Published Jan 18, 2021"In Canada, even outside of Canada, I don't think there's a lot of Black pop stars that you can name, especially none that started out as pop," Toronto singer LU KALA explains to Exclaim!
For the past few years, KALA, a proudly plus-sized Black woman, has found herself trying to occupy a space that, in her words, "was literally not made for me."
"There's a lot of unconscious bias when it comes to that," she notes. "It's very sad, but I feel like those who aren't Black are automatically allowed in the pop space, and those who are Black need to work a million times harder to be even seen as pop. It's like, once you finally have the huge hit, you can now be considered pop, but before then, you're not, whereas a lot of non-Black people, mainly white people, are automatically allowed in that space."
Despite the challenges, KALA has decided to take them head-on rather than pushing them aside. Starting as a songwriter, KALA secured her first writing placement in 2014 on Jennifer Hudson's JHUD album alongside fellow Canadians dvsn, Stephen "Koz" Kozmeniuk, and Zalezy of the Maven Boys. She would continue to write for others before auditioning for the Honey Jam mentorship program in 2017 and kickstarting her own artist development before seemingly fading from the spotlight.
"I was working on music, and I was performing live a lot, and I just had to leave and regroup for a bit to know exactly what I wanted to do and how I wanted to pursue it. And then I came back like 'I'm LU now! What's up y'all!'" KALA says with a giggle.
KALA returned in 2018 with her breakout single "DCMO (Don't Count Me Out)" in both English and French, and promoted that record for over a year while working on her debut EP, Worthy.
"I feel like a lot of my emotions were coming out naturally throughout this [EP recording] process. When you're writing for other people, you try to tap into how they're feeling, but this was the first time I was writing something for myself that was actually going to get recorded and not just me writing in my bedroom," KALA says. "For me, when I freestyle on the mic, that's what the song ends up being about. I think I learned that there are a lot of things deep down that I suppress that I don't realize I'm feeling until I'm on the mic. That was a big learning thing — it was really therapeutic and healing for me to write a lot of these songs."
Using her music as a form of therapy, KALA recognized the beauty in that, and with the release of Worthy, she partnered with NU Counselling to provide free therapy sessions for a couple of her fans.
"Therapy has always had such a weird reputation — like I was speaking to one of my brothers, and he was like, 'Therapy is for white people.' He'll probably hate that I said that, but I'm sad for him because he doesn't think that space is for him, and that's because growing up, that's what was taught," the Congo-born singer shares.
For many immigrant communities, the idea of therapy and non-traditional jobs like singing are still attached to a stigma that KALA's generation is slowly breaking.
"When I think back now, my mom actually did bring me to [auditions], so I think she has always been very supportive, but after coming to my Remix Project graduation, she was like, 'Oh, this is a real thing!' My dad, on the other hand, it took him a little longer. He wasn't very stern, but he would always be like, 'When are you going back to school?' and I was like, 'Never, this is what I'm doing.' It did help when he heard my song on the radio [and] he was like, 'Oh my God!' [Now] sometimes he'll hear my demos and be like, 'Wow, that's such a beautiful song! Quelle belle chanson!'", KALA laughs.
Although the pandemic may have taken away KALA's chance of truly celebrating her breakout career wins, her mission to break barriers remains.
"When I was growing up, there was Christina Aguilera, Britney Spears, et cetera, and, as a little kid, I was like 'Who's the Black girl version of that? How come there aren't many Black superstar pop stars?'" she questions.
"I always felt like, if I'm going to be here, I want to disrupt and be that person. I'm not gonna dance like them, but I want to give a voice to all the kids, Black girls and Black boys who felt a little different, and let them see that they can be anyone they want to be in any space they want to be."