Photo: Savanna Ruedy / Courtesy of PR

Tony & the Kiki Bring Gender Ambiguity Back to Rock with “Listen” (premiere)

Thank whatever deity you may believe in for the return of both androgyny and people of color to rock music. Or just listen to Tony & the Kiki.

Thank whatever deity you may believe in for returning both androgyny and people of color to rock music. Or just listen to Tony & the Kiki. Hard rock has been far too pale and macho for too many decades, and in the cisheteronormative way, rather than in the manner of camp hypermasculinity (MAN ON MAN a notable and phenomenal exemption). Even hair metal was painfully heterosexual.

Lately, the aural domain of queerness, of gender ambiguity and neutrality, has been lo-fi bedroom pop and its associated genres (think he/they and she/they icons Cavetown and dodie). All the while people of color have been inventing new genres since rock ‘n’ roll was co-opted. For a while now, we’ve sorely needed more people of color in rock music and genre-defying glam with a contemporary queer vocabulary. To quote vocalist Anthony Alfaro, aka the Tony of Tony & the Kiki, “I’m mad about the state of rock ‘n’ roll, mami. Most of these white boys have never twerked on shrooms to the Spice Girls, and frankly, it shows.” 

The Kiki consists of guitarist Junior Pauls, bassist Yuka Tadana, keyboardist Rodney Bush, drummer Tristan Marzeki, all produced by Max Vernon, many of whom are also queer or nonbinary. The group cites influences from glam rock and hair metal to riot grrl and brujeria, an exciting and very 21st-century mix, showing that this is not a group stuck in a mythic past. Anthony Alfaro is, after all, from Queens in New York City.

The group’s new single “Listen”, out now, begins as a quiet piano ballad, showcasing a more subdued side of Tony’s showperson’s voice. It builds from there with added acoustic-style guitar, soft waves of synth, and a late ’70s-esque bassline, as their voice alternately climbs and drops in register. “I travel from country to country and see people that don’t know they’re hungry,” sings Tony, and shortly thereafter, the guitars turn heavy and their voice sharp and raspy. “This is what it could be / This is what it sounds like / Close your eyes and hear me / Screaming in the moonlight.” The guitars recede, and Tony’s voice drifts off into the aether, and we’re back to the gentle piano and strumming guitar—a peaceful end. Out of all their self-descriptions, “psychedelic folk” is the most fitting for this particular track.

Overall, it shows a new group capable of astounding and exciting range, with little interest in actively mimicking their influences and more concerned with utilizing those sounds to convey their ideas. Their upcoming EP, Light It Up, was described by Alfaro as “something like a prayer or psalm.” But it’s far from quiet. When thoughts can’t be heard, Tony has this to say, “I’m left with no choice but to do what I’ve done my whole life when I can’t be heard… scream.”