“All my music comes from me being myself, a first-generation Latina," Kaina says. "When I play for an audience like that, I know that I don't need to explain myself to them. We already have a mutual understanding."
Kaina loves arepas. It’s the morning of her show at Brooklyn’s Starr Bar, and her mother is making a batch along with her famous garlic-cilantro sauce. As her mother cooks the singer’s favorite meal, we lie on her bed like two preteens at a sleepover while Kaina shares stories from her childhood in Chicago’s West Side. “I remember my parents playing hella salsa, and 5-year-old me being like, ‘Oh my f***ing God, I’m so sick of this bass line,'” she says, explaining that she thought she was listening to the same track over and over.
Growing up as a first generation Venezuelan Guatemalan American, she was exposed to an eclectic range of music. Besides all the salsa — Celia Cruz and Oscar de Leon — the singer recalls hearing Motown hits by Diana Ross and British rock icons like Queen and the Police. The 23-year-old incorporated these influences as well as Latin jazz and bolero on her debut album, Next to the Sun, released in July. The project is both a reflection of her varied musical interests and an expression of the future of global music — it’s music for all.
Her trilingual collaboration with Sen Morimoto “Could Be a Curse,” with lyrics in English, Spanish and Japanese, is a perfect example. “I don’t know what Sen is saying in his verse, and he doesn’t know what I’m saying,” she says. “That was the point — we don’t need to. … You don’t need to know what someone else is going through or know the language to be able to relate.”
Kaina has learned to be unafraid to ask for what she wants, in a profession that’s not always kind to independent women. “I’m not intimidated by industry standards, ever,” she says. “That’s not to say that it’s not really hard being a musician, especially as a Latina and also not a skinny Latina — just putting out the album was difficult.” Still, she’s willing to take matters into her own hands when it’s necessary, as she did once when trying to score an opening slot at a Kali Uchis concert. “I hit up the promoters and I was like, ‘Yo, I’m Venezuelan, she’s Colombian. This bill makes sense. Can I open?’” She then took her request to Twitter, where it went viral with help from Chicago artists like Chance the Rapper, and a couple of days later she received a message notifying her that she’d be opening.
Now, Kaina reflects on that concert as one of her most meaningful performances. “I’ve never played to an audience where I got on stage and it’s only brown and black faces,” she says. “All my music comes from me being myself, a first-generation Latina. When I play for an audience like that, I know that I don’t need to explain myself to them. We already have a mutual understanding, and it’s the best feeling ever because you relate to them and they relate to you. There’s this whole step you can skip of trying to get someone to understand you.” Most importantly, though, the show verified how important representation is to Kaina’s fans. “Girls have come up to me and been like, ‘I don’t feel Latina enough, I’ve never been able to fully connect to my roots,’ and I’m like, ‘Dude, I’m with you,'” she says. “It’s my goal to show those people that there is a space for that, and that it’s such a journey to find your identity. There’s never one way to ‘correctly’ be a Latina. There are so many variations of identity.”
Kaina recognizes that many Latinxs in the Gen Z are still navigating certain terminologies like Latinx and Afro-Latinidad and figuring out what they mean to them personally. “I just want to be able to meet those people and show them that I’m an example of someone who’s still working through it,” she explains. “I don’t know everything yet, and there are a lot of questions for me, and a lot of lost history and a lot of displacement in my family. I’m still navigating, because I just don’t know my family history. I don’t know my roots.” She’s looking forward to exploring these feelings while opening for Cuco on his upcoming tour. “His fans are so similar, too,” she explains. “[Many of them are] young girls who remind me of me when I was much younger, and I’m excited to be able to connect with them and show them that there’s a space for that.”
Now that she has her first album under her belt, she’s enjoying the ability to move forward with more intention. “It feels good to have that clarity and then be able to focus now,” she says. “I’m not afraid to just be like, ‘No, that’s not what we’re going to do, and that’s not how you’re going to talk to me.” Unapologetically herself, she will continue to motivate brown girls on and off the stage.