Your NPR news source

Born Kaina Castillo, the Chicago songstress known as KAINA has an unwavering confidence that is palpable in her short but poignant discography.

Photos by Dennis Elliott / Courtesy of the artist

Chicago helped ‘first-gen kid’ KAINA find her voice. Now she’s using it.

A few days before she was scheduled to grace the Pitchfork Music Festival, Latina songstress Kaina Castillo, who goes simply by KAINA, took to Twitter. The 26-year-old did not let the pressure she feels to put on a memorable performance deter her sense of humor.

“I made a joke on Twitter that Pitchfork is basically Chicago’s Met Gala! But at the end of the day, I wanna keep everything fun and fresh and just have a good time,” she said.

KAINA’s take on music making is a whimsical one that pairs sumptuous vocals with skillful songwriting reserved for artists twice her age. Her 2019 debut album, Next To The Sun, proved to be a formidable introduction to a young woman eager to carve her own path in the music industry. On KAINA’s sophomore effort, It Was A Home, released in March, the Chicago native masterfully explores a range of sounds from pop to soul, R&B to salsa – a talent that will be on display at a pair of high-profile shows this weekend.

The album serves as an ode to her identity. From the slow-burning rhythm of “Anybody Can Be in Love” to the intimate nature of the album’s title track, KAINA, a former DePaul University student, said her hometown played a pivotal role in finding her voice. “I was born and raised in Chicago, and I have always credited the city to helping me find my artistry – and also teaching me just about being a performer and a person in the world.”


KAINA said that youth-focused creative groups such as Young Chicago Artists influenced her path.

Dennis Elliott / Courtesy of the artist

One of the programs that helped nurture her talents is Young Chicago Authors, whose alumni consist of hip-hop artist Chance The Rapper and soulful poet Jamila Woods. “Those [programs] really trained me to be who I am but also taught me how to dance or how to sing or how to write my own song,” said KAINA, whose parents immigrated from Venezuela and Guatemala to the Midwest, an experience that shaped her. “As a first-gen kid it was all the culture that I could receive. It shaped me as a human, since I didn’t have a ton of family here.”

KAINA’s unwavering confidence, which is palpable in her short but poignant discography, is an attribute that took years to build. Societal expectations for women of color are daunting, especially when they are creatives. The songstress, who just wrapped up her first headlining tour, uses this as fuel to propel authenticity. “When it comes to the music space, I definitely feel like there’s been an emphasis in uplifting marginalized voices and voices that aren’t prominent within music, which I think is the best thing…really beautiful,” she said.

“But,” she continued, “sometimes it can lean into a space where it becomes tokenized or maybe that’s the only thing someone expects out of you. With this last project, it was my intention that people think of me as like a songwriter and a producer and not an artist to listen to because I’m Latina.”

KAINA said she will never shy away from her Latina heritage but that that’s “not the only reason why you should listen to me.”

“You should just listen because it’s good music. It’s important that [Latina] voices are being heard but it’s not the sole part of our identity or of our craft, you know?”

Danielle Quebrado Jimenez, KAINA’s publicist and founder of No Other Agency, said that the singer’s refusal to stick to one specific genre of music sets her apart from her peers. “At 26, I was not as together as KAINA is — and she did not choose the path of least resistance. She’s not making cookie-cutter music, she’s not censoring herself, which means KAINA has chosen to do more work. She’s chosen to fight bigger battles.”

In the days before the show, KAINA said she was excited about performing at Pitchfork but confessed she was still working out her setlist, particularly which tracks from “It Was A Home” would resonate most with fans. “I feel like I’m a little orchestrator or something.”

She won’t give much away about what she’ll be wearing during her set but she promises it’ll be fun. “Onstage, I love reflecting something and putting on something that doesn’t really feel like me on the daily — something that’s bubble gummy or princess or super camp. It’s always an emphasis on who I am and my personality but it’s nice to have that extra touch and it really helps me get into focus. I just love the possibility of drama.”

If you go: KAINA performs on Saturday, July 16 at Pitchfork After Show Supporting Camp Cope at Thalia Hall (1807 S. Allport St.) and Sunday, July 17 at the Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago’s Union Park (1501 W. Randolph Ave.).

Candace McDuffie is a freelance writer based in Chicago. She is senior writer at The Root and her work has appeared in Rolling Stone, SPIN and Entertainment Weekly.

The Latest
For Chicago’s pastry whisperer, the answer is serendipity – and a heaping of knowing what millennials want next. “My drumbeat has always been a little different than most people.”
“We essentially only got a day and a quarter of what we paid for.”
The television writer has returned to Chicago with the third installment of a trilogy about the Red Summer of 1919.

What are the origins of this classic Chicago dish? Where can you get the best Italian beef in the city? And what’s better: hot or sweet peppers?
Jeff Tweedy produced the duo’s new album, Not God, which delivers a wildly inventive soundscape reflective of the city’s music scene past and present.