The Globe's artist of the year
Lido Pimienta, the 31-year-old Afro-Colombian musician, rose to national attention by winning this year's Polaris Prize and giving the audience – and this country – a piece of her mind. Bold, brash and polarizing, she is the future of Canadian rock 'n' roll
Lido Pimienta is a 31-year-old single mother living in downtown Toronto. She is an Afro-Colombian immigrant with Indigenous roots who left home and landed in London, Ont., 12 years ago. She has dark hair and brown skin. Would you take notice if you passed her on the street, her young son in tow? Would you do a double take if you knew she had produced and independently released an acclaimed album, La Papessa, which won her the $50,000 Polaris Prize, Canada's top juried music award?
We all should. Lido Pimienta isn't just one of the best Canadian musicians of 2017 – she is the future of rock 'n' roll, and she's been waiting for us to finally pay attention.
Pimienta's defiant songs – about "getting ready for war, with love," from a woman's perspective, all deceptively layered atop a vibrant palette of Latin American influences – are the sound of a modern country with its borders open to all the world's influence, the good and the bad of a nation of immigrants, settlers and Indigenous peoples.
She does not fit the mould of what's become the traditional Canadian songstress: that is, a long, well-meaning line of pensive and polite female voices. They are also, ultimately, white. Pimienta is the loudest person in the room and the furthest thing from polite. You don't have to like it, but you will have to deal. She is also brown, and this distinct Otherness is a great source of power in the face of Canada's still very-pale music scene.
"Listen, you need to stop thinking like a white woman. You need to start thinking like a brown woman," she remarked in an October story by The Globe and Mail's Zosia Bielski. "Be nosy, get in my business, intrude, stake all the space, demand it. Just do it."
Pimienta learned how to be all that from a young age in Colombia. She was 6 when her father died of cancer, she told The Globe previously, leaving her and two siblings to be raised by her mother, Rosario Paz. At 11, young Lido played in punk and metal bands. She also at times felt like an outsider even in her home country. Where her differences are now deep wells of strength for a mature artist – her darker complexion and kinky hair derived from Paz's Indigenous heritage as Wayuu, from the Guajira Peninsula – in youth, they were fodder for teasing from fairer-skinned classmates. After threats of violence toward the family, Paz and her children eventually left Colombia and immigrated to Canada.
Much like how Pimienta's roots stretch across borders, so too do her artistic influences. At home, she is close with musicians A Tribe Called Red and Tanya Tagaq – Canadian Indigenous issues are another common theme in Pimienta's lyrics – but she frequently cites international acts that could be described as brown and badass. There are many direct lines to M.I.A., the British Tamil artist who has long mixed music and politics. Lyrically, they are both unapologetic agitators, and both purposefully build sonic foundations on the sounds of their cultures. Their performances vibrate in loud Technicolor, milquetoast guitar rock be damned. Pimienta, though, has not been denied entry to the United States, unlike her U.K. counterpart.
Then there is Cardi B, the upstart Dominican-Trinidadian stripper-turned-rapper from New York who is the Top 40 embodiment of female (and coloured) empowerment in 2017. Pimienta told The Guardian that the Bodak Yellow singer is "my patron and saint." Consider Pimienta, then, the Cardi B of the North: the Canadian patron and saint of the year in female power.
All you need to do is listen. But in punk fashion, Pimienta turns this simple act into its own challenge. She made La Papessa for the Latinx of the world; non-Spanish speakers (i.e., most Canadians) are the outsiders who must work harder to understand her story. It's a worthwhile exercise.
Much of what I know of the lyrics are cobbled from translated verses in other articles about Pimienta. La Capacidad ("You Are Able To") is about a violent relationship with an ex-boyfriend, relating that "I wasn't born to fit into no hetero-normative soap opera. I wasn't born to set worldwide feminism back." Other songs, such as Agua, tell complicated stories about water rights in northern Colombia. Quiero Que Te Vaya Bien ("I Want You to Do Well") touches on themes of self-respect and confidence. The music video seems to imply she is providing life lessons for her young son, but she could very well be inspiring anyone who wants to rise up and speak truth to power.
Her lyrics usually soar above a rhythmic bedrock of Latin American sounds. For anyone more familiar with shaggy indie rock, there is plenty to discover in Pimienta's work, which adds synth-pop inflections to songwriting grounded in digital cumbia. There is no arm-crossed head-nodding to be found here.
The Polaris Prize in September was Pimienta's coronation. Prognosticators saw her as a dark horse – as she always has been – deserving of the short list, but hardly likely to win it. Although the Polaris jury had already been shining a greater light on people of colour, choosing to anoint Tanya Tagaq, Buffy Sainte-Marie and Kaytranada in recent years over the familiar – whiter – Feists, Cohens and Downies of the Canadian canon, even Pimienta had said afterward she thought A Tribe Called Red would triumph this year.
Pimienta won. Her acceptance speech put everyone on notice, but mostly for the wrong reasons. It should be remembered most for honouring her brother, who died in 2013, or a frank account of an unnamed "Aryan specimen" who'd hurled xenophobic insults at her in London, Ont., or thanking her mother for "enduring white supremacy in Canada."
Instead, many remember her expletive-laden anger toward sound issues during her performance. There were echoes of the same stage three years before, when Tagaq, an advocate for the Indigenous seal hunt, used the f-word in reference to animal-rights group PETA when accepting the prize. Been there, done that.
It took another controversy the following month for Pimienta's real message to be heard. At a festival show for the Halifax Pop Explosion, she asked the crowd to make room for "brown girls to the front," a politically progressive request that is a common part of her set. A white photographer close to the stage repeatedly balked at moving. A number of other white audience members supported the photographer's stance. Pimienta eventually removed the offender from her performance, but not before the incident went viral in the music press.
It all ended in an unprecedented public apology from festival organizers, in which they said that the photographer's behaviour was an act of "overt racism."
In hindsight, the blow that Pimienta struck for herself and "brown girls to the front" was an early sign the culture was shifting. No one could have predicted just how seismic those changes would be. From the fallout of #metoo and the pervasiveness of sexual assault and harassment, to the continued #sowhite marginalization of minority viewpoints, the final quarter of 2017 has been an emotional marathon for anyone with a heart. But from these despairing moments came, for marginalized people, and in particular women of colour, a rare opening to be heard louder than ever.
This is, finally, Lido Pimienta's moment. La Papessa was produced in 2015 and released in 2016, well before the current cultural upheaval. She is not writing reactionary music, as many artists have done this year. She was already living the realities that a white majority is now realizing still exist. The story of the "Aryan specimen" stemmed, she said, from an incident in 2005, two weeks after she had arrived in Canada. He "told me to go back to my country."
Pimienta's performances provide the perfect antidote to the kinds of overt racism she so clearly distills in her music and activism. Do a Google image search for "pimienta sappyfest." You will find the most joyous of pictures, the one of Pimienta singing while four young, black fans dance on stage right alongside her. All she wanted to do at that concert in Halifax was what she got to do at a festival in Sackville, N.B.: Create a safe space for everyone to get down.
Pimienta has said some of the $50,000 purse from Polaris will go toward producing her next album, which is already titled Miss Colombia. The future is hers. Only now, she has our full attention.