Skip to main content

How the Pandemic and TikTok Fueled the Success of Kali Uchis’ Bilingual Hit ‘Telepatia’

Growing up between the U.S. and Colombia, Uchis knew she was unique — but felt like she fit in nowhere. With her breakout hit, the industry has finally caught up to her vision.

When Kali Uchis told her father she wanted to skip college to become a professional musician, his answer wasn’t quite what she had hoped for.

“ ‘There are a lot of girls prettier than you and that have a better voice than you,’ ” Uchis recalls him telling her. “ ‘What would make you stand out from them?’ ” She wasn’t dissuaded. “ ‘Well, there can be a million girls more pretty than me and with a better voice than me,’ ” she answered. “ ‘But they’ll never be me.’ ”

Today, it’s precisely that other-ness that has led 27-year-old Uchis — the bilingual, bicultural, genre-bending singer-songwriter whose vocals flow effortlessly between English and Spanish — to become an unlikely star with the song “Telepatía,” a trippy fantasy in which she sings of wanting to “make love through telepathy,” which became her breakout hit earlier this year.

“My motivation has always been to be connected to my culture, to who I am as an artist,” says Uchis, who was born in the United States and grew up between there and Colombia. “At my first shows, I would be singing in Spanglish or Spanish, and people would be so confused and be laughing at me and walking away. They weren’t ready for that at the time. I felt that there wasn’t really a space for me because I’m bilingual, I have dual citizenship, I grew up in two different countries, and also, I don’t stick to just one genre. It was just a lot harder for people to put their money on me.”

Kali Uchis
Uchis in the “Telepatía” video Courtesy of UMG

While it’s no longer unusual to see crossover Spanish-language hits and bilingual remixes high on the mainstream Billboard charts, bilingual solo hits are still very much an anomaly. And yet “Telepatía” rose to No. 1 on three charts, including, notably, both Latin and Rhythmic Airplay — a testament to Uchis’ singularity and versatility.

“A song like ‘Telepatía’ that doesn’t fit in any box, most people would not have expected it to do well in radio,” says Matt Morris, senior vp A&R at Interscope Records. (Uchis is signed to a joint venture between Interscope Geffen A&M in the United States and Virgin UK.) “But it feels very generational for people who love genre ambiguous music and speak many languages. This song is very representative of this artist and this generation.”

Uchis first explored the idea of a song about telepathy following her 2018 major-label debut, Isolation (Virgin UK/EMI). But she set it aside to focus on her next album, which she insisted be in Spanish — despite, she says, strong resistance from Virgin UK/EMI. “They literally told my manager, ‘If you guys do the Spanish s–t, you’re on your own,’ ” recalls Uchis.

The label would have had good reason for trepidation. Uchis had always sung and recorded in both languages, but she was relatively unknown in the mainstream Latin market: Her fan base was diverse, but her nascent success came mostly from English-speaking, alternative music (“10%,” her 2019 collaboration with Kaytranada, won the Grammy for best dance recording), not native Spanish speakers.

With Interscope in her corner, however — a label with a long history of pushing Latin acts (like Enrique Iglesias and Daddy Yankee) and that recently opened a Miami office focused on Latin repertoire — Uchis could finally start to bridge that divide. “When you try to market songs in two languages, it’s challenging; there’s an Anglo world and a Latin world and they’re not always aligned,” says José Cedeño, senior vp revenue and strategy for Interscope in Miami. “But Kali is someone who flows in and out of [both] languages as if it were one.”

Finally, she was free to record her longed-for Spanish language album. And when she was sent a dreamy new instrumental track reminiscent of her 2018 English-language single “After the Storm” (featuring Tyler, The Creator and Bootsy Collins), she realized it could help shape the telepathy concept she had started sketching out months before.

“That type of music sounds really comfortable for me to ride,” says Uchis. “The melodies came super natural, and the words, I didn’t really know where they were coming from, but they came really fast as well. It was such a natural process, and I feel like that’s how my best songs happen.”

Still, no one, least of all Uchis herself, expected much from “Telepatía.” The track almost didn’t even make it onto the album, Sin Miedo (Del Amor y Otros Demonios), when it was released last December. In the many glowing reviews that followed, it often wasn’t even mentioned; attention instead focused on “La Luz,” a single featuring rising reggaetón star Jhay Cortez, and her cover of La Lupe’s “Que Te Pedí” — tracks with more commercial appeal than Uchis’ previously alt-leaning output.

Then, a new year came — and, soon after, the outbreak of the pandemic. Suddenly, a song about keeping long-distance romance alive that had been written long before anyone had heard of COVID-19 felt very timely. And an artist blending English and Spanish didn’t feel so out of place anymore.

Ni de aquí, ni de allá. “Not from here, not from there” — that’s how the artist born Karly-Marina Loaiza grew up. Born in Virginia but raised between there and the small city of Pereira, Colombia, Kali Uchis felt slightly disenfranchised in both places.

“In Virginia, people were always saying, ‘You’re not from here, where are you from? Are you from the West Coast or something?’ ” recalls Uchis today. “And I had never been to the West Coast before. But in Colombia, too, people would always say, ‘De dónde eres?’ ”

Growing up in Pereira — a city nestled in the country’s mountainous coffee-growing region — felt worlds away from music industry hubs Bogotá, Medellín and Cali. There were ducks, turkeys and chickens in the backyard and cousins, uncles, aunts and Uchis’ four siblings seemingly filling every inch of living space.

“I’ve always lived in a full house,” she says. “When we went back to the United States, our house was the house you passed through coming to America — the place you lived until you were able to get on your feet. My room was the girls’ room, and it literally just had beds for my aunts and my cousins. I guess that’s why now, as an adult, I’m such a private person and I value my space so much.”

In Pereira, Uchis absorbed Colombia’s richly diverse musical traditions and began exploring her own artistic identity, though she never dreamed of asking her parents for financial support. “My dad was literally homeless as a child. He had a fourth-grade education and came to the United States just figuring it out from the bottom,” says Uchis. “So I was raised to be very resourceful and very grateful.” She helped her family with cleaning and construction jobs and eventually found her own hustles: cashier work, customer service, buying and selling vintage clothing, making videos and doing graphic design for others.

At 19, Uchis took her savings and moved to Los Angeles to make a go of it as an artist. Even on her 2015 self-released debut, Por Vida, her aesthetic felt remarkably developed — sinuous vocals floating atop lush soul and R&B beats and production. Her video for early single “Ridin Round” caught the attention of marquee Latin acts like fellow Colombian Juanes (who, much to Uchis’ family’s delight, asked her to sing on his 2017 song “El Ratico”) and left-of-mainstream American artists like Tyler, The Creator, an early fan. “He was the only person [in the beginning] who really reached out to me that didn’t ask me for anything [in return], who had an actual, detailed account of the things that were special about what I did,” recalls Uchis. (She ended up featuring on his 2017 single “See You Again,” he on her “After the Storm.”)

Kali Uchis
Uchis onstage with Tyler, The Creator in 2017. Andrew Lipovsky/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via GI

Speaking from her new home in Los Angeles, Uchis is disarmingly open and self-aware, recounting the early days of trying to get a record deal and her music promoted on her own. “I went through my little trauma with the industry,” she says ruefully. “You get kind of jaded because you feel like people just pretend like they care, but really don’t. But I did the work on myself that I needed to do, and I’m still doing the work. I wish that every artist had access to therapy because it’s super, super important.”

By 2019, Uchis was determined to record an album in Spanish — and frustrated by the intricacies of dealing with a label based overseas. She and her managers, Shakira Kalite and Jon Lieberberg, brought in Latin industry veteran Yamile Fernández to, as he puts it, “connect the dots” with Interscope for the release of Sin Miedo. It was a watershed move: The label’s marketing and digital teams could target her loyal U.S. fan base, while its Latin-focused office could help build the Latin American audience that eluded her. “At the beginning, at least, it was a very niche, core, almost cultish fan base for Kali,” says Kimberly Barrena, Interscope’s global marketing manager. “So my initial strategy was trying to connect her with a bigger fan base globally.”

Two early singles that preceded Sin Miedo’s 2020 release didn’t do particularly well: “Aquí Mando Yo,” with Rico Nasty, didn’t chart, and “La Luz” peaked at No. 15 on Latin Pop Airplay. So in January, Barrena and digital marketing senior manager Murdoc Hardy began scouring social media, YouTube and TikTok to figure out which songs fans were responding to and where. “Telepatía” kept surfacing, especially on TikTok. So they tried out an idea to boost the song into viral-hit territory.

“Success on TikTok doesn’t necessarily mean you get [a superstar] to do your dance,” says Barrena. “Success can mean people want to just make videos and literally watch content with your song attached to it. People just living with the music is always the best scenario.” They selected a lyric segment — “You know I’m just a flight away/If you wanted you can take a private plane/A kilómetros estamos conectando/Y me prendes aunque no me estés tocando” — that they figured would have maximum impact, and, working with Universal’s Mexico and Brazil teams, recruited influencers (first in Mexico, where the song was especially popular on TikTok) to create their own clips.

The response was so instantaneous — a wide variety of content, much of it simply featuring users singing or lip-syncing along to the song — that the label had a music video shot in April in Colombia to further elevate Uchis’ profile there. “You can really tell how impactful a song is to an audience by how long the trend lasts,” says Hardy. “There were three or four different parts of the song that people were [organically] using, and we decided to use this particular one. It was literally a bridge between the two languages [in the song] and between the two cultures.”

By May, “Telepatía” became Uchis’ first No. 1 on the Hot Latin Songs chart — making her the first female soloist without an accompanying act to lead the list since 2012 — and Sin Miedo reached No. 1 on Latin Pop Albums. By August, “Telepatía” had risen to the top 10 of the all-genre Streaming and Radio Songs charts and peaked at No. 25 on the Billboard Hot 100 — Uchis’ second, and highest, showing there yet. A year after its release, it ends 2021 as the second-most-consumed Latin track of the year, behind only Bad Bunny’s “Dákiti,” with 646 million global on-demand audio streams (of which 241 million were in the United States) as of Dec. 2, according to MRC Data. And Uchis, the girl who once felt like she belonged nowhere, is the fourth-most consumed Latin artist in the country.

“I never, ever would have imagined that I’d see that happen — like, ever,” she says. “I just never, ever had that type of motive or intention. I think people never really viewed me as marketable, and I always viewed myself as an artist, so I never worried about how I was going to sell or get accolades or anything. I didn’t think that it was possible for somebody like me to have this type of success.”

“I don’t think you can replicate it,” says Morris. “But I think Kali is going to be a beacon for change.” Sin Miedo just garnered a Grammy nomination for best musica urbana album, and in February, Uchis will open for Tyler, The Creator on tour. There’s new music on the way, as well as denim, sunglasses and beauty lines.

As for the family who once worried she would have trouble making a name for herself in music? “They’re super proud,” says Uchis. “More than anything, they wish now that they had been supportive when I started. But honestly, I didn’t think too much about whether things were going to work out for me or not. It was, ‘This is my life. These are the cards that I was dealt. I’m going to do the most with what God gave me.’ I always recognized that God made me unique. There aren’t a lot of people that have my background — or my spirit.”

This story originally appeared in the Dec. 18, 2021, issue of Billboard.