Musician Lila Downs is hitting back. After the election of Donald Trump, Downs, who has lived in both the United States and Mexico, says she was put “in a dark place.”
“I remember feeling really depressed and sad, but then there’s a part in me that says I’m not going to give up and I’m going to keep writing songs that make a difference,” she says.
For those familiar with Downs’ work, this comes as no surprise. Her music is often charged with politics, from defending the rights of migrants and indigenous communities to her 2016 song “The Demagogue,” dedicated to Trump himself.
Her latest and 16th album, “Salón, Lágrimas y Amor,” is dedicated to women. Strong women.
“Dicen que yo soy peligrosa, que yo soy dolorosa porque quiero vivir así.” That means, “They say I’m dangerous, that I’m hurtful, because I want to live this way.”
These lyrics are from the song “Peligrosa,” meaning “Dangerous Woman” in Spanish. The liner notes say it’s an “anthem for female empowerment.”
Downs, 48, says she is inspired by what she is seeing now, “young women and women who are now my age ... totally excited about what’s happening. I mean, you see the presence of all the women who came out for the DC protest when Trump started in power. So I think that it’s a good time.”
When she performs “Peligrosa,” Downs says she is thinking about women who are seen as “dangerous because we think, because we have opinions, because we want to go to school, because we want to be independent.”
The album also brings in the late Mexican songwriter Agustín Lara, famous for his boleros, his love songs. Downs reinterprets Lara's “Palabras de Mujer” ("A Woman’s Words").
"He was singing it in a man’s position," she says. "But the curious thing about the song is that when you change the gender, and you sing it as a woman, it elevates the woman, the way you think of yourself in your existence." Here is Lara's version:
And here is Downs' version:
Downs spoke from her home in Mexico City’s Coyoacán neighborhood. It’s a lively and touristy part of the capital, with people selling cotton candy and grilled corn outside the colonial church. Gabriel García Márquez once lived (and died) here. So did Frida Kahlo, with her home, now a popular museum, in the neighborhood.
“I’d say it’s the more leftist area in the city, a political place as well,” says Downs.
Her home also reflects her birthplace: the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca, and the small and heavily indigenous city of Tlaxiaco. Woven textiles from Oaxaca hang on the walls, draped on chairs, and colorful woven baskets fill wooden shelves.
But Downs “grew up half and half,” she says. Her dad was from Minnesota, an academic, and Downs studied in the US.
Her activism and crossborder politics have also long been a part of her work. She says her latest album carries an uplifting message coming after Trump's election, what she sees as a major political blow and a changing world.
A new song called “Un Mundo Raro” (“A Strange World”) is a duet with the Spanish flamenco singer Diego el Cigala.
“We are living in a strange world today,” says Downs. “So it’s something that I hope people will feel, and I hope they will have catharsis with this album. I think it’s a very drink and dance album.”