Last week, Grammy-winning musician Lila Downs released “El Demagogo”/“The Demagogue,” her first song since 2015's sublime Balas y Chocolate, as part of the 30 Days 30 Songs anti-Trump initiative. Sung in both English and Spanish, it’s a beautiful folk song that lays out the numerous issues with Trump and his virulent racism, particularly from the perspective of his dangerous border politics. She begins plaintively, “At the edge of the world/Where the factories are/there’s a burning of hatred/that’s crossing the lines.”
Downs, who grew up in Minnesota and Oaxaca as the daughter of a Mixtec mother and an Anglo father, has spent her career making particularly astute, beautiful and politically aware songs, with her music sewing together the tri-cultural traditions and languages in which she grew up. By centering “The Demagogue” among border factories—in Juárez, Tijuana, and elsewhere—she references the fact that the various relationships between the U.S. and México are much more complicated than they might appear to the uneducated (i.e., Trump).
“I have had the privilege of getting to know the border and the whole maquiladora situation, and over the years I have written songs about the factory workers and disappeared women at the border,” she says. “The issue that bothers me so much is that we all expect to have our TVs for cheap and we want our Zara jeans or whatever at a modest price, and yet we don’t want to look at how we’re getting those products. But I think we’re being ungrateful to the people who, because of need, come to the border or work at these factories and produce these products. We should be educated about those issues.”
Jezebel spoke with Downs over the phone from her home in Ciudad de México, as she and her band prepared for some big shows there. (She will also be doing a small slate of U.S. shows, beginning in Chicago on Friday, October 28.) We discussed the election, border politics and being an activist musician; our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
JEZEBEL: What first made you want to write “The Demagogue”?
LILA DOWNS: I started composing a while back. I think musicians and show people, we know about the show, and so I think you see this person doing a show, and I think what shocks me is that people do think it’s just a show. It’s like they don’t care. And I think politics has become a bit of a show. It’s also about changes, about law and the bigger issues for us. And certainly he is just a representation, I think, of something larger that is happening with Trump. You know, I think it’s more about there is a demagogue out there. And of course racism is one of the bigger issues that makes me very concerned.
Last night I kept thinking I need to find a quote from the notions of racial superiority from Hitler’s Germany, because I remember reading at one point that before the war, people couldn’t believe [his racism was real]. And I think that in the Latin community it’s similar. They’re like, you know, It’s just for show.
Have you seen that? Among my family and in my Latin communities in New York people seem to be generally aware that he is deadly serious. Have you experienced people who still think he is all show?
Oh yeah, definitely. In fact on the way back in the airplane, we came back from the border to Oaxaca. There were a lot of workers on the plane and many of them know our music. And I asked them, Did you vote? And they’re like, No because I think the outcome really is going to be the same either way. It’s kind of like, he’s just making all this stuff to win votes, but he’s not really going to be that.
And in a in a sense, I think that they also are kind of thinking, Well if he does win, well then that’s destiny, because I think Latin Americans, we come from a very complex history. Right now I’m actually studying pre-Hispanic—or what we call pre-Hispanic, which really means pre-Columbian—historical analysis of art and the calendar. We had a system where we were born on the day which represents Mother Nature in its most elemental and primitive forms, and your destiny is kind of marked by who you will become and what will happen in your future. And though we have lost touch with that historical and cultural reality in our education, we kind of have it in our genes—you know, we kind of naturally fall into that way of being. Also because of our historical situations, we cannot be confrontational because if we do we might get disappeared or assassinated.
One of the things that gets me about this particular song is when you sing about praying to the ancestors, because it’s such a desperate position we’re all in, but also there’s some hope and power in that. But does that imagery also correspond to the reading you’ve been doing?
It does, in part. I think once you study our history you understand a lot of things that have happened to us in recent times. And in the U.S. of course it’s the whole economic situation that a lot of people feel feel like they’re in competition with poor immigrants who are hardworking people. That is so sad, because here we are in modern times, and we can’t we can’t appreciate the work of people who are less fortunate than ourselves. I guess there are cycles of comfort in society, but we put the blame on the little person who is smaller than all of us. And we put the blame on African Americans and we put the blame on Mexicans and on all kinds of immigrants that are hardworking people.
Your last album, Balas y Chocolate, really goes deep into addressing some of these complex issues, but listening to it now, after we’ve had a year of Trump, it takes on another layer. When you were writing it did you imagine we’d even be to this point?
I’ve been living here in México for for a while now, since we did Pecados y Milagros (2011), and that’s when I really was a little more confrontational about the violence. I wrote a song called “La reyna del inframundo” (“Queen of the Underworld”) which makes reference in a way to our religious references in pre-Columbian times, but also to the reality of today, which is if you are a woman and you decide to go in the mafia and the drug lord business, in the end you will probably end up in the underworld. Which means you will die and you will be the queen, but you will be the queen of the dead.
We talk about this double standard of the U.S., you know, the U.S. is asking for all these drugs, and then we get the blame or hate. I’m not protecting the capos, of course, because they are very violent. But the justice system isn’t dealing with things appropriately the way that it should be, and the whole drug industry is based on something that is not truthful. So perception is one thing and then the reality is another.
Speaking to how entwined it is between the two countries, even after the election if Trump loses, the hate rhetoric will still be there. How do you think that could complicate the myriad issues the U.S. and México have currently?
I have been more optimistic lately thinking, so Hillary does win, right? But what happens with that high percentage of people who do believe in Trump, who will pressure government to not continue with immigration reform? It’s impossible both ways. Because as you know, we all thought that this immigration reform was gonna happen with Obama, and then it never happened. But all this confrontation, some of it violent of course and some some of it through dialogue in the press, I think has been a positive thing for the Latin community because suddenly we are faced with these issues. And I think we were all in denial on both parts, so now we gotta deal with it and we gotta talk about it. That’s something that I hope doesn’t go under the water again because it could. It makes people uncomfortable. But I think the U.S. is an amazing place in the sense that youth usually take these issues in and have the passion conducive to change in a positive way.
From an artist’s perspective, you’re very mindful and speak about important issues, which I think a lot of musicians don’t necessarily want to do.
I studied voice and I studied opera in Minnesota, but I became disenchanted with the whole thing because since I come from this Indian reality. I wasn’t expressing myself about who I am and my story and I decided to to look into my story. Then when I studied anthropology and that helped me open my eyes and my ears. I started composing songs about my reality and my peoples’ reality. A lot of my family members and my Mixtec people—from my Indian group—are immigrants or migrants. They come through a lot of the California area, Florida, Washington, and work in the fields. I wanted to write songs about that. I thought that was the more pressing thing, on the one hand. And on the other hand, I always had the English language and the Spanish language and my mother’s native language. I come from a group that continues to be very shy about speaking our native language in public. I thought, you know, maybe I’ll play it on the local radio in my little village, because I come from a little village in Oaxaca. And I thought hopefully this will make people proud of who we are. And we don’t need to keep feeling so inadequate.
I have felt the need to to do our own music from my perspective as a woman, as a native woman who is mixed. There a lot of people like myself out here and there are a lot of women who I feel are the pillars of our society and who give us strength. I love to write songs about them even though some of the stories are very tragic. I love those stories that are about very difficult situations, and in spite of that they pick up, they keep going. Partly because that’s my mother’s story, my grandmother’s story and my own story.