words by Rebecca Haithcoat
photography by Asha Efia
art direction by Quinn Wilson
In the YouTube still for Kali Uchis’ self-directed “Know What I Want” video, puffs of cotton-candy-pink smoke trail from a pool-blue car. Perched on the trunk with a Barbie-blonde ponytail and Nancy Sinatra walkin’ boots is Kali. It’s a pretty tableau.
But watch the video. Within a minute, the story darkens considerably.
“My background as a human being has been that the world is really dark and everything is kinda some shit,” the singer says over the phone from her house in Virginia. “I like to balance that with this bubblegum image of everything being so cute and colorful. It’s a contrast.”
You could say the very same about Kali. She turned 21 last July, but as evinced by her affinity for the ‘60s and ‘70s, she is an old soul. She tweets things like “I hope manners is the next cool trend,” that reflect her Southern upbringing in Virginia. In conversation, she giggles in a demure manner reminiscent of doe-eyed 1950s sweater girls. But just as you begin to believe she’s a Sandy, she morphs into a shrewd Rizzo, saying, “I’m not the most marketable pussy. I’m not a puppet for other people.”
“Know What I Want” is not just lip service, and so far, doing it her way is working. In August 2012, she released her first self-produced mixtape, Drunken Babble. Her voice, sounding descended from Astrud Gilberto’s, wafts over a mix of surf rock and East L.A. lowrider cruising classics. Posting a video for the hypnotic song “What They Say” the following summer cemented her “one-to-watch” status.
Dressed in SweeTarts-colored clothing, Kali and friends go on a spree that finds them stealing a car, smoking blunts and holing up in a sun-bleached motel somewhere in Cali. Her distinctive vibe and voice have entranced Snoop Dogg, Diplo and Tyler the Creator, and she quickly became a Tumblr darling. No doubt labels have been lusting after her, but in January, she released her first album, Por Vida, independently.
Of course she did.
Kali Uchis was born in Colombia in 1993. She was the baby of the family, her closest sibling being 15 years older than she. The other thing that separated her from the pack was her blond hair and fair skin. All her brothers and sisters had black hair, which cemented her status as an outsider.
“I spent a lot of time by myself. I built a really big imagination,” she says. “I used to make my toys. The pink one would be the popular girl, the purple one was her best friend. I would make paper dolls and their outfits.”
When she was seven years old, the family moved to a small town in Virginia near Washington, D.C. She spent a lot of time with her aunt and her grandmother, who was a librarian and a painter. She taught Kali to read and would divide her granddaughter’s day into chunks of time dedicated to various creative hobbies.
They stuck. Even in elementary school, Kali would make her own shirts. “One day I went to school and saw a girl wearing the same shirt as me and it just killed me,” she says. “I was so bummed. After that I was like, I’m never gonna be seen wearing the same shit as another bitch.” There was one mall in town and everyone shopped there, so Kali started piecing together her particular style that she figured no one would copy. “Moon boots, really high socks with stripes. Everyone would be like, ‘What the fuck is she wearing?’” she says, giggling.
Tellingly, when she was very little she wanted to join the circus in order to free all the animals, but by the time she entered high school, she realized her most passionate interests centered around music. She was a saxophonist in jazz band and had started making music videos for other people. She knew college wasn’t for her, so she stopped taking her academic courses seriously and focused instead on her music and photo classes.
“I never applied to colleges or took my SATs,” she says. “I knew I was gonna build myself up through my work instead of through school. I thought I was just gonna be a music video director and filmmaker.”
The summer after she graduated, though, she decided to record a mixtape. She’d dabbled in writing her whole life, tinkering around on the piano and making up songs. So she put a tape together in a couple weeks and uploaded it. “Luckily, I ended up not having that bad of a voice,” she says. When people began reaching out, it occurred to her that she could pursue being in front of the camera in addition to being behind it.
Since the very beginning, she’s been hyper aware of steering her own career and maintaining creative control. It’s yet another striking difference between her and many young females in the very male-dominated music industry—especially in a day and age when a financially viable career as an artist is more elusive than ever.
“I’m just very careful about not letting people impose their own ideas on what I should be, on to myself,” she says. “I chose this career because I don’t want other people to tell me what to do.” Obviously, staying true to her vision has set her apart. In other interviews, she’s said she created Drunken Babble because so many people were becoming successful from songs she felt were “ass.”
Speaking of asses, she has a very firm stance on how much of hers she will show. After J. Lo released her “Booty” video this fall, Kali posted a picture on her Instagram with the caption, “this wut we gotta resort to now, j lo [sic]? female music industry is like the highest paid strippers.”
“I wasn’t trying to bash J. Lo,” she explains:
It’s just literally that was the first CD I picked up as a little kid, ‘Jenny from the Block.’
Her ass has always made people pay attention to her, but I’ve never seen her be so thirsty. It just blew me. You don’t have to do this. Now that she’s getting older, she thinks she has to then bend over and have her pussy all out in front of the camera? It was just real tacky… It’s like, sex sells, but on the other hand, that’s the laziest way to be sexy. You’re gonna get anyone horny if you throw on fishnets and heels and bend over.
Her Twitter and Instagram are peppered with bits of wisdom like this, both practical and spiritual. She says her father was very religious, and encouraged her to develop her own beliefs, so she read some of the Koran, some of the Bible and some Deepak Chopra.
“I’m really impulsive and it’s really hard for me not to act reckless and to have self discipline, she says. “So reading that stuff gives me a grounding and balance that I lack. I try to share that with people.”
One of the most important lessons she seems to have learned already is that nothing lasts forever, certainly not a singing career. But don’t worry about Kali Uchis losing her voice.
“I know my worth and I know where it can take me,” she says. “Feel me?”
Yes. Feel and hear.