was in the first class of professional members. RAMPD was founded by recording artist Lachi, who is very disability-forward. She really gave me that push that I needed to really believe in myself to the point of, “Well, I can do this, and I can do this as myself.” I feel like putting my disability at the forefront not only raises awareness, but it also allows people to understand that disability is also a diversity. It is something to celebrate, not something that signifies brokenness. I’m really passionate about being authentically me, and part of that is my blindness.

Pier Carlo: How old were you when you wrote your first song?

Precious: Oh man, my first good song was when I was 13 or 14 in eighth grade.

Pier Carlo: How did you know it was good? [They both laugh.] As opposed to the bad ones before, what made that one good?

Precious: I have to start with the bad ones because that was the first time I ever wrote anything. I was probably nine years old when I wrote my first song, and it was a poem about my childhood friend Julian when he was a baby. He was a baby baby back then, and I was nine, and I wrote a song for him. Well, it was a poem. It started as a poem, and then I brought it to my music teacher, and I said, “I want to turn this into a song. Can we do that?” She really helped me create the melody and the piano part, and a friend and I got to perform it at our school assembly.

Pier Carlo: So you learned the basics of building a song there?

Precious: I learned the basics then, yes. And then I wrote another one. I think it was a couple of months later. I remember being around 10. That one was “Lost Inside my Mind.” It was very simple, and it was very repetitive. It wasn’t that great. It wasn’t that great, but at the time I thought like, “Wow, this is the best! I wrote a song and it’s so good, and I did it by myself!” 

But I think when I was 13 and I woke up at one in the morning with this idea in my head about the first song that I always refer to ... . It’s called “Different,” and it’s off my first album. It really touches on, do you feel differently because you’re different and how that feels when you are in a situation where you’re looked at as other. It explores that feeling but also the hope and the realization that it’s OK to be different because that’s what makes us all unique and you are not alone if you do feel that way. You’re allowed to shine, and no one has the right to judge because we’re all undefined. It’s just that kind of exploration and acknowledgement of those feelings but also celebration of differences.

Pier Carlo: Wow. At 13, that’s a pretty profound thing to write.

Precious: [She laughs.] Thanks.

Pier Carlo: Some of your recent songs are sung in Spanish. Do you write with equal ease in both Spanish in English?

Precious: I can write in both languages, but I feel like it helps me to have someone that has a little more ... . Because I’m fluent in both but I’m also bilingual and I speak a lot more in English, so I think sometimes for the translation, I have to really cross-reference and have someone look at it just to make sure, “Hey, this sounds OK; this makes sense.” Because there may be a word that I use in English that I don’t necessarily know the word for in Spanish because I’ve never had to use that word before in Spanish, I think it helps to have somebody else to look it over if I do write something in Spanish. But I have written a couple tunes on my own. 

The first song of the new era was “Sin Preguntar.” That was written by the songwriter Raquel, and she is fantastic. That was basically like, “All right, what is your vision? What do you want to talk about?” And then she wrote it, and I was like, “Absolutely 100% perfect.”

And then “Melanin Queen” was me. That was half-English and half-Spanish. It was an idea I’d been working on for a while, and I’m so happy that it’s out in the world now. Then the next one that’s coming out is also written by Raquel, but they’re all based around what did I want to see as far as what is my vision and what do I represent as an artist and what direction do I want to go in. They’re very collaborative.

I used to be like, “I want to do everything myself. I want to write, I want to play, I want to do all the things. Like Ed Sheeran. I want to have my Loop station and do all of this by myself.” But I’ve come to realize that it’s so much more fun and meaningful when I can collaborate with other people to create. It really enhances not only the experience but also the projects. And it’s so much fun.

Pier Carlo: I want to go back to talking about RAMPD. Your first official position with them was as vice president, and now you’re president. Tell me about that leadership responsibility. Are you enjoying it?

Precious: I love it. I talked about how RAMPD, when I initially joined it, filled the void that I didn’t know needed filling. I love volunteering and giving my time, but to be able to do this with something that really resonates with me and is really part of my career and part of my overall journey, it really meant a lot to me to be able to invest in it that way. It just felt like a natural progression, and I’m really excited to be at the helm of what Lachi started and to keep overseeing the growth and moving forward in that regard too. Because like I have started saying, if I’m successful, then my community’s successful. That means I can not only elevate myself through RAMPD but elevate RAMPD through my own career as well. It’s a give-and-take.

Pier Carlo: You’ve probably met by now with so many industry executives and professionals as well as musical artists with all kinds of disabilities. I’m curious about if you yourself have learned a couple striking things you might not have known before this experience.

Precious: I’ve just learned and continue to recognize that there are so many gaps in the industry, and there’s a lot more barriers than I realized that aren’t just my own barriers as a blind person. There are Deaf artists who also face barriers and have different accommodations, people with neurodivergence, people with chronic illnesses. There are different accommodations, all over the gamut, that aren’t just related to what I’m used to advocating for. 

So really understanding all of the different needs and access needs across the board has really been something that I’ve learned and have been able to incorporate when I advocate for access needs in this capacity. It’s really opened my mind and my heart to all the different lived experiences of people with disabilities and specifically music professionals with disabilities so that I can better advocate for all of us in the leadership capacity that I am fortunate enough to be in.

Pier Carlo: Other than going to to find and hire music professionals with disabilities, are there other no-brainer ways in which the recording industry could do better to accommodate and encourage blind musicians?

Precious: Absolutely. There are a lot of just really low-hanging fruit that the industry could incorporate in social-media marketing and posts using camel case hashtags, which is capitalizing the first letter of every word so that screen readers don’t read it as a jumbled mess. Image descriptions. Making sure that whatever pictures are posted have an ID: “This picture shows X, Y, Z, woman standing, smiling with a trophy,” or whatever details might be on a flyer that’s posted just in the caption so that those of us who can’t see the image know what the image is. There’s also alt text where that can go as well. It’s called alternative text, and image descriptions can also be put in that box. There’s various ways to do it on different social medias, but it’s best practice to put it in the caption because then it’s fully visible and fully accessible.

Audio description at events or for different shows and things. Self-description. Now that’s one that’s really simple that anyone can do when you’re on a panel or when you’re at an award show: “Hi, my name is so-and-so, and today I’m wearing blah, blah, blah, blah.” For example, I would say, “I’m Precious Perez. I am a blind Latina woman with box braids.” It doesn’t have to be complicated. It shouldn’t be this really long-winded description but just something that gives us insight into your outfit or what matters to you and a little bit of personality. It’s very simple. It doesn’t have to be more than 10 words, but it’s something that can really help engage blind musicians or audience members.

Those are specifically for blind musicians, but then we think of ASL interpreting front and center, making sure that there’s captions available, and also having ramps implemented on stages and making sure they are accessible as far as venues go. There’s a lot of small things that can be done to ensure that accessibility is universally integrated and not an afterthought.

Pier Carlo: What about in your experiences in the recording studio and filming a video? What’s most helpful in those settings?

Precious: In every recording studio I’ve been in and in every situation, I’ve been able to really say, “I need a little more description on this.” Everyone pretty much knew to describe like, “OK, we’re going to the right, turn to your right, and this is where the booth is.” Or, “I’m going to put this behind you, and the microphone is right in front of you, and if you reach backwards, you’ll feel where you can put your headphones.” So just being very open. 

My solution is to just be open. I am very open about my disability. I’m very open about who I am and what I need. I always tell people, “Just ask. Ask if you don’t know. Because I will have no issue telling you if I need more information or if I need you to do something differently.”

Pier Carlo: So you don’t get answer fatigue?

Precious: No, not in those situations. I think that comes more with the general public. [She laughs.]

Pier Carlo: Oh, I see.

Precious: I can get overwhelmed, like anyone I’m sure with a disability. We’re human, so there’s going to be days where we just want to do the thing we’re trying to do and don’t want to deal with people being like, “This way, that way,” and put their hands on you and do all this and answering questions. I do my best to try and be as patient and as open as I can because I know that most of that comes from ignorance and ignorance. The way that it happens is not necessarily by choice or somebody’s fault. They’ve just never been exposed to people with disabilities or they just genuinely have no idea. But there has to be a balance, right? Because we can’t be on all the time.

Whenever I start feeling myself getting overwhelmed, I’ll just find some way to decompress. Really listening to my own body and my own mind and what I need really helps me to balance all of that, because it can be exhausting and it is a lot. Especially as a disabled artist that is doing everything on my own for myself. And so I deal with that sometimes where I’m like, “Man, I really just don’t want to do this today.” But then I just take a deep breath and I remember that this is what I’ve always wanted. And so we’re going to get up and we’re going to do it, and then I’ll sleep for 10 hours afterwards and it’ll be great! [She giggles.]

Pier Carlo: Let’s say there’s a sighted music technician who’s reading this interview who’s about to work with a blind musician. What advice would you give this person?

Precious: I would tell this person to open the conversation and ask what that person that they’re working with needs. There’s this whole thing where people are like, “Well, you as this particular sect of person, what would you advise?” And there is a difference between me and the next blind person. We’re all different, as everybody is. Bearing that in mind, it’s really important to make sure that you are asking the person that you’re working with if they have anything specific to them that they need. 

Make sure that the space that you’re working in is not super-trip-hazardous. If it’s complicated for you to get around, chances are it’s going to be worse off for us to navigate. So making sure that that space is clear, open, accessible, that you’re able to direct them and tell them where things are. And keeping that line of communication open is I think the most important thing because everyone has similar needs but then also might have slightly different ones.

Pier Carlo: And then conversely, your advice to a blind musician who’s about to enter a studio where she might be the only blind person and who also might not be as confident as you, let’s say. What advice would you have for her?

Precious: I would tell her to take a deep breath and to not be afraid to communicate her needs and to say if something isn’t working with this person. It’s really important in these situations and in these spaces to be able to feel comfortable while working and to be able to be as successful as you want to be. So really feeling comfortable communicating. Even if it’s a little scary, it’s important and it’s necessary. Just step by step, one step at a time, one moment at a time. Because I know we can tend to get ahead of ourselves sometimes and try to overthink and overprepare, but it’s also important to slow down.

Pier Carlo: I’m going to stick with the advice line of questioning. I want to take you back to 13 -year-old Precious when she’d written that first song that she knew was good. Knowing what you do now, what do you wish you could whisper in her ear?

Precious: It’s going to work out. And keep going. Because I don’t think I knew back then that I truly would be successful in this field. I wanted to be, but I don’t know that I believed I would be. I don’t know that I had that confidence and back then I didn’t have anything to show for that to prove that yes, I wouldn’t be just another musician or just another blind cover artist.

October 31, 2023