Late one night in 2012, 18-year-old Kali Uchis (now 24) recorded her very first mixtape: Drunken Babble. Consisting of 17 tracks – dreamy R&B vocals with tough-talk rap lyrics, DIY beats, samples and influences spanning soul, reggae, doo-wop and synth pop – she mixed it in her bedroom, using only her laptop, simple digital studio software Garageband and a microphone she bought from someone at school. Uchis – a childhood nickname; her given name is Karly-Marina Loaiza – didn’t think the music would go anywhere. She played the sax and keys in a jazz band at school, but was far more interested in making and selling clothes, photography, and directing other people’s music videos than focusing on her own voice.
And yet, immediately after Uchis uploaded her work online, people started sharing it like crazy. “And I was like, ‘What the hell?’” says Uchis, clad in logoed Fendi and eating a chicken burger – washed down with a glass of Champagne – outside the Lighterman pub in London’s Kings Cross, “because I didn’t even know where they were finding it.” Months later, after discovering quite how many people had shared the mixtape, Uchis deleted it. “I didn’t expect that,” she says, “I felt like, ‘This is embarrassing. I don’t want it out anymore. I can’t sing. The songs are stupid’”. But Uchis’ newfound fans kept reuploading it and the mixtape soon caught the attention of Diplo, A$AP Rocky and Snoop Dogg (who invited her to feature on one of his tracks) and it was only a matter of months before Uchis became a global name. This year alone, the Grammy-nominated singer dropped a top-ten charting album, Isolation, which was also one of the most critically acclaimed of 2018, delivered a much talked-about show at Coachella and was hand-picked by Lana Del Rey to support her most recent tour.
There has been a slew of sellout shows (Drake was spotted at her recent Dallas gig), collaborations with the likes of Gorillaz, Thundercat, Miguel and Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker, as well as slots on primetime American TV. Her single, “After The Storm” (featuring Tyler, The Creator and Bootsy Collins, no less) has 32.5 million YouTube views and counting. Uchis, who grew up between Virginia and her parents’ native Colombia, often sings in Spanish and has built a devoted fanbase in the hugely lucrative Latin American market.
Uchis’ breakneck rise to fame from virtual anonymity is impressive, but her story chimes with an entire new generation of independent artists: gathering fevered followings across Soundcloud and Spotify, who’d rather do their own thing for as long as it takes, rather than conform to a label’s blueprint for success. “I’m not really interested in just making, like, a hip hop song or making music about nothing,” says Uchis. “I never wanted to be the type of artist to sell out.” She’s exerted total creative control over her own career from the start. “It’s not like I came out of the gate with financial support or industry backing,” she says.
“You can see from my first videos I was using handheld cameras and literally doing it all by myself with no team. I didn’t know how to perform. I had to teach myself all these things.” One of these videos from 2012 is still on Uchis’ YouTube channel. Directed and edited by Uchis herself, the video shows her singing in a tiny home bathroom, DIY-style shots of her lying on a (very ordinary-looking) bed and lots of teenagers smoking weed. It’s got the same gritty, amateur feel as the freestyle videos you might have seen on SBTV before grime went mainstream, but with a hedonism-heavy story board that brings to mind Thirteen, the indie cult classic about bored, rebellious teens.
Uchis learnt total independence the hard way. Aged 17, she was kicked out of her parents’ house. “I had a lot of issues with authority growing up. Honestly, I was just a really difficult kid,” she says. “It was just a huge learning experience for me, because I had to realise that I didn’t own shit… and to take nothing for granted.” As is so common for the sons and daughters of diasporas, this lesson was compounded by a life spent in the presence of proper hard graft. “I grew up learning about real sacrifices and that if you really want something you have to get it for yourself,” she explains. There are the the relatives who “went their whole lives being separated from from their kids just to be able to send money home to Colombia”. Then there’s her father, who grew up on the streets, bringing his family to the US by force of sheer will (“He had a fourth-grade education and his parents didn’t take care of him. He learned everything by himself”). What would she tell a young, struggling musician now? “In order to be successful, you don’t need the whole industry to believe in you or to have everyone putting their money on you. You just have to be true to yourself and allow yourself the room to grow.”
What goes around comes around and Uchis is careful to platform rising stars rather than big names, to offer them the same chance she was given. “I wanted to show that I have taste, that I can see potential in acts before everyone else can, because I really know my music and I really know artists,” she says. The first single she released from the album was March 2017’s “Tyrant”, a “post-apocalyptic love song” featuring GQ’s Vero Breakthrough Solo Artist Of The Year, British vocalist Jorja Smith. “When I was working with Jorja, she was really small and no one was really working with her,” Uchis continues, before discussing the refreshing lack of rivalry between the two women, who are now very close. “She’s probably my only real, real friend that I have in the industry.”