Lido Pimienta's path from Colombian misfit to genre-bending Latinx singer

The Canadian/Colombian singer and former Polaris Prize winner opens up about her 'very strange' upbringing before an Express Live show with Sylvan Esso on Wednesday, Nov. 3

Joel Oliphint
Columbus Alive
Lido Pimienta

From the age of 4, Lido Pimienta knew there was something special about her voice.  

“My father, whenever we had a blackout in our hometown in Barranquilla, Colombia, he would gather all the kids and neighbors, and he would have me and my sisters sing ABBA songs, which is really strange, because in that region of Colombia, you don't really be listening to ABBA,” Pimienta said recently by phone. “But that's when I knew that I had a gift with my voice.” 

Pimienta’s realization of her own talent didn’t set her on a direct path to a career in music. Before immigrating to Canada, Pimienta, who identifies with both the Afro-Colombian and Indigenous Wayuu communities, had trouble making sense of her dual heritage. “I knew that I had a voice, but it wasn't always cherished and understood, because people would just see me as a strange little girl that goes and lives in the desert,” she said. “I would go from being in the desert with my Indigenous family, who can't even speak Spanish, to going to the city and going to a school that's named after a former U.S. president. So it was a very, very strange way of growing up.” 

Pimienta, who performs tonight (Wednesday, Nov. 3) at Express Live with Sylvan Esso, also felt external pressures to follow a more traditional path. “When you're a girl, the expectation is that you're going to grow up and marry a rich husband or something, especially in Latin America. The worry was that, 'We want Lido to hopefully not end up a lesbian, because she never likes to wear dresses,’” said Pimienta, who identifies as queer. "When I started expressing myself artistically, then it was a matter of, ‘I hope she doesn't end up a drug addict.’ But it was never like, ‘She was meant to be an artist.’ … People just thought that I was a strange kid: ‘Hopefully one day she'll get a real job.’” 

Instead of caving to the pressure, Pimienta said the resistance motivated her to work harder and embrace her own artistic vision. “I had nothing to lose because the expectations of whatever I did were so low that I might as well just do whatever makes me happy,” she said.

Eventually, in her teenage years, Pimienta’s mother caught on and began supporting her artistic pursuits. The bilingual Latinx singer’s breakthrough came in 2016 with the release of La Papessa, a groundbreaking mashup of electro-pop and cumbia that won the Polaris Prize for Canadian album of the year. Pimienta followed it up with last year’s Miss Colombia, which expands her hybridized sound even further, with Pimienta citing influences ranging from Canadian electronic act the Halluci Nation (formerly A Tribe Called Red), Inuk throat singer Tanya Tagaq and rapper Cardi B. 

With Miss Colombia, which Pimienta intended to present as a story with a beginning, middle and end, the artist pushed herself sonically and vocally. “The goal for me on every album and everything that I do is, how can I be better? How can I be more intentional? How can I be more present in what I do?” she said. “When I'm really old and I look back at my catalog, I want to be able to be proud of it and leave a legacy behind.” 

Of course, when Pimienta and her label, Anti-, set the April 17, 2020, release date for Miss Colombia, they didn’t realize a pandemic would bring live music to a standstill for months. Pimienta said they considered pushing the album back, but she took inspiration from acts like Enya, who never relied on touring. Plus, releasing the record while millions of people were isolating at home provided an opportunity for listeners to sit with the music more than they might have otherwise.

“In every city that I go to, and on every [social] platform that I visit or that I comment on, people are telling me the same thing: ‘Your album helped me all throughout the pandemic. It helped me to stay alive. It gave me hope. It was the soundtrack to my life all through the pandemic,’” she said. “That's the best that can happen.”