How recording her first all-Spanish EP led to working towards greater Latinx representation
Photo: Lizzy Nicholson
It’s a decidedly hot day and we’re sitting on the canal in King’s Cross. Desta French has smiling eyes and she’s decorated with large gold earrings and layered chains.
French is half Colombian, half Italian and chats away in a soft London accent. Her new EP, San Lazarus, is her first all-Spanish body of work and is the outcome of a personal journey, digging deeper into her heritage and Latin music. Whilst writing and recording, she noticed a lack of visibility of the UK Latin scene, and took matters into her own hands to help members of the British Latinx community share their stories.
San Lazarus hints at nostalgic R‘n’B, and we note a mutual respect for the greats such as SWV, Toni Braxton and TLC. French also grew up listening to salsa, but not the mediocre kind you hear in elevators or coffee shops; “salsa’s reputation has become tarnished”, she says. Tabaco y Ron reasserts the genre’s original character, while the following tracks are Latin-fused with influences from London and 90’s pop.
London’s a very diverse city. Tell us about your upbringing?
I was born and raised in Camden, North London. It was a bit of a free-for-all in my house, you know? Some of my friends who are Colombian would come over and say, “Your house is so random”. My Italian dad would be speaking to my mum in broken Spanish. It was just a real melting pot. It was really fun.
When I go back to Colombia, I speak a bit like an auntie ‘cause that’s how I learned — from my grandma. I use quite antiquated terms, I haven’t got the slang. When I speak English, I’m totally London, but when I speak Spanish, I sound extra polite and a bit weird! I’ve explained this in interviews over there and they find it funny and it makes sense to them. They’re like, “You’re right, you do sound like that!”
Do you feel closer to one side of your heritage?
No, people ask me that a lot and I always say I feel equally as Italian as I do Colombian, as I do a Londoner. But my Latin side is more prominent from a musical perspective.
My mum played salsa in the house when I was growing up, so that’s the music I was raised on. These days, salsa that you find in the mainstream is so far removed from what it originally was. Real salsa comes from the streets and carries strong messages about racism and social justice — it really goes in. And from a musical perspective, it’s pretty complex; there are elements of jazz in the melodies on top of African influenced percussion, and African rhythms.
It’s funny how some memories from childhood can feel nostalgic and influence work you produce later in life.
Yeah, I remember being 14 and listening to Jazz FM every single night. When I’m in the studio, the producers will always be like, “Oh yeah, going a bit jazzy there!” – they know it’s my thing.
What else was in your record box growing up?
Lots of classic R‘n’B, New Jack Swing — Teddy Ryler is a great producer.
Making San Lazarus was a very personal journey for you – Tell us about that?
I wanted to create something that was so authentic to who I was, without thinking about where it fit into the world or current trends and genres. So this body of work was my process of discovering what that could be.
Then when I started writing San Lazarus, I realised there weren’t any playlists that had any UK Latin artists, so that was a big factor too.
That sounds quite alienating. How’d it make you feel?
Yes it was. I realised more than ever how little visibility there was for the Latin community in the UK. I was like, okay, there is literally nowhere for me to showcase my music. There are no playlists on streaming services where you can upload to where my music would fit in.
And there were no references that I could direct people to that would’ve given them a reference point for my work – like, “Oh, watch this film” or “You see that character in ‘Eastenders’.” So there’s nothing for people to latch onto, to try and work out who I am.
It sounds like you took matters into your own hands.
Exactly. I thought, OK, I need to create a way to help members of the Latinx community connect with each other, so I decided to create a media platform for us. It’s full of blog entries, information and multimedia for and about our community. I also filmed interviews with people about their life experiences — mostly mothers and daughters, different generations of Latin women. You see the first and second generations, and they’re so different. One time I asked, “Do you feel more British or do you feel more Dominican?” and the daughter was like, “I definitely don’t feel British, I just don’t get it, I’ve never eaten that food, I teach reggaeton dance classes.”
Then I asked the mum, and she said, “I feel one hundred percent British. When I got here, I knew no Latin Americans, it was cold, and nobody spoke Spanish. Now after 25 years, I go back to the Dominican Republic and everything’s changed, roads have changed, and there’s nobody who I know. Of course I feel more British.”
If there was more representation of Latinx role models and culture in the UK, it would help us to have a richer impact on society at large. But I also think it means a lot for Latin people too, see ourselves and hearing our own stories. That’s what I wanted to help create.
You mentioned UK Latinx visibility was pretty much nonexistent. Did you have any role models when you were growing up?
As young Latinas growing up in the UK, we looked to America. We looked to the Shakiras and the J-Los and you do have a little soft spot for them! You think, “They’re a little bit like me!” And Selena! Every little Latina loves Selena. But that’s so far away from here, it’s so far away from my day-to-day reality.
How would it differ if you’d have had a UK Latin reference point?
If there had been a scene here in the UK, maybe I’d have discovered my sound a little bit sooner, I think I wouldn’t have had to dig so deep. Maybe it would have been a bit quicker if there was more of a blueprint in music for me. It’s hard to make your own path in the music industry when your parents are not clued up. ‘Cause you don’t have those conversations with them, so having someone to look up to who was like me would have helped.
But then, in a way it’s good that I had to build it myself. I think I’ve found something really unique to me, and all that deep digging makes it more fulfilling.
Has your music prompted any feedback from other Latina girls who’ve found you as their ‘blueprint’?
Yes, girls have messaged me all the way from Chile and Argentina saying “I love this song!” – It touches my heart!
It’s great to hear I’ve reached girls as far away as Latin America. From a global perspective, there’s no one representing London in the global Latin community either. There’s no one saying, “Yo, London’s bangin’!”
Any thoughts of what’s coming for UK Latin music?
I think UK Latin music will become more mainstream — similar to Afrobeat, where now everybody listens to it regardless of whether they’re from the community.
There are already some big collaborations happening. There’s some artist here who’ve been doing their thing for a minute and also some newcomers — I just did a tune with a girl called Sashellys. She’s another UK based Latin artist, you should check her out. I know there’s a lot of good stuff coming.