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Kali Uchis On Her Determination To Remain Bilingual After Being “Discouraged” From Singing In Spanish

The Colombian-American neo-soul star Kali Uchis – real name Karly-Marina Loaiza – is feeling vindicated. Her sublimely romantic song ‘telepatía’ (meaning ‘telepathy’ in Spanish) has been a worldwide hit, even inspiring a TikTok lip-sync challenge. But, in the past, Kali was prevented from releasing Spanish language music, let alone expressing her bicultural identity – and so ‘telepatía’ nearly didn’t happen.

The singer/songwriter believes that, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the nostalgic ‘telepatía’ has captured the zeitgeist. “The song is about love – it’s about making love with someone that you physically can’t be with,” Kali explains in her velvety tone. “I made it before the pandemic but, after the pandemic came, it just became a lot more relevant to people because we couldn’t physically touch each other, a lot of us. So it’s very special because it ended up being kind of like a reflection of the times… I think it’s also an amazing thing as an artist to be able to reflect on a time period. It can definitely be considered the song of the pandemic. I hope it will be the song of the summer as well.” 

Kali, currently based in Los Angeles, is granting a rare Australian interview to promote ‘telepatía’. Chatting over Zoom, she’s the epitome of glamour with loosely styled hair, nude lip gloss, and white manicured nails. While accompanied by reps, Kali is astonishingly candid.

Kali has been busy despite the pandemic’s impact. In 2020 she presented the TO FEEL ALIVE EP and then Sin Miedo (del Amor y Otros Demonios) – Without Fear (Of Love And Other Demons) – her first primarily Spanish language album and the follow-up to the acclaimed Isolation.

In March, Kali won her inaugural Grammy. The singer’s 2019 KAYTRANADA collab ‘10%’ took out Best Dance Recording – which, under the circumstances, she recalls as “very surprising”, being unable to personally attend the postponed ceremony in LA. “I actually was in Mexico when it got announced. I was shooting a commercial – and I was in the middle of shooting the commercial. I had asked my manager, ‘When are our nominations gonna get announced?’ She had told me, like, ‘Oh, I think later – I think in six hours, seven hours – it’s going to be a while…’ Then randomly, probably 30 minutes later, they were like, ‘You won, you won, you won!'” Kali laughs. 

On Instagram, Kali posted studio images of herself attired in a daringly sheer Mugler Spring/Summer 2021 ensemble, as well as a FaceTime reaction clip with KAYTRANADA. “I haven’t really fully celebrated yet,” she says. “We want to do something special to take a moment to just thank God and celebrate all of the blessings. It’s been such an amazing year for me as an artist and as a person. So I really wanna give thanks and maybe take a little time to do that.”

Conscious of her complex Latinx heritage, Kali has always strived to manifest it linguistically, sonically and aesthetically. She ostensibly hails from a working-class migrant Colombian family in the US – her father a property manager (he coined her pet name ‘Uchis’). However, Kali was raised between her birthplace of Alexandria, Northern Virginia and Pereira, Colombia. “I was born in the United States, but then I went quickly after back to Colombia. I learned to read and write Spanish there, I went to school there, came back to the United States, went back and forth for a while… So my experience is very much, I guess, [about being] caught between two cultures that are very different to each other.”

Kali describes Alexandria, in the DMV (Washington DC, Maryland and Virginia) hub, as unusually multicultural, because of its proximity to the US capital. “My school [TC Williams High School] was known as the most diverse school in the entire United States of America,” she states. “It was people from all over the world that went to my school.”

Kali’s listening habits were similarly wide-ranging. “I just never saw language as a barrier when it came to music,” she stresses. “As a kid, I was always a huge music nerd. I used to love music in French, music in German, music from Africa – music from pretty much anywhere. If it was a good song, or if I loved the sound, then I loved the music.” Locally, Kali was exposed to cutting-edge R&B and hip-hop – Virginia having spawned Timbaland, Missy Elliott and The Neptunes. All these influences would shape her brand of “low-rider soul”.

Kali encountered hardship in her late teens. Rebellious, she was (temporarily) ejected from home by her parents, sleeping in a car. Still, Kali was ambitious creatively, her dream to be a filmmaker. Playing saxophone in a jazz band at school, she also picked up keys, flexed her vocal cords, and experimented with music production – conceivably to soundtrack videos. After a 2012 mixtape generated buzz, the bedroom auteur forged impressive connections, crucially befriending Tyler, The Creator. Three years on, Kali dropped her break-out EP, Por Vida (‘For Life’), a genre-defying enterprise that contemporised lounge – KAYTRANADA among the producers. Kali prestigiously appeared on Gorillaz’ comeback, Humanz.

In 2018 Kali delivered her expansive debut, Isolation, encompassing high-profile singles like ‘Tyrant’ (a duet with the Brit Jorja Smith) and ‘After The Storm’ (featuring Tyler and the funk legend Bootsy Collins), plus the Spanish reggaeton ‘Nuestro Planeta’ (‘Our Planet’) alongside Reykon. An astute curator, Kali recorded the psychedelic ‘Tomorrow’ with Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker. Here in Australia, Isolation was a triple j Feature Album. Meanwhile, Kali continued to collaborate extensively, receiving a Grammy nom for ‘Get You’ with Canada’s Daniel Caesar. She graced the Free Nationals’ ‘Time’ together with Mac Miller – the rapper’s first posthumous release.

Although early on Kali had covered songs such as Jeanette’s vintage Spanish bop ‘Porque te vas’, she realised that her biculturalism baffled label executives and audiences. “After I started going into the music industry, it became a very different thing where I had the reality check that obviously, once you’re an artist and you’re looked at as a business, people just think about how to sell you and how you can be marketed. Then that was when it became clear to me that it was confusing to people what I was – like, ‘Where’s she from? She’s from Colombia or she’s from America, she speaks English or she speaks Spanish…’ It wasn’t resonating.” 

It did not help that Kali had initially aligned herself with a UK company in Virgin EMI Records (via London’s garage-leaning Rinse, home to Katy B). “There’s not a big Latin community in the United Kingdom,” Kali notes. The Brits didn’t understand Kali’s status as a potential crossover Latinx act – which possibly accounts for why she was rather positioned as a new Amy Winehouse. Above all, Kali reveals that she was “very much discouraged” from singing in Spanish. “They had actually put it in my contract that only English language albums will count for my deal. Obviously, I didn’t know that when I signed. So, when I started working on Sin Miedo…, I found that out. I found out that a Spanish language album wouldn’t even count as an album in my contract.” 

Nevertheless, Kali was determined to accentuate her South American roots on album two. In 2019 she issued ‘Solita’ (‘Alone’), the (since-abandoned) lead single from Sin Miedo… But, then, COVID struck, halting tours and delaying LP roll-outs. Instead, Kali unleashed a quarantine project, the TO FEEL ALIVE EP. Later in 2020, she pivoted back to Sin Miedo…, airing the trap banger ‘¡aquí yo mando!’ (‘Here I Command’) with flamboyant DMV rapper Rico Nasty.

In 2021 Latin music is more diverse, and popular, than ever largely due to streaming – J Balvin, Bad Bunny and ROSALÍA are major stars. Yet, with Sin Miedo…, which has Puerto Rican reggaeton pioneers Jowell & Randy as guests, Kali demonstrates that her pop isn’t a trend, but a movement. She’s also questioning the default expectation that global artists record in English. Indeed, when unveiling October’s tune ‘la luz(Fín) (‘light [the end]’) featuring Jhay Cortez, Kali pointedly tweeted, “today i drop another song in spanish which i know means another day of disappointment for my english speaking fans who do not wish to make the attempt to listen to music in languages they can’t understand.”

Kali deems it her “purpose” to represent diasporic identity, calling Sin Miedo…. “a no-brainer”. “I’m just like, ‘Of course, as my second studio album, I’m going to make it majority Spanish. If it’s not successful, or if nobody appreciates it, OK. But, at the end of the day, I know that my fans will love anything that I put out. I have a really amazing group of people who have been supporting me since I first started; since I was very young. They make me feel so supported and loved, no matter what I do. So I know that, no matter what, at least they would like it.'” In fact, Kali, who is openly bi, has a fervent LGBTQIA+ fandom.

Ultimately, Kali maintains that fulfilling Sin Miedo… was less about marketing than instinct. “I really considered it more of a passion project – and that’s how I think all art should feel; I don’t think it should feel like a job. I don’t think we should be thinking too much about how it’s going to be sold or perceived by others or anything like that, because that takes a lot of the fun away from your art.”

Originally an album track, ‘telepatía’ went viral earlier this year – Kali promptly selecting it as a single in February and self-directing a video in Pereira. Now ‘telepatía’ is set to become her greatest solo hit, clocking up over 314M streams and cracking both the US Billboard Hot 100 and ARIA Top 50 Singles charts. Significantly, its success has renewed interest in Sin Miedo… “For me, the biggest honour is just to know that with no feature, with no music video, with no push from my label, a Latin woman was able to go as high as I was able to go,” Kali declares. “I was able to get in the Top 40. I was able to do so many things that people didn’t think that we could do – or definitely didn’t think that I could do. It’s even greater just to know how many people discouraged us from doing [the album], because it’s very much a moment of like, ‘Oh, everybody wants to join the party now, OK!’ But it’s great! I really love all of the support and all of the amazing messages that I’ve been getting. I’m just really proud of the song and proud of everything it’s been able to do.” 

Kali toured Australia in 2019 as part of the FOMO summer festival, with a sold-out side-show in Sydney and slot on triple j’s Like A Version (she covered Björk’s ‘Venus As A Boy’). Reminiscing, she admits that travelling between the capitals is a blur. “I love Australia,” Kali effuses. “I have a lot of great memories. When I was there, I had a lot of fun. I loved the food. Everybody was very, very nice. I loved where we stayed. The hotel was just really comfortable. We rode bikes a lot. It was beautiful – beautiful weather, beautiful everything. No complaints about Australia.”

Kali was thrilled, too, that Nick Minaj was FOMO’s headliner. “I was in the same hotel as Nicki Minaj!,” she laughs, forgetting the city. “I was like, ‘Aha!’ I was watching her [Instagram] Stories and she was in a suite like mine, but it was on a different level… But, yeah, I didn’t get to meet her.” Kali did bond with another act on the travelling festival, though. “We were mostly with Aminé and his camp, ’cause our rooms were all next to each others’.” Alas, the late SOPHIE was supposed to play FOMO, but withdrew for “personal reasons” – and today Kali discloses that they almost collaborated. “We had talked about working together before – and she had sent me beats and stuff before. We shared the same management – one of my managers actually had been managing her for a long time.”

With COVID vaccine programs accelerating, the live circuit is rebuilding. Come the Northern summer, Kali will perform at festivals in Spain, Portugal and Mexico. Mind, she’s also contemplating her next studio project. “I make music, I write music all the time – so I’m sure I’m gonna be releasing some music soon,” Kali teases. “But I do need to start focussing on the live shows. I really have not been thinking about the fact that they’re very close – so I need to get on that.”

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