Pride Month 2020: Label-defying artist Arca is redefining 'normal' with her surreal brand of queer expression
The Latinx nonbinary trans artist's unique brand of electronica dance-pop fused with hip-hop and the traditional Venezuelan ballad is redefining what music can sound like
Arca is one of the most formidable and transformative queer artists of the modern generation. Her very existence challenges the notions of what it means to have an artist who pushes the boundaries of their genre as well as what it means to have that artist be a Latinx nonbinary trans woman. Arca is a Venezuelan singer-songwriter, producer, mixing engineer, performance artist and DJ based in Barcelona. She made her first foray into music under the name Nuuro, earning a moderate amount of popularity in her home country as well as praise from artists like Los Amigos Invisibles. Arca spent her younger years learning to play the piano and eventually attended The Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music at NYU.
Her first major breakthrough came in 2012 with the EPs 'Stretch 1' and 'Stretch 2', which followed her debut EP 'Baron Libre' released the same year. It introduced the world to Arca's unique brand of alternative dance electronica fused with traditional ballad music native to Venezuela. Since then, Arca has gone on to collaborate with a wide range of artists. Her impressive catalog also includes additional production, programming and songwriting for five of the songs on Kanye West's 2013 release 'Yeezus', an audio-visual collaborative performance with Jess Kanda at the 2013 MoMA PS1, as well as FKA Twigs' 2013 'EP2' on which Arca is credited with producing and co-writing for every song. In 2015, she co-produced and co-wrote tracks for Björk's album 'Vulnicura' and later that year, produced, recorded, mixed and co-wrote tracks on Kelela's EP 'Hallucinogen'. She collaborated with both artists again in 2017 including Björk's album 'Utopia', an album that Björk referred to as an exploration of "the Arca-Björk overlap".
Since her debut, Arca has also released three albums — 2014's 'Xen', 2015's 'Mutant', and 2017's 'Arca' — in addition to several mixtapes, with each release seeing the artist branching out even further from her earlier sound to create her own niche that infuses performance and visual art as well as technology into her artistry. Her most recent work is 'KiCk i', the first in a series of upcoming releases, each featuring its own unique sonic theme. As the first installment, 'KiCk i' explores concepts like pleasure, dignity and liberation set against the backdrop of Arca's unique dance music sound while also layering in elements of reggaetón and pop. And helping her bring her sonic vision to life are acts like Björk and Rosalía, who feature on the record.
Arca's sound being hard to categorize might be seen by many as a reflection of her own defiance of labels. Her very identity is something that exists outside of what would be considered 'the norm'. But Arca's artistry is more than just one thing. It's the culmination of her own journey of self-expression combined with vivid memories she has of her childhood, including witnessing the people of Venezuela using sound as a form of protest against Hugo Chavez's penchant for forcing the public to watch him speak for hours. Also, her love for fashion is omnipresent in her art as it incorporates elements of a confusing reality into an art piece that is somehow both a commentary on that reality as well as an escape from it. 'Arca' is ultimately a persona that explores everything life has to offer, of which her gender and identity is but one part.
It's hard to predict what Arca's next music venture will sound like. Everything she has put out thus far has defied expectations and opposed any labels anyone has tried to apply to Arca in the past. Simply put, Arca defies categorization. And this perception of the artist was only further solidified in the minds of fans and critics alike when, in 2018, Arca came out as nonbinary, sharing later on that she identified as a trans woman and revealing her pronouns to be 'she/her' and 'it/its'.
Following her coming out, Arca's style has only gone further into an undefinable territory, establishing herself as a modern icon of queer expression. With the increasing use of performance and visual art, Arca is reshaping both her sound as well as the persona she is continuously evolving. Probably the greatest example of this persona comes in the form of a performance called 'Mutant; Faith' that Arca and her crew put on at The Shed last year. The three-night showcase saw the artist deliver everything from a five-hour epilogue to mechanical bulls and stripper poles to moments of long, arresting silence. A surrealist's vision brought to life, the show pulled together all the sonic and visual elements that encompass Arca's artistry, combining some her older performance pieces which existed during a time prior to her coming out publicly with newer pieces that stylist Natacha Voranger defines as a "battle-ready warrior princess". Thus she created a story that unfolds in front of you told entirely through a persona that evolves within that space and effectively changes it in realtime.
One of the things that stands out about Arca is that she has accomplished several feats as an artist while being Latinx as well as being nonbinary and trans — all of which are identities that often find themselves faced with significant barriers, both within the entertainment industry and beyond. To see Arca thrive is to see what is 'normal' being redefined. It's a level of representation marginalized communities are rarely afforded, even in 2020, and Arca managed to make her dreams a reality in the face of these barriers nearly a decade ago. And she didn't just hit the scene strong: she is leaving a mark on music that is defining this era all the while blending music that is true to her own cultural roots with lyrical themes that reflect her identity and experiences. And that is nothing short of revolutionary.
But beyond her identity itself seemingly being an act of rebellion, Arca is a visionary. She does not feel the need to draw on existing tropes or established notions of what 'sells'. On the contrary, she actively creates her own artistry drawing on her own experiences and the lessons life has taught her, allowing for the creation of art that is fluid and free and representative of the various facets of what makes her who she is. In an interview with Papermag, Arca shared, "I want to be seen as an ecosystem of minor self-states without being stripped of the dignity of being a whole."
"It gives me the feeling of possibility, to not allow for easy categorization. I wouldn't want to just go pop and I wouldn't want to go full experimentalist. That's where a nonbinary mode of thinking feels really fertile. It opens possibilities rather than collapsing things. Allowing for change without resisting it." And that, in essence, is what makes Arca truly revolutionary.