SA / 037: Sister Zo

Sister Zo is a DJ, producer, and writer, newly based in Colombus, Ohio after establishing herself in the music scene of Kansas City, Missouri. She is a co-founder of UN/TUCK Collective, a queer/trans/femme/nonbinary collective based in Kansas City. Her mix is unadulterated summer fun full of bouncy basslines and cheeky vocals - she described it best herself: "It’s giving sweat, sunsets, poppers and good clean ecstasy."

About the mix:

When I started to conceive of this mix, I had a very strong feeling—as I’m sure many of us did around this time (May-June)—of desperately wanting to return to the light of a good, cathartic club night.

The Pandemic had shifted my musical tastes away from house, techno, bass music etc. and sent me down this rabbit hole of slower (and faster) tempos and rhythms. This mix was sort of a self-directed return to upbeat, driving house and techno—a spell for manifesting eventual joy and collective movement on the dancefloor, or a field somewhere. It’s giving sweat, sunsets, poppers and good clean ecstasy. I recorded the mix at home on CDJ 2000s and a DJM900.

Where did you grow up? How did that shape your sound or the way you relate with music?

I grew up in the suburbs of Kansas City, Missouri, listening to hip-hop, pop, and punk. In 8th grade my dad introduced me to Pink Floyd, which was the first music I’d ever heard that evoked a real, deep emotional response in me. Like it spoke to a fundamental part of me that never quite fit with my surroundings. I know Pink Floyd is usually associated with white stoner dudes, but to me the music and subject material was very queer and immersive.

I feel like Floyd instilled in me a deep love for immersive, psychedelic electronic music long before I ever knew what hallucinogens were. I also had a persistent love for rap and hip-hop, so it made sense when I discovered trip-hop and IDM, and then later EDM and club music, that I’d fall in love.

What is the place you call "home" now? How do you ensure that you're both drawing inspiration and contributing there?

This is a sensitive subject because I just moved from Kansas City to Columbus, OH back at the start of May, after co-directing UN/TUCK for 3 and half years. It’s honestly been a jarring transition that I’m still navigating and processing. In fact, this was the first mix I recorded after moving.

Since being here, I’ve been hosting a monthly show called The Inside on the locally-run Midwest community radio, Verge.FM. Verge has been a liferaft for me. I’m not well acquainted with the scene so it’s refreshing to be welcomed with open arms by a team of younger DJs, artists, and organizers who are so driven and committed to making change and creating community spaces for music to thrive—especially spaces run primarily by Black and queer people.

While Columbus may just be a temporary home, it’s still important for me to lend my efforts and energy to the mission of uplifting marginalized voices through music, as I did with UN/TUCK in years past. For instance, I’ve been able to help run and teach DJ workshops hosted by Verge. And I cannot describe how happy it makes me to share these tools that have given me so much liberation and self-empowerment. Wherever home is, I hope while I’m there I can do things in this vein.

To what extent is your music tied to community, and to what extent is it about individual expression? Can those things intersect?

For me, music is innately transpersonal. That is, it transcends the limits of my personal identity and connects me to Life itself. In music, I have forged some of my most special relationships—including my relationship with my dad, my friendship with Coughman, my sisters in UN/TUCK, my partner, Dan.

Music is a unifying force in my life. In it, I have found both community and self-empowerment. For me, the two always intersect, even when I am alone in my studio working on tracks or a mix—it is always both to express something in my own heart and to give back to the world of music that has so enriched my life.

Do you have any thoughts on the present struggles of DIY collectives and spaces and how these spaces can continue to exist?

I think it really comes down to owning spaces ourselves and sticking together. Communities live and die by the physical spaces that host them.

UN/TUCK, for instance, was founded out of comraderies built at the only alternative queer bar in Kansas City. When the owner of the bar sold it to another wealthy bar owner in the city, it made it harder to organize accessible events. Of course other spaces popped up, but losing the bar nonetheless made it more difficult to organize—mostly because we lacked funding and a consistent home.

When DIY collectives and spaces are under-resourced, it puts a strain on the individuals putting in the labor to maintain said spaces. The pandemic has only exacerbated that. I’m not sure exactly what the solution is going forward. It would be great if the government could ensure the continuation of unemployment benefits, the moratoria on evictions and student loan payments, and other vital programs. It would be great if the minimum wage was a livable wage, and workplaces cared for the safety and welfare of the workers. It would be great if we as communities worked more actively to battle racism in our scenes and cities. These things would surely ease the traumas facing DIY communities.

There are so many factors beyond our control—but we can control how we treat each other, how we do or do not come together, how much we recognize the importance of our friendships, of holding ourselves and each other accountable, of uplifting and supporting our peers, with special consideration for our Black peers and our peers of color.

I believe we’re all here to help each other whether we know it or not. It’s too easy to lose sight of that when most of us are just trying to survive the day to day. Plus, maintaining DIY collectives/spaces requiries real labor and care. So find your people and take care of each other. Listen to each other. Be open to compromise. And on a more tangible note, look for arts grants like the Meow Wolf DIY Fund, or Charlotte Street Foundation’s Rocket Grant. There are resources out there but you have to be willing to find them.

If you DJ/produce under an alias, what is the story behind your alias?

My friend Peter started calling me his sister Zo when we’d play gigs. But my alias at the time was BTRFLY. One night a promoter incorrectly billed us as Coughman and Sister Zo and I just went with it. So it’s an homage specifically to Peter and our friendship and partnership, and more broadly to the communal aspect of dance music that drew me in the first place.

Can you share any tracks or mixes that really bring you back to a place or are somehow connected to a specific time or locale?

Transfiguration by Floraviolet — Floraviolet is the alias of UN/TUCK co-founder, Lorelei Kretsinger. She made this whole EP with our 2019 Transfiguration Festival in mind. This song, specifically, fills me with hope and excitement for the future, for a utopic world where we are free. It transports me both to an unmanifest vision of life and also to the Spring of 2019 when UN/TUCK was at its height, when we came together and created some really special things for our community in Kansas City.

Share a track that you never completed or shared, and talk about why that track never made the cut.

This is a track that I actually really love but haven’t found a home for yet. I have a lot of ones like it just sitting in my private SoundCloud links. Like many other tracks I make, I got to a point where I just didn’t know what else to do with it. So I sort of abandoned it out of a feeling that it was lacking something crucial. Honestly though upon another listen I think it’s really dope and would love to find a proper label to release it. I’m hoping in the coming years to actually start putting out music instead of just a compilation track here or a remix track there. I’ve been producing for nearly seven years and I still don’t feel like I’m where I want to be as a producer. I think I’m just a sad perfectionist though.

Published August 2021.

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