INTERVIEW: ROWDY RAINBOW RADICALISM WITH KALEENA ZANDERS
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Following the release of her powerful new track “REMEDY,” COLLiDE chatted with dance and soul vocalist Kaleena Zanders to talk spreading positivity, leading with creativity, and a year of self-reflection

 

The December 8th, 2019 death of Juice WRLD shook a nation of young fans on an uncomfortably personal level. We know this because of the #1 all-time best selling posthumous album status of the late rapper’s 2020 release, Legends Never Die. Another preventable overdose story, another incredible talent taken early, but the pattern wages on. Not just in recent hip hop tragedies like Mac Miller and Lil Peep, but music at large, remembering Michael Jackson, Prince, Pimp C, Amy Winehouse, ODB and Whitney Houston, to name a few. The worst part of this bleak trend in American stardom is the disturbing realization that their very public calls for help were ignored for years. This is why a few days after Juice WRLD’s death LA-based artist Kaleena Zanders was inspired to write “REMEDY.”

The more lo-fi ballad, carried by somber bass kicks, is nothing like Zanders’ typical epics. Made in collaboration with Ray Garrison, “REMEDY” is sad, ethereal, layered, emotive and, strangely sexy at times. “[The song] progresses as a call against the strings of abandonment and abuse rooted in an industry that exploits its talent in exchange for wealth,” says Zanders. No stranger to system-bucking herself, the young artist who wears her black and queer identity like rainbow lapels, decided to release the track as a followup to “RELOAD”, a bouncier groove describing her own experience with police brutality.

By fearlessly putting social and political issues at the forefront of her music, Kaleena Zanders hopes to create music reflective of its time and reach her audience on a deeper level. Considering the artist’s past hits like “Set Me Off”, featured on Marvel’s Cloak and Dagger on Freeform, and “Stronger Than I’ve Ever Been”, the 2015 piano ballad that debuted at SuperBowl LII, prove her incredible range as an artist. We have a keen eye locked on this socially-aware songstress as she steps away from electronic music vocal features to focus on her new solo project and all-encompassing, genre-spanning sound. She zoomed in from the west coast to tell us about her new releases.

 

Tell us about your journey as an artist? From your vocal range to your stage presence, you seem like one of those prodigies who has been sucking on throat pastilles, harnessing their talent since youth, but you say thats not the case.

Music started when I was really young, singing to myself all the time. It was almost like my second language because I didn’t realize I was doing it. My dad said that one time I was singing the whole way to Vegas. No one would shut me up because they didn’t want to dampen my spirit. They decided just to let me sing. I would be like, ‘why do they want me to sit on the table and sing twinkle twinkle little star?’ It didn’t really dawn on me, [the performance stuff] until I guess, high school. My mom put me in musical theatre when I was eight and again, I didn’t make the connection. I did have fun when I was on stage though, I would come alive, even though I was also really nervous and shy. So in high school, I’d say, I started making more of the connection. I started playing piano and I was like ok, wait a minute, I really love music. I was singing and creating and ended up taking guitar lessons. Then in college I was in a rock band. We were trying to be like Red Hot Chili Peppers, Incubus and Rage Agains the Machine. So I used to rap and rock out, I had a red mohawk and tattoos and thought I was a super badass. Then I progressed into more solo stuff because we broke up, as most bands do. So I moved to LA and went to music school for a little while. But I didn’t entirely realize it was a career path until 2015 when I got into dance music by fluke. One of my friends asked if I wanted to sing over a DJ’s track and I was like sure, kind of rolling my eyes, because at that point I had no connection to dance music. And then that song became the biggest song of 2015, eight months later after recording it.

What will your new sound as a solo artist be like?

My new sound is very eclectic. It’s because I love so many different genres, and I write to all of them. I was actually nervous about putting out this music that was so different. But then I realized it’s the same thing pop stars do. If you listen to old Britney Spears, Janet Jackson, Michael Jackson, they all have a rock song, a dance song, they all have a crazy pop song. So I decided to do it like that. Im still an everyday, you know, person though. I don’t dress up in leotards and heels but my mind is pop. And I’m just going to let my voice and my creativity lead, so that’s what I put into my music.

You have long used your platform to spread positivity. Why do you think it’s important to project this notion as well as to position controversial social issues at the forefront of your music?

When I was in college, I felt the notion to put more meaning behind my music. To, you know, not to be so self-involved. And it really is very personal, a lot of music is like journaling, and I’ll do more of that. But [right now] I feel a strong calling to help people, and I want people to feel supported. So that’s the music I hear in my head. I’m always thinking about the world. Michael Jackson was similar. Whether you like him or not, his music was always encompassing and wanting to heal the world. I mean, he literally has a song called “Heal the World.” So I can come from that perspective and try to help people, and I hope people listen to it and can relate.

I also feel like I’m 12 different people inside, and I have this crazy energy. Like I feel like I’m an army, and I want people to feel the same thing. Like with “Set Me Off,” I want people to feel united and like, YEAH, get pumped! and let’s change. And then with “RELOAD,” I wanted to share the experience of a black person and how we’re fighting this fight that we don’t necessarily want to, but we’re fighting for love and acceptance. As a black person, I’m naturally a part of that whole conversation. Quarantine taught me to go deeper. And to actually put music out that’s for the times is because I always wonder who’s documenting this musically? Music [in the past] focused on cultural issues, social issues, politics. And I feel like some young people lose sight of that because we have TikTok, IG, and all these self-involved platforms that are so crazy and annoying.

Can you tell us about your new release, “REMEDY,” and why you decided to pair it as a followup to “RELOAD”?

I’m glad you asked, there are a few different layers to “REMEDY.” Ray Garrison and I conceived the idea about two or three days after Juice WRLD died. It made me think about how often stars, or musicians and artists at that caliber, are exploited and celebrated for their mental health issues and drug abuse. That’s really sad because now he’s just dead. Like, who stopped to help this guy? Why did he have a big bag of drugs on a plane? Who are these people that are around these people? And then it made me think of the whole world, especially now, we need so much help. Sometimes it seems irreversible, the direction we’re going in. And we all need to stop and pick up the pieces of each individual. And so this is kind of my letter if I was a friend to somebody or to Juice WRLD, I would be like, ‘Yo, I’m sorry. I apologize for not being able to help you and I’m getting help, I need help’, you know? So it’s just a layer of recognizing that the whole world needs help, individually, we need help, and to help others who are suffering. Also, it breaks my heart that another young black man is dead for no reason or drug reasons. It perpetuates all the stereotypes in society.

What’s the first live show you’ll see as a fan once COVID restrictions end?

I’ve been listening to random stuff lately. Hmm… Glass Animals. Some old school cats like Lizzo, Earth Gang. Ohhh and Rae Khalil! She’s like a modern-day Erykah Badu. She sings and raps. She just did a Tiny Desk, and I felt like I was watching Erykah Badu.”

If even possible to sum up briefly, what has been your key takeaway from 2020?

My overall takeaway from 2020 was deep reflection. There were some fears I had to get over that I discovered were there in 2020. I realized the importance of putting myself first more, and…. to put all this hot music out, you know? Also, more connectivity. With the lack of it, you realize how much you take it for granted. My everyday experiences, which were a lot of highlights, you know, out at the club or interacting with people all the time, so [losing that] made me reflect on how good relationships can be.

What’s next for Kaleena Zanders?

I have an EP coming that’s going to be very summer-vibes in April called Everything We Have is Misaligned, and I’m really excited because [in contrast to] my music that’s very, ‘help the world,’ this will be about me, my insides, you know, my love life. Me being selfish. I’m excited because I’m going to go deep with it, and so far, all the songs are really cool. I’m obsessed with them. I cant wait to share them!

 

For more recent releases from Kaleena Zanders’ distinct formula of subtle social critique, gut-busting vocal talent, non-traditional arrangement and danceable undeniability, check out “Thank You Mariah,” a presumed knock on the whiteness of contemporary holiday ballads. We also recommend “Actually Vote,” the pro-voting track she wrote in collaboration with FINNEAS and “Dear Evan Hanson” creators Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, featuring Keka Palmer in the music video.

Zander’s message on “REMEDY” rings doubly relevant as we enter the benchmark period, almost one full year in previously unthinkable isolation. The media has been warning of the probability that depression and PTSD will explode uncontrollably across our nation since the beginning of lock down. Juice WRLD is one of millions of young Americans struggling with depression and addiction. Kaleena Zanders encourages you to think, ‘How can I help?,’ ‘What can I do for my community as an individual?’ — and after that, she wants you to rock out with her.

Check out “REMEDY” below!

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photo by: Harp Digital Media
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