“Stronger Than I’ve Ever Been”: Not only is that the track that put Kaleena Zanders at the top of our queer-centric music radar, it’s also a rallying anthem and a way we can push through this odd time. Released in 2018, the song was snatched up by the Winter Olympics and the Super Bowl due to the courage and intensity the LGBTQ-inspired music video shows. If you didn’t shed at least one tear to this track, are you even human?
Zanders exudes a fearless and unstoppable energy, from the way she eloquently speaks of her queer identity to how she lets it all go on stage, all the way to the recent innovation of creativity she is exploring during this new normal. She has made a career of being a queer, musical activist, and she’s decided to channel her vision into helping others through her music. She sees herself as a superhero and wants her brand to reflect that.
Turning her life experience into untamable melodies, this songstress is not only conquering the stage, she has her aspirations aimed for the top of entertainment. OUT FRONT recently spoke with Zanders about her wild, on-stage energy, how she is keeping away the social distancing blues, and how she is changing the status quo in queer musician representation.
How are you doing right now during this weird time in history?
I’m doing pretty well; the first couple weeks, I was really depressed and feeling odd, but then, I think I’ve found my stride. I’ve still been able to work from home and also record vocals. I did have a couple, like, tour dates that were canceled, but I’m actually enjoying a lot of this time, too. I’ve had a lot of time to reflect and get creative.
You have a robust catalog of collaborations in the EDM community; how did those come to be?
Twenty-fifteen is when I started collaborating with people more because I had a big dance track come out, and then a bunch of people were hitting me up, and I started to learn about how important collaboration was. It definitely paved the way for me, especially in the dance space where, for gay women, it’s an interesting path, so I’ve been fortunate enough to be in it in a very big way.
Can you talk about queer women representation in EDM?
EDM music is becoming more open to women and queer women, but previously, it wasn’t at all a highlight or focus, and no one knew who they were if they were doing it. There’s been a big push in the industry for change in the last year; there’s women on bills as of last year just because, I think, the whole world became more sensitive about highlighting queer culture and women.
Did that push come from the artists or from within the industry to reach a broader audience?
I think it’s a little bit of both; when the #MeToo movement happened, I think we started to look at cultures. For instance, there’s been a lot of DJs who had to stop their careers because of harassment, so I just think people became more sensitive. It’s really, really nice. I feel comfortable in the spaces that I go into, in the studios; it’s just a nice time to be out.
Speaking of being out, was your song “Stronger Than I’ve Ever Been” the first time you were out with your audience about your sexuality?
Yeah, absolutely. Yes, yes, yes, yes. People knew, but that was the first time in a public way, in Billboard magazine, that I actually said that. It was definitely the moment for me. I’ve always been a little bit shy because of my mom; she definitely didn’t want me to be gay. So, when I did that video, I just really wanted to be like, ‘This is who I am.’ It was important to me.
How did it feel writing that song and releasing it into the world?
It was a struggle thinking about my childhood, basically the relationship that I had with my mom, and how I had been afraid to really come out in a major way. After releasing it, I was like, ‘Wow, I didn’t know it was going to have that impact for a lot of people.’ Not just for gay people, but for everyone, and partly because it was licensed to the Winter Olympics and the Super Bowl, so a lot of people were able to connect with it. It started off something for myself, but then it reached millions and millions of people with a lot of different backgrounds and stories.
Is there an artist or song that stands out to you as being incredibly impactful?
I’ll be honest; my whole influence would be Queen Latifah because I love her career entirely, and I love how she’s a queer woman in that space. She started off as a rapper, and then she’s an actress, and she’s got this really big platform. To me, she’s an example of someone I would like to be like; that’s how I would love my evolution to be.
Are there other forms of entertainment you are interested in pursuing?
Yeah, I would love to be in movies; I want to be a superhero. Recently, I’ve been getting together with a couple of creators to try to create that in my brand.
That seems like a really cool fit, and really ties into your larger-than-life stage persona.
Definitely, and when I’m on stage, I call myself, like, the female Blanka because I feel like I’m electrified with this crazy energy.
Where did you find this electrified version of yourself to let out on stage?
I always think of myself as being super chill, but I’ve just always had this wild energy running through me. Growing up, it also turned into a lot of anger too because of emotional issues, things you go through as a child, and my mom made me really mad, so it turned to explosive anger. I remember having to work on it and reel it back in, so I think when I’m, like, on stage, I’m able to let go.
How was music a way for you to process through some of those emotions when you were younger?
We had this piano in our garage that I used to play, and my mom would always be like, ‘Why are you always playing that sad music?’ There were girls that I liked in high school, and that was awkward. I fell in love with my best friend, and we used to write letters to each other every day; she couldn’t understand what she was feeling, and I didn’t either … I was just angsty, and rock music, I always found it to be a place where I can really let go.
Can you talk about what it’s like navigating through the music industry?
I have a lot of frustrations with the music industry, not for being gay, but just trying to get songs played, and dealing with people can be very frustrating. I always tell my girlfriend, it feels like everyone in music is a pathological liar, and it’s very cliquey. I can’t wait to release this next EP because it’s going to be rock and funk mixed together, and I get to express that explosive energy that I have.
Have you noticed any consistent roadblocks along the way?
I try not to look at everything as, like, ‘Oh, I’m a black female, and I’m gay; that’s why I’m not getting opportunities,’ because I have gotten so many opportunities, but sometimes, I do feel that way. I ask questions, try to get the truth and honesty out of people, which is hard, and rejection is hard. A lot of times in this business, it’s just, ‘Are you right for the part?’
What other, new music do you have coming out soon besides your EP?
I have a new single coming out at the end of the month with my friend Vanessa Michaels called “Creme Brulee.” We’re both queer ladies, and we both do electronic music, and we decided to do a 90s, throwback, R&B track.
Photos by Harp Digital Media