Dangerous woman: A conversation with the formidable Lila Downs

"I love to break the expectations." — Lila Downs
Lila Downs is a Latin Grammy Award-winning Indigenous Mexican-American vocalist. (Johnny Lopera)

Grammy Award-winning singer-songwriter Lila Downs knows firsthand one of the characteristics that makes for a "dangerous woman": loudly, proudly, unapologetically using your voice.

The acclaimed vocal powerhouse — Downs studied opera originally — and activist has fused politics and advocacy with her music throughout her career, including songs about migrant rights, Indigenous rights, discrimination and oppression. Downs grew up with one foot in Mexico and one foot in America, and throughout elementary and high school, she alternated a year in Minnesota, where her Scottish–American father made his home, and a year in Oaxaca, her Mixtec Indigenous mother's homeland, in the village of Tlaxiaco.

Downs released her first album, Ofrenda, in 1994, and 2001's Border was the first album to feature Downs singing in English. A year later, she sang "Burn It Blue" for the soundtrack to the film Frida, about the iconic Mexican artist Frida Kahlo; the track was nominated for an Oscar for best original song. Downs' music itself is also wildly varied, positioning Mexican and Latin American traditions, genres and styles — son jarocho, ranchero, cumbia and bolero, to name a few — alongside rock, reggae, country, jazz, pop and folk.

She subverts expectations with each album she releases, and she has also quite judiciously established a successful musical career rooted in social activism and resistance. After the election of Donald Trump, Downs released the song "Demagogue", a scathing and raw indictment of fascism and hate, and dedicated it to the president himself.

On March 10, Mexican-American singer-songwriter Lila Downs returns to Vancouver's Chan Centre, this time in support of her Latin Grammy Award-winning 2017 album, Salón, Lágrimas y Deseo, which is dedicated to and inspired by strong women.

CBC Music spoke with Downs from her home in Oaxaca about her newest album, advocacy, Indigenous rights and disrupting the status quo.

One of the songs on your new album is called "Peligrosa", which translates as "Dangerous Woman". What does a dangerous woman mean to you?

I was kind of mystified by writing that song in the first place. It's kind of like a new period in songwriting for me where I'm learning from myself and learning from the subconscious. In the press, some men have kind of been taken aback by the title of the song and they're like, "Oh, so now you're going to be dangerous!" On the other hand, the women are excited and happy every time, so it's kind of interesting to see what the word brings out of each side.

What makes a woman "dangerous"?

When I was thinking about the lyrics and the power of relationships and how intense — and sometimes an area that you're not knowledgeable of, it goes out of your hands. Of course, the obvious is that I think that women seem dangerous to men when we are in powerful positions. That crosses over to relationships and why there is violence in relationships. Women are a threat to certain men's existences.

Why was this the right time for you to make a record dedicated to strong women?

It's the time. We were invited to go to the protest in D.C. right after Donald Trump won and I wasn't able to go, I was sick, and also there we were working in the studio and so we weren't able to. But I remember feeling the thrust of movement and thinking this is the time to be talking about these issues. We're finally being listened to — and by a lot of men, which wasn't happening before, it was like we were just preaching to the choir.

Have you always been rooted in activism?

I believe I have. I had a choice at one point, like 20 years ago, and I remember thinking, "This is the big moment." I had to go that way or go this way and I really made the conscious choice. I remember thinking, "OK, I might not be Top 40 or whatever it is, taking the easier route as a singer, because I've been told a lot that I'm a good singer and I could be commercial or I could do whatever I wanted." And I committed, I decided I'm going to go down this route because it makes me feel more comfortable with who I am. There's enough commercial music out there to keep everybody happy. I made a conscious decision and I haven't regretted it.

You've been inspired by and done a lot of advocacy for Indigenous people, particularly in Mexico. How do you find strength to keep actively moving forward when there are a lot of forces at work that really do seek to keep people oppressed and marginalized?

That's a very thoughtful question because it's something that — being Indigenous — you have to deal with every day. We have a lot of work ahead of us in this area to create consciousness of our communities in the first place, and to realize how Latin people have a huge representation in this area as well and how we are important voices in the discussion of immigration and political participation in the U.S., and of course in Canada as well because we have growing communities in both countries.

I feel like you disrupted the music industry by choosing very specifically what you want your career to look like and doing it on your own terms, but do you feel like you have disrupted the music industry?

I hope that I have [laughs]. I love to break the expectations even though it's hard and it feels like you're constantly swimming against the current, but it's worth it because you are creating — along with my husband of course, who has been a wonderful believer in what our message has been. We have accomplished, you know, not having to do anything as someone else has told us to do it in their way and it's been definitely about the issues, about the ideals of beauty — which I believe are quite different — and about being true to yourself that way and admiring people for their legitimacy in our historical, amazing picture on this continent and so yeah, I hope that we are able to do more and disrupt some more of the patriarchal musical lanes.

Find me on Twitter: @_AndreaWarner


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