Lao Ra, though born and raised in Bogota, makes music that encompasses much more than the Colombian influences she heard growing up. The singer, who moved to East London in her late teens, channels M.I.A. more than Juanes, Shakira or Bomba Estereo, and she first caught a buzz last year with her single "Jesus Made Me Bad." More singles followed, including the Carnaval de Barranquilla-themed "Boom Boom," and she just released a new single titled "Me Gusta" featuring South London singer Afro B. Lao R—who celebrated 420 this year by posting a Bob Marley image on social media—spoke with PRØHBTD about "Me Gusta," religion, coca leaves, ayahuasca and her love of punk rock.
Tell me about your new single, "Me Gusta."
I wrote it with Will Simms, a French producer who stays in London, and it's about the empowerment of a woman's own sexuality. A lot of women around the world—especially Latin women, despite the fact that we are often shown as very sexual—experience a lot of guilt. You know, my country is very, very religious, and a lot of women have a problem being able to show they want a guy. "Me Gusta" is like hitting on a guy from a female perspective and saying we can have one-night stands as well. We can be sexual beings, and it's fine.
Other singles included "Body Bounce," "Jesus Made Me Bad," "Daddy Issues" and "Drum Machine," among others. Which early single helped define the sound you wanted to capture?
"Jesus Made me Bad" was my first single, and it definitely clicked. I felt, "Mm, no one sounds like that." It mixes the treble clef thing I have in me with a more contemporary European sound. That was definitely the song that set the mark for my sound, and my new single, "Me Gusta," sets it even more by going toward a more Latin sound and embracing my own culture more.
Speaking of "Jesus Made Me Bad," did you have a religious upbringing?
I sort of did. I had my first communion, I was baptized. I wouldn't say my mom is religious, she's more spiritual, but she goes to church. My grandma is super, super religious like a woman of her time, right? I definitely grew up around a lot of that. I was very aware of the religious society all the time, even though I wasn't particularly religious. I kind of always rejected it. Each to their own, and I respect every faith, but everybody's free to do whatever they want. For me, it always felt a bit repressive, and I've never been interested in being repressed by anything.
Did your grandma like "Jesus Made me Bad"?
I'm very lucky that my grandma doesn't understand English, even though she lives in the States.
As a teen, you got into punk rock music. Why do you think you connected with the music?
I was a massive fan of the Sex Pistols, the Ramones and the Clash. What really connected me to punk rock was that I couldn't do music properly either. I wasn't a proper singer or trained musician. They weren't either, and they still did it. I've always been a fan of the punk approach to life in general. It's sort of like fake it till you make it. Just get on the stage and do it and be fiery and be rowdy and be everything you are in real life. On stage, you can be whatever you want, and that just-fuck-it approach has always appealed to me.
What was your wildest experience at [Bogota's famous party restaurant] Andrés Carne de Res?
Oh my god, I had so many, right? That was the place we used to go every weekend. I once met this famous Colombian singer there named Andrés Cabas. I must have been 11 or 12, and he was in the restaurant having dinner, and I just came up to him and said, "Do you want to dance?" So I asked him for a little dance, basically.
When you grew up, the threats primarily came from [the armed guerrilla group] FARC. How did you feel about the peace deal [Colombian president] Santos brokered?
I felt great, and then I felt shit when it didn't go through. That was a very, very hard day for me. I just couldn't believe it. I respect everyone's point of view, and I understand that justice for some people was maintaining the peace [as opposed to a truce and reintegration], but I felt you just have to let go and forgive. That's the only way to move forward. So finally, when it came back on, I was really pleased. It's going to take years for change, and the whole nation needs to heal—not only the victims, but the nation as a whole. It's going to be a difficult process, but I couldn't be happier it happened.
The Andean culture has a centuries-old tradition of using coca leaves, which the U.S. pushed the world to prohibit since coca contains cocaine. What are your thoughts and experiences with coca?
Drugs should be legalized and treated like a health issue instead of a political issue. The use of cocaine has caused large debts in the war against it, and it frustrates me. It's brought so much blood and so much violence to my country trying to fight something that you can't fight. They're not going to eliminate all traces of cocaine, and coca leaves are very different. It's coke without the process, right? Coca leaves are a tradition for the indigenous people, and it should be respected. If you go to Bogota and have altitude sickness, the best thing you can do is drink coca tea, which will sort it out. It's great. My mom gives it to me every time I go back to Bogota. If she doesn't, I get a headache because the city is so fucking high [in altitude].
Any chance you ever tried yagé? (Note: Yagé is the Colombian name for ayahuasca.)
I haven't. I'm curious about it, and I read a book about it by a Mexican author named Carlos Castaneda. It talked about his trips with yagé, and it was amazing in a spiritual way. I'm afraid of it, to be honest. It's like, where can your mind go? You need to do it properly. It should be treated as a spiritual experience rather than anything else. It's not a party, you know? And it can be really not fun. So, if you're going to do it, try it with the appropriate shaman. But I'm really curious, so maybe one day. It's one of those things that comes to you. Eventually, when you're ready, it will get to you.
Colombia had a bad rep in the 1990s, but now it's become super cool. What is it like to see your country go from its reputation for drugs and paramilitary groups to that of food, music and culture?
It's amazing. I couldn't be happier for the moment we're having in my country. You feel it. When you arrive in Colombia now, there's just pure fire and activity with everything from food to music to art to technology. It's really booming, and we deserve it. We struggled for a lot of years, and we had an unfair reputation created by a few people doing fuzzy businesses that the American government made such a big deal about.
I believe everyone comes from a good place. No one is evil. I mean, Pablo Escobar was evil, but in general, most people are well intentioned. I'm really happy to be living in this moment and seeing Latin culture becoming so powerful. It doesn't matter how many walls you try to build, you can't stop Latin culture from getting into your country.
You moved to London at age 18. How were the first few years trying to adapt?
It was weird. When I first moved to England, I moved to a tiny town called Guildford, and it was a real culture shock. Everyone was white and middle class. I was like, "Oh, okay, this is England." I used to spend all my money taking the train to London every weekend. I couldn't even finish my first year there. I was like, "This is shit. Fuck it. I'm moving to London." That second year, I started to know all the cool places, and I lived in East London, which, let's be honest, is the best part. It has so many things going on. I started working in the football pub. I met a lot of different people. It was definitely a great experience. London is a city like Bogota, so it was easier for me to adapt to a big city than to a small town.
Do you still drink [the Colombian national spirit] Aguardiente?
Barely. I will sometimes. Every time one of my friends goes to Colombia, they bring a bottle, and it gets tougher and tougher to drink each time. I love it, but it's harsh, especially if you're not used to it anymore.
One of the complaints I hear from Colombian artists is that Colombians often don't appreciate them as music artists until they actually have success outside the country. Do you feel that way, and does coming out of London give you an edge back home?
I do feel that. I feel we have a tendency to value what comes from outside rather than what comes from inside. I guess that's how we were taught—that everything from America or England was better—and that's not true. Of course, when you travel, when you come to London, you learn things that you would never learn back home. You are exposed to so many different things that will make you better as an artist for sure, but that doesn't necessarily mean people who are still back home doing their thing are not as good. The more we value what comes from Latin America, the more we're going to have better things in the future. So yeah, I know what you're saying, and I do think it's true, but I think it's changing. The whole mentality is changing.