Through Her Music, Arca Evokes Nostalgia to Reimagine Queer Freedom

Photo by Unax LaFuente.

What it means to be Latine is a definition in a constant state of revision. Through the changes, however, our music has remained an impervious concept, unmoored by the Xs and Es added to identity labels in the name of inclusivity. No one understands this better than Arca. 

In any given week, the Billboard Hot Latin Song chart is inundated by the now global sounds of reggaeton that infuse pop, bachata, and trap into the mix. As a shape-shifting artist who operates outside this standardized definition of Latine music, Alejandra Ghersi has always perceived this genre as a mere myth. But since the 2020 release of KiCk i, Arca began to challenge this myth and reclaim a space within a community that has historically excluded queerness. In the process, she raises a mirror to Latine queer folks who never saw themselves reflected in the heteronormative music from our childhoods.  

Arca has sonically rejected the pragmatism inherent in a culture traditionally bent on calling things by what they believe they are. To an older ear, Arca’s music is equivalent to watching a telenovela about two queer men in love: abnormal and unfounded. Even the stretchy terms of experimental and electronic are too limiting for her. This was made clear when she collaborated with Kanye West. Now, Arca was adding rap to her portfolio, a genre rooted in masculinity. It was precisely this masculine energy that has instilled a curiosity in Arca. “The hip-hop community is much more open-minded than my local neighborhood,” she explained at the time.

That Arca felt more included in the hip-hop stratosphere than in her own community hints at the hardships faced. Ghersi grew up in Caracas as a closeted teenager who didn’t meet an openly gay person until she turned 18. It is what has made Arca’s point of view so essential to her queer-minded fans. Her music represents the confusing and violent process of embracing queerness when it is frowned upon. Her style was a contrarian force against mainstream Latine music: disjointed, arrhythmic, genderless, uncouth, and wholly devoid of lyrics to even give us a hint of what Arca meant by all of this. Before transitioning, very few people knew what Arca looked like, as she led a private life. But as she documented her new journey via Instagram, Arca declared the freedom to reclaim what’s always been hers.

Any Latine kid growing up in the 2000s will quickly recognize the sample in Arca’s “Machote,” a track from the first installment of her sprawling KiCk project quintet. It isn’t so much a sampling but a complete rework of the 2003 viral song “Quiero Una Chica” by Latin Dreams, a duo act from Colombia. It is about wanting a special girl who knows how to love and dance. Ghersi, born in 1989, would have been about 14 years old at the time of its release. As it was the case of this song, the strictly binary message of reggaeton likely contributed to an entire generation of closeted queer kids to remain obedient to these words. Our music sounded like how our world looked: male-dominated, heteronormative, and abided by a patriarchal society that made machismo standard behavior. For the first time in her career, Arca is using lyrics and sounds from her past to insert herself where she was previously not allowed. In this insertion, traumatic nostalgia is exploited to transform repressed memories into liberating ones. That means singing along to a new version of “Quiero Una Chica” that is now explicitly queer. Arca isn’t just singing about wanting a man. Instead, she wants a “machote,” a brawny, aggressively masculine man that knows how to touch and love her.

In KICK ii’s “Rakata,” a reference to the eponymous hit song by Wisin y Yandel, her sexual desires are at the forefront. Many of us have memories of our families disapproving (some still do) of the explicit reggaeton lyrics. Now, Arca shouts her sexual demands with an unabashed griminess that, 10 years ago, would have seemed unthinkable for a trans Latina. “Tiro” extrapolates from the Caribbean sounds of merengue (she references the all-too-familiar anthem “Suavemente”) while “Incendio” is a clear nod to funk carioca. “Prada” features an unmistakably old-school reggaeton production layered with echoed vocals that travel through Arca’s alter egos, and seem to mock the performative masculinity of reggaetoneros. In the track, Arca calls forward “las transformistas,” the female shape-shifters who deserve to shine and throw sparks (“botar chispa”) because it is now their turn. In her words, this is a song about “defying shame and healing ancestral wounds.” All these songs are meant to send us back to these old wounds precisely so that we can close them up.

In each of her Kick album covers, Arca fashions herself as a humanoid modifying, building, or dissecting her environment. Through each image, Arca seems to express her philosophy that visually breaks down the binary barriers in order to build up soundscapes that are not only new but reclaimed, reconfigured, and repaired from abandoned, rusty pieces of machinery that did not survive the test of time. Because even if Latine music chooses to remain one kind of way, consciously or not, Arca comes from the future to tell us these worlds are too small for the multitudes we contain.