This post appeared originally on THUMP UK.
You can tell Arca is somewhere in the vicinity long before his set starts. The area surrounding north London's Roundhouse looks like a Vetements ad casting call. This always happens here. When Mac DeMarco plays, the streets fill with teens in plaid and worn denim caps. When Rick Ross does, you get the combination of women in heels and those in oversized hoodies. Tonight, you can see Arca's aesthetic relayed by the punters hanging about, smoking their pre-show cigarettes outside. All the markers are there: buzzcuts and chunky boots, leather harnesses looped through metal rings that are cold to the touch. It's hard not to smile while watching a family of four squeeze their way past a skinny, six-foot-one man in a full-length leather coat on their way to an ice-cream parlor.
It's not news to say that Alejandro Ghersi has a powerful aesthetic. His long-time collaboration with Jesse Kanda on the videos and artwork that accompany his music has built his standing as a complete artist. And, most importantly for his fans, he's kicked open a space for queerness in digital music during a time when the remnants of brostep, male-centered pop house and the tired sexism of dance culture still haven't completely shifted. At the risk of using a phrase as loaded and hackneyed as "safe space", the gig feels like a congregation. And that's even before Arca reaches out into the crowd surrounding him, to hold a fan's chin in his hands like he's about to baptize her.
When he appears, dressed in ass-less chaps and heeled thigh-high boots, he skulks down a plexiglass runway purpose-built for the show. From my vantage point, seated on the second level, it feels like the introduction to a particularly slick drag show. The air vibrates as he coos on "Piel", teetering dramatically before throwing himself into a death drop. Watching him, you can almost envision him rehearsing in his bedroom—a younger Alejandro sending his limbs swooping through these moves in front of the mirror as a teenager. As with the rest of the show, from the way he delicately thanks us to the moments when he squats down to make eye contact with the audience members crowded around the runway, he draws us in. He both pulls you out of the insular space you'd normally occupy processing his music on headphones, while simultaneously burying you deep in your feelings. At times it makes my stomach lurch like vertigo.
His recent self-titled album felt like a declaration of a new level of intimacy with his audience. On it, you hear his voice with an unprecedented clarity— live, this translates as a rich timbre and quivering vibrato. I hear someone seated near me whisper that it's making her want to cry, though she doesn't understand Spanish and thus doesn't know what he's saying. But she's right. The combination of sonic textures and visual theatrics—a span of outfit changes, the swirl of undulating Kanda visuals projected on a huge screen behind which Arca periodically mixes when not singing on the runway— makes this a performance that first grabs you by the shoulders and shakes you, before enclosing you in a hug. As a woman yells "yaaas" somewhere behind me, and a mother just ahead quietly walks out with her pre-pubescent child, I grow keenly aware that the show won't last much longer. I feel I need to drink it in.
By the time he's disappeared and emerged again in translucent flares and skinny-strap stilettos, a cropped bullfighter's jacket with a pale pink thong, and then wobbled through the crowd on the bull-like stilts he wore in the "Reverie" video, he's won over the entire room. It's not all high art and stoicism, either. I almost lose my voice screaming all the way through the graphic, slippery and harshly-lit video of a gloved hand fisting an anus, projected while "Whip" blasts out over the speakers. At this point, Arca has proven himself to be far more than "Bjork, Kanye and FKA twigs collaborator," leaving a stamp on this night that throbs like a bruise. Back outside, while Kelela casually swerves through the crowd, an energy fizzes through those deciding where to head next. Now, without a doubt, we know that Arca's been here.
Tshepo Mokoena is the editor of Noisey UK.