Interview with Kali Uchis, queen of Latin American R’n’B

Article publié le 12 novembre 2021

Interview by Naomi Clément taken from Antidote’s « Karma » Issue (Winter 2021-2022). Photographer: Lee Wei Swee. Stylist: Yann Weber. Hair: Malcolm Robinson. Make-up: Ivan Nunez. Nail artist: Lila Robles. Fashion coordinator: Nikita Radelet. Production: Richard Knickerbocker, Malcolm Duncan & Fabien Colas @ Virgin Soil.


In a matter of just a few years, Colombian American artist Kali Uchis has established herself as one of the most fascinating artists of her generation. How? Through bewitching music that perfectly combines heritage and modernity while transcending cultural barriers.

In 2012, Kali Uchis left her family home to live out of her Subaru Forester. She was 17 years old, worked several odd jobs, and dreamt of becoming an artist. It is during this time of great uncertainty that she developed Drunken Babble (2012), her first mixtape that revealed her singular R’n’B sound, which is as retro as it is languid. Less than a decade after her humble beginnings, Karly-Marina Loaiza (her name at birth) has become one of the most scrutinized American singers of today. Endorsed by Snoop Dogg, Lana Del Rey, Diplo, and Tyler, The Creator, who was featured on her first album Isolation (2018), she was propelled into the spotlight in 2020 with Sin Miedo (del Amor y Otros Demonios), a second album that pays tribute to her Colombian roots. Driven by the bewitching track “telepatía,” this album, which moves between soul, reggaeton, pop, and bolero has broken many records, making Kali Uchis the first woman in 10 years to reach the top of the “Hot Latin Songs” chart. A recognition owed to years of hard work and “good karma”, according to the artist, who is currently preparing her third album.
ANTIDOTE: You’ve been very successful over the last few months: your second album Sin Miedo (del Amor y Otros Demonios) was a phenomenal success, and you won a Grammy Award for Best Dance Recording for your collaboration with Kaytranada on the track “10%”… How do you feel about all this?
KALI UCHIS: I am extremely happy and also very proud! All these awards have really given me motivation, and I can’t wait to see what next year will bring. I am also thrilled that Antidote gave me the opportunity to be a cover girl for this issue. So, everything is going great [laughts]!
Kali Uchis: Sweater and skirt, Fendi.
To me, the success that you are encountering today is due to the fact that you really managed to create a singular musical aesthetic. There is an immediately recognizable “Kali Uchis sound” through which you have merged all your influences that stem from your dual American-Colombian background…
It’s true that I grew up with a lot of different influences and therefore there are an infinite number of genres that inspire me. On the one hand, there were artists like N.E.R.D, Missy Elliott, and Aaliyah, and on the other hand a lot of Colombian music, with bolero and perreo songs… That’s why it was very important for me to make a second album in Spanish, my second language, that combined all these musical styles.
Were you afraid of what reaction your fans or your label would have when you made this decision?
No, because I don’t make music for others. I started releasing songs because it was something I liked to do for myself, in the same way I make little videos, collages, photographs, short films or design clothes… When I was younger, I wanted to be an artist in the broadest sense, but I never made music with the goal of becoming a superstar. So, the fact that I never put pressure on myself to be famous allowed me to make that choice without calling it into question. When I released Isolation in 2018, I thought, “This is my first album and through it I want to show that I can work with a lot of different artists.” But with Sin Miedo, I felt like I didn’t have to prove anything to anyone. I thought, “Okay, I already released my first album, I just want to do what I love now, and it has to come from the heart.” I didn’t care how it was received. That said, my label made it clear that I would have to fend for myself if I decided to release an album in Spanish, that I would have no budget for marketing, music videos… so it was discouraging, it’s true. But still, I was never afraid. I composed Sin Miedo by trusting my intuition and that’s why I’m so proud of the success it had. Artists should always follow their instincts and never compromise themselves because of a budget. In my opinion, art should never be created with the goal of being sold or pleasing a majority of people. You should never make music for that reason.

“I was never the popular girl at school, I had a hard time being accepted by my family… Most of the time, my music is about that: about accepting yourself as you are, even when you feel marginal.”

What were you thinking about throughout the process of composing Sin Miedo?
The idea for this project was twofold: on the one hand, to show how I had evolved as a singer since Isolation; and on the other, to pay homage to all the Colombian music that influenced me growing up, which I was just talking about. So, I played more with my voice and I also integrated a lot more reggaeton, perreo, bolero, and Latin pop, a genre I listened to a lot when I was younger. I wanted people to be proud of Latinx culture, while showing that it’s not just about reggaeton – the most popular musical style on the radio.
Hence the music video for “telepatía,” shot in the city of Pereira, Colombia, where your father grew up?
Exactly. I have the feeling that people are not very proud of their barrio [neighborhood, editor’s note], that there is a lot of shame and embarrassment about it. As for me, I come from a modest, middle-class family that has always claimed its origins and culture. I wanted to share this approach and make the girls who still live in these areas feel proud. When I go back to Pereira, where I spent a lot of time, the locals ask me, “Oh my God, are you from here?” And I see that it gives them hope, that they are happy to see that a person who wandered the same streets as them has become one of the most powerful Colombian women in the world. To make people understand that they can feel glamorous, beautiful, and strong walking around their own neighborhood was the primary motivation for the video for “telepatía” and for the entire album.
I feel like every video for Sin Miedo has a specific purpose.
It’s true. The video for “la luz (Fín)” emphasizes my bisexuality, for example. I wanted to show that there is not one way to label me. The one for “Aquí Yo Mando” highlights female power. What connects all the videos for Sin Miedo is the notion of pride and empowerment, which I wanted to convey to my fans. My fanbase is made up of people from all walks of life who have always felt like outsiders, like me. I was never the popular girl at school, I had a hard time being accepted by my family… Most of the time, my music is about that: about accepting yourself as you are, even when you feel marginal.
Kali Uchis: Jacket and shoes, Rick Owens.
The track “telepatía,” one of Sin Miedo’s biggest hits, deals with the theme of spirituality. Does it  occupy an important place in your life?
I discovered spirituality at a young age, the day I realized that my body and my mind were two separate entities. Once you understand that and how important it is to nurture both, it becomes easier to navigate the river of life and connect to all facets of your personality. People tend to define themselves based on predefined categories, like, “Am I a skater? A cheerleader? Latinx?” However, when you realize that these classifications have been put in place by society, you gain a much better understanding of the multidimensional nature of your personality. The fact that you are of this or that skin color, or that your personality is one way or another, doesn’t mean that you have to play a specific kind of music, or that you have to dress in a particular way… My relationship to spirituality has given me the freedom to express myself the way I want to. That’s why I’ve never limited myself in my music, whether in terms of gender, language, style… It’s allowed me to continually evolve without ever feeling obliged to be a one-dimensional being. We are multidimensional beings; we have to accept that.
Is music a form of energy for you?
Absolutely! And in my opinion, if artists are only guided by their desire to succeed or by how they will sell their music, this energy can’t circulate and affect people. I don’t believe in things that are too mechanical or planned. To me, art is a spiritual transaction. And when I make music, there is always a very sincere intention behind it. I made “telepatía” as a tribute to the Latin pop I listened to when I was younger; it really came from the heart. No one expected it to become such a strong single, so no one wanted to bet money on it to make a video or increase its chances of getting radio airplay. When it started to grow on its own, everyone was very surprised, because this kind of phenomenon doesn’t even happen to mainstream artists who work with limitless budgets! The single climbed to the top of the charts by itself and broke records without a music video [a video was shot afterwards though, editor’s note]. I think the reason it spoke to so many people is that I really connected with God when I made it. I try to do that with all my songs, but I’m only human, so things can’t always be perfect [laughs].
You’ve explained that the success of “telepatía” was due to “good karma.” Do you believe in this idea?
Yes, a lot. And I think karma can take many different forms. There is some that we inherit from our ancestors, for example; there is good karma and bad karma. People think about bad karma most of the time, and say things like, “Don’t do that or karma will get back at you,” and so they are afraid of it. But in my opinion, you shouldn’t be afraid of it, because if you are a good person, if you stay true to yourself and always do your best, you will have good karma. As far as I’m concerned, I’ve been working for a while, staying true to myself… And even if I have felt discouraged at times – especially by big mainstream singers who steal the work of more niche artists – I always knew that my karma would come back around. That one day all the difficult things I went through, both personally and professionally, would pay off. That’s what I experienced with “telepatía.” And I hope that all artists who have been making music for a long time and who have sometimes felt demoralized can eventually experience this kind of moment.
With “telepatía” you entered the Billboard top 40 and became the first woman to reach the top position of the “Hot Latin Songs” chart – a first in ten years! How did you react when you heard the news?
I screamed [laughts]! It’s one thing to have a hit song or create a song that goes viral on TikTok; but it’s another thing to make the top 40 on Billboard when you’re considered a niche artist, and to be the first woman to top the Hot Latin Songs chart. With this song, I made history. I’m extremely proud, happy, and grateful for this opportunity to not only represent my Colombian culture, but also to inspire other women. And to show them that we don’t need men in our songs to be successful.
Kali Uchis: Sweater and skirt, Fendi.
In my opinion, after Shakira and until you, there hasn’t really been a great female figure from Latin America in the mainstream… Do you feel like you are following in her footsteps?
Shakira, who is also Colombian, was a huge inspiration to me when I was younger. I always thought she was an incredible performer (she had phenomenal dance moves! ). I admired her philanthropy, the way she represented Latin American women. She was also the one who made me want to do my second album in Spanish. In fact, I imagine that at the time, a lot of people tried to discourage her by telling her that releasing a record in Spanish would mean taking a step backwards in her career, as she was already established in the American landscape; I admire her risk-taking. She motivated me to make that same decision, to say to myself, “This is who I am, this is the legacy I want to leave behind, this is my mission.” I am not bilingual and Latin American for nothing. God made me this way for a specific purpose.
The imagery you create around your music is also very important in your work. You are very involved in the making of your videos, in your own styling… How do you develop this?
I have always considered myself a visual artist. I have always enjoyed making videos, developing my own photographs, making collages, and expressing myself through different visual arts. Music developed in parallel to that. I wrote my songs, I sang, I played the piano, the saxophone, I joined several jazz bands… And at a certain point, I combined the two, images and music. To tell you the truth, I decided to make my first mixtape because I wanted to make videos! So yes, images play a big role in my music. And I think I managed to build a very strong visual identity.
Your collaborations have, since the beginning, been very eclectic, and they’ve allowed you to stand out. You worked with Snoop Dogg, Jay Cortez, Jorja Smith, Bootsy Collins, Reykon, Gorillaz, Tyler, The Creator, Daniel Caesar, Rico Nasty…
I love to work with other artists, and it’s true that there is a real diversity in my choice of collabs, both in terms of musical contexts and notoriety: I like to work with icons as much as with emerging artists. I have a collaboration with a Latin music legend coming up… Recently, I worked with SZA: I wrote her first song in Spanish, which should be released very soon. I also collaborated with Don Toliver, who I respect a lot and who I think is amazing. And I should be working with Tyler [The Creator, editor’s note] again soon! In general, I like to work with people I trust and am close to in my everyday life.
Who is at the top of your wishlist for a collaboration?
I can’t talk about it because… I think it’s just about to happen [laughs].
Can you tell us more about your upcoming projects?
There are two that I’ve been working on a lot in the last few months. First, I’m working on my very first denim and sunglasses collection, which should be out soon. And most importantly, my third album, which I’m working on every day right now. I don’t have a release date yet, so I can’t say much more than that… But you’ll know more soon, I promise!

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