Russ Martinez, a 34-year-old gay man, remembers the first time he performed before thousands. At 16, he sang to an audience of 20,000 at the 2003 National Catholic Youth Conference (NCYC) in Reliant Stadium.
To perform at NCYC, Martinez had to go through a series of auditions that involved singing, acting, and dancing. He thought he was only a singer before the audition, but after getting the chance to do more, he realized he could be the whole show.
“Hearing the crowd and the applause was inspirational,” he recalls. “The event was a pivotal moment in my life. I understood then that this is really what I want to do.” Entertainment, rather than just singing, became his goal.
Martinez has since gone on to perform at several major events. In June, he covered Melba Moore’s song “Lift Every Voice and Sing” at Pride Houston’s 2020 It Started With a Riot virtual rally that was held to address police brutality and systemic racism, which disproportionately affects Black, Brown, and queer people. He also recently participated in the Houston Chronicle’s Chron Concerts series of bi-weekly, at-home performances the local newspaper organized to highlight talent and celebrate Pride Month.
Martinez describes himself as a singer-songwriter, pianist, keyboard instructor, vocal coach, and talk-show host. His success comes after decades of hard work and humble beginnings.
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Born in Fort Hood, Texas, and raised near southeast Houston, he learned how to sing at age 10 in the St. Luke the Evangelist Catholic Church choir. He continued to hone his vocal skills in the J. Frank Dobie High School choir before entering the entertainment scene in 2014.
Martinez became the lead singer of The Soul Creatures in 2014. A month after joining the local funk band, he got the chance to perform onstage at AvantGarden in Montrose. The show reignited his love of performing and his desire to do more than just sing. Ultimately, he decided to pursue other entertainment opportunities such as emceeing.
In 2016, he served as an emcee at Darwin’s Pub. Martinez remembers their Damn Good Fridays weekly series, when local bands would come perform. He also remembers having to collect information on the bands by speaking with them before the show. Although emceeing proved challenging, he says his singing skills and comedic timing prepared the crowd for the bands’ performances, and even attracted patrons who came just to see him emcee.
“I felt at home onstage, so those things inspired me to start my own show,” he says.
Around the same time, he started an online talk show called The Emcee Russ Show and incorporated his personality and cultural background into his hosting. Although he was inspired by mainstream hosts like Ellen DeGeneres, Jimmy Fallon, and Wayne Brady, Martinez wanted to put a unique twist on his talk show.
The Emcee Russ Show, which can be viewed on Martinez’s website and YouTube page, features local musicians, entrepreneurs, and many of Martinez’s friends. His interviewees enjoy both the uncensored space the show provides and the chance to promote their projects and true selves. Audiences get to know his guests’ interests beyond their craft through card games, trivia questions, and more.
“When it comes to entertaining and music, my goal is to have everyone who sees me feel stronger about who they are.”
“I feel like my show is a movement, and I enjoy its uncensored aspect; people can fully be themselves on that show,” he says. “I think when people experience that human side of my guests, it’s easier for them to invest in those guests, and in me.”
Martinez just finished the third season of his talk show and intends to produce more in the years to come. He also plans to continue his singing career. “Singing is an extension of who I already am,” he notes. “[When I’m singing], I am fully expressing myself. Singing is always a new opportunity to re-express and reinvent myself.”
He says he’s not bound to any specific music genre, but he plans to debut a pop album called Pop-Up Party that will feature Latino music—a throwback to his Afro-Latino roots.
His solo album is inspired by ’90s to early-2000s pop divas and singers like Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey, Cynthia Erivo, Alicia Keys, Stevie Wonder, and more. There are currently 13 songs on his album, all of which he single-handedly wrote and produced. Two songs will feature his friends DJ SirQueen (an LGBTQ DJ in Kansas City, Missouri) and Houston rapper D-Fi Logic. These performers are key to the album, since his songs are inspired by such friends and highlight how his support group has bettered him, both as a person and an artist. The songs also emphasize themes of self-love and self-empowerment, which resonates with Martinez.
“The album is about rediscovering that you are beautiful, and that you can always be yourself. That has been my theme—being myself, unapologetically LGBTQ, and a queer person of color. The highest level of expression for me has been through my songwriting.”
Due to COVID-19, which has forced most artists to move their performances online, most of Martinez’s shows now occur through a music app called Smule, where users can sing karaoke, solos, covers, and originals.
The app also gives him the chance to invite people to live jams, as well as speak and connect with others.
Although the pandemic has forced him to think outside the box, he says the effort is worth it because he can continue to make audiences feel good while viewing his performances. To watch and become a part of his shows, visit his Smule account, EmceeRuss, every Wednesday at 7 p.m.
“When it comes to entertaining and music,” Martinez concludes, “my goal is [to have everyone] who sees me feel stronger about who they are.”
To learn more about Martinez’s work, visit www.emceeruss.com.
This article appears in the August 2020 edition of OutSmart magazine.