In an era when we are continually holding our icons up to the light, measuring how their politics match their art, Lido Pimienta positions hers front and center. For Pimienta, the art, the artist, and the political are all entangled. Her work is of her life, and is fused and suffused with it.
Since she began making music in punk and metal bands, when she was still, as she insists, “a child,” her lyrics have been about confronting injustice in her native Colombia. After immigrating to Canada in 2006, she continued making her own music, which was connected to her Colombian roots both musically and lyrically. Meanwhile, Pimienta became immersed in the Toronto art scene, pursuing a degree in art criticism while raising her young son. Her second album, 2016’s La papessa, catapulted Pimienta to international renown and won that year’s Polaris Music Prize, Canada’s top music honor. While accepting the award, Pimienta spoke of her recent experiences with racism in Canada and reminded her audience that they were standing on colonized First Nations land. She also expressed her frustration with a sound person, who condescended to her before the performance—a historical issue for her and many female performers. Billboard characterized this powerful moment as “an unexpected, obscenity-spiked outburst.” Since then, it’s evident that the music industry wants credit for putting an outspoken, indigenous queer woman onstage, but it doesn’t have much interest in what she’s saying—or, crucially, in addressing the racism and colonization she is asking all of us, as her audience, to account for.
Witnessing Lido Pimienta take the stage is remarkable. When I saw her perform in Chicago in January 2018, she was a few months pregnant, but her energy, joy, and humor were unyielding. Pimienta courts the audience with jokes and invitations, constantly asking them to engage, to connect, to bridge the chasm between audience and artist, to move beyond their role as consumers, to see themselves in her. Between her danceable incantations, she riffed on border crossing, lovingly mocked her own bandmates’ privileged upbringings, addressed the audience in Spanish, and invited marginalized folks in the room to come to the lip of the stage—she prioritized connection. During those forty minutes, the person she was onstage was a personification of the songs and work she has released in the last half decade.
A few weeks after that Chicago show, I spoke to Pimienta by phone, while she was still on tour, maximizing her time on the road before giving birth. She reflected on the ways motherhood has shaped her disciplined approach to her work; her forthcoming album, Miss Colombia; and the porousness between her art and her life.
I. “I ENVY PEOPLE WHO TAKE FRIENDS SERIOUSLY.”
THE BELIEVER: I imagine you’ve experienced people insisting that your lived experience and identity are supposed to exist outside of your music and art criticism. Your work really resists that.
LIDO PIMIENTA: I don’t want to be a white man. Right? It’s not what I want. Like, the aspiration is [in the voice of a protester] “We want equality!” It’s just like, actually, I don’t want equality. In fact, we should have four bathrooms for women, as far as I’m concerned, because the period is a real ting, OK? You go to an airport, there’s never a lineup for men. The lineup for the women’s bathroom is so long! And there’s, like, moms with strollers waiting in line with a baby in a shitty diaper. I don’t want equality! In fact, I should be paid more than men, OK?! Because you gotta add emotional labor to this shit. That’s just the world I live in, and I just won’t conform. I can’t conform. I just don’t know how else to be. I just can’t. I do have friends who are like, “Lido, you are crazy. You have to chill out. Why do you have to say the things you say?” And I’m just like, “Because I can!”
Even in my own oppression, I’m still far more free than a lot of people that can’t say shit, because they’ll literally get killed. It would be easier; I think about it, right? Like, it would be nice if I would enjoy radio music. It would be so nice! It would be so nice if I turned on the radio and turned on the TV and [was] content. I envy people who take Friends seriously. You know, those shows. What’s that one with the nerds—that one show that’s, like, the three nerds and then the hot neighbor and—
BLVR: I don’t know! [Laughs]
LP: I envy those people. That you’re content with that level of mediocrity—I admire that. I would have less cellulite, probably, if I wasn’t thinking about all of these things. I wouldn’t have any heart issues! But that’s not who I am. I am someone who’s just like, “That is garbage.” And I will look at it always with a critical eye, and that’s just who I am.
BLVR: That applies to music making as well. Just the process of you trying to make a living, you’re touring colonized land most of the time. For other musicians it’s “Oh, cool, I get to be in a van away from home and drink free beer.” They don’t have to think twice about crossing borders.
LP: Crossing that border is nerve-wracking. Nerve-wracking. Like I said at the show in Chicago, “If your white tour manager is afraid, I’m petrified!” I know that they’re all afraid, because they’re just like, “Please don’t do a Google search of Lido.” [Homeland Security] can just decide that I am a terrorist, and there goes the seven-thousand-dollar visa. To me, the creative process is the only relaxed part about this entire experience of having the need to perform in front of an audience. If I could create music that I would be happy with just posting online, I would get a job at a café and just “keep calm and carry on!” But that’s not what it is. It’s like this itch that you get as an artist.
I started, in 2010, performing in Colombia. I look back at the people that I started with and how most of those people went on to get Grammys. I was like, What happened? Then I realized, Oh yeah, their songs are about romantic love; my songs are about dismantling white supremacy. [Laughs] They did an English album and they are blond. Oh, I am not; I am actually onstage, pregnant, with pigtails. OK, all right. I just know one way to be. The more comfortable I am with this way of being, the more I see that people are comfortable in their own skin as well.
When all the bad things in the music industry happened to me, when labels were abusing me, stealing money from me, or managers were… all that bad stuff that happens when you’re really young and eager and you don’t really understand what’s going on around you, that had to happen. That had to happen for me to take a break from the music industry. And during that break I learned about the music industry, and now I use my voice to empower mainly women in the music and arts industries, because that’s just what I know. I stay in my lane. I don’t mess with other stuff that I don’t really have to talk about. I am a testament [to] that. There’s different ways to be an artist. The way that I am is working out just fine.
Hopefully with the album I’m working on now, I feel like sonically I’ve cracked the code of entering a bigger audience realm, but I’m still being me. ’Cause that is the most important thing. I cannot have those same pressures that I had before, almost allowing myself to be convinced that if I lose ten pounds [laughs], then people will listen. That’s not how it works! [Laughs] Even if I lose twenty pounds and get breast implants, even if I do that, because of the stuff that I’m saying, it doesn’t really matter how I look.
II. “EVEN WHEN I’M JOKING, MY SHOWS GET SHUT DOWN.”
BLVR: I was talking to [Chilean American pop artist and feminist organizer] Francisca Valenzuela last year about the new music that she’s working on, and she was saying, “Until I sing in English, people are just going to keep writing off what I’m doing as ‘world music.’” And even though she’s making electronic indie pop, she’s not going to get booked on certain festivals until she sings in English. In terms of attracting an audience, was language something that people tried to get you to consider?
LP: Absolutely. “Why don’t you make English versions?” Well, the thing with English is that, you know, it’s not about a translation, and even the interpretation wouldn’t be right. That’s not how it works. I’m pretty good at speaking English. I’m pretty good at communicating in English, but writing a song in English is a whole other… I just can’t do it. If I wrote in English, the whole vibe would change.
The stuff that I say is so obscure but the rhythm is way accessible. People are like, “Oh, I can dance to this!” But I’m actually talking about death; I’m talking about polyamory; I’m talking about possessive partners, and violence against women. But I’m not saying, He beat me. I’m not saying, He raped me. I’m not using those words; I use poetry. I cannot write in the same poetic fashion in English, because my musical ear… The songs in English are, like, way more simple. I try to explain it to those people that wanted me to do the songs in English. What Francisca is saying is very true.
I hope that if I do crack the code, and I do write in a different language, if I do write in English, it’s not because of the pressure of writing in English, but because that’s just how the song came to be. In the new album, there’s this one song [where] I say one thing in English. That was because I was forcing myself: No, Lido, you can do it! Challenge yourself! And then, like, one phrase came in. Empress Of is really good at that. She’s really good at writing things in both languages in the same song. Helado Negro as well. Maybe it’s because they lived in the US for longer [than I did]. I grew up in South America. I came here when I was nineteen. I was formed into an adult knowing what I wanted. It’s the whole thing—sing in English but also [be] married to an aesthetic that is very US.
I’m more worried about the sound. There’s times when I have on a full-on outfit… and my friends do their hair and they’re like, “We’re going to go to a show, and we’re going to do you up, girl!” I’m like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah. Great. Come.” Nothing gets done, because I had a fight with the stupid sound person. One time, we’re at South by Southwest, which is, you know, classically white, rock-and-roll, whatever. Then you have this plethora of diasporic sounds. We’re having such a good time, and then he comes onstage and says, “No, no, no! You can play for longer!” And I’m like, “Guys… the white man just said that we can play for longer. We’re free!” It was hilarious! It was so funny. It was like one of my funniest moments. And he just stopped the show.
At this other particular event, we were doing our sound check. When I layer myself—’cause I have my looper thing—I notice that whenever I would layer myself or have, like, four voices going, he would turn me down, and he wouldn’t turn me up again. I’m like, “I know my limits. Don’t worry; I’ve been doing this a long time.”
BLVR: You’re a professional!
LP: I’m being super cool about it. Then he goes, “You know what, I think you really should use my microphone because it sounds really good on female voices. I think that’s what’s happening.”
LP: He said that shit to me, and at that show—it was a show in LA—my managers are like, “Ooh, this person’s gonna come, and this person’s gonna come!” And I’m like, “I don’t care.” [Laughs] They don’t give me money; they don’t pay my rent. I just want to have a really good show for the people that are paying to see me. So the sound guy is like, “Yeah, this microphone works so well for female voices.” Because of the traumatic experiences I’ve had before with soundmen, I’m like, “Oh! Oh, well, you know what? I feel like I’m getting a cold. I don’t want to get anyone else sick if I use that microphone. Let’s just keep trying.” But it was, like, a two-hour ordeal. If I knew that everything was going to be perfect, sound-wise, maybe I could relax and put a little more care into, you know, my sexy side or whatever. I want to sound good and I want to inspire people with what I’m saying, not with what I look like.
BLVR: What are some of the nonmusical things that have really inspired you, especially in the face of you catching enormous shit for being yourself and sticking up for the people who are in your audiences?
LP: I just see myself in the audience. If I see myself in the audience, it means that they see themselves in me. That’s very powerful. [As] the caregiver that I know I am, I have this need to create a safe place. I have this need to connect with people because I don’t want people to see me as this unattainable, unrealistic… I don’t want to be a fabrication. Even in activist circles, the moment that you say that you have any kind of political engagement, or the moment you have a feminist viewpoint, you get these stupid little requests, or stupid questions. I feel so often that I can’t really be free. I love shoes. I have a huge shoe collection. And that part of me… like, I don’t feel like I should be talking about that, because I feel like I would disappoint the vegans that listen to my music or whatever. [Laughs]
BLVR: Or the people who fantasize that you have only one pair of shoes and you made them yourself.
LP: Exactly! When I went to SXSW, so many messages about “This venue that you’re playing at, well, they’re neighbors… A woman got harassed there. So you shouldn’t play.” And I’m like, “Excuse me?” [Laughs] And then I get a message like “I’m so disappointed that you went and you played at this venue that’s next to the venue [where] one woman got assaulted. And you didn’t even talk about it!” That’s really hard, because as much as I’m there and I will talk about it, I also don’t know who the managers are. I am still a minority. I am still a vulnerable member of society. I am not gonna go and confront any manager in any of the venues that I go to, because even when I’m joking, my shows get shut down. And the people that play with me are counting on this money because they have to pay rent. You know, there’s just this whole circle of things that happen behind a performance, that happen behind a person, and I cannot be expected to be this perfect being. I can just say, “I’ll try to do better!”
III. “A NO-BULLSHIT POLICY”
BLVR: How has motherhood stoked or worked with your creative impulse?
LP: I always wanted to be a mom, and I always wanted to be an artist. I always loved kids, and I wanted to be a teacher. I just never really thought that I have to wait until I accomplish this until I can be that. When I turned twenty years old and I still didn’t have a kid, I was worried—the idea is that when I’m forty, my kid’s gonna be twenty, and we’re gonna be playing in a band together. That’s what I thought about while all my friends were thinking about what school they were going to go to. To me, going to school or getting a job is so easy, but raising kids and having the energy for it is so hard.
The motivation that I get, and the creative impulse, or the encouragement—the way that I see it as a mom is that it really helps me prioritize and understand my value as a person, and as an artist. If I wasn’t a mom, if I didn’t really need to organize my time really well, I wouldn’t be as disciplined as I am in what I do. For me, in my environment, and growing up in an extremely matriarchal family, having kids was just like, it’s what I have to do.
My son is ten years old, and I’m pregnant with my second one. [Laughs] And I’m so happy! Managing my schedule around my son’s schedule helps me live under a no-bullshit policy, you know? My peers and people my age don’t have the same pressures that I have to be excellent.
BLVR: Did becoming a mother change your worldview in a way that also impacted your art making?
LP: I feel like I’m a mom to a lot of people. I am a caregiver, and my relationship with my son and my relationship with my partner and my family home life is just one thing that I have. But my activism, my social awareness, and my political engagement [are due to my being] a person of color, and [to the fact that] my family is indigenous. My family is being persecuted and has been persecuted by the government since I was born. So then you have to learn how to cope and how to communicate and how to express yourself and how to fight for what you believe is right. And then you have to do it in a different language, and then you have to do it in a different country, and then you have to do it within the limitations of whatever industry or whatever job that you think that you’re able to do. I didn’t know what else I’d be doing with my life. I just know how to be an artist.
With my art, I try to accomplish this level of greatness, or financial stability, or notoriety, so that I can put the attention back into my community and my people. And sometimes I feel like, Man, Lido, do you really want another baby? Do you want another baby in this disaster-ass of a world? And then I’m like, I want another baby and I want to adopt two more! [Laughs]
I just have this need to nurture that is fueled by this need to see things work properly and to see things in harmony, because I don’t know what that is like. I don’t know what it’s like to live in a country that is peaceful. I don’t know what that is. I live in Canada, and it’s relatively peaceful compared to Colombia, but even though I live here, I’m so connected to my indigenous land. When I see that land in peace, then I can have peace! And in the meantime, I’m going to be writing about all the things that I see.
IV. MISS COLOMBIA
BLVR: Can you talk to me about Miss Colombia, and what is at the center of it?
LP: I don’t know if you remember when Steve Harvey first guest-appeared on Miss Universe, and he made the horrific mistake of giving the Miss Universe crown to the wrong queen. [Laughs] And the queen [he took the crown from] was Miss Colombia. He was like, “Oh, sorry, I made a mistake!” He didn’t really understand the whole runner-up part. So he gave the crown to Miss Colombia and took it away and gave it to Miss Philippines. What baseball means to the US, beauty pageants are to Colombians, OK? This is our national sport. Women are this thing that we export to the world. Beautiful women is what Colombians are about. We’re right up there with cotton, and pearls, and sugar, or oil, or whatever. We’re currency; that’s what we are as women in Colombia. [Laughs] No one goes to school if Miss Universe is on and Colombia is runner-up. People will leave their job early and your boss will be like, “Yes, we have to root for Miss Colombia.” So just to give you an idea of how big of a deal it was that they took the crown from her.
I have my English Facebook and my Spanish Facebook. I’m scrolling, scrolling, and the comments made by the Colombian diaspora I follow are horrible; they’re disgusting. For weeks, months, people were so sour about this. There’s three-year-olds that are going blind because of malnourishment. But this is what, collectively, Colombians have decided to be united about?
I’ve been so invested in indigenous rights on colonized land in North America, I forget that we’re also on colonized land in South America, right? Instead of looking at these issues from a visitor’s perspective, or as an immigrant, I thought about what makes me Colombian, and what makes me South American, and do I still even consider myself a Colombian, a South American? Do people even see me [that way]? What happens when I go back to Colombia and I feel like, I can’t breathe, too many people. Too loud! And then I’m in Canada; it’s so quiet in Canada. It’s so depressing. Where is the balance?
I started writing these songs as a response to colorism, shadeism, xenophobia. How South Americans living in Europe or living in the States [are] ashamed to show you pictures of their black relatives. How embedded racism still is in South American culture. How the idea of a Latin person is a picture of a white or light-skinned South American—Eva Longoria, Sofía Vergara. The closest thing I feel like we have is, like, Cardi B, like the people that she’s putting on. We don’t really think about indigenous South American entertainers. We can’t name one! Who are the black ones?
This is why I’m expected to “OK, Lido… Just do something more exotic. More Latina! Just throw in some Latina stuff.” And I’m like, “You want me to wear a traditional hat? You want me to drape the flag around me? Just look at me! What else you want?” [Laughs]
And that’s what Miss Colombia is all about. The album was recorded in three different countries. Every time I travel, I try to add something to it. So far it sounds like industrial reggaeton with some accordion and some brass. [Laughs] And I’m trying to decipher it, still sonically, but I do know that that album is the Seat at the Table of South America. It’s for us, for me, for us.