Paloma Mami Doesn’t Need Your Collab. She’s Making Fire On Her Own
The Chilena from New York is set on making it on her own — key to her success is that she does it in two languages, without sounding cringe.
Paloma Mami’s discography reveals a stark difference between the Chilean-American artist and other rising stars of today: She has zero features on her songs. Music these days, especially from new artists, is collaboration-heavy, to put it lightly. Getting a more famous musician to contribute to a song has become more than just about hat-tipping to your community; it’s a common way to prove your work is valid and worthy of attention. But Paloma already knows her music is.
"When women get famous from a song, or their career blows up, people just relate it to, 'Oh, they got famous because of this guy or because they're featured on this guy's song. It's unfair," she says over our video call from a set in Miami. The golden hour sun illuminates her neon and black graphic eyeliner, which she tells me she did by herself, a skill she learned from her older sister, Sofia, who’s a makeup artist in Chile. "I want people to know that I'm here because my music is great. There have been so many times that I've had the opportunity to make a song with someone that's so incredibly famous, but I want people to know me by myself first.”
In an industry where new musicians are oftentimes pressured to guarantee their debut is a success by inviting more famous, more mainstream men to rubber-stamp their work, 21-year-old Paloma is happy to take her chances. At the core of her career is to reject the idea that she needs men to validate her, an ever-present theme of her work. Take, for instance, her 2019 song, "Mami," which samples Ivy Queen's "Yo Quiero Bailar," one of many songs from the Puerto Rican "queen of reggaeton" that opposes the genre's machismo ethos.
The latest project from her newly-released debut album, Sueños de Dalí, continues her feature-less work, switching from upbeat tempos to sultry notes, and back again. It complements the mysterious undercurrent that the singer gives off on her social media that’s at odds with the share-everything ethos of many of her peers. “Keeping it real doesn't necessarily mean telling everybody every single thing that goes on in your life. I don't want people to know everything about me. I would feel like a product,” she says.
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Behind the mystery is Paloma Rocío Castillo Astorga, born and raised in NYC to Chilean parents; the ‘mami’ in her name references her city roots. "Being Latina in New York, you're going to get automatically called mami, wherever you go," she notes with a relentless yet somehow friendly tone — traits of a true New Yorker — that makes her feel like your vecina from down the block. "I'm going to use it as a compliment." But after her mom found out that she was skipping class in high school, the two relocated to be closer to family in Chile. Her mom kept such a close eye on her daughter that she literally accompanied Paloma to school every day to make sure she went. When Paloma graduated, she felt an immense sense of responsibility. "Now, I feel so terrible about it. I made my mom go through so much stress," she tells me, the realization of a daughter cutting through the fog of her wayward teenage years. "If it wasn't for her, I don't know what I'd be doing."
The move wouldn't just bring her closer to her heritage, but also her dreams. While she wouldn't "dare" pursue singing in New York City, being in Chile gave her a sense of boldness. The once-shy singer began singing for her older sister in secret. This hobby quickly led an 18-year-old Paloma to a stint on Chile's singing-competition show Rojo in 2018. But despite being a fan favorite, Paloma voluntarily exited the show after two weeks, citing the emphasis on drama. "It was so terrible," she admits, not holding back. "Doing that changed my perspective on everything. If it doesn't go with my route of how I want things to be, I'm not going to do it."
The year she quit, Paloma self-released her first single, "Not Steady," on streaming platforms, along with a YouTube video that she filmed in her tia’s apartment complex, which has garnered over 79 million views. A few short months later, she became the first Chilean-American artist signed to Sony Music Latin. While she feels grateful for being the first, Paloma is quick to note all the talented Chileans doing the same and opening the doors for others.
It’s always been tricky for talented Chileans to break through in other parts of the world; the country is often minimized in conversations about Latinidad. Paloma recalls having to explain where Chile even is during her childhood in New York City: "I would always have to tell people, 'You know Argentina? [Soccer player Lionel] Messi? We're right next to Messi,'" she says.
Paloma does feel like Chile is finally getting more recognition, especially as Latin American music continues to gain influence across the globe. While she's previously stated that she first realized that she wanted to be a musician during a Bad Bunny concert, she now realizes that her origin story began much earlier, and it’s inextricably linked to her dual home. "Looking back at it, I disagree with myself," she shares about crediting the Puerto Rican superstar. She now proudly cites la música folclórica and Chilean artists such as actress-turned-singer Denise Rosenthal, and Argentine rapper Cazzu.
Per a Spotify report, Latin artists have seen a 250% increase in representation across the Global Top 100 and an average 33% year-over-year increase in streams of Latin music since 2014. Paloma loves having the opportunity to showcase the genre on the world stage. "It's really cool that everybody's giving the sound a chance," she optimistically notes. But she also needs the support of Chile, which has a complicated political relationship when it comes to its artists. “The country can make you a star, or it can ruin your career," she asserts. Chile’s relationship with artists is cited in the death of musician Victor Jara at the hands of dictator Augusto Pinochet in 1973 as a poignant example. When one million people took to the streets of Santiago, Chile’s capital, to demand President Sebastian Pinera’s resignation in 2019, it was Jara’s “Derecho de Vivir en Paz” that became their soundtrack.
This innate power of music is what drives Paloma Mami’s lyrics, which touch on feminism, machistas, and bullying — and in two languages, no less. While “people in the studio” pushed her to sing more in Spanish, or to avoid certain words, her seamless ability to switch from Spanish to English is a quality that hits home for many of her Latinx fans. As one fan tweeted: “Paloma Mami [is] really one of the few artist[s] that can mix Spanish and English in their songs [without] sounding cringe.” For Paloma, "it's whatever comes natural," she explains to me. "I've never been afraid, thinking 'English or Spanish speakers won't understand this.' Dub is a New York word,” she points out, referring to the chorus of “Not Steady.” “Chileans have never heard that word before, and they were there singing it." Paloma may currently live in Chile, but she still considers herself 50% New Yorker.
However, being from New York, critics in Chile were quick to minimize her talent, writing off her fame as something she purchased with her family’s money. "When I was in a show in Chile, a lot of people that don't know me would think that because I was from New York, I was privileged. They’d say, 'She bought herself into the show' or, 'She was able to make that song because she has money," she shares. Paloma has one message for those people: "You don't know anybody's story." But even if she was coming from a financially abundant place, she says there's nothing wrong with sharing your talents using what you've been provided: "They're just doing what they wanted to do at the end of the day. Privileged or not, if you're talented, then it doesn't matter."
Paloma would proudly like to note for haters that social media now gives artists the ability to launch and grow their careers at break-neck speeds. "You don't have to go through the whole struggle of finding out how to make music,” she advises. She was contacted by a local producer who was looking for female singers, and after discussing the idea with her family and one trip to the studio, she self-released her first single, never expecting to get signed. “I ran home and played the song for everyone,” she remembers. “We all knew it was a special moment.”
Although with great talent comes great success in Paloma’s case, she’s got no concrete gameplan. "I'm winging it. I'm the number one winger," she laughs as she looks to her manager sitting across from her for some agreement. "You can ask my manager. I do what feels right. I trust my heart. That's my roadmap."
Paloma is a woman of dichotomies and dualities.You can’t place her music in an exact genre, her history within neat borders, or her identity within clear definitions. Experimenting and innovating with her sound as well as her life is the only way she knows to live. Whether or not you’re a fan of her genre-defying tracks, she’s going to stay confident in her direction: "If you think that your shit is fire, then you’re fire. It doesn't matter what anybody else says."