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Singer-Songwriter Kaleena Zanders Talks Black Queer Visibility and Legacy In House Music

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Dance, EDM, disco, and house have been placed front and center by some of music’s biggest names in the last few years. Artists like Dua Lipa, Drake, Lizzo, Kylie Minogue, and Beyoncé have made records that have put the celebration back into music, which has been a timely release for so many during this time. House music, like other subsets of dance music, was a similar reprieve from the struggles of the world when it originated in the 80s in Black and Latinx queer clubs in New York and Chicago. Kaleena Zanders is here to remind us all about that. 

As a Black lesbian in a now white male-dominated genre of music, Zanders is using her talented songwriting skills and astronomical vocals to reclaim the space made for queer folks of color. INTO spoke with Zanders about her latest single “Me Without U” with Party Pupils, the importance of Black queer visibility in music, and her dream to collaborate with Lizzo (because, yes!). 

House music is inherently queer, starting from Black and Latinx queer clubs in Chicago and New York. How does it feel to be a part of that legacy of music?

o be a part of house music in this way has been unexpectedly a huge reward. It’s interesting because when I first started doing music, in general, it wasn’t dance music. I was in a rock band. It was very Rage Against Machine, like Incubus. I was rapping, singing, and rocking out. Then I kind of got into dance music by chance in a lot of ways. 

Because of my singer-songwriter background, I had always warred with do I stan dance music or do I not? But learning that it was started by queer people and knowing that it’s literally me, I had to stay and be a representation for other Black women and for queer people. I feel such a wonderful responsibility to stay here in dance music. I feel very proud to be in this position that I’m in.

You recently signed with Helix Records. How does it feel to start this new chapter in your career?

It feels really great. It feels like it’s this weird thing for me. People are like, “Oh, yeah, I would expect that you would have this already”. But I think my mindset has been a little bit different and I didn’t really put myself in the driver’s seat of my own career. I just thought it’s kind of fun hanging with the homies, just singing, and whatever. But then I realized how much power I was giving up to other others, namely white bro DJs. It just started to feel like I was being used in a way. I wish that a lot of the DJs in those positions would embrace the culture and highlight us a little bit better.

So I think this is very empowering and I really respect Helix for taking me on as a dance project and as a front and center artist. I’m very, very thankful and happy

What was the inspiration behind your new single “Me Without U”? 

First, it started off as a little writing session with my friend Kyan Palmer and we wanted to write a song for Demi Lovato (they/she). Time to time, I do like to write for other people, but even if it’s for another artist, it always comes from an honest space. (The song) is about being in love with a girl, while they’re in a straight relationship. And that’s relatable to me. Then I was just thinking Demi because they’re pansexual. So that’s kind of like the deeper meaning of it. 

But then over time, I was just like, “Who else can sing this song? I don’t know”. So then I talked to my friend Kyan and I was like, “I think this should be my record”. And so then we flipped it over to Party Pupils, who has a really strong production in disco and new disco, and he turned it out. I love it, honestly.

Your presence as a Black queer woman is needed in this art form. What do you hope to achieve within this space?

Number one, I really want to make more room and more space for other Black queer artists. I really want to highlight more lesbians specifically. I’m a lesbian and I don’t see us represented over the top as an army or like a group. We’re always just chilling. I just feel like lesbian culture is just kind of always chilling on the side instead of being seen. So, I hope that I can bring more of that out.

Number two, I think, is to be taken more seriously too. In my experience being a lesbian in dance music, there’s been a push to have women be on more stages and queer people are overlooked in that space. We need to layer women with different races, different identities, and all that stuff. It’s like this constant push to be like look at me, I’m this, I’m that, and you have to put me in this space. It’s an interesting thing now that we’ve cracked through the first layer of things and now we have to keep going.

Also, allyship is a key component. The allies are making these lineups. Other artists need to be more aware. It’s as simple as taking pictures with other queer artists and putting it online. Flipping through your social media, the repetition of seeing more queer people, more Black people embraced by allies, that’s the visibility we need. And it sucks that everything is so separate. We’re all just humans at the end of the day and we need to learn to open up our heart spaces and break down all these walls. But we’re far off from that. 

What would a dream musical collaboration for you look like?
Lizzo. I just feel like we would fit so well together in a song and video. All of it. I just think it would be a splash of amazingness – bold, forward queenship, honestly. She’s awesome and she’s goals. I really can’t think of too many people, maybe Channel Tres. He’s moving boundaries and changing things as well. I love that he dances, DJs, and sings. He does the whole thing.

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