Jul 7, 2022
6 min read
From starring in children’s plays in elementary school to winning small contests and praise for her compelling voice in the early days of her budding music career, the fun-loving, charismatic, and eloquently spoken vocalist-producer Kaleena Zanders continues to spur critical acclaim for her live performances and house productions.
With a vocal dexterity comparable to the likes of CeCe Peniston and Whitney Houston, Kaleena Zanders is one of the most sought-after voices within the house genre.
The artist’s collaborative tune with SNBRN, a piano-house cover of 2Pac and Dr. Dre’s “California,” was the first to catapult her to the upper echelons of dance music vocalists. Today, it sits at 20 million streams on Spotify, but it pales compared to the roughly 100 million accumulated streams her discography has on the streaming platform.
“With my song in 2015, I didn’t really know how to write in top-line format, the style of writing is much more minimal, and it was different from what I was used to. As I began going to more festivals and going to clubs I began to see that sometimes minimalism is better, because it’s easier for people to sing along to,” said Kaleena.
“For a while I was quite resistant to it all but now that I’m writing for myself and djing now too, I’m able to extract the good parts and accept the way that dance music tends to work. I love house music and I love that my voice is soulful—I’m owning it now and finally understanding that I can make hits for myself after doing it for a lot of people for so long.”
Kaleena Zanders at Pride LA
Armed with a penchant for songwriting, storytelling, and the gift of song, the Bay-Area-born, Los Angeles-based artist’s voice is as distinct as it is dynamic and widely recognizable. She has lent her vocals to a spot for the 2018 Winter Olympics, a piano edit of her moving song “Stronger Than I’ve Ever Been” for Super Bowl LII, and an unreleased track for Marvel’s Cloak and Dagger show on Freeform.
The proud queer icon also provided an emotive ballad for Bravo and NBC’s Pride commercial campaign. The harmonious, soulful, and uplifting “We’ll Stand Together” was written with her friend Erick during the pandemic.
“We wanted to make a hopeful song and we made it but didn’t know what to do with it for a while,” she explained. “Then a sync company found my song and wanted it for Bravo for Pride and we were so excited.”
With Kaleena’s emotive voice at its center, she admits it strays from the rest of her uptempo discography. She hopes it provides listeners with comfort, “like being wrapped in a warm blanket.”
Whether it be singing for commercial use or simply off the cuff for friends, fans, and family, the vocalist says she feels lucky to be able to wake up in the morning and do what she loves every day. The artist previously starred in an alternative rock ensemble in college and says she never expected to break into the industry so quickly.
“I started off as a singer-songwriter. I’ve written K-Pop, pop music, and for plenty of artists in dance music and I’ve loved it. I used to journal all the time, writing poems as a little kid. I won contests at school and so writing has always been a huge part of me,” said the producer-singer.
“I remember being in the play Annie, which I performed at San Jose’s huge theater, and I remember my friends thinking I was this big superstar and having a great time performing.” Then, later on, as a resident advisor in college, another resident advisor—a rock and roll inclined drummer—heard Kaleena singing around the hall and asked her to be in a band with him.
Their first performance was in the school’s courtyard—Kaleena had an afro then and recalled wearing “a bright headband, ripped t-shirt, and dickies, and thinking, ‘Yeah, I’m gonna be this person. Rock and Roll!’”
“It was a funk, rock-soul band…We were trying to be like the Red Hot Chili Peppers meets Rage Against the Machine meets the old Incubus,” said the artist.
Many of her first performances were small shows for college students working on homework in common areas and small lounges for hip-hop and funk enthusiasts.
Today, she rocks festivals and events for thousands. Most recently, the artist (now also a DJ) performed at the Governor’s Ball Music Festival, OUTLOUD, and DJed at EDC Las Vegas for the Femme House artcar takeover.
“LP and I have been friends since before she started Femme House, we’d hang out, make music, and then she basically took over the dance world and of course, I became a part of it, we’re so close,” said Kaleena.
Leah Chisholm, aka LP Giobbi, founded Femme House in 2019 to “foster more equitable opportunities for women and gender-expansive individuals in the technical and behind the scenes areas of music.”
Femme House has since expanded its programming to include an array of music production workshops led by industry experts and a weekly radio show on SiriusXM. They’ve also collaborated with music software juggernaut Ableton, W Hotels, and the iconic Roland to take the programming on tour with the 2022 Femme House tour.
“I love that she’s spreading awareness and creating a very inclusive culture. It’s brilliant, and now there’s more women on lineups... It’s only going to get better from here. This is the right movement and we needed it,”
Kaleena and LP Giobbi at EDC 2021
Kaleena was one of the few queer black women who performed at EDC Las Vegas in 2022. She says knowing this made the performance that much more meaningful.
“At one point, as I was playing EDC, I looked over and saw Coco & Breezy’s visuals at the Stereo Bloom stage,” Zanders recalls. “I started tearing up because I was like dude, we’re here together playing. It’s crazy because dance music belongs, and started with, Black queer people. So it feels weird to be emotional at the fact that there isn’t enough in the space. But it felt beautiful to be represented there, and I hope it continues. UNIIQU3, Coco & Breezy, Moore Kismet, HoneyLuv… just seeing and knowing there’s more Black people, more queer people, it’s beautiful.”