'I want to live': Diva Lila Downs self-censors message to Mexico

MEXICO CITY: Lila Downs isn't one to hold her tongue.

The Mexican-American singer-songwriter is known for her politically charged music on immigration, human rights, and women's empowerment.

She even dedicated a song called The Demagogue to Donald Trump.

But she says she felt the need to self-censor her new album, Salon, Lagrimas y Deseos (Salon, Tears and Desire), after singing about the alleged massacre of 43 students in Mexico in 2014 – an unsolved crime that still haunts the country and has stained President Enrique Pena Nieto's government.

She felt terrified after recording that ballad, she told AFP at her colourful home in the bohemian Mexico City neighbourhood of Coyoacan, sporting a twist of purple in her signature black braids and a traditional Mexican rebozo wrap paired with exuberant multi-colored boots.

Disillusioned with both her countries – the United States for electing Trump, and Mexico for its seemingly bottomless corruption and violence – Downs, 48, said she thought of taking a break from music.

Instead, the Grammy- and four-time Latin Grammy-winning singer ended up creating an album laced with feminist anthems, meditations on politics in the time of Trump and – unexpectedly – a ray of hope.

Q: What's the story behind this album?

"The truth is, I didn't think I'd be recording again so soon (after 2015's Balas y Chocolate, or Bullets and Chocolate). I was very sad, very depressed about the state of the world and of humanity.

"The (title) is dedicated to the great love I have for my country, which is Mexico firstly, and also the United States, because that's my country too; and also the great heartbreak I feel for both.

"The 'desire' part is the source of everything beautiful, construction, ideas, life. Heading north to work and find a better world, as some people see it; the desire for material things, according to others. Also carnal desire, which is lovely, but which is also the darker side of humanity."

Q: At the end of the day, is it an album of anger, or hope?

"Both, I think. We need both in life. This album is about disillusionment, heartbreak and betrayal. I feel betrayed and furious. I think a lot of people do these days.

"You have to give yourself permission to feel sad about the state of your country, about all the terrible things happening. That's important to me in order to heal from within, to be able to take the next step and understand how I can help my country.

"I sing from deep inside. That's how we women are. Because women are that energy that turns problems into light."

Q: Why were you hesitant to make a new album?

"We live in a time of such tremendous danger (in Mexico) that I would go so far as to say I've had to practice a kind of self-censorship. Because I want to survive. I don't want them to kill me too.

"On my last album, especially when I sang about the 43 students, I felt like I was putting myself in danger."

Q: Why did you feel you had to censor yourself?

"Because I felt so afraid.

"But I have faith and hope, and that's why I made an album about that – but without getting rid of the war I have in my conscience. That's why I sing a song about my country called La mentira (The Lie)." — AFP