By Aurelio Morel
Artists are often asked about that one key moment when they knew they wanted to pursue music as a career. For Charlotte-based Leydy Bonilla, that epiphany came at the age of 13 when she finally mustered up enough courage to sing in a local talent show in her hometown of Nagua, in the Dominican Republic. From there, this tan-skinned Dominican girl with a radiant smile was hooked.
Bonilla was born in Nagua, but when she was 16 her family relocated to the Bronx, in New York City, where she took her senior year in high school. Initially, the language barrier was tough for Bonilla. But with the help of family, friends, and ESL classes, she was able to overcome it. “My favorite subject was math because it was universal,” Bonilla jokes.
While attending school, she performed in venues throughout the city, working all the while on her debut production. After graduating in 1997, she began honing her craft at a local music school and working part-time at a clothing store. With her money, she would help finance her production and pay for dance lessons, too. Her father, Carlos, began an independent label, where he packaged and distributed his daughter’s 1997 debut Nada Sin Ti, an eclectic mix of tropical Latin rhythms. “My father has always been the driving force behind my career,” says Bonilla. With his help, Bonilla began creating a local buzz. It would be several more years before she finally got her big break, though. After a performance at a local club, she was discovered by a record producer for a label based in Spain and officially started her professional career.
Two records, one son, a marriage, and 13 years later, Bonilla is now balancing two careers; that of a family woman and that of an entertainer. “It’s been tough balancing out both roles, but I wouldn’t change it for anything in the world; I love being a family woman,” says Bonilla. A dedicated fitness guru, her days usually begin at 6 a.m. with a 5-mile run accompanied by friends. From there, she takes her 7-year-old son to school while her husband goes to work. After a healthy breakfast, she unwinds for a while before doing a 2-hour rehearsal. “I do my rehearsals as if they were the real show, complete with singing and choreography,” she says, adding that this routine has been an integral part of her success and physical fitness.
A singer of the male-dominated bachata genre, Bonilla always felt she had to work twice as hard to get her due respect. “Many times I was dismissed as a gimmick trying to sell sex appeal, which is why I had to work hard to change that perception,” she says.
Considered a staple of Dominican heritage, bachata originated in the rural areas of the island-country in the 1970s. Eventually the style would achieve regional popularity in the United States and throughout Latin America during the 1990s, until the emergence of urban bachata. Popularized at the turn of the millennium, this hybrid subgenre combined English lyrics and a softer singing style with elements of hip hop and R&B, eventually creating a global phenomenon. Today urban bachata artists such as Prince Royce and Romeo Santos are selling records in the millions.
But Bonilla couldn’t cash in then. She recalls the major falling out she had with her record label over which direction to take on her second record with them, entitled Buenos Dias Mi Amor. After the relative success of her Spanish-label debut, Estoy Enamorada, which sold 50,000 units, the label wanted to enhance her sexuality for the second production. But Bonilla vehemently rejected the idea. This caused internal strife between label and artist on what would be her last complete production to date.
“They wanted to go in a certain direction but I rejected it because I wanted to be judged based on my musical merits,” says Bonilla. With the exception of her bachata rendition of Mariah Carey’s “My All,” which she chose, Bonilla dismisses most of the material, saying it was pretty much forced on her.
After Buenos Dias Mi Amor failed to make significant buzz, a disillusioned Bonilla returned home to live with her parents, now living in Charlotte. “I just needed a break from the industry,” says Bonilla. This was the first and only time she seriously considered giving up music to pursue other endeavors. But after meeting her future husband, she once again regained her passion for music. A fellow musician, he encouraged her not to give up. “God has a great way of working, when I was at my lowest point he sent me someone to pick me up,” says Bonilla. A year after the birth of her son, Bonilla returned to the stage and felt as if she never left.
Since then she has released two singles. One is a Spanglish version of Rihanna’s “Unfaithful,” and the other, “Pienso en Ti,” is a song written for her by renowned bachata composer Daniel Moncion (who has also written for the likes of Frank Reyes and Yoskar Sarante, amongst others). Having recorded a video clip for the latter, Bonilla incorporated her own unique choreography into the video. “The video was a blast, you don’t usually see choreography in bachata videos, which is why I wanted to do something uncommon,” she says.
These days Bonilla is working on her first cross-over production, a fusion of R&B and dance music. “With this record I hope to show a different side of me and display my versatility,” Bonilla says. She also stays busy by performing regularly and by teaching voice lessons in her spare time.
On this day, Bonilla is recording a video for YouTube, a female version of “When I Was Your Man,” the popular Bruno Mars song. Wearing an all black ensemble, she meticulously practices her notes on the piano, trying to find the perfect key. A self-described perfectionist, it is not uncommon for one of these sessions to take several hours. Her biggest fear is complacency, which is why she is always striving to continue working hard. “One of my favorite quotes is that the saddest thing in life is wasted talent, which is why I try to make the most of mine,” she says.
Bonilla praised many of the emerging bachata acts, particularly Leslie Grace, for being one of the few women of prominence in the genre. As for her opinion on the future of the genre, she said that the name of her upcoming single best sums up her sentiments. Bonilla, a fervent supporter of female empowerment, believes that women will begin to become the leaders of the genre soon. “A Woman’s Universe,” she says, “is more than just the name of my next single; it represents my core belief that women will continue to break barriers and navigate uncharted territories.”
1. Favorite color — Purple
2. Favorite singers — Milly Quezada, Celine Dion, Alicia Keys, Selena, Rocia Durcal, Maridalia Hernandez.
3. Favorite food — Pasta
4. Favorite movie — Titanic
5. Other interests — Fashion, shopping, cooking, spending time with family.
6. Favorite Book — All You Need To Know About the Music Industry