Kali Uchis doesn’t need to tell you she’s a feminist. She shows you.
Consider the video for “Know What I Want,” in which an unconcerned Uchis slicks on lip gloss while a man, bound and gagged, watches from the bathtub. Or “What They Say,” where Uchis and friends shotgun blunts, then steal some lame’s lowrider at gunpoint to go buy ice cream cones at the beach. And in her latest video, “Ridin’ Round,” the owner of the Colombian bodega where Uchis works screams at her, so she blows a bubble in his face and cleans out the register and candy jar.
In her “Beat It, Creep” crop top, she’s a broad, a modern-day Mae West. Yet what’s most striking about her often self-directed videos is how Uchis’ empowering actions take place in a soft-focus, SweeTart–colored world. Barbie-pink exhaust fumes trail every act of violence.
“That’s how I look at being a woman,” the 22-year-old singer says, tapping her rose-colored, acrylic nails on a table in Café 101. Tucked under a baseball cap, her pink hair spills over a baggy Thrasher hoodie. “The women I looked up to growing up were Frida and Billie Holiday, or Kelis. People wanted and admired them for how beautiful they were, but at the same time they were never taken advantage of. They never let people play with them. I guess that’s just my thing — the balance between the glamorization and the cutthroat.”
In a city whose perpetually sunny veneer has lulled many into underestimating its gritty underbelly, Uchis’ visual aesthetic is right at home. Her music and voice are, too. Reverberating over waves of jangly surf rock, dubby psychedelia and soul-squeezing torch songs, her voice sounds ripped from the East Side Story oldies compilations, with the kind of dreamy timbre that would’ve worked famed East L.A. DJ Huggy Boy into a tizzy.
She released her self-produced mixtape, Drunken Babble, in 2012. Snoop Dogg became captivated, followed by Tyler, the Creator. In February, she dropped the EP Por Vida independently. When she played her first local show at the Echo just a month later, Uchis’ local following was so strong, teenagers began lining up at 5 p.m. People assumed she was a native, but, in fact, she had only just moved to L.A. to focus on her music career.
“I like lowriders and music from the ’50s and ’60s. A lot of people assumed I was Mexican,” she says, taking a bite of veggie sausage. Yet she’d only visited L.A. twice before moving here. “L.A.’s culture was never a part of my life. But the mixture of different cultures and me being from different places — they can pin it to L.A. culture.”
Born in Colombia as Karly Loaiza (her stage name is derived from the pet name her dad gave her), Uchis spent seven years there before her family relocated to Alexandria, Virginia. In Colombia, her porcelain complexion and blond hair made her conspicuous, and she was often bullied. The experience stuck with her.
“Since the beginning of time, [people] pick and push at anyone who looks different,” she says. “Make them feel less of themselves in order to get them to the most weakened state, so they will conform.”
Uchis says she faces a related form of intimidation now. “As female artists, we have to be constantly criticized for the way that we look, the way that we dress on a whole other level that men don’t have to face. The constant scrutiny has torn down a lot of people to where they end up living for everyone else and conforming to how everyone else wants them to look. The same way the majority of people in L.A. have tiny little noses and big lips and contoured faces. The constant pressure to be the perfect, ideal female — there’s no such thing.”
That overwhelming pressure is partly why Uchis never intended to be a singer. Though she played the saxophone as a child, her grandmother, a librarian, encouraged her to be creative in other ways, too. Her siblings were much older, so she spent much of her time alone, directing her paper dolls and writing screenplays.
By the last years of high school, Uchis was skipping every class except her video and photography courses because she'd planned to become a music video director. She’d never recorded a song until the summer after she graduated, but getting a Mac and tinkering with GarageBand piqued her interest.
Initially, Uchis viewed sampling and making a mixtape as simply another creative outlet. But Drunken Babble created such a stir that she put her other ambitions on hold — momentarily. Sure, it’s gained her entrance into the music business, but it hasn’t been without its costs.
“I do love music, but I’ve never been a popularity contest, having to kiss babies and shake hands and kiss-everyone’s-ass-type of person,” she says. “And I feel like as a rising artist, you almost have to be that person to succeed. That’s how the system is built. You have to play with everyone. I’m not that type of person. That’s why I never set out to be this.
“Even to this day, it pains me to have to have my art criticized and given a rating,” she admits. “That’s why I never wanted to be an artist that was in the public eye. I just wanted to make my music and be a background person.”
As Uchis talks, she reminds you of another young female artist who didn’t really want front-of-the-camera fame — Kreayshawn. They’re both creative women with ambitions to be directors, not artists, plus they possess the kind of sharp visual aesthetic and individualistic sense of style that’s adored by Tumblr and salivated over by major labels. When Kreayshawn’s debut album flopped, she seemed almost relieved to leave the spotlight, sending the middle finger of a Tweet: “Aware & Don’t care.” Uchis — who, unlike Kreayshawn, doesn’t rap — seems to have arrived with a similar zero-fucks-given attitude.
Her team is equally strong-minded. Managing Uchis is Claire Bogle, the 26-year-old who co-founded Austin promotions company ScoreMore and was named one of Rolling Stone’s “17 Young Innovators Shaking Up the Music Industry” earlier this year. As Bogle says, “It’s a new wave of women who are not fucking around. Get with it, or get lost.”
Still, for a female artist with a unique voice, it can be a struggle. “Sometimes, when I’ve worked with other directors, it’s been hard, ’cause older men think they know better,” says Uchis. “When people went in to work with me, they were actually surprised at how much input I have in my creative.”
While she has worked with other producers like Diplo and Kaytranada, Uchis still writes all of her songs and directs many of her videos (including "Know What I Want," above). Considering the music industry’s history with puppet-mastering young female artists, it seems likely people have already tried to wrest creative control from her. Asked if she wants to be signed to a major label, her discomfort is palpable. “I think it would make things more complicated,” she says. When pressed, Uchis adds, “In general, I feel like it just kinda fucks things up for people,” before asking to talk about something else.
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Outside the diner, Bogle plays bad cop, asking to see this article before it goes to print. It’s not the Weekly’s practice to allow that, but her concern is understandable. After all, another pen could portray Kali Uchis as just another sexy singer chick wearing short shorts and a Playboy Bunny necklace.
“I just know what I want for myself,” Uchis says. “If you let other people push you around or step on you ’cause you’re scared to be called a bitch or whatever, then people wind up turning you into whatever they want to turn you into.”