Lila Downs, Musician, Composer and Indigenous Advocate
Lila Downs uses her music and lyrics to inspire reflection, understanding and the impacts of societal changes. She often sings about social justice issues affecting Latinos and conveys the stories of migrant workers who travel from rural Mexico to the United States.
Through her music, Downs, whose mother was a Mixtec Indian, has made an effort to preserve the indigenous languages of Mexico. She has recorded several songs in Mixtec, Zapotec, Mayan, and Nahuatl, among others. She celebrates her Mixtec heritage with her music, using her lyrics to tell important stories, such as the mistreatment of indigenous people in Oaxaca state, in Mexico.
Her style draws from the traditions of folk and ranchera music from Mexico and South America, as well as American folk, jazz, and hip-hop.
That duality of musical origins stems from Downs’ truly bicultural background. Her mother “ran away from her village at 15 to sing in Mexico City,” Downs said. In the Mexican capital, the Mixtec singer met Downs’ father, a professor from Minnesota. So Downs split her childhood between Oaxaca and Minnesota. She eventually went on to study anthropology before choosing a musical career.
Nowadays, Downs supports an academic scholarship fund in Oaxaca. Over the past 12 years, she has helped encourage economically disadvantaged young women to finish their high school education.
“Many of those girls have become successful professional women and have returned to their communities in rural areas of Oaxaca to practice their professions,” Downs said. The gift of educating these young girls has helped to bolster the entire community.
Downs was inspired to give these young women an education because she had grown up in a difficult environment for women. Downs recalled her Mexican hometown as lacking in opportunities for women to continue their education and realize their dreams.
She found support and inspiration in her Mixtec grandmother, who she remembers as a “mother and healer, [who] always had her doors open to people in need.”
“Giving has many forms,” Downs said. “It could be tutoring, mentoring, or any artistic form that creates consciousness in people.”
Downs said she prefers to give her music, lyrics, and voice as tools for social change.
“Those of us who have privileges have a responsibility to help through words or actions to make a difference in the lives of others that are less fortunate,” she said.
Taking action, Downs said, is the key to encourage community support for social causes.
“The best way to inspire is by setting an example,” she added, “no matter how much or how little you give.”
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