Escaping Isolation: Kali Uchis Interviewed

Escaping Isolation: Kali Uchis Interviewed

"It’s a good time for people to educate themselves..."

Kali Uchis feels like “a lion”. Like many people this year, the seismic shift caused by the Covid-19 crisis and subsequent lockdowns sparked a period of deep introspection – except she thrives on the unfamiliar.

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26-year-old hitmaker Kali Uchis is reclining in bed in her LA home, her face covered by a Creme Korean face mask as we catch up for a soul-bearing conversation over the phone. “I feel the most powerful that I’ve ever felt, I feel confident in myself, in my body, in my spirit everything.” - “I’m not the same person I was when I went into the pandemic a lot has changed,” she explains. But, as she points out, this is something she has grown used to. “I already change a lot more than anybody else that I know. Talking to me one year and then talking to me the next is like talking to two different people because a lot of shit goes on in my life.”

In-keeping with this evolutionary energy, Uchis is gearing up to release her first entirely Spanish body of work in homage to her Colombian roots. Since she dropped her high school mixtape ‘Drunken Babble’ in 2012, Uchis has spent the rest of the decade enjoying an envious glo up, her sound and pin-up aesthetic maturing like a fine wine. She’d already been nominated for a Latin Grammy and a Grammy award by the time she released her first album ‘Isolation’, a record of back-to-back hits with the likes of Bootsy Collins, Tyler, the Creator, and Steve Lacy.

Her music always mirrors where she feels like she is in her own life and her new project follows suit. It switches from rambunctious reggaeton tracks to others where Uchis puts her full vocal range to work on crooning classics in the making. The debut single ‘Aquí Yo Mando’ with Rico Nasty is in her words “a little bossy anthem” that represents how she finally feels “grown”. Looking like a cross between goths and 90s R&B alt-girls, the partners in crime dance to the alternative reggaeton track in the visual while robbing men who are literal pigs. “It’s about empowerment, and reclaiming the power of your femininity, being the person who takes charge and makes decisions,” she says.  

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Her choice of collaborator was intentionally one of the most out-of-the-box rising female rappers in the game right now. “She felt like a no brainer for me. She’s a strong woman and everything that she does is bold,” Uchis says praising Rico’s maverick punk-rap musical style, make-up and fashion. The pair met over dinner and drinks at one of the singer’s favourite Mexican restaurants in town and they “clicked immediately”.

“It was like talking to someone from high school or something like we started telling each other all types of stuff. We were having girl time and that night we went back to my house and I played her the song.” Though her mother is Puerto Rican, Rico Nasty struggled to rap in Spanish but with Uchis’ coaching the track came together quickly. “I love people who are willing to take risks,” she adds. Other collaborators on the record include PartyNextDoor and Jhay Cortez, the Puerto Rican hitmaker who has written for Jay Balvin and Bad Bunny.

There’s no guarantee that risk equals reward and with such an established sound, Uchis admits that she’s a little scared of venturing into new and unfamiliar territory. However she quips that she doesn’t want to make a song like “Loner” (from her ‘Por Vida’ EP) over and over. Some artists dream of producing such a coherent track, one that attracted the attention of the Gorillaz and sparked their eventual collaboration. However to Uchis it represents her comfort zone as she wrote it in “literally 15 minutes”. Safety seems to bore her. She adds: “(My new album) is a new market but your fans love you for the first stuff they know you for so it’s a challenge”. Plus with the likes of non-Spanish singers like Justin Bieber and Ed Sheeran releasing Spanish-language hits in the last couple of years, you can easily argue she has far more claim to that space.

Overall, her goal is to learn to liberate herself from other people’s expectations. “I live my life, I do whatever the fuck I want to do. I don't answer to anyone,” she says. “I'm very disconnected from people's perceptions of me this year. Before I’d be so hurt when I would see negative opinions about myself. But there’s a certain freedom to not caring at all like these people don’t actually know me.”

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So who actually is she? Uchis was born Karly Loaiza, the youngest of five in a “hard-working family” that lived in Pereira, Colombia, a small city in the foothills of the Andes. When she was seven the family moved to Alexandria, Virginia and throughout her childhood spent time in Washington and New York soaking up musical influences along the way developing a love of “Bolera, reggaeton, gogo music, latin pop, R&B”.

When she was 17 she found herself living out of cars and sleeping on sofas as her parents threw her out of the house so she had to become fiercely independent. “I was raised to know what everything you want in life you have to work your ass off for it. Nothing is ever going to be handed to you,” she explains. “I was always hustling as a teenager which is how I came up. I actually have some really funny DMs on my Twitter from when I first started the account of me negotiating with people to make money. I was selling art, making clothes. I had so many odd jobs.” She eventually channelled this creativity into music and posted her songs online garnering her a cult following and some famous fans like Snoop Dogg, Diplo, and Kaytranada. 

She’s also deeply spiritual and speaks about God a lot in our conversation. It comes naturally to her to think philosophically as it's in her “bloodline”. “My grandmother, she's an indigenous Colombian shaman, she used to read people with cigar ashes, she used to do exorcisms in the house, she was real brujas,” Uchis says. “I tap into it as much as I can because that is what makes me feel reconnected with myself and reconnected with God.”

To stay connected to her previous life, she also travels to Colombia as much as possible, saying she feels “charged up” as soon as she touches South American soil. “It’s a magical place, everything is exaggerated, we’re an exaggerated people,” she says. In 2018, Uchis would sell clothes that were gifted to her on Depop and donate her profits to communities near Pereira who needed medicine, food, house modifications to cater to disabled relatives and help to flee guerilla warfare. On her last trip she uncovered photographs of her great grandmother and other distant relatives which is important to her as she tries to get “a better understanding of where this body comes from”.

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It’s hard not to theorise that her search to not care about what people think and her quest to reconnect with her heritage go hand in hand with her turbulent relationship with family. At many junctions she alludes to this lack of support leaving her out in the cold as she first navigated the entertainment industry. “Telling someone that you believe in them or that you’re proud of them goes a long way. I didn't feel like I even had that basic minimum level of support as a kid,” she says, clearing her throat. “I felt like all of the cards are stacked against me in an industry where it's like, everybody knows someone or has someone to support them.”

It sheds light on why Uchis is so keen to feel in control given that by the sounds of it this is something that she lacked in her formative years. “There were a lot of people who tried to take advantage of me, there’s a lot of people who try to take advantage of young artists in general, but especially girls,” she says ominously.

Without getting into specifics she alludes to “uncomfortable situations”, and “manipulation” explaining that she would be unable to count how many times her path crossed with industry vipers when she was at her most vulnerable around 18-years-old and needed a place to sleep and record her music. People would try and sign her, take control of her publishing or make deals with other people behind her back on her behalf. “I experienced all types of shit. Everybody is your friend,” she adds sarcastically.

While she won’t offer any names she does provide a warning to other musicians on the come up: “Be careful of who is around you. It’s hard to say who has the best intentions as this industry is super shady. You need at least a few people who have your back… I didn’t but I’m alright.” She also likens telling these superficial friends your ideas for future projects to passing out $100 bills for free.  

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However, she’s keen to highlight it wasn’t all bad as in the midst of all of this she met Tyler, the Creator (who she has “learned the most from” in the industry), and is actually as great as he seems. “He just believed in me, no strings attached, literally never tried to be on any weird shit,” she says. “He's a really good example of what artists should strive to be like. He looks out for people and when he believes in people he’ll give a feature to a smaller artist or be in their music video, go to their shows and like just. He loves music and he’s actually a real person. He hasn't lost himself in and become Hollywood.

Perhaps this is why, despite being a high-profile musician, Uchis doesn’t seem to have much time for the notion of celebrity, electing instead to see everyone as equal. 2020 has seen a significant clout drought as people disengaged with unrelatable ideals as they were forced to simplify their own lives. Similarly Uchis has been spending some time trying to connect to things that ground her like her spirituality, heritage, and political beliefs.  

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Instead of touring South America and launching her album earlier as planned, she was forced to have a break from music and re-evaluate what was important to her, “becoming enlightened” politically. In May after the death of George Floyd, the musician was one of many thousands of people who took to the streets of Los Angeles in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. She used her social media platforms to highlight the deaths of Afro-Colombian Anderson Arboledo who was beaten for breaking the quarantine curfew, and Giovanni López who was tortured in Mexico for not wearing a mask.  

“Even though capitalism brainwashes us to feel like we’re not doing shit when we’re not grinding there’s a lot to be said about just doing internal growth and maintenance on yourself when you can’t go out,” she explains. “It’s had a horrible effect on everybody’s livelihood but the civil rights movement that is happening wouldn’t have been able to happen if we weren’t in a pandemic, people wouldn’t have been paying attention. It’s a good time for people to educate themselves and figure out other things that we can be doing, how we can change our way of life.”  

Uchis’ 2020 mantra seems to be paying off as she seems to have found inner peace among the chaos. “Peace of mind is my main priority, not one bitch can ruin my day or burst my bubble,” she says. For her the year has been a much-needed checkpoint for her to gain perspective on how far she’s come over the years. “I got my house, my life, all the things I dreamed of having when I was a little girl. I’m super proud of myself.”

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Words: Kemi Alemoru
Photography: Kombucci
Fashion: Alejandro Collection
Creative Direction: Rob Meyers

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