The pandemic has given us enough and more time for self-reflection. As artists re-evaluated their roots and interests, audiences quickly scrambled to find works that deeply resonated with their souls. But how can you attract a crowd even after injecting heady doses of your personality into your work? Are there any dos and don’ts to the entire process? If so, what level of personalisation counts as ‘too much’? In a bid to dispel all of your curiosities, Screen Shot Pro spoke to Amber Donoso, a Chilean-British reggaeton artist breaking cultural barriers with her music and personality—thereby making waves on London’s Latin pop scene. From the importance of self-reflection to the art of limitless explorations, here’s what tips Donoso had to share from her own experience.
Kicking off her musical journey at the ripe age of 10, Donoso was born in the UK and spent her childhood frequently travelling between London and Chile. “My parents separated when I was very young,” Donoso started. “My mum is English and in the entertainment industry while my dad was in the sports ward, having worked specifically around horses.” While Donoso’s lifestyle in London was synonymous with ‘school’ and ‘sleek’, the culture she was brought up with in Chile was very much “farm-girl.”
“I had these two polar opposite backgrounds and yet it was so humbling,” Donoso said, admitting how she couldn’t have done one without the other. “It’s truly a blessing to experience two cultures which you can share and I feel really lucky to do that through my music,” she added.
Currently forging a bold new path with influences from both sides of the Atlantic, the Chilean-British artist curates music deeply rooted in the rhythms of South America and the sounds of reggaeton. When asked about how she translates her cross-cultural experiences into music, Donoso listed a number of ways to go forth—be it melodically, lyrically, production or fashion-wise. “A massive idol of mine while growing up was Gwen Stefani and so was Shakira,” Donoso said, illustrating how she merges two ‘contradicting’ and amazing cultures together to create something new and exciting.
With reggaeton on one hand and pop R&B on the other, Donoso—now in her early twenties—further admitted to having experimented with many different genres before finding “her sound.” Between her distinctive music, style, makeup and accent, the cross-cultural artist faced numerous challenges along the way, one of which could be termed as ‘identity issues’.
Having constantly asked herself if she was Latina or British, Donoso found it difficult to proceed musically at one point in her career. “I felt like I was not Latina enough to do reggaeton,” she said, adding how she was stuck in a space between the two cultures she was brought up in. “However, I realised that I don’t need to be here or there. I can have my own lane!” Donoso said, proceeding to explain how she hasn’t changed herself to adapt to one specific culture.
“Though I learned it the hard way, I realised that I might not ‘fit in’ fully or might be a bit ‘different’. But what I thought was my weakness has now become one of my biggest strengths,” Donoso added. “It has made me different and in this industry, you have to be different.”
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As a central figure in what The Guardian has dubbed “London’s Latin pop explosion,” Donoso sings confidently in both Spanish and English. When asked about the reggaeton scene in the UK, the artist used the word ‘underground’ to describe it. “People have heard certain songs but they still don’t know it’s reggaeton yet,” Donoso said, flawlessly humming the chorus of Ed Sheeran’s UK chart-topper, ‘Shape of You’. “The drumbeat behind ‘Shape of You’ is actually infused with reggaeton,” Donoso explained to my surprise.
The artist believes that the actual reggaeton scene with original Latin artists on it is also gaining traction. “The reason why it hasn’t hit hard in the UK yet is because all of the clubs have been shut down,” she stated. Before COVID-19 hit, the artist witnessed and braced for an incoming boom of reggaeton in clubs. “In clubs here in the UK, I was always hearing afrobeat, dancehall, bashment and all of these other cultures other than Latin. But when I finally heard reggaeton in clubs, it felt like we were being heard and recognised!” According to Donoso, the iconic Shakira and Jennifer Lopez’s Super Bowl halftime show was yet another “back on the map” moment for Latin culture.
Outside of the UK, however, the reggaeton scene in both North and South America is massive. “You hear it everywhere all the time and that’s one of the reasons why a lot of artists I write and produce music with are over in the US—because there still aren’t that many artists here in the UK,” Donoso added.
With that said, Donoso’s latest single, ‘Candela’ is all set to drop today. Written with two Venezuelan brothers, Los Rumbos, on the balcony of her apartment in Miami, ‘Candela’ is a bilingual hybrid of reggaeton, R&B and pop—bringing together the finest elements of each genre while injecting Donoso’s unique personality into the track.
“I’m a very fiery person and ‘Candela’ actually means fire,” Donoso stated. Aiming to encourage women to find power in their sexuality while showcasing the strength of femininity, the track conveys how self-expression is rooted in empowerment. “Whether you are super cute or feel super sexy, expressing yourself the way you are without changing yourself to please anyone is totally empowering. And the coolest thing about being an artist is that while I write songs like these to empower people, it also in turn empowers me!” Donoso summed up.
When asked about her plans on changing up the reggaeton scene in the UK, Donoso admitted to doing so by making more songs. “Let’s say what people here in the UK listen to is R&B pop and afrobeat, hence reggaeton is going to be too far a genre for them. So what I’m doing by incorporating my British roots is mixing reggaeton with British R&B melodies. When the audiences listen to my music, they’re going to be like ‘Oh! These are the melodies I usually listen to, but the beat is just different. I kinda like this!’.”
Successfully merging two different genres, Donoso essentially fosters a ‘different yet familiar’ vibe to her tracks. However, the artist is not doing so just to ‘lure in’ an audience. “I’m never going to limit myself with a certain type of music. I mix British R&B with reggaeton because that is my roots, that is where I’m from and that’s what feels ‘me’.” Although challenging in the beginning, the cross-cultural artist believes that she’s going to be distinctively recognised as a British-reggaeton artist over time. Same goes for the reggaeton movement in the UK, “I think it just needs a bit of time and it’s going to be massive here,” Donoso added.
Speaking from an artist’s perspective, Donoso advises to “do what makes you happy and feels ‘you’.” “I could just sing in Spanish if I wanted to. It depends on what I feel like I want to do,” the artist said. Although Donoso nails her cross-cultural exploration, she doesn’t necessarily preach the practice to others. “Just because I’m doing it, I wouldn’t say that every artist who comes from a mixed culture should be doing it,” she started. “Because of the order of cultures I’ve gotten, it has bought me in touch with my Latin culture. But let’s say if someone is half-English and half-Spanish—but was brought up their entire life in Britain—they wouldn’t necessarily feel in touch with their Spanish roots, so they wouldn’t want to engage with it.”
According to Donoso, it is essential to take a leap and do what feels comfortable and authentic to you, as an artist. “Don’t feel like you have to follow what others are doing. There is no right and wrong in music. It’s just that everyone is putting their own personality and twist on a sound.”
So, how can an artist find an audience even with works deeply rooted in such personalisation? “You have to be clever with what you’re doing,” Donoso advised. The first factor in finding a dedicated audience is that your work has to be believable. “I know British artists who do Jamaican music (bashment), they’re fully British and they smash it! But their music is believable because they’ve grown up in the UK around that specific culture. So, if your art is believable, authentic and it is part of where you come from or what you’ve educated yourself with—then your audience will naturally gravitate to it.”
The way you pitch yourself as an artist is yet another important factor. “I’m so much more than a singer and I say that really humbly,” Donoso started. “I’m also my own PR, manager and songwriter. I also dabble into the production side of things. And so, I would call myself more a businesswoman than a singer because it is so much more surrounded than that.”
Relevancy is up next. “As an artist, you need to understand that it’s more than just you singing—it’s also about how you are as a person, your story, what you stand for and what you want to be remembered for.” As a woman in a male-dominant industry, Donoso aims to embody empowerment. “I also lost my father when I was young, so I want to talk about mental health and anxiety,” she added.
When asked about the artist’s mental list of dos and don’ts gathered from her experience in the industry, Donoso was quick to highlight the presence of ‘boundaries’ rather than rights and wrongs. “Most of the time when I’m in the studio, I’m the only female there. So, I’ve had experiences (although not the only one) where because of my gender or age, my voice and opinions don’t get heard,” Donoso said, as she further explained how a song has the potential to turn into more of a producer’s idea than the artist’s. “But it is ‘Amber Donoso’ who is the singer and it is my release,” the artist said firmly.
“So, I’ve learned over time to be okay with speaking up, having my own voice and politely—yet firmly—saying ‘Thank you very much for your inputs, but this is where I see the track going and this is what I would like to do.” No matter who you identify as, Donoso highlighted the need to be thick-skinned in order to progress in the music industry. “But as a woman specifically, I think you have to try a little harder for your voice to be heard. And I’ve learned not to be afraid of speaking up when I feel a certain way.”
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To all of the other aspirational artists looking to enter the industry and explore their roots and tastes, Donoso preaches, “Don’t be scared of being different! If I look back at the amazing time I spent with my parents, I remember my mum herself encouraging me to involve my Latin culture into my music.” Although Donoso looked up to Shakira as an idol at the time, she was mainly curating R&B in the UK—which the artist admitted to being indulged in given its popularity. “I felt like I was not going to get accepted here if I did something different.”
But Donoso hit a major learning curve along the way. “What you end up learning in your own time is that there are so many artists famed for what they’re doing. If you’re doing the same thing, then it’s going to be very difficult for you to get a name for yourself.” Looking back on Donoso’s statement from earlier, you have to be different in the industry in order to progress, build an audience and eventually survive.
“If you are someone who has experienced a cross of cultures, it is such a blessing and use that to your advantage. It’s going to be a superpower of yours!” Donoso exclaimed, advising not to shelter yourself in the comfortability of a genre that comes along with its popularity. The artist further reflected on the ironic loop that the process puts an artist in, “What’s popular now is actually going to change all the time because of artists who are different. So don’t limit yourself and push your boundaries musically.”
In regards to her music and personality, Donoso uses the keywords ‘empathetic’, ‘controlled crazy’ and ‘authentic’ to describe the same. However, ‘authentic’ is a fairly recent term the artist has come to identify with, “It took me a long time to get to that authenticity, fully accepting and feeling proud of it. That goes back to not changing yourself to fit in,” Donoso added.
In the next ten years, the cross-cultural reggaeton artist sees herself touring and working with big artists while having her own makeup and clothing line along the way. Seeking to be “recognised as a brand rather than an artist,” Donoso also sees herself having a talk show at some point while working with children who have lost parents, wanting to share her experience and help people. “I see myself becoming successful because I work hard and don’t give up—I believe that’s the equation to success. A lot of people say you need luck in this industry, but I think you create your own luck by being in the right place at the right time.”
Personally, Donoso seeks to level up to a place filled with happiness—hoping to be more settled and loving every aspect of herself in the process. Terming this haven “an amazing place to be,” Donoso is a big advocate for therapy, all boiling down to self-love and acceptance. “If I could inspire a movement for something it would be for self-love,” the artist admitted, as she showed me a tattoo on her forearm which reads ‘choose love’.
“I know that sounds like a simple answer. I could say that I would have one for female empowerment, but that would be cutting out half of our species. And I believe we all need to work together to reach there. So, be it happiness or sadness, even if you are high on those emotions, always act from a place of love.”
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In recent years, ‘multidisciplinary artist’ has become somewhat of a buzzword, used by many as a catch-all term meant to help redefine what can really be described as the act of blindly dabbling in everything. As a result, many of us have forgotten what it truly is like to be a multidisciplinary artist in 2021’s digital age, as well as the amount of work, planning and creativity it takes to gracefully mix digital with real-life art. Fear no more, because we managed to speak to one of the real ones out there, writer, director, and performer Alejandra Smits, about publishing her second poetry book while simultaneously maintaining her already impressive career in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Smits’ second poetry book, titled Poetry Scam, initially started as “a very traditional poetry book,” only to then shift into a mix of what can only be described as ‘Instagram poetry’. “I started working on it three years ago, then slowly, as I started editing it and thinking about its layout with my team of designers, we felt like I wasn’t really portraying myself in it, so we decided to add my own memes, which I usually share through my Instagram Stories,” Smits explained about the concept behind Poetry Scam.
The book consists of a compilation of poems and images by the artist, containing both English and Spanish editions. “In the middle part that divides the Spanish version from the English version, there’s a whole chapter of memes separated into different chapters. It started as just poems and then quickly evolved into a piece of art, more than just a book.”
Through Poetry Scam, Smits’ first intention was to create a play out of the book—bringing her own words and images to life, in a way. But then, you know what I’m about to say: COVID came. The show had to be cancelled after the performer had already found a location to present it. Speaking about potentially turning the play into a video performance, which Smits has a fair amount of experience with, she shared herself that “I was also getting into that idea but now, everything is so difficult when it comes to managing artists—because I had a lot of collaborators who wanted to interpret the poems I wrote—but I’m simply not a producer, I’m an artist, and I’m terrible at managing other people.”
As a result, Smits decided to lay this idea to rest, at least for now.
You only need to look up Smits’ Instagram account to notice that the artist has an influential presence on the platform. With more than 45,000 followers to her credit, the artist admits to finding it hard to block out the dependency that comes with social media influence. “I’m super addicted to my phone, and I’m a bit worried about that relationship because it doesn’t allow me to be in the present moment. I’ll be watching a movie and constantly checking my phone at the same time, just because I’ll have this sort of anxiety.”
After realising that she was going through what most of us can probably relate to—those who actually don’t feel the need to check their phone during a movie are one of the few lucky ones—Smits decided to take a well-needed break from all of it. “Yesterday actually, I disabled all of my notifications as I’m trying not to check my phone as often. If something is urgent I’ll get an email or a call instead. Right now, I’m trying to go into a detox with Instagram.”
But fighting a habit can be hard, especially if there’s an army of behaviour scientists, data analysts and constantly evolving algorithms working against you and your newly found resolution. Ever since our conversation, Smits has posted a few times on Instagram, with one of those posts receiving more than 10,900 likes.
Of course, my aim is not to criticise the artist’s relationship with social media, but more to highlight the presence and role that social media play in her life, as well as in her career. Insta detox put aside, it simply cannot be ignored that Smits’ way of approaching the digital world is as ‘down with the kids’ as it can be.
Instagram has become, without a doubt, an important tool for artists like Smits to promote their work and get cast for different kinds of projects by brands. “I get a lot of jobs thanks to my Instagram so I want to be grateful towards the app but I just feel like I need to change my relationship with it in order to not get so wrapped up in it.”
On the app, Smits’ feed is a mix of her art—from poems and memes to videos of her performances—as well as pictures of her modelling for some of Instagram’s trendiest brands such as La Manso, Miista, Paloma Wool, and more.
Although Smits does admit to modelling for many brands, including some that she doesn’t feel the need to post about on her own feed, she didn’t plan on getting involved in the fashion industry at first, “It happened by mistake almost, I actually started modelling for Paloma Wool a couple of years ago, maybe 3 years ago and I was working with one of my best friends, Carlota Guerrero, who’s a photographer. She took me in for a couple of campaigns and after that everything snowballed. My agency, which is from London, contacted me and I said ‘yes of course’. I quickly realised that it was an easy job to have on the side because it gave me a lot of freedom and it’s lucrative.”
But Smits never planned to go down that route when it comes to her career, and faced an internal dilemma knowing that she played a part in the fashion industry, therefore in all the sustainability and human rights issues it represents too. “I’m also trying to shift into a different source of income,” she explains, “in order to stop modelling in a couple of years or so.”
With modelling comes almost instantly the discussion of body positivity and the vulnerability that it involves. As a performer, Smits’ body is a very important medium used in her art, and so is vulnerability: “I grew up thinking that I should be smaller, because my friends were super skinny and I had a lot of insecurities about my body and my curves. Even nowadays, I still feel insecure sometimes although I love my body. It’s a really long journey to loving your body completely, and I’m still on it.”
For Smits, using her body as the main element of some of her artwork is not about finding self-love, but more about getting an understanding of her strengths and weaknesses in order to overcome them. “Knowing that, no matter what, when I overcome them, I’m fine, that’s what the process is about with my body and my work. When I do a performance and I’m exposing my body, even though I’m feeling insecure, getting used to that ‘friction’ is what I’m interested in. I feel uncomfortable, but nothing bad is happening. It’s about being comfortable with not being comfortable if that makes sense?”
What she calls ‘friction’ is a strong reminder of what women can go through on a daily basis. At the risk of sounding cheesy, know you what they say, ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’, right? Her approach to narration, creatively used in more than one medium—through writing, imageries such as memes and Instagram Stories, performances using her own body, film—is what makes Smits such a versatile artist; a multidisciplinary narrator.
By revealing her body as well as other aspects of her life online, Smits acts as a gentle reminder that we’re all, in a way, performing, only the artist uses her whole life as a performative exercise, one she constantly learns from. “I think most people that follow me on Instagram think that I love my body unconditionally but it’s not like that.”
Smits’ work is interlaced with humour—anyone who can’t see that after scrolling through her poems and memes, which could also be qualified as digital poems, is clearly missing the whole point. By exploring existential topics such as death and trauma using digital mediums that were never truly appreciated in the art world until now, the artist offers her audience a type of performance that is both funny and highly relatable.
Now, here comes the million-dollar question: are memes a valid piece of artistic expression? Of course, everything is arguable but in Smits’ case, the conversation could easily be pleaded in her favour. After all, memes are often created to make social or political commentary, just like many other art mediums. As a multidisciplinary storyteller, Smits’ art (be that memes, videos, or written poetry) should therefore be considered as valid pieces of artistic expression.
Through her work as well as her digital presence, Smits has managed to not only make a name for herself as one of the most exciting emerging artists of our generation but also as a highly needed breath of fresh air on both the art and fashion scenes.
On top of Poetry Scam and her on and off Instagram presence, the artist has recently launched her own newsletter called Unsolicited Existence, which focuses on “all things existence.” Whether you’re a multidisciplinary artist yourself trying to navigate the digital world or simply looking to improve your meme-making skills, Smits’ artwork will, without a doubt, have something to offer you. And as the affirmation goes: have fun, take detours, find your (multiple) callings and all in all—exist loudly.