The US music industry is no stranger to Latinx artists making it into their top charts, with talented examples like Karol G or Bad Bunny. Colombian-American Kali Uchis is one of the new faces of Latin Pop, with an eclectic, ever-mutating style that has captivated audiences all over the continent. Apart from her self-taught knowledge and innate talent, what makes this artist a force to be reckoned with is her English/Spanish bilingualism, a feat that is showcased in her 2021 show-stopping single “Telepatía” and in her latest album, Orquídeas, sung entirely in Spanish. But being a singer between worlds can be challenging for a Latina who is trying to make it big in an English-speaking market. 

From Colombia to The World

Kali Uchis’ upbringing was heavily influenced by a mix of languages and cultures, just like what thousands of other Latinxs have experienced. Born in 1994 in Alexandria, Virginia to Colombian immigrants, Karly Marina Loaiza traveled to her family’s homeland to start primary school, where she learned how to read and write in Spanish. When she was nine years old, they were forced to leave Colombia and go back to the US because of the country’s violence. Her childhood in Pereira has left the artist with a double nationality, a very subtle paisa accent, and even her stage name (her father calls her “Karluchis”, a name from which she then invented Kali Uchis).

“People are very confused. They ask me, ‘What do you mean, you're from two places, Colombia and the United States?’ I feel part of both. No matter where I am in the world, Colombia is in my heart. My songs and my aesthetic are inspired by its landscapes, its people, its culture and its magic,” she said in an article by Gladys Palmera.

Once settled in Alexandria, she lived a troubled adolescence in a home with sparse love and a hunger for music experimentation. Karly spent her teenage years playing the saxophone in her high school band, playing the piano, producing tracks on her computer, and skipping school. At 17, her parents kicked her out of the house for breaking curfew, so she wandered the city crashing on her friends’ couches and living in her car, but the fire that lit her creativity kept burning bright.

Her releases include a 2012 mixtape called Drunken Babble, two EPs called Por Vida (2015) and To Feel Alive (2020), and her first record, Isolation (2018). She finally rose to fame in 2021 with her global hit “Telepatía” from her second studio album Sin Miedo (Del Amor y Otros Demonios), a title that pays homage to Colombian Writer Gabriel García Márquez. 

Striving for Fame as A Latina Artist

Her talented releases have given Kali Uchis worldwide renown from Spanish and English-speaking audiences. Yet, as always, it is this latter language that made her name truly blow up, but she resists leaving a big part of her identity aside to score more hit songs.

“I grew up bilingual, speaking Spanglish in my house, so it would be inauthentic to sing completely in Spanish or English because that’s not how I talk,” said the artist in an interview with The Evening Standard.

Karly recognizes that the audience isn’t as close-minded as it was in the past regarding lyrics in languages other than English. However, there is still a xenophobic, misogynistic attitude inside the music industry that still attempts against Latina’s road to success.

“Being a Latina woman in the music industry is not easy. You have to work harder than the rest and get serious, there are a lot of takers who just want to have sex with you. We women have to be aware of that because we have something that men want. But I'm not anyone's symbol, I just consider myself an artist,” she said in an article by Gladys Palmera.

There are also other commercial obstacles to pivot, such as royalties or label contracts. For example, when she signed with Universal Music Group, Kali Uchis learned that there was a conflict about which division would cover her songs, the US or the Latin one. In her contract, she discovered that the tracks with Spanish lyrics weren’t considered in her contractual obligations. Most artists have solved these issues by doing twice the work, for example, recording the same song in both languages like Shakira did with Hips Don’t Lie.

“Moving in between languages, and being such a versatile artist in general, can be really exhausting [...] It feels like working overtime,” Karly told the LA Times.

Despite her struggles, Kali Uchis has opened many doors for new Latinx artists who want to make it in the States. That is why she wanted to take it a step further with her latest album Orquídeas, a record that speaks directly from her Colombian roots to the Spanish-speaking audience. Featuring collaborations with artists like Peso Pluma, Karol G, and Rauw Alejandro, this album highlights all the good music Latin America has to offer.

“For a long time in the United States there were many people who even changed their names trying to hide their origin, so much so that they didn’t teach their children Spanish so they wouldn’t be judged or discriminated against. That’s why I believe that in these times it is very important that we are united in community, that we are supporting each other,” the singer told Vogue México.

Finally, as a bisexual artist, Kali Uchis wished Orquídeas would set a good example for Queer Latinxs who want to feel represented in their cultural consumption. “Labios Mordidos” (“Bitten Lips”), a song in collaboration with LGBTQIA+ ally Karol G, showcases a deep desire between two women that has caused controversy among the Spanish-speaking audience. The song was recorded in 2021 but was put off for homophobic backlash until 2023.

“Introducing this [song] to a bigger audience meant seeing stuff like, ‘Ew. So vulgar. Why are women singing about women like this?’ Now when a man sings like that about women, it’s fine. For instance, there are many popular Latin songs about girls being with older men. So you’re OK with girls being groomed? And pedophilia? But when a girl sings about another girl, that’s where we’ve crossed the line in this community?” she vented with the LA Times.

Thankfully, more and more Hispanic Queer artists are making a name for themselves in the music industry, such as Young Miko, Villano Antillano, and Petazeta, and we hope Latinx voices keep singing loud and clear, captivating the hearts of English-speaking audiences with their Spanish lyrics and true identity.

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