Signe Pierce has been commissioned by Refinery 29 to photograph pop music artist Kali Uchis for The Come Up series, which highlights inspirational female artists.
Meet Kali Uchis, One Of 2018’s Buzziest Artists
By Arianna Davis
The Come Up is Refinery29’s series featuring rising female artists who are as badass and inspiring as their music is. Don’t miss our first, second, and third instalments.While I wait 45 minutes for Kali Uchis to arrive at the Times Square office location of her Refinery29 photoshoot, I’m anxiously anticipating the telenovela-meets-old-Hollywood vixen I’ve gotten to know through her artfully curated music videos and Instagram feed. But when Kali arrives and introduces herself to our crew with “Hi, I’m Kali,” her voice is so whisper-soft, I have to strain to hear her. Her long-lashed eyes are wide, and she’s wearing nothing but a fluffy white bathrobe and Adidas slides. There are no tales of hangovers or diva antics to explain her lateness; her team simply apologises for traffic and their Uber driver getting lost.
So when we sit down to chat while she gets her hair and makeup done, I’m a little nervous that this conversation won’t go as I’d expected — especially when her first few responses feel cautious, as though she’s been rehearsing her interview answers. But two hours later, we’re gossipping about the Kardashians, lamenting about insecure ex-boyfriends, and dissecting the appropriated origins of Betty Boop. It takes a little effort and some trust building, but soon she’s an open book.
The process of getting to know Kali in person isn’t unlike the experience of getting to know her music. On her debut album Isolation, Kali lures in fans with addictive tracks that seamlessly blend everything from bossa nova, reggae, and jazz to cumbia, dub, R&B, and doo-wop — a genre-shattering feat that many artists attempt but don’t achieve. But it takes a deeper listen and some peeling of layers to really hear the stories Kali tells through her songwriting: Reflections on heartbreak, depression, betrayal, body insecurities, and broken family ties are wrapped in sparkling production and melodies. And that enigma is exactly what makes Kali Uchis not just one of the most talented rising stars of her generation, but also one of the most fascinating.“I’m a Cancer, I’m sensitive, I have a lot of moods. I’ve gone through depression. Sometimes I don’t even wanna be looked at, and sometimes I wanna be seen by everybody,” says Kali, who was born Karly-Marina Loaiza — her father nicknamed her Kali Uchis, a play on sounds, as a child. “As women, everyone has their opinion of what we should look like and how we should act. So sometimes women like me have to pretend to be more confident than we really feel just to amp ourselves up. I wanted my first album to be a reminder that the one thing no one can ever take away from you is that you are you.”
I quickly come to understand why Kali might approach life with her guard up. The singer, who turns 24 in July, was born in Alexandria, Virginia and grew up shuttling back and forth between the east coast and her family’s small hometown of Pereira, Colombia; she describes her childhood as “chaotic” because her home in the U.S. was often the first stop for family members arriving from Colombia. Her relationship with her mother was distant — when asked about her mom now, Kali just says curtly: “She’s my mum.” Growing up with “no major female role models,” Kali roamed the aisles of CD stores, turning to the music of artists like Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald for comfort, at least musically.When things got tense between her and her father during Kali’s senior year of high school in Virginia in 2012, she moved out, living out of her Subaru and often staying up late in a parking lot writing poems, then recording them as songs on her laptop. One night a year later — after she’d made amends with her dad and moved back home — she decided to upload some of the music she’d been creating as an online mixtape. She called it Drunken Babble, and to hear her describe it, it was just an experiment. She had no idea it would eventually launch her career.“I hate when people talk about that because I just created 17 songs in one day — because my birthday is 7-17 — with no real software. So I’m like, ugh, let’s not talk about it, you know?” Kali says with a laugh and an eye roll. She has a habit of adding “you know” to the end of her sentences, with a slight tilt of her head. “But that was what started it all, because people started circulating my music, and somehow Snoop Dogg heard and invited me to sing on a song. Suddenly I was being requested by artists and producers and it was like oh, shit. All of these people who are really established see potential in me.”
With a voice that sounds as though Holiday, Diana Ross, Amy Winehouse, and Lana Del Ray all had a bilingual baby, Kali quickly became a go-to vocalist for artists ranging from Tyler the Creator to Major Lazer. After another mixtape, Por Vida, and more collaborations — including “El Ratico” with Juanes, which was nominated for a Latin Grammy — Kali rose to mainstream attention last year when she was featured on Daniel Caesar’s “Get You,” which earned the pair a Grammy nod. Next came her album’s lead single “Tyrant” with fellow up-and-comer Jorja Smith, which was featured on an episode of Insecure, and this year, she opened up for Lana Del Ray on tour.But Kali’s ascent to fame hasn’t come without drama. Last year, a queer Latinx content creator named Esperanzcalled Kali out for appearing more “brown” in newer promotional artwork than she did in older photos, accusing her of “using ‘brownness’ for her convenience.” Kali responded less-than-sensitively, tweeting that all of the “Twitter activists” could “swallow her nut,” before quickly deleting it. At the centre of the whole debacle was a dialogue about the fact that being Latinx is not a singular race — so can Latinas with light skin or European racial ancestry call themselves women of colour?“I came off more aggressive than I should have, and I didn’t check my privilege, and that’s where I was wrong. The whole situation shows how important it is to open up discussions about colourism in the Latino community,” Kali says. I can tell the topic makes her frustrated.
With a voice that sounds as though Holiday, Diana Ross, Amy Winehouse, and Lana Del Ray all had a bilingual baby, Kali quickly became a go-to vocalist for artists ranging from Tyler the Creator to Major Lazer. After another mixtape, Por Vida, and more collaborations — including “El Ratico” with Juanes, which was nominated for a Latin Grammy — Kali rose to mainstream attention last year when she was featured on Daniel Caesar’s “Get You,” which earned the pair a Grammy nod. Next came her album’s lead single “Tyrant” with fellow up-and-comer Jorja Smith, which was featured on an episode of Insecure, and this year, she opened up for Lana Del Ray on tour.But Kali’s ascent to fame hasn’t come without drama. Last year, a queer Latinx content creator named Esperanzcalled Kali out for appearing more “brown” in newer promotional artwork than she did in older photos, accusing her of “using ‘brownness’ for her convenience.” Kali responded less-than-sensitively, tweeting that all of the “Twitter activists” could “swallow her nut,” before quickly deleting it. At the centre of the whole debacle was a dialogue about the fact that being Latinx is not a singular race — so can Latinas with light skin or European racial ancestry call themselves women of colour?“I came off more aggressive than I should have, and I didn’t check my privilege, and that’s where I was wrong. The whole situation shows how important it is to open up discussions about colourism in the Latino community,” Kali says. I can tell the topic makes her frustrated.ADVERTISEMENT“Still, it feels fucked up when people try to tell you how to identify. Self-identity shouldn’t involve anyone but yourself, right? I get that my lighter skin gives me privilege. People tell me that when I’m blonde, I could pass for white. But does that not make me a person of colour anymore? I mean, I’m Colombian. I know how I was raised, and I know how I feel — I know how I’ve been treated. And I’ve never occupied a space where people thought I was a white person, no matter what colour my hair was.”
Though Kali says the experience taught her a lot about her rising celebrity status, she maintains she’ll always remain outspoken about issues she cares about on social media. Last December, for instance, she posted a video of herself rolling up a car window with a caption including lines like “when they feed our kids processed food & fizzy pop in school then complain that they don’t focus enough in class….when the same hijos de putas that pollute our earth for $, are now selling ‘bottles of breathable air’ for hundreds of dollars to polluted countries….” She adds that everyone from her team to friends in the industry have encouraged her to tone it down — but she won’t.“It’s always going to be difficult for anyone who isn’t a man, or doesn’t fit into a conventional space, or is difficult to identify, to exist in the music industry or the public eye — especially when they are using their voice,” she says. “I might’ve been more ‘popular’ by now if I’d never logged into any of my accounts or talked about who I am or where I’m from and just kept it pretty because I’m a woman. But I’d be doing a disservice to my platform if I just pretended these things don’t matter.”
The more we talk, the more I realise that Isolation isn’t just an album title — Kali truly is a loner. When I ask about her support system, she gets quiet, citing her hair and makeup artist, Jaime Diaz, plus a few artist friends and a supportive brother that lives in Miami. But that’s “pretty much it.” While she talks to her dad often, he and the rest of her family now live in Colombia, and it took them awhile to get on board with her career; Kali admits that for a long time, “nobody believed in me except for other artists.” And when I ask what her experience has been like as a woman in an industry that’s still reeling after #MeToo, she makes it clear that she’s always been okay taking care of herself – even as she alludes to serious trauma in her past while keeping the details private“When I first moved to LA, I was single and didn’t have any friends or family, so I was very lonely. But I was like fuck it, I’m okay with being alone and focusing on my career,” says Kali, her eyes looking off into the distance. “But people new to this business often get manipulated into bad situations and it’s really, really sad. I think I was able to dodge some of those circumstances because I learned about things like that when I was really young. I don’t wanna get too personal, but unfortunately I learned about many men’s intentions very young…I had to grow up really fast. Childhood is taken away from women too early.”
The challenges that Kali has overcome in her life, combined with her love of whimsical music, results in songs that are as dark as they are delightful. Take the Gorillaz-produced tune “In My Dreams”: On first listen, it’s an upbeat dance number with a catchy hook: “Everything is just wonderful/Here in my dreams, here in my dreams.” But listen more closely, and you’ll catch the sarcasm: “I’m never stressing my bills/Nobody ever gets killed/It’s the dream world/My mama’s never on coke/This isn’t my way to cope/Washing my mind out with soap/Everything is just wonderful…”
When she was starting out, Kali spent a lot of time trying to control other people’s narratives of her, whether it was in interviews or on Twitter. But as the director of many of her decadent, stylised videos and the songwriter on every song of her debut album — a rarity in a music industry that’s desperately trying to get more women both in and behind the booth — she’s finally just letting her music speak for itself.“I’m very spiritual — I was raised on all of that shit, my cousins had astrologists around and my grandma was a witch,” she says. “So at some point I just have to let go of control, because I believe that we are connected to the Earth and the moon and the stars. Why am I going to spend time trying to control things that are beyond my control?”
We talk a bit about the prevalence of brujeria, or witchcraft, in Latin culture, which leads to me telling her I am surprised there aren’t more Spanish songs on the album. While much of Isolation has some Spanglish ad-libbing and rhythmic influences, “Nuestro Planeta” is the only song entirely in Spanish.“I was raised bilingual, so it’s natural for me to switch back and forth when I’m writing, but honestly Spanish music being popular right now has actually kind of turned me off,” she says. “I definitely plan to make more. I’ve always been proud of my roots, so I don’t want to force anything or capitalise on a moment just because Justin Bieber decided to hop on a song with Daddy Yankee.”When asked about where she sees her career in ten years, Kali does not shy away from words like mogul and boss.“One day I want to have my own headquarters where I can operate all of my businesses,” she says. “I’ll have one organisation that’s focused on activism work, then my other thing that’s focused on fashion, and another focused on film. Right now it’s all about music for me, and I still have so much to prove as an artist. But I also don’t believe in limits.”
After a few hours of shooting, Kali struts out of a conference room in her final look, a pink Jeremy Scott neoprene skirt set and sky high Miu Miu heels. She lays down on a long piece of metallic paper and looks down at her reflection, smiling at herself shyly before throwing her head back and striking a pose for the camera. For just a few minutes, we are watching two Kalis at once, an echo of the two Kalis I met earlier in the day. And here, during a neon pink-hued photoshoot, there’s enough room for them both. Even if just a few hours, everything really is wonderful inside Kali’s dreams.