By Emma Kenny
In striped pants, an oversized black windbreaker, and a fabulous pair of platforms, Lido Pimienta made a striking image in the plain white space of General Assembly during her MEGAPHONO panel talk on a Saturday morning.
She began by fiddling with the mic, removing it from the stand so she could pace the concrete floor in her irresistibly dynamic way. She was magnetic from the moment she stepped in front of the room, immediately asserting her own importance.
Through tangents and call-outs – “If you just want to sing about flowers and that boy who doesn’t call you back, this talk is not for you!” – Pimienta delivered a beautifully cyclical story of her life and work, peppering practical advice in to a discussion of her past experiences and dreams for the future. Painfully honest and self-aware, she didn’t shy away from discussing past mistakes or failures, and transformed each of those episodes into moments of growth and learning. In short, she delivered some straight-up wisdom to a totally captivated crowd. Talk about someone who has magic.
Part of what makes Pimienta so special is that in an industry that is swimming in all-white, all-male acts – look no further than this year’s disappointing Bluesfest lineup for a local example – she centers women of colour and Indigenous people in everything she does. Unapologetic in her attitude, Pimienta described how she moved from the “very macho” culture of Colombia to London, ON at age nineteen, drawn by what she refers to as Canada’s “fantastic PR.” In London, she and her mother encountered aggressive racism, but Pimienta refused to be held back. She transformed her pain into music, as she had been doing since her time in a hard-core punk band at age 13.
With a long career that is showing no signs of slowing down, Pimienta has a lot of advice to give. Her practical recommendations include getting familiar with Arts Councils and SOCAN, in order to best protect yourself and your art and ensure that you can make money off your passion. She also encourages artists to become “students” of music, learning where their sound or genre comes from and how it has been co-opted by western societies. Pimienta advises you to say “no” to events that don’t serve you or your goals; Pimienta acknowledges that it can be hard to say “no” if you don’t get invited that often in the first place, but she reminds her audience that disingenuous offers will get you nowhere. She also encourages you to learn about contracts, publishing and royalties, and don’t be afraid to ask your colleagues how much they’re getting paid to play shows or festivals.
“Know that what you do deserves more…Always have receipts. Protect your art.”
Some of her other advice is much more personal. Pimienta described the “rock star” image that she felt oppressed by when she began performing; rude, late, drunk, trashing hotel rooms and venues. Pimienta rejects this behaviour and image in favour of extreme professionalism. “The highest standard I follow is my own.” She asks: Do you want to make money off your music or do you want to make money and use your platform to uplift, help, and inspire others? The question feels rhetorical, and reminds us that Pimienta has bigger dreams than just the kind of car she wants (although she has those dreams too, despite not having a drivers licence; a black on black on black Jeep with an all leather interior) and inspires us to dream not only bigger, but better. To dream of how we can turn our good fortune, our gifts, our privileges, our gains into justice for those who don’t have what we do.
“If you don’t take it seriously, no one will. And no one should.”
Pimienta has had her share of setbacks. She recounts a chilling story of an agent who lied to her to get her to agree to go on a tour and then dragged her name through the mud by cancelling countless dates all over the world, without her knowledge that they had been booked in the first place. She tells of the record labels who lauded La Papessa but insisted that she wait a year to release it, suggesting to her that she take that time to lose weight and change her image. In the face of it all, Pimienta was unwavering. “My music is about my soul,” she says, touching her hand to her heart, “not about how I look.”
The death of her brother and the illness of one of her main musical collaborators also served to delay the release of her Polaris Prize-winning album, which she says was ready to put out in 2013. Ultimately, Pimienta released the album on her own, an act that cemented La Papessa as a tool for her healing.
Moving fluidly between contemporary issues and events from her past, Pimienta acknowledges that we live in a nation of lies and limitations, and women of colour and Indigenous people are most directly and frequently punished by systems we like to believe no longer exist. (For example, in Canada, Indigenous men make up 25.2% of all incarcerated men, and Indigenous women make up 36.1% of all incarcerated women.) By talking explicitly about Indigenous sovereignty, music reparations, black power, and espousing her brand of take-no-bullshit feminism in both her music and conference talks, Pimienta centres the experiences the people our systems make most vulnerable. Pimienta is a force for good in the industry, her talk a stark reminder to never underestimate the power of music.