X Factor's Astro on 'Getting to Rihanna’s Level or Higher,' the Aggravation of Being Seen as Cocky

Let’s get one thing straight: The X Factor‘s pint-sized rapper Astro wants you to know he’s confident, not cocky. TVLine caught up with the 14-year-old contestant to get the low-down on how he writes lyrics, why he refused to participate in Boot Camp choreography, and what it’s like to perform 10 feet in front of Rihanna.

TVLINE So let’s talk about your whole X Factor journey from beginning to end, starting with your audition to the original track “Stop Looking at My Mom.” Watching it, it wasn’t initially clear you were doing a little bit of shtick for Simon — “Yo, yo, yo, yo, Simon! Yo, I see you, man. What is your problem? Are you serious?” — and I wonder, did you have any worry that while you were throwing a little attitude his way, he’d say, “Okay kid, get off the stage,” before you had a chance to perform?
Obviously everything I did, I did for a reason so, you know, I wasn’t worried about things like that. Things like that wouldn’t affect me. It’s the past, and it is what it is, it was what it was, and I’m focused on the now.

TVLINE I understand you’re focused on the now, and that’s great, but we still have to talk about your audition. As a viewer, the first thing that came to mind was, “Who is this kid being brash up there?” We don’t usually see that kind of behavior at a serious audition.
I mean, obviously I just wanted to shock people, because everybody was doing the same old “Hi, my name is.” Then they’d sing and leave. I wanted to do something different. And I believe I did that with the performance of “Stop Looking at My Mom.”

TVLINE I’m curious: When did you write that song? Was it specifically for the audition, or was it something you’d performed in the past?
I wrote that song like three years before.

TVLINE | I know that during the course of the show, you did mostly original lyrics, but in terms of a show like X Factor, or Idol, or The Voice, we generally don’t see people performing their own material. Were you concerned that first time on the stage, “How are they going to respond to an original?” Or even, “How will they respond to rap?”
I wasn’t the only one that auditioned with an original song for The X Factor, but you know, I wasn’t nervous at all. It’s just a “take it or leave it” type of situation for me. And I just felt like hip-hop is as good as any other genre, so when I went on stage, I was just ready, ready for war.

TVLINE We also saw you in Boot Camp at one point saying something along the lines of, “I don’t do choreographed dancing.” At that point, you’re an unsigned artist; you’re very early on in the process. Did you worry how that was going to come off to the judges and to the production, that you weren’t willing to participate in the same choreography every other contestant was being asked to do?
C’mon man, to be honest it’s kind of like, I had a mental image, and I’m a hip-hop artist, and the dances they were doing were crazy, all over the place, like video-shoot dancing. That wasn’t me. I wasn’t going to do it because I had to make sure my reputation wasn’t cheapened, and I’m held responsible to represent hip-hop as a young artist right now. So I didn’t want to do anything that might mess up the way people view me. I just stood my ground.

TVLINE Talk about a little bit about the Judges’ Houses round, where you were performing in front of Rihanna. I’d imagine that would be a pretty intense experience for most people your age, but you seemed pretty relaxed. Did you know Rihanna was going to be there ahead of time? And what was your first thought you realized you’d be performing 10 feet away from Rihanna and L.A. Reid?
I had a feeling there was going to be Rihanna or Beyoncé or somebody big, because of L.A.’s [connections]. But I’m not the type to be starstruck because I feel like I can get to Rihanna’s level or even higher if I work hard. Basically when I was performing in front of Rihanna, I was just thinking, “Oh man, this is crazy. This is stuff that people at home only dream of.” I went out there and had fun, and it got me to the live show.

TVLINE | Once you got to the live shows, you were cranking out a new song and new lyrics every week. How quick are you as a writer? What’s your writing process?
It depends on what mood I’m in. If I’m extra happy or excited, it’ll take me an hour or two to write a song. Or, if I’m really sad or something, it will take me about a day. But I have a specific way of writing; I just listen to the beat. I think about what I’m going to write over the beat. You know, basically a subject to write about, like a theme each week on X Factor.

TVLINE We’ve got to talk about your night in the bottom two with Stacy Francis, which I’m sure you’ve been asked about a lot. I’m just wondering, when you came out on stage and essentially said, “I don’t really know if I should perform a save-me song,” what was going on in your mind? Were you thinking, “I genuinely don’t know if I should perform this because the judges have probably already made up their minds on who to send home.” Or were you thinking, “I’m kind of annoyed, I don’t want to perform right now because I don’t deserve to be in jeopardy”?
Something happened the day before that I can’t talk about — something behind the scenes — and I thought that was X Factor‘s way of punishing me. But to be honest, that’s the past. I apologized to Team Astro and the Astronauts and hip-hop; what more could I do? I made a mistake and that’s the past, so I really don’t want to speak about that.

TVLINE Okay, but it is actually relevant if we’re talking about your X Factor run. I know when I’d interviewed Stacy…
That’s kind of negative energy. I can’t talk about it really.

TVLINE Fair enough. But I do think it’s interesting that on shows like X Factor, where the public has to pick up the phone and vote, talent is part of the process, but so is likability. And I think that there’s a difference between how a hip-hop artist might present himself — a little bit of swagger, a little bit of confidence, a little bit of an “I don’t care attitude” — and how an X Factor contestant might be expected to act in order to win the public vote. Do they smile a lot, are they perky and upbeat? How did you deal with those two different ways of presenting a public persona?
It’s really not an “I don’t care” attitude; people get confused. It’s a competitive sport. Maybe it’s just because I’m a hip-hop artist, but I find it funny how everybody focuses on how I’m cocky. But they don’t pay attention to what I’m actually saying each week. I’m doing these positive songs, and people are talking like “Oh he’s cocky, he’s cocky.” You know, I’m coming on there writing my own lyrics, and everything I did on that show was positive. It’s aggravating, and it’s not cockiness, it’s confidence. People are shocked when you believe in yourself, and I don’t understand it. It’s a competition for $5 million.

TVLINE Right. But when you’re interacting with Steve or the judges, or doing behind-the-scenes packages, I think audiences have come to expect big smiles and a sense of fun —  especially from 14-year-old contestants.
Well honestly man, I got like [180,000] followers on Twitter, and not to sound cocky, but that’s the most followers out of all of the contestants on The X Factor, still to this day. So when people are saying I’m not smiling, it makes no sense. I’m not doing this on purpose to be like a jerk or anything, but that’s not what I do. When I get a good comment on one song, I didn’t win $5 million. When I win the $5 million, then I’ll smile like that or whatever you want me to, but till then I’m not a Disney Channel kid. I’m from Brooklyn, New York. I’m a hip-hop artist. That’s just that. You’re going to have to accept me or just not be a fan, I guess.

TVLINE So how do you now navigate the next step of your career? You have to make the transition from contestant on a reality show to the actual hip-hop scene. Do you have any worries about being accepted in the hip-hop community coming off of The X Factor?
I’ve been writing way before X Factor and I’ve been doing shows before X Factor. And everything I did on this show was me being me. Same way I acted in the show is the same way I act now as an artist. Like I said, I’ve been grinding for like five years before this show, and now I can release music, release videos, and do much more. I’m glad I was able to be a part of The X Factor. The learning experience was great and all, but it’s not the end of the world for me; people will definitely be seeing more of me in the near future.

To get all of my X Factor recaps and interviews, follow me on Twitter @MichaelSlezakTV!