‘When you’re an upcoming artist, it’s like you’re running for president – you’ve got to kiss all the babies, and you’ve got to shake all the hands’
It was a strange and very 21st-century series of events that led me to discover Kali Uchis. Willow Smith was doing a live Periscope broadcast, reading extracts from a poorly written self-help book with a tone of deep profundity, while a live snake curled its way languidly around her neck. In the background, an early version of “Ridin Round” was playing – I turned the volume up to full.
The song, with a carnival-like discordance that lies somewhere between soul, doo-wop and R&B, wraps itself around Uchis’ hyper-feminine delivery. “Baby understand, I don’t need a man,” she sings sweetly, her voice sinking through the track like a syrup-coated poisoned dart. “Fuck me over, I’ll fuck you worse then take off to Japan.”
The track appeared on her debut studio project Por Vida, a sophisticated nine-song collection of soulful, low-rider jams that rattle and shake with Uchis’ distinctive, don’t-fuck-with-me swag. Peppered throughout the album are musical offerings from Tyler, The Creator, Kaytranada, and BADBADNOTGOOD – but Uchis is far more than a collaborator or muse for her male peers.
Since then, the Colombian-born, East Coast-based musician has directed a ridiculously fun video for an updated version of the song (below), directed a neon-sheened, stylish visual for “Loner” (premiered on Dazed), begun working on a new album, and found herself on a multitude of year-end lists. Her incredibly high Google search count, for instance, earned her a place on Google Play Music’s Ones to Watch for 2016.
Amid all this hype, it takes a few attempts to get Uchis on the phone. She’s in LA recording the aforementioned LP, and keeps accidentally overbooking herself. When I do eventually get hold of her, the reason she gives for the earlier cancellation is beautifully unapologetic: “I just had to finish the song.”
Your Twitter bio describes you as a “dislikeable Colombian girl’. There’s often an expectation that musicians, particularly female musicians, should be ‘likeable’. Is your bio a reaction to that expectation?
Kali Uchis: Yeah, it is actually. I’ve never been pressed to be friends with everyone, or be popular, even in school – I've always done my own thing. When you’re an upcoming artist, it's almost like you're running for president – you've got to kiss all the babies, and you've got to shake all the hands. You’re expected to kiss everyone’s ass and expect everyone to co-sign you and do you favours and stuff, and that’s the complete opposite of my personality.
That definitely comes across in your lyrics as well.
Kali Uchis: All the songs are just autobiographical, so it just comes from experiences I was going through and ways that I was feeling, but I feel like at the end of the day, if you make really good music, hopefully your album will speak for itself. I won’t have to go through all the other stuff that other upcoming artists feel like they have to do. Take a billion pictures in the studio like, ‘I’m working with this producer, I’m working with that producer, I’m here and I’m there and I’m... whatever.’ It feels like it’s more about being a popularity contest than it is about music, and I just really want my project to speak for itself.
What would you say is the biggest misconception that people have about you?
Kali Uchis: Back in the day, I used to get really upset when people used to say that I didn’t really make all my own things – like my art, or my videos or whatever. I work really hard on everything, so it used to upset me when people would try to discredit me, or say that I wouldn’t have what I had without this person or that person.
As an artist, you have to work hard for things that you can’t really hold in your hand. I work not for money but for my career, to expand myself as an artist. Every video I make, it’s not making me any money, it’s just because I want to expand. When you’re an artist, you’re working literally for the sole purpose of art, and when people discredit you, it’s probably the most disrespectful thing you can do.
Kali Uchis: And, not to make it a feminist thing, but it very much is about the fact that it’s hard for people to wrap their heads around. People would rather believe that a woman has things handed to her, or that a woman has someone else doing it for her. But if she was a man, no one would question it.
Definitely. On the topic of misconceptions, you once said that no one really represents Colombia besides Shakira.
Kali Uchis: My whole life, the minute that I introduce myself as Colombian, even before I was a singer, people’s automatic response was either something related to cocaine or coffee. Colombia hasn’t really received the credit it deserves for its artistry. There’s so much going on there, but people would rather focus on the negative. So I guess Shakira was the last person to really come from Colombia that was able to make such a huge impact on culture, and show where she’s from in a positive way.
How does that tie in with the American aspect of your identity?
Kali Uchis: The culture is entirely different. People work really, really hard in Colombia for every little thing that they have. There are people on bicycles with washing machines on the back of their bicycles, there are people that only have the upper half of their bodies and they’re still rolling around on carts trying to splash some water on a car so they can wash the windshield. People out here in LA have a really high sense of entitlement, and feel like they deserve everything immediately. Their Instagram is their resum, and it’s a lot more superficial – as you can imagine.
Having witnessed that extreme poverty, does that make you hyper-sensitive to entitled attitudes?
Kali Uchis: Yeah it was definitely a culture shock for me. I remember the first couple of times where I was at a famous musician’s show, and I was backstage and I saw all of the food that no-one was eating that they just threw away afterwards, and I was just like, ‘Wow’. As I continue to be in the music industry, I see so many label heads or A&Rs having all these lunches and billing it on their company cards, and having endless amounts of sushi and throwing it all out afterwards. Excess is everywhere.
I think a lot of people take the little things for granted like, the food that they’re throwing out, or even the ability they have to help someone, put a smile on someone’s face. Even after your big fancy meeting and you have all your fancy food, why don’t you just put it into a box and give it to a homeless person outside? There are little things that people often don’t think about.