The Love and Rage of Lido Pimienta


It’s doubtful that the founders of the $50,000 Polaris Music Prize—launched a decade ago to honour Canadian artists who produce albums of distinction— ever imagined that it would one day be claimed by a performer whose album had only been released online and who, eschewing the country’s official languages, had purposefully recorded the work in her native Spanish.

It’s doubtful that the founders of the $50,000 Polaris Music Prize—launched a decade ago to honour Canadian artists who produce albums of distinction— ever imagined that it would one day be claimed by a performer whose album had only been released online and who, eschewing the country’s official languages, had purposefully recorded the work in her native Spanish.

And then there was her acceptance speech: “I hope that the Aryan specimen who told me to go back to my country two weeks after arriving in London, Ontario, is watching this,” said Colombia-born singer Lido Pimienta in a nationally televised broadcast last September after winning the coveted award for her self-produced album La Papessa (High Priestess).

Turning to a woman who was among a rainbow coalition she’d brought to the stage, Pimienta, 31, continued:

“I want to thank my mother for being so resilient and for enduring white supremacy in Canada…. She [also] gets told to go back…. I want to say thank you to the [First Nations] protectors of the land we’re standing on … the real people of this country. Thank you for allowing me to be a guest on your land.”

There is more. In a parting salvo that evoked the kick-ass spirit of Nina Simone, herself revered as a high priestess of soul, Pimienta cursed those responsible for technical glitches that, in her view, undermined her live performance at the Polaris Music Prize gala event.

Pimienta, the single mother of a nine-year-old son, was slammed by Internet trolls. A few weeks after the event, she found herself performing in Halifax, where, as is her custom, she invited women of colour to rock with her at the front of the venue. As a result, Pimienta has been accused of indulging in “reverse racism,” and her detractors promote the false notion that she “bans white people from her shows.” Perhaps not surprisingly, Pimienta has faced threats of bodily harm.

Joanne Kerrigan is a Caucasian woman who attended the Halifax concert. “I thought it was righteous that Lido asked the dudes to move, and created a safe space for folks who’ve been on the margins,” she said. “We need much more of that right now.” In an affi rmation of Pimienta’s transformative impact on the Canadian music scene, the Globe and Mail declared her Canada’s 2017 artist of the year.

During a freewheeling phone chat from her home in Toronto, Pimienta shared reflections on her ascent with La Papessa, which turns on themes of personal healing, respect for Mother Earth and social justice. The work was not released in traditional album format until her surprise victory over marquee Canadian musicians.

“Everything I said in my Polaris speech has been confirmed by the hate that has been directed at me since I won the award,” she says. “What is the chance that an album without even a physical record would best the almighty Feist, the almighty Leonard Cohen, the almighty Gord Downie? I am receiving the prize with open arms but am suspicious. I am smart enough to understand the politics.”

On that note, Pimienta suggests that current efforts to reconcile with First Nations and other historically disenfranchised groups may lead to more stories being told by people of colour. “We have complex stories of real struggle that most whites don’t want to hear,” she says. “As an immigrant, I know I’ve been viewed as a societal burden who just wanted to take from Canada and not give anything back.”

Pimienta’s inspiring story begins with the rich Afro-Indigenous culture of coastal Barranquilla, Colombia, into which she was born the middle child of three siblings. Her father was a music aficionado and an “eccentric” owner of maritime ventures who, Pimienta says, named her after a French entrepreneur that he admired. “When I came out of the womb, my father said I would be a star,” she explains. “So he gave me an international name, Lido, to usher me through the world.”

Sadly, Pimienta’s father died of cancer when she was six. Her mother took over the family business and, adamant about education, enrolled Pimienta in extracurricular activities (visual arts, dance and violin lessons) to enhance her studies in an elite bilingual school where she became fluent in English. There, she says, her blonde, blue-eyed classmates taunted her for having brown skin and kinky hair.

“They actually cut off a lock of my hair to inspect the curls,” Pimienta recalls. “The bullying was so normal that I’ve only begun to process it. Back then, it was just an everyday thing.”

Pimienta adds that her English language skills gave her “status and value” when she later attended a school with more minority students. “I was dissed in one school by white kids for being brown, and envied in another by brown kids because I spoke English. I’ve always had to bridge the gap and fi nd my own way.”

To that end, Pimienta abandoned the violin. Instead, she got tight with a group of local drummers who encouraged her to perform in street carnivals.

“I got my real education from the Afro-Colombian women singers whose ancestors had escaped slavery,” she says. “From them, I learned how to project my voice and command attention when I’m onstage. Now, when I’m performing, I visualize people lining the streets in Barranquilla. So I’ve got to bring it every time.”

Alarmed by increasing political violence in Colombia, Pimienta’s mother moved to Los Angeles, alone, when Lido was 14.

“She had a relative there but didn’t like Los Angeles because it was too fast,” Pimienta recalls. “A friend in Alberta told my mom to immigrate to Canada because ‘nothing ever happens there,’” she says with a laugh.

The Canadian government sent her to London, Ontario, because, as Pimienta tells it, that’s where all other Colombians were living. “She took a risk for her children and did what the white authorities told her to do.”

Pimienta lived with an aunt in Colombia and didn’t see her mother for five years. The pain is palpable when she discusses her quinceanera—the traditional Latin celebration of a girl’s 15th birthday—that her mother was unable to attend. “I was cool with holding my quinceanera party in my apartment with a bunch of my punk friends,” Pimienta says. “But I know my mother was heartbroken because she couldn’t be with me. Separation and loss are major parts of the immigrant narrative that people need to understand.”

Upon her arrival in Canada, Pimienta, then 19, was determined to continue her education and to secure a job. While gathering the documents needed to move forward, she was dumbfounded when a receptionist at a school suggested that she first attend English as a second language (ESL) classes.

“I’m in this lady’s office speaking perfect English,” Pimienta recalls. “And she’s telling me I need to sign up for ESL. It’s the kind of racism immigrants face every day.”

Pimienta gained quick admission to the Bealart School in her new hometown of London, Ontario.

Founded in the late 1920s, the institution is hailed as one of the most progressive art schools in Canada.

“They said I needed 10 drawings in multiple genres and I returned the next day with a portfolio of 20,” she says. “I was asked on the spot to paint a mural in the school that’s still there. I loved art school.”

One thing Pimienta did not groove to, however, was her low-wage work engraving key chains and refilling computer ink cartridges at the local mall. “I was upper-echelon-terrible at the jobs,” she muses.

“I screamed at the customers and didn’t last long. So I focused on my art, which I sold at craft shows and online. I still do.”

Building on the musical talents she’d honed on the streets of Barranquilla, Pimienta released her first album, Color (2010) in collaboration with her husband at the time. After the couple split, Pimienta refined her technical skills by watching music production tutorials. She also began performing with groups such as A Tribe Called Red.

“I’m still on the path of learning how to be a producer,” she says. “I don’t need to be a virtuoso on every aspect of music production, but want to learn as much as possible.”

Pimienta is mindful of the unprecedented strides she’s made with La Papessa. Listeners familiar with the techno-pop beats of the 1980s-era group DeBarge will find echoes of their sound in “Fornicarte Es Un Arte” (Fornication is an Art). “La Capacidad” (You Are Able To) celebrates resilience. In “Agua” (Water), the singer delivers a mesmerizing chant that both calms and invigorates.

“Winner of the Polaris Prize,” are the words on a sticker affixed to her album. But the prize signifies much more for the artist who has faced many obstacles since her 6,400-kilometre journey from Colombia to Canada, including the unexpected death of her brother.

La Papessa is about how to empower oneself with education and self-care,” she says. “It is almost a

12-step program for rehabilitation and honouring my brother’s passing. It has healed the turmoil one feels when one’s family falls apart and you blame yourself.”

Buoyed by her success, Pimienta is now recording Miss Colombia, a tongue-in-cheek play on the nostalgia she feels for her homeland and an infamous incident that occurred at the 2015 Miss Universe pageant. Emcee Steve Harvey flubbed his cue card and mistakenly announced Miss Colombia as the winner of the crown, instead of Miss Philippines.

“It’s a cynical love letter to my birth country for selling out to mining corporations,” she says. “It’s a message to Colombians who don’t respect our Indigenous people. What I do is pure and comes from a place of love and absolute rage. Miss Colombia will have those qualities and a generous dose of brass.”

In a nod to her solidarity with other daring womenof-colour musicians, Pimienta adds that she fullyintends “to write songs for Solange and Rihanna.”

She has already released “Camellando,” a dazzling Spanish remix of Rihanna’s smash hit “Work.” She explains that in the slang spoken in Barranquilla, camellando means riding the camel, or working hard.

“I reinterpreted Rihanna’s song and took it up a notch to pay homage to the women who do the physical and emotional labour in families,” says Pimienta, who identifies as queer. “People have loved it.”

“Yes, lady!” raved an online admirer of the song.

Before signing off, the inimitable Pimienta reveals that she is also labouring on another project. “I want to have a daughter,” she says, gleefully. “She will be strong. She will be independent. She will be fantastic.

She will be a miracle. Just like … guess who?” 