Chicago-based DJ, producer, and electronic musician Ariel Zetina wants to move you. Not necessarily out of yourself — in an increasingly digital world, unnecessary distractions are all too common — but into the deepest parts of your body, mind, and spirit.
Her music asks us to draw closer to what matters most, through washes of ambient sound, an allegiance to upbeat Chicago house, her native Belizean genres punta and brukdown, and intricate vocal samples culled from worldwide queer club scenes. These influences collided in her debut EP, 2017's Cyst, and demand that you, literally (and metaphorically) "Establish Yourself In My Body."
That track comes from Zetina's latest collection, Organism, which arrived last week on Majia. Perhaps more deeply than ever, she explores her ancestral roots, issues affecting her as a trans woman of color immersed in queer community, and themes of separation from the land. Coloring these themes of nature and personhood is the metropolitan turbulence of acid house, complete with lively kick drums, clattering techno rhythms, and natural sounds, like a distant ocean's roar.
In fact, Zetina plays with these contrasts powerfully in tracks like "I Miss the Sea," which illuminates her desire to be close to the ocean. She grew up in Florida, surrounded by the Atlantic; her Belizean family's sea is the Caribbean. Elsewhere on the four-track EP, "Putamaria" transmutes performative male noise via catcalls and street harassment into aggressive dance music, while "Water Nymph" calls out the contradiction of virgin-whore expectations of trans women (and all women) as means to reclaim autonomous sexuality. A pitch-shifted vocal from Zetina: "Wish I could be your nymphomaniac, but I'm just a water nymph," is isolated amid frosted breaths. "Wish I wasn't frozen/ In the snow I was the ocean," she continues. It's an assertion of her own personal power, made for and with a community of kindred spirits.
Since community is so important to Zetina, it makes sense that collaboration is at the heart of Organism, whose mere title suggests that when we dance, we rarely do it alone. As such, Chicago's MORENXXX lends production to "Putamaria" and London-based Brazilian artist Paula Nacif adds vocals and lyrics throughout.
Zetina is in the middle of a residency at Chicago's Smartbar, while balancing other residencies in the Chicagoland area. Buy Organism here, and learn more about the roles of pleasure, community, and ancestral connection in Zetina's music.
What is the role of pleasure in your music?
That's something I think about a lot as someone who makes music. Because I come from a DJ culture of making music, there's this ability to dance to something that is primarily physical. I read this amazing book, Emergent Strategy by Adrienne Maree Brown, and she has another book Pleasure Activism, which I think is a really helpful way of looking at how to make transformative justice an experience that is something you'll want to do — something that actively sparks joy. I found a lot of pleasure while making this record. I was really excited about working with Acid House, and for me I feel like that ability to fuck around was really important to the process. A lot of times as an artist you have to focus on making sad and emotional music in order to be recognized, and there's a bit of an unexpected utopia in this record.
It's interesting that you chose acid house to play with, because that genre captures the experience of cities. In "I Miss the Sea," you use the genre to explore connection with the natural world as opposed to manmade territory.
Totally, I'm really glad that comes out. I grew up in Florida and we would visit my family in Belize. I feel like I get further and further from my experiences, especially my experiences of my youth. The experience and feeling of growing up near the ocean continually becomes more of a digital object to me. That's why I love acid house because it is such a digital, metropolitan sound but as you get more into it, listening to the same qualities on a repetitive loop, the quality almost becomes liquid, like space or the ocean; there is something futuristic about it. I really wanted to explore how we can make a digital metropolis feel organic. All of this is going to be an experience. I grew up wanting to be in a city so badly, and I find myself now really missing nature and the organic world, and I think the music reflects that. The me that was born into this world began in a natural place.
"When I interact with women in my life, or other queer people in Belize, I'm able to feel a mass connection to a small intimate group of people."
What's your relationship with your ancestors like?
When I learned about the notion of carrying ancestral trauma in your body, it opened me up to having more of a relationship. People say that it sounds like this magic thing, but the way I always think about it is that I was raised based on how people before me were raised. I'm a Virgo, I'm very scientific, but I think that this stuff is traceable. You might not be able to trace every detail in relation to your ancestors but you can definitely trace back emotionally. When I interact with women in my life, or other queer people in Belize, I'm able to feel a mass connection to a small intimate group of people.
When you made this record, were there grounding rituals you took part in?
What really helped ground me before the process was reminding myself that I am a musician and an artist. DJs and electronic music often get the reputation of not being real musicians because we aren't by traditional means, so I would remind myself of when I was a kid making music. I didn't have a specific ritual, but I always want to remind myself that I have the power and the right to make whatever I wanted. There's no wrong melody, and I started to break down what sound was being used for and how tracks were constructed.
Music is not always about everything having its right place.
I feel like I was driving myself crazy trying to let go. I've always been a really strong believer in art reflecting the artist, so there is a reason why that mess is there. There is something I am trying to say by using that mess. It's part of an essence I'm trying to get across through the music.
How did you deal with anger on this record? On "Putamaria" and "Water Nymph," you explore catcalls and street harassment, which makes public space unsafe for women.
I didn't want to make a record about my own sadness; I don't want to make art about things that don't serve me anymore. I can say that I definitely make things from the standpoint of being in the middle of the queer Chicago community. [And especially] when it comes to queer people of color, so many assumptions are made especially when emotions get in the way or queer people stand up for themselves. I reject that idea. That was important for me to tap into on this record. It's more of a frustration for me that prompted this rather than an anger. I'm also not a person who uses anger as my primary form of fighting things, but of course I also feel that emotion.
"When it comes to queer people of color, so many assumptions are made especially when emotions get in the way or queer people stand up for themselves. I reject that idea."
So this is really for the community you're a part of and less about you and your individual experiences.
Yeah, and I think that establishing yourself in your body in songs like "Water Nymph," which have a feeling of sexuality. For me that's functioning as a metaphor rather than stating that's what it's explicitly about. All of these are about encounters and it prompts the question of what is an encounter and what does it mean to be. We have the details, but I'm not tying the story and messages down to any particular character or subject.
How did you decide when and when not to use your own voice?
The voice you hear throughout is me, most of the time. I'm the main vocals for the first track "Establish Yourself in Your Body," and I'm also the singing section of "Water Nymph." My co-producer's voice is on it as well, so it's a mixture of voices. I actually thought whether or not to include my voice because I hate hearing my voice. I really wanted to push myself into a very vulnerable place by doing that and knowing I could do it. I once was visiting a remote area while writing music and I decided to go record in this silo and yell for 15 minutes and see what happened. I thought to myself that if I could do it behind closed doors in the middle of nowhere, I could do it anywhere. I think people like Laurel Halo grounds us with vocals and I appreciate how the voice can be truly utilized as an instrument in electronic music. I always tell myself that one day I'm going to play an entire set with no vocals, but that hasn't happened yet. For me it really adds a theatricality to the music itself. I come from a poetry background, so by adding my own writing in I get to add a little part of myself in as well. I want this to be for the casual listener. If you want to enter it quickly, you're able to.
It's making yourself uncomfortable as an artist.
It's sometimes scary. As a trans woman, it's really scary to have my unedited voice on stuff. The singing part in "Water Nymph" is heavily autotuned, but it's also not touched up. I was really nervous about divorcing my voice from my body. It's also kind of nice though because I feel like no one will ever be entirely sure if it's me unless they read about it which I really like. I remember getting a comment after one of my sets about how many voices I included so that it sounded like a conversation, and that stuck with me a lot. Even though me, Jesus [Hilario-Reyes aka MORENXXX], and Paula [Nacif] weren't always together for production, we all have a similar relationship about being away from the ocean, or being away from home, and that really connects us on the record.
In Chicago, there tends to be a sense of community surrounding art making. Even though you're exploring personal concerns, you're inviting different people to the table who might have similar experiences. That feels so important especially when you're talking about queer community. What about Chicago encourages that for you?
A lot of it has been the fact that I always have made music collaboratively. There's a lot of comparison of Chicago, LA, and NYC. In some ways Chicago has less monetary capital than other major cities. Because of that, in Chicago there is enough of a platform for people to show work and there is more ability to take risks. You can show off collaborations and have it here, creating a feeling that we're in the middle of the country and there's so much sickening stuff here. But I also feel like sometimes artists who deserve way more attention are slept on. I always think that whatever music is played in Chicago is what the house music is. I really stand for house music, but we also need to know and be educated about the history of it. Since we're making music where it has previously been so collaborative, there's no single inventor of Chicago house. I feel like we've all been unconsciously doing that. Chicago is also a place that is spread out enough that you can either be in the city but also be really chill; it creates a really nice ability to collaborate.
There's a legitimacy in both approaches, whether you're more easygoing in working with artists whose work you admire, or also being really structured and particular. But it's nice to hear you talk about a more free flowing style of collaboration.
I try to be. I definitely think the best collaborations come when everyone has strong ideas and knows what they want, but are willing to bend. Putting out their best work, that's what I really look for in a collaborator. It definitely isn't always the case, but I always say that I'm on a New York work ethic, but my home is Chicago. I also feel really thankful that my career is kind of all over the place. I'm really excited because I really want to work with other DJs and have us boost each other up. That kind of community is so key.
Follow Ariel Zetina on Instagram (@arielzetina).
Photography: Shahrnaz Javid
Creative Direction: Aapple Yang
Styling: Shooka Raf of Worn Out
Fashion: Aliya Parashar
Makeup: Xitlalli Sixta Tarin