In Conversation: Desta French

Latin flavour with a UK slant...

Up until recently, London’s cultural backdrop has lacked a mainstream Latin flavour. The community really began establishing themselves in the nineties, increasing four-fold since 2001. But what happens when the kids grow up? You get a new generation — nurtured on the language and music of their parents, but raised with the lingua franca of their hometown. You get a community that is no longer invisible. You get Desta French.

Desta personifies a new era of Latinx creatives in the city. She’s about to wrap up production on her upcoming EP San Lazarus, in which bi-lingual singles like 'Guajira', 'Into The Wave', and the newly-released 'Aguanta' make use of Latin guitar melodies or salsa rhythms before switching into R&B, pop and – in Aguanta’s case – rap.

But unlike what we’re used to hearing from America, Desta injects that irresistible London attitude into the mix, making her singles eclectic, experimental, and new. Both Latinos in the UK and in South America are putting her tracks on repeat; carving out a space for her community to thrive and share their experiences growing up in Britain.

On the release of 'Aguanta', Clash spoke with Desta over the phone about her EP, writing in both Spanish and English, and the need for more Latinx role models in the UK.

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Where are you right now?

In Camden, where I grew up. I’ve left the house for a quick walk… And I’ve just approached the steps by Granary Square in King’s Cross. It’s beautiful. I love London. Wait, I’m going to send a picture.

Your upcoming EP, ‘San Lazarus’ has a uniquely London sound, even though it’s characterised by Latin influences.

Well, I’m a product of my environment. I love experimenting with my influences – growing up here with a Latin background, and marrying that to the sounds of the city. That’s why the EP felt so personal to me.

I mean, we even produced a drill song where I sing Spanish over the beat. So, I’d imagine this to be a different experience for my listeners and fans, one which really encapsulates who I am as an artist but which people in London identify with, too.

Wait… A Latin drill song? Awesome. What are some of things you wanted to say with this latest EP?

Representation is one side of it. But the lyrics really tried to capture how I was feeling after my last relationship. The main narratives are: falling in love, lust, and having to watch it end before seeing where it could’ve gone.

It felt like therapy writing this, to be honest — getting it out, whether its love, pain, or pushing through, and being able to reconnect with yourself. My latest single, ‘Aguanta’ means ‘endurance’. It’s really about letting go, trusting in nature and divine providence. Themes like tragedy and lust come naturally to me when I write in a Latin headspace, in particular.

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Did switching between languages help you get these messages across?

You know, I found that it helps explore more with the song’s melody. When I write in Spanish it has more of a poetic – maybe even romantic – weight. It comes out naturally on tracks written along a guitar…

Spanish evokes this pain more profoundly. In English, I am more direct. I guess it’s me as a Londoner talking. I think you get a sense for that in ‘Guajira’ or ‘Into the Wave’ where it flips from Latin to a UK RnB sound. The language is a big part of guiding the listener between both worlds, both vibes. A lot of people in the industry suggested writing in Spanish was a bad move, actually, on account they assumed there would be no audience.

People don’t really know what to do with UK Latin music as it’s such a new thing. But for me, releasing songs in Spanish was bound to happen sooner or later — it is an inevitable part of my journey as an artist with Latin roots. So, I didn’t really pay them much attention, and decided I’d navigate my own way through releasing this music.

There are big, important conversations around representation at the moment. Did you feel that you had a statement to make?

I didn’t set out with a point to make specifically about Latin representation, but now I’m really invested. Latinos in the UK are often missing from conversations in the media, so I’m glad to be a storyteller for this movement. Identity is now at the forefront of my thoughts.

Growing up Latin in the UK is sort of a detached experience. It’s nothing like it is in the US, where the community is much prominent. I never got to see a UK-born Latino in the media growing up. You know, we all used to Selena’s music and watch J-Lo on TV – but it felt far removed from us, and it’s important to have these role models closer to home.

We see Latin culture exploding around the world, the success of reggaeton… Yet, there’s so many exciting things happening here in London, too. 

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That’s true. I can’t really name many UK Latin musicians…

Don’t get me wrong: there were people doing big things with salsa and hip hop in the noughties, like Mike Kalle. But, you know, there has also been a habit of mirroring everything that are working in America – and the way that community were making music – rather than looking a bit deeper into our own identity and experimenting with sounds from home.

Until recently, there wasn’t really a way of Latinos finding each other, though, or meet likeminded musicians and artists – but social media is really changing that.

Is this what you’re setting out to do with your ‘Chattin’ Latin’ interview series?

It’s been so heart–warming to gather Latinx women around the country and give them a platform to share their stories. Honestly, we’re kind of invisible in the media, and yet the community is like the eighth largest ethnic minority in London?

Many of us are dispersed around the UK, too. One girl had actually never met another Latin person her own age, and yet what they see at school and home is so uniquely different that they may feel obliged to ignore their heritage. They feel left out. But that’s going to change — we have so much potential creatively, and it’s only a matter of time.

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Back to the EP, what kind of reaction have you got from people who have been listening to each of the singles?

It’s amazing, everyone’s been really positive and commenting on the experimental sound — which is really, really nice for me as an artist. But you know what’s especially cool, what really makes me feel validated? It’s when strangers from South America get in touch and say, ‘hey, I loved your music!’ I had someone from Argentina contact me about ‘Into The Wave’ a short while ago and her comment warmed my heart…

As much as I go on about being Latinx, when I’m in South America visiting family I am a Londoner. Their acceptance means something to me… It’s crazy (laughs) when I was last out there, I was invited – to my surprise – to speak with a popular Colombian talk show host about my song-writing. I was so baffled.

So, you’ve managed to have some big cross-over appeal…

Well… When you’re producing music in Spanish, I guess they’re more willing to listen — once this whole pandemic is over, I’m definitely looking to tour South America. But even here in London, people have been super down with these songs, even if they don’t understand the Spanish. Something about the music speaks with them…

This EP is honestly the first body of work that I feel really proud of. I’ve had a chance to explore my historical and musical influences, and feel closer to finding my voice as an artist (porque non?) Even if it’s something completely different, at least I know I’ve been true to myself.

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Words: Chris Cotonou

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