If there’s one unifying sentiment to Kali Uchis’ world - all empowering defiance shot through a soft-hued, bubblegum pink lens - it’s that she doesn’t take anybody else’s shit. Driving nonchalantly around town in the video for the tellingly named ‘Know What I Want’ (while a man lies gagged in her bathtub at home, no less) and kicking aside preconceived notions of genre like they’re nuisance bits of trash scattered on the ground, her music fuses together jazz, soul and doo-wop oldies, Spanish pop star Jeanette, strong female innovators from Sade to Gwen Stefani, and - somehow - a cutting-edge ear for production that unifies the whole messy sonic dot-to-dot into something coherent and trailblazing.
Starting out from behind the counter at Whole Foods - where Kali worked as a cashier while writing her earliest music - other artists steadily caught onto her intoxicating brew of oddball pop; lying somewhere between smooth, velvety horchata, and a bracing shot of tequila.
Snoop Dogg quickly got the Kali Uchis memo, linking up for their ‘On Edge’ hook-up. Tyler, The Creator - now a close pal of Kali’s after years of collaboration - Vince Staples, Gorillaz, Kaytranada, BadBadNotGood, and Major Lazer were also quick to associate with her, and no wonder. Kali Uchis has achieved an impressive feat; not only has she carved out her own musical avenue, she’s done it all on her own terms.
“I’m ready for global domination.”
“I feel really proud of the boundaries that I’m pushing,” states Kali, speaking over the phone, midway through putting the finishing touches to her debut album proper. “I want to create this whole new lane for me to be in. My objective was to create a whole world of my own. People would tell me to be more this, more that, more pop, whatever, but I think as an artist…” she pauses. ”I’ve gotten as far as I’ve gotten by listening to my intuition. I’m ready for global domination now,” she finalises, “and being able to conquer everything with my music.”
Kali doesn’t have much time for modesty, but to be honest, why should she? Her Twitter bio wryly introduces her as a ‘dislikable Colombian girl”; in part a jibe at the expectation that female artists should be meek and humble. Kali knows full well she’s onto something. “As females particularly, we grew up having other people constantly trying to make us doubt ourselves,” she says. “It’s a world that’s constantly trying to tell us not to love ourselves and why we’re not stood up straight enough, why we need to hold our head higher, whatever. I think it’s really important to have a strong sense of self. We’re all going to die, and there’s no point trying to live just to impress other people,” she summarises. “We don’t really have anything to prove to anyone, apart from ourselves.”
“Being vulnerable is a really admirable trait.”
Almost every single music video - mangling together Pulp Fiction film noir, smoke-stained neon, and candy hues - is self-directed, and every collaboration or feature spot has to be, in Kali’s mind, a reciprocal relationship. “I wish more people would create like that,” she says. “I’m not gonna lie, I have also been the kind of person to send an email to an artist saying this needs a feature, I think you would sound bomb on it. That’s inevitable. But when you find someone you really like to work with,” she adds, citing Tyler, the Creator as an example, ”he’s a creative person who writes songs, he’s a musical genius. You make a whole lot of shit. You do something for my project, I’ll do something for yours,” she says. “I got lucky that so many amazing people were down to work with me I was able to work with Gorillaz, Tame Impala, Bootsy Collins… all these amazing people I’ve grown up listening to. Even if this isn’t the album that breaks me, for me, it’s a success anyway.
For all Kali Uchis’ strength, her music contains many disarming moments of vulnerability beneath the gaudy visual sheen. Drawing on her own experiences with an open door honesty, her intonation flecked with the sort of jazz-drenched sadness you might associate most readily with one of her all-time favourites Billie Holiday, it’s yet another form of empowerment. “I’ve always liked to believe that being vulnerable is a really admirable trait,” Kali reasons. “So many people pride themselves in being guarded and hidden. With so many people being like that I always thought it was admirable to wear your heart on your sleeve and say what you mean. Be proud of being soft,” she states, resolutely. “It’s a part of being strong. Being able to be vulnerable, and letting yourself really express how you feel is a part of strength. You abandon the fear of what people will think.”
Kali Uchis’ debut album is expected in 2018.
Additional design: Louise Mason / DIY.
Taken from the October 2017 issue of DIY, out now. Read online, or subscribe below.