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Music Polaris winner Lido Pimienta on a turning point for women in Canadian music

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'I want my face everywhere'

Polaris Prize-winning artist Lido Pimienta performs at Venus Fest in Toronto on Sept. 30.

With a Polaris Prize win – and a fiery acceptance speech – in her wake, the political and boundlessly self-assured Lido Pimienta keeps marching forward. Zosia Bielski reports on her rising career and a turning point for women in Canadian music

Lido Pimienta poses for a portrait before her set at Venus Fest.

Gripping a microphone, Lido Pimienta straddled a chair on her downtown Toronto deck, a red Radio Flyer wagon visible behind her. Her son Lucian, 9, played in his room with pal Ryan. Having cooked the boys dinner (Colombian sausages, roasted vegetables and mashed potatoes), asked about their walk home from school and scolded them about too much salt and screen time, Pimienta was ready to scream into the mike, a modern rock 'n' roll mom.

It was rehearsal Tuesday on a sweltering afternoon in late September and the 31-year-old artist was going over songs from La Papessa, the 2016 Spanish-language album that won her this year's $50,000 Polaris Music Prize, beating out heavies such as Gord Downie, Feist and Cancon granddaddy Leonard Cohen.

Fittingly, "La Papessa" refers to the high priestess in tarot, a queen who is singularly focused. Pimienta is all that, plus ornery. Dressed in paint-splattered sneakers, striped pants, a T-shirt labelled "Mujeres Radicale/Radical Women" and a green head wrap that she tied and retied often, she yelled at bandmate Kvesche Bijons-Ebacher, who handles electronics and showed up late for rehearsal.

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"Do you think you own yourself and your time?" she teasingly demanded, her eyes intense. "You're just lucky because I like your hair today." The two of them and percussionist Brandon Valdivia piled into her studio, a sunroom wedged between the kitchen and deck, stuffed with cords, monitors, drums and furniture, Polaris lanyards hanging from a fire extinguisher on the wall.

For 40 minutes, Pimienta belted it out, her crystal-clear voice carrying over the deck and out to her neighbours' gardens off College Street. She sang fervently about issues disparate and topical: polyamory, sexism, domestic violence, Indigenous persecution and water rights. In between songs, she gave Bijons-Ebacher the finger. It was a striking visual contrasted with her apple cheeks, which make people assume she is "19, or 15," Pimienta said. Like a petulant teenager, she whispered "I hate you" into the mike and looped the words back at Bijons-Ebacher. ("That's the warm-up," he quipped, unfazed.) Although she's clearly quite fond of both men, Pimienta seemed hell-bent on showing them who's boss – constantly. "As soon as I'm rich and famous, I'm getting rid of both of them," she muttered.

Pimienta performs at Venus Fest in Toronto.

As her career revs up following that unexpected Polaris win, Pimienta represents a cultural inflection point for women in Canadian music today. As a politically militant, Indigenous, Afro-Colombian immigrant who refuses to record in English, as a singer who took the opportunity onstage at the Polaris gala to shame Canada for its "white supremacy" and as an artist who is simultaneously difficult, deadpan funny and completely endearing, Pimienta embodies a radical departure point for Canadian women in song. Lilith Fair is long dead, its genteel WASPy ladies and their acoustic guitars rendered irrelevant, their whiteness now telegraphing that they've got no real grievances to air. Pimienta is the new school: dogmatic, empowering and, some might say, annoying, if not intimidating. The singer's "big-ass mouth" (her term) and the intensity of her advocacy for women's and Indigenous rights are unprecedented in Canada. We've officially exited Feistland.

"Just the fact that Lido is winning that award, that's just part of the conversation going on now. It shows the change that Canada's gone through," said Bear Witness of A Tribe Called Red, a First Nations electronic trio from Ottawa that collaborates with Pimienta. "People like Lido, Tanya [Tagaq] and Buffy [Sainte-Marie] … we've always had voices and talent within the Indigenous community, but something has changed in Canada, in the world, that they're willing to listen now."

Backstage before Pimienta's set at Venus Fest, a kind of Lilith 2.0 held last month in Toronto, her mother, Rosario Paz, brushed out and braided her hair, just the way she did when Lido was little. If one person shaped this high priestess of swagger it is Paz, who is Wayuu, the Indigenous people of Colombia's northern Guajira Peninsula. "The women from Guajira – the Wayuu – are strong because they have to be," explained Paz, 60, decked out in sparkly silver heels and a bejewelled cold-shoulder blouse.

In the Colombian city of Barranquilla, Paz ran a lucrative fishing-port business with her Afro-Colombian husband, Ademar Pimienta (she is quick to point out that Colombian women do not take their husband's name in marriage). Paz served as something of an enforcer in the family business, collecting debts, sometimes with a gun in hand. She grows most animated when she describes shooting up chandeliers and plowing through mansion gates in a van to collect the money. "We're warriors," Pimienta chimes in while her mother tells the story and does her braids, which hang to the floor thanks to two long, maroon-tinted extensions draped over her embroidered manta, the traditional dress of Wayuu women.

Pimienta has her hair done by her mother, Rosario Paz, left, and friend and artist Ruth Titus, right, before her set at Venus Fest.

The singer draws often on this family narrative of female badass-ery. Another story she likes to retell onstage in her preamble to La Capacidad ("You Are Able To"), a song about surviving a violent relationship with ex-boyfriend "Bryan," a Toronto roofer: After the man tried to strangle her, Pimienta got a restraining order. He responded by threatening to post intimate photos of her online, sexual harassment known euphemistically as "revenge porn." At this point, her mother took the wheel. In a most enterprising way, she dialled Bryan up and dared him to do it. "'Hello, Bryan? This is the mother of Lido Pimienta,'" says the singer, perfectly imitating her mom's thick Colombian accent to cheers from the crowd. "'She tell me you want to put the naked pictures in the internet. Can you please put the naked pictures in the internet right now? When this happened to Kim Kardashian, she became a millionaire and I don't want to work any more.'"

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Bryan desisted, calling both women "crazy."

When Pimienta finishes telling the tale at Venus Fest, the room of artsy women erupts in laughter and relief. It's a thoroughly new way of addressing rape culture as a female artist: vigilante ball-busting retold as a stand-up comedy routine – not weepy lyrics accompanied by piano.

Paz raised the singer, her older sister and younger brother alone after her husband died of cancer when Lido was 6. Given freedom to roam, Pimienta started playing in punk and metal bands at the age of 11 with artists twice her age. Students at her elite high school didn't get the "weirdo" tomboy.

Among her posh European-Colombian classmates, Pimienta felt her skin was too dark and her hair too kinky – hair the other kids cut one day to study under a microscope in class "because it was so different," she remembers, still stunned.

Pimienta, second from right, laughs with fellow performers Simone Schmidt, left, of The Highest Order, April Aliermo, centre, of Phedre, and friend and multidisciplinary artist Ruth Titus, right.

Her mother emigrated from Colombia when Pimienta was 14, after threats of violence were made against the well-to-do family. Pimienta took up with Indigenous relatives in Guajira, joining her mother in London, Ont., five years later. Her first impressions of Canada are not flattering. "It's just farm people going to London thinking it's the big city and every weekend getting superdrunk and vomiting in the streets. … Why is there snow everywhere and these girls are wearing super small dresses with high heels?"

Then there was the "white supremacy" the singer raged against in her Polaris speech, webcast live on CBC. Her mother, who now works in the automotive industry in London, claims some locals didn't appreciate that she, a new immigrant, could afford to be tooling around in a silver Benz. "She doesn't need to be here with that car," Paz recalled them saying. Pimienta described another ugly scene at Tim Hortons, that supposedly multicultural hub beloved by Canadians and marketers alike: "An old white couple enters the drive-thru where you're supposed to exit and starts screaming at my mother, 'Go back to your country.'"

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They are stories many Canadians don't want to hear, stories that jar with this country's view of itself and its sterling PR as a haven for grateful immigrants. To those who would vehemently deny that this country still has a lingering racism problem, Pimienta is once again direct: "Fuck your comfort!" she shouts from her kitchen. What follows is a long, abrasive rant that makes clear her disdain for affluent, well-established Canadians and their cottages, inheritances and good credit.

It's an alienating approach for an artist who sees worldwide fame in her future. Pimienta risks it anyway: The cottage set is not her target audience. She says she'd like to play fewer hipster shows with overpriced craft beer in downtown Toronto in favour of more diverse crowds, whether in South America, where listeners can immediately understand her lyrics, or in Europe, where her tour takes her next, or just even within the city of Toronto. "I need to drop a song that people in North York like so that they can invite me over," she says.

She's gravitated toward working with and being mentored by Canadian Indigenous artists, including A Tribe Called Red, Tanya Tagaq and Melody McKiver. "Of course I'm going to keep saying it," Pimienta says about reminding this country of its original sin of colonization, a sin that's back to haunt Canadians with a vengeance. And she's off again: "I'm on colonized land. I'm a guest of this land. I shouldn't live in this nice little place I got going on here. I should be living in my country. We all should be going back to our country but we're not. We're here. We're stuck in Canada."

Pimienta on stage at Venus Fest.

Colourful, plush horses from Mexico sit on Pimienta's dinner table, as well as a copy of Sarah Rafael Garcia's SanTana's Fairy Tales, a story collection about a Mexican-American community touching on everything from assimilation to murdered transgender women. Everything in Lido's world is political. Unlike hipsters her own age, she doesn't drink, smoke, party or do anything ironically.

Pimienta's circle consists mostly of female artists, dancers and activists, many of them queer. She treats her apartment like an open house, giving friends the key so they can come and go as they please. After rehearsal, Toronto singer-songwriter Ayo Leilani (a.k.a. Witch Prophet) and producer Francesca Nocera (Sun Sun) show up with homemade lasagna. Pimienta grows gleeful as they come up the stairwell; she can guess it is Leilani by listening to her footsteps.

Pimienta is her warmest self around women who are like her. Last year, she hosted a seminar for female artists called Get Your Coin Girl!, imparting advice on how to draw up contracts, negotiate and get paid. A bona fide multidisciplinary artist who counts songwriting, video direction and visual arts among her various talents, Pimienta holds a degree in art criticism and curatorial practice from Toronto's OCAD University and studied painting and printmaking at Bealart, a renowned fine-art program in London, Ont.

Her idols include M.I.A., Lauryn Hill and Rihanna, defiant artists who have dodged the "role model" label and succeeded anyway. Her guilty pleasure? Keeping Up with The Kardashians; Pimienta appreciates the Kardashian women's business savvy and puts the reality-TV show on while cleaning her apartment.

Here is another duality about the singer: She's a staunch feminist who spends an inordinate amount of time talking about house cleaning and raising a family. The single mother is most at ease surrounded by children and wants a pile of kids, à la Angelina Jolie: a daughter with her current boyfriend and two adopted children is the plan. How will she juggle motherhood as her career accelerates? "I'm doing it now," she says, shrugging off such pesky Anne-Marie Slaughter lines of inquiry while loading the dishwasher. "I know what I'm doing and I want to do it my way," she says, moving on to sweep the floor.

Next on the horizon is a new album, Miss Colombia, a "cynical love letter" to Pimienta's home country. The project is pure political agitation: The singer hopes to draw attention to the severe water crisis paralyzing the Guajira Peninsula, where the diversion of rivers with dams for coal mines has left the region's Wayuu communities struggling with drought, malnutrition and a shockingly high infant-mortality rate. The title Miss Colombia alludes to Steve Harvey's Miss Universe gaffe in 2015, when he mistakenly awarded the title to Miss Colombia that was intended for Miss Philippines, and was forced to yank the crown away on stage. "It was the first time in Colombia that I saw my country united," said Pimienta, recalling the national outrage. "I started thinking, my little cousins are dying in the desert because there's no water and this is what you're going to be united for?"

Pimienta, gets a hug from nephew Orlando Pimienta, 6, as her mother, Rosario Paz, shows her a photo.

This album will be an ambitious undertaking, funded by Pimienta's Polaris winnings. The artist wants to release it three ways: in a pop version, a remixed version and a voice and brass version. " Miss Colombia is going to be the best album that Canada's gonna see in the next 10 years," she announces. "And it's going to be the best album that Colombia has seen in the last 30 years."

That swagger: There isn't a female predecessor on the Canadian music scene who comes close. On one hand, Pimienta's boundless self-assurance is refreshing given how badly women still tend to minimize themselves and their careers. On the other, her bluster can be hard to take. (A small sampling: "I'm not new. People are just catching on to my brilliance, okay?" and, "My show is always the best. I always feel sorry for whoever has to play after me. Always.") The singer is unapologetic about her swagger and raises a good point: Would critics rag on her so hard if she were a man?

There is one single moment when her confidence vanishes, if only for a brief window of time. Applying her own makeup backstage at Venus Fest, Pimienta admits that she's anxious to the point of nausea. A perfectionist at heart – even if she is prepared to irritate the dual nations of Canada and Colombia – the singer is suffering from preshow nerves. She wants to get it right.

One of Pimienta's artist managers hovers about, timidly asking if she should be snapping backstage photos for the singer's Instagram account.

"Do it!" Pimienta shrieks, livening up.

"Listen, you need to stop thinking like a white woman. You need to start thinking like a brown woman. Be nosy, get in my business, intrude, stake all the space, demand it. Just do it. I told you, I want my face everywhere."

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If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

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