Kali Uchis is highly particular. She likes the design of Adams Morgan’s Line hotel but wishes the TV in her room could swing out from its wall mount. She enjoys Los Angeles, but the lack of seasonal weather makes her feel as though she’s caught in a “Groundhog Day” loop. She’s selective about whom she works with, she says, because she’s averse to other people telling her how she should sound.
The Colombian American singer, who oversees most of her own creative direction, has a clear view of not only what she wants to do, but how she intends to do it. And the 24-year-old is well aware of how the world perceives resolute women like her.
“There’s probably a lot of people who think I’m a bitch, but I think it’s really important, as an artist in general, if you have a vision for yourself, to not let other people push you around or make you feel like you’re being too aggressive,” Uchis says.
It was that determination that took Karly Loaiza from being a teenager living out of her Subaru Forester in Alexandria, Va., to making music in Los Angeles and selling out shows in her hometown. In the past two years, she’s been nominated for Latin and American Grammy Awards, toured with Lana Del Rey and performed at Coachella. Her music has appeared on HBO’s “Insecure,” and her song, “In My Dreams,” was the soundtrack of a Volkswagen commercial this year.
Now, her first headlining tour is drawing to a close, after so many of her aspirations — from working with the likes of Snoop Dogg, Tyler, the Creator, Bootsy Collins, Juanes and Damon Albarn to attending the Grammys to seeing the Eiffel Tower — have been realized.
So what now? On a warm October day, Uchis is relaxing in her hotel room hours before her second consecutive performance at the 9:30 Club. The first night’s concert was sold out, something she’s understandably happy about because it was the tour’s “hometown” date. (The second was added because of extra demand.) Uchis, who lives in North Hollywood and has spent a good portion of the past year on the road, is enjoying the opportunity to spend time with family.
She wishes she could do it more often (“I got to meet my nephew yesterday; he’s like 6 weeks old,” she says), but it’s a challenge to see everyone at once, considering her schedule and the fact that her parents, who emigrated from Pereira, Colombia, before she was born, have returned to the country. “I feel like I missed out on a lot of time with them when I was a teenager because I was really rebellious,” she says.
The rebellion Uchis alludes to comes up often: At 17, in 2011, she found herself living out of her SUV, residing mostly in the parking lot of a 24-hour supermarket in Alexandria. In an act of tough love, her parents — well past tired of her refusal to follow their rules — expelled her from their home after she repeatedly broke her curfew. Uchis was attending T.C. Williams High School but had little interest in doing anything beyond the arts. Art school, however, was never on the table because she doesn’t believe that’s something that can be taught.
“You can’t really teach having a designer’s eye or being a creative person; I think art is very subjective,” she says. “So I kind of always thought art school was pretentious and a waste of money.”
Curiosity helped Uchis, the youngest of five siblings, escape the reality of a full house, which was often the first stop for many extended family members after they relocated from Colombia. There was constantly music playing, food being cooked, people running around; meanwhile, Uchis was happiest in her room, writing or drawing.
But Uchis, who played saxophone and piano and was in a jazz band before quitting in high school, never planned to sing. She was more interested in film and photography, so she began by building a portfolio, filming music videos for local artists, creating mix-tape cover art, and making clothes and selling them online, all while writing music that she largely kept to herself. She got more comfortable with singing as she developed her voice, but her creative aspirations were met with admonishment and ridicule from adults and peers alike.
Her family — her parents, especially — was confounded. She says they were humble and hard-working and couldn’t understand why she would pursue such a precarious career path. Told about Uchis’s goals, one classmate responded: “‘Here’s my number; let me know when you’re homeless,’ ” the singer recalls with a laugh.
Uchis supported herself by working as a cashier at Whole Foods after high school. But when Snoop and Tyler, the Creator reached out to her via Twitter after hearing her 2012 mix tape, “Drunken Babble,” on the online mix tape haven DatPiff, she knew music needed her undivided attention. She saved $11,000, quit her job, moved to Los Angeles and made a pledge to herself: “Once I run out of money, I’ll find a way to make more if I have to, but I’m not going back to work.”
“Isolation,” her debut album, released in April, feels like it tells the story of her personal trek, with a clear beginning, middle and end. “Now I’m packing all my bags, and I am leaving it behind / There’s no tracking where I’m going, there’s no me for them to find,” she sings on the sultry bossa nova intro, “Body Language.”
“Tomorrow” is aspirational; “Coming Home” starts off doubtful, but the second half is assured. “After the Storm,” with its irresistibly groovy crawl, is encouraging. The album ends with the reflective “Killer,” written while Uchis was living out of her Subaru, in which she likens love gone bad to murder.
“It was special to work with someone like Kali, ” said rapper BIA, who appeared on “Isolation,” and featured Uchis on her EP, “Nice Girls Finish Last: Cuidado,” over email. “She’s one of few who really knows who she is.”
The album captures Uchis at different stages of life, so she embraces retroactive self-discovery. “I feel bad for anyone who stays the same,” she says quietly.
Much of Uchis’s personal evolution has come from new experiences and comfort with solitude. She’s able to be alone without feeling lonely, an art she mastered while feeling like an outcast at school and at home during her upbringing.
“That’s what helped me build the life I have today: being able to step away from everything that’s going on around me and being able to see that the world is a lot bigger than this,” she says.
She’s waded into social issues but not without controversy. Critics accused her of portraying herself as a brown Latina when “Por Vida”-era photos depicted her with lighter skin and blond hair. Then she was accused of using her position and influence to pressure critics into deleting disapproving tweets about her appearance.
Still, she’s continued to speak out against colorism in the Latino community. “I’ve always been really sensitive about colorism, and I strongly believe that there’s a power imbalance on planet Earth, not just in Colombia, that means people of color are treated worse and considered intimidating and ‘bad,’ and I don’t agree with that,” she told Noisey last year.
During an interview with Hot 97 last month, she said no one should use the n-word if they aren’t black — full stop.
“I feel like it’s the responsible thing to do, to talk about certain things that are happening and make people aware of privileges, whether it be about sexism, colorism or just classism,” she says.
Uchis acknowledges that people turn to her music as an escape, but she knows there’s no fleeing from some uncomfortable truths: “A lot of people don’t want to believe certain things because those issues don’t affect them or the people in their lives,” she says.
The improbability of what she’s accomplished and the privilege that accompanies it is not lost on her. She says she took two of her teenage cousins who live in Colombia outside of the city they were born in for the first time not too long ago. And Uchis says she recently started her first nonprofit venture — no employees, just her and her father, with whom she reconciled not long after her homeless period.
She has started selling clothes through Depop, a shopping app, and donating the proceeds. She crowdsourced Twitter, asking to hear from those who needed help. She got medicine and hospital supplies to people in Pereira and Medellin, while also assisting others in finding secure housing.
Moving forward, though, Uchis would like to help creative communities, as well. “I know a lot of schools are shutting down arts programs,” she says. “So maybe I get into something that helps kids find creative outlets.”
There’s certainly other kids out there with similar aspirations and qualities — the artistic energy, the outspoken nature, the eye for detail — who would benefit from the same encouragement Uchis sought during her youth.