Deep into her set at the Drake Underground in Toronto, Lido Pimienta relays a bitter tale about an abusive relationship before pausing. Then, she invites queer and racialized women to come forward and enjoy the next song in a space just for them.
Stepping back so others can pass in front of me, I try to imagine what it is like to be denied space. But Pimienta, an indigenous, Afro-Colombian immigrant who refuses to record in English, isn’t here to teach me a lesson — she’s offering security and belonging to those who don’t find it easily.
Last year, alt-right groups picked up on Pimienta’s practice of inviting marginalized members of her audience to come forward and promptly labeled her a “reverse racist.” It was part of a torrent of hate that hit weeks after her album La Papessa won Canada’s Polaris Music Prize. Past recipients include Feist, Arcade Fire and Tanya Tagaq.
“I think it’s one of the most remarkable wins we’ve ever had,” says Polaris’ executive director Steve Jordan — pointing out that La Papessa is the first-ever Spanish-language album to win, and it was released without any record label support.
I can’t really be proud to be Canadian, because the conversation of reconciliation is fake, just like the country.
During her live shows, the electronic-pop singer likes to weave stories into her sets. The narrative at the Drake shared elements of Pimienta’s life story, one that began 32 years ago in Barranquilla on Colombia’s Caribbean coast. She and her two siblings were born to an indigenous Wayuu mother and Afro-Colombian father who owned a successful harbor. When she was 6, Pimienta lost her father to cancer, and her mother kept the business and family afloat.
Given more freedom to roam, Pimienta was playing with punk bands by the time she was 11. When her mother relocated to London, Ontario (aka “Londombia”), she left her then 14-year-old daughter, who was fronting her own metal band, with relatives in Colombia. Five years later, in 2005, Pimienta was reunited with her mother in Canada.
But life in Canada brought more pain. In 2013 Pimienta’s brother committed suicide, driven in part by the difficulties of living as an immigrant and the country’s lingering racism. More recently, Pimienta lost one of her key musical collaborators to cancer.
Among the painful stories, however, there were tales of joy. They told of the birth of her son, and the child she was carrying during that night’s performance. The father of Pimienta’s second child is Brandon Miguel Valdivia, her partner and her percussionist.
Known for her politically militant views, Pimienta also incorporates messages of resistance into her performances. From the stage in Toronto, she paid tribute to Colten Boushie, a young Cree man killed by a white farmer in Saskatchewan. The shooter, who admitted killing Boushie but said his gun had misfired, was found not guilty. Pimienta chanted “Justice for Colten” throughout the night.
These interludes lend depth to her performances, and the backing tracks to her elastic, head-turning vocals are tailored for each concert. The sound wizard behind each production is Kvesche Bijon-Ebacher, who’s been performing with Pimienta since 2012.
“No show is the same,” says Bijon-Ebacher, who also features in many of Pimienta’s stories. She calls him her “ nightmare,” joking with the audience about how they clash. “We obviously have friction sometimes, every band has that, and Lido doesn’t hold back,” he says, chuckling.
But their affable sparring is kid’s play compared with the harsh words Pimienta directs at her homeland, which is the subject of her next album, Miss Colombia, slated for release in mid-2019.
She calls the album a “cynical love letter” to Colombia, inspired in part by Steve Harvey’s flub at the 2015 Miss Universe pageant when he announced Miss Colombia as the winner before admitting he’d misread the results. The reaction at home, says Pimienta, was vicious: “Some horrible names that you would expect from some Southern Trump enthusiasts in the States, those same things were said about Harvey.”
Miss Colombia was also driven, she says, by the country’s high rate of femicides (The Bogotá Post reports that on average 73 women are murdered each month) and Pimienta’s experience of “living within a hyphen.” “When you’re Canadian-Colombian-Indigenous-and-Black-and-this-and-that,” she says, “all these labels are given to you, and they mean more problems and issues to navigate.”
While her new album points a finger at her birth county, the singer has also heaped plenty of criticism on her adopted home. “When you come here, no one talks to you about indigenous people,” she says. “They’re not a monolith and they don’t live in a museum. … I can’t really be proud to be Canadian, because the conversation of reconciliation is fake, just like the country.”
Pimienta’s call-it-like-I-see-it brand, together with her raw talent and devoted following, is the reason many believe she can make a lasting impact on the music scene in Canada — and beyond.
“She’s not just purely a musician. She’s a visual artist, an activist,” says Jordan. “She can come up with a whole new version of the musical art form, just based on her artistic ambition and fearlessness.”
Asked what she sees in her future, Pimienta responds with a laugh — “My hope is that I get the hell out of Canada and that I bring my friends with me” — before saying she plans to remain in the Great White North while working abroad as often as possible.
Her obvious disdain for “Canada” — by which she means the federal construct that legislates against indigenous and other people of color — is a blow to a culture largely invisible on the international stage, one whose brightest talents often flee south for better pay and recognition. To change this — and to encourage artists living within hyphens to stay in Canada and promote Canadian culture abroad — the country might want to take a page from Pimienta and invite them to the front of the show.