When Kelela emerges from backstage at Williamsburg Music Hall, she’s besieged by throngs of fans.
“Let me just tell you, I love you,” says one, bashful.
“Girl, I want whatever you are ON!” screams another.
This type of exchange happens several – no, an excessive number – of times for over an hour. “I’ve been fucking with you since Cut 4 Me, says a tall, 20-something male fan, referencing Kelela’s debut mixtape. The tape was released in 2013, but considering the collective, blip-by-blip attention span of the millennial moment we’re in, it’s enough time to denote a prolonged period of devotion. “Thank you for singing the truth!”
Kelela takes several minutes over each interaction, introducing herself like a budding social acquaintance, modestly brushing aside compliments, and asking each person what’s going on in their life. She breezes effortlessly into the friend-zone, and her fans leave elated by the newfound connection. She might have trouble remembering their names later, but she has every intention of trying. Although she’s arguably the most acclaimed R&B vocalist to rise out of the underground in recent years, the striking impression she tends to leave is that she’s also the realest.
Just don’t mistake Kelela’s kindness for weakness.
“I don’t want anybody’s foot on my shit,” she says of the major label system, over a cup of seafood soup in SoHo the next day. “I understand that, if you’re brown in the United States, for the most robust reach you need a major label. Radio doesn’t know what the fuck you are unless you have lots of money. Period. You can’t get on the playlist unless you have a dollar. That’s it. There’s a formula you can follow, but the tricky thing is knowing how you get to that place in terms of notoriety, acknowledgment and communicating with a wide audience. How do you do that your way, so that you feel respected, valued, and so that you change the reality for somebody just like you that’s coming right after? For me, this is a concern.” She pauses, and takes a sip of water, allowing her mind to race. “How can I assert myself while also playing the fucking game? I’m not rejecting the whole process, that never worked for me. It’s about going in there and fucking it up.”
“How can I assert myself while still playing the game? I’m not about rejecting the whole process, that never worked for me. It’s about going in there and fucking it up” – Kelela
Notions of disrupting the system from the inside have pervaded Kelela’s consciousness since early childhood. Born Kelela Mizanekristos to Ethiopian immigrant parents in early-80s Washington DC, Kelela (pronounced ‘kuh-luh-lah’) credits her folks with instilling in her a sense of, in her words, “guaranteed upward mobility”.
“My mom said, ‘I see that in the United States if you go to a white school, the more your property value increases,’” she explains. “She was doing her own math. She’s a hustler! It’s unfortunate that in the US that’s the algorithm – it’s that damn simple. But I do appreciate that (my parents) encouraged this other side of me when I was younger, whether they were conscious of that or not. Growing up in an Ethiopian household allowed me to feel like I had an audience before I had an audience. Something that I think extends to a lot of African cultures is that the line between performer and audience is blurry. My mom would lead the wedding song regularly and she isn’t a professional singer. Even as an audience member you’re expected to clap and sing the response to the lead.” Raised in Maryland in a town called Gaithersburg, which she describes as a ghetto suburb in an otherwise rural landscape, Kelela would bus to school every day as far as the metro would take her in order to get the type of education afforded to students in more affluent neighbourhoods. “In Maryland, I didn’t grow up around poor white people,” she says. “Where I grew up, the white people were middle class or upper-middle class. It’s interesting how screwed up it is in reality, because most people who receive assistance from the government are white, but not in my head or in my experience. There were so many things about that context that informed how comfortable – or uncomfortable – I would be at university.”
The care with which Kelela points out these discrepancies of experience is something she attributes to her studies at American University in Washington DC, where she pursued international studies with the aim of figuring out the conundrum of postcolonial poverty in Africa. “I survived by taking sociology,” she explains. “The discipline of international development and diplomacy, and all of that – it doesn’t deal with social issues in a way that acknowledges you are important as a starting point. But in sociology and anthropology, you’re not allowed to say some shit about somebody out there without being called out for doing the exact same thing. You’re always implicated. The way you talk about problems is by first talking about how you participate in the problem.” This proved formative for Kelela, who admits to frequently feeling ‘othered’ at the time, by tackling issues relating to postcolonial Africa as a black student in a predominantly white classroom. “That aspect for me, in terms of approach, allows me to also cover my privilege, my position of power, and how somebody else might be excluded through that, even though I felt so disenfranchised myself. So it was like...fucking fuck!”
If that sounds heady, it’s instructive as a framework for Kelela’s development as a songwriter. In early fan-favourite tracks like “Send Me Out”, “Bank Head” and “Go All Night (Let Me Roll)”, she places herself squarely at the centre of the narrative in a way that enables listeners to project their own experiences of burgeoning love, heartbreak and resilience into her music. The sound is at once expansive and contained, synthetic and organic, progressive and conventional. A symphony of contradictions.
“I know my ticket is vulnerability,” says Kelela pragmatically. “Most people point to some emotional experience, some hardship, some high or low when they talk about my music...a time when they need to feel those feelings more. But I’m not taking myself too seriously. (The fans are) people who are down to be vulnerable, but they know what’s cool: ‘I want to get in my feelings, but also hear some shit I’ve never fucking heard before.’” Kelela’s face breaks into a grin. “I like that duality. Emo and rave have been a thing since early on! It’s that euphoric, crying-in-the-club moment. It’s drugs, without the drugs...just the music.”
In early 2010, Kelela was in a period of transition. She felt betrayed by the university system, unable to obtain the courses she needed for graduation. She began an indie band in order to workshop her new interest in crafting songs, but had to get by with jobs like cleaning friends’ houses, giving massages and working as a line cook in a Thai restaurant. She decided to drop everything and move to LA that October. “For the first year and a half, I was sort of roaming scenes trying to find people who were into what I was into,” she says. A friend put her on to the electronic duo Teengirl Fantasy, who tapped her to write and sing on a track that would become “EFX”. Present for the session, DJ and producer Ashland Mines (Total Freedom) befriended Kelela and introduced her to Ezra Rubin (Kingdom) and the artists at the Fade to Mind label, including Prince William, Jam City, Nguzunguzu, Bok Bok and Girl Unit – the crew who would end up co-producing the Cut 4 Me mixtape. To Kelela, they were the community of like-minded collaborators she had been searching for.
“The first time I saw her perform at one of Ashland’s parties, I think it was in someone’s vacant apartment,” Kingdom recalls. “She was singing over some instrumentals off her phone while standing up on a couch, and she was killing it. There was something jazzy and free about her. That side was maybe even more pronounced at the time. Then later, at our club nights, she would hear us play our Fade to Mind edits, where we take some mainstream shit and throw it in the blender with some menacing vibes. I could tell it was thrilling for her. It started with Prince Will playing her our back catalogue of instrumentals and unreleased beats. She was going to do a mixtape of her singing over our instrumentals, but then we were inspired to make custom stuff for her...the focus shifted.”
“Emo and rave have been a thing since early on! It’s that euphoric, crying-in-the-club moment. It’s drugs, without the drugs...just the music” – Kelela
While these songs began to take shape, music-making as a full-time career remained out of reach, as Kelela clocked day-to-day hours working as a telemarketer. Then she experienced LA’s time-honoured deus ex machina – an automobile wreck.
“My car was sent to the impound because my licence was suspended,” Kelela recalls. “After doing my first two gigs opening for Solange, I was notified that it was totalled and that I would receive $17,000 for the car. I took the money and bought some Yamaha monitors, paid my rent for several months, and quit my telemarketing job. I saw that moment as my only chance to transition into something different and make money from music.” As Kelela gained notoriety and her career gathered steam, she found herself relying on her parents and friends to chip in for flights and necessities out of support for what they all saw as a project with tremendous promise. “I was struggling, as the mixtape was getting a lot of love,” says Kelela. “I don’t think that’s something people think about. I was broke and in the negative while travelling the world and playing gigs until 2013. People should know it wasn’t that long ago.”
“When we met, she had a day job and she was very unsure about her music,” says Kingdom. “She had that amazing gift she was born with, but it was more buried. She has so much more control over her voice now, especially in the past couple of years. To know her back then and see her front row at fashion shows now, it’s a huge transition.”
The fashion industry has quickly taken a shine to the mysterious Ethiopian American beauty, who’s booked campaigns for Calvin Klein’s CK1 and performed at numerous parties, launches and events. Most recently, Nicolas Ghesquière invited Kelela to sit front row at Louis Vuitton’s spring runway show in Paris, putting her in the esteemed company of brand favourites like Charlotte Gainsbourg, Alicia Vikander, Michelle Williams and Grimes. This isn’t to say that it’s been an easy road. Prior to Vuitton’s interest, Kelela found herself in a few sticky situations within the fashion industry, an experience she is inclined – and, yes, privileged – to take to task.
“A lot of that experience is palpably related to me being a brown-skinned woman with locks who sings R&B,” she says with a laugh. “I can never get away from that, even when I want to be interpreted neutrally.” Ironically, strolling through SoHo, Kelela walks past the flagship store for a brand that provided her with a valuable, though painful, learning experience, which she has come to refer to, with a hint of wry humour, as her “Dave Chappelle crisis”. (In 2005, comedian Dave Chappelle walked away from his popular TV series and a reported $50 million contract over ethical concerns regarding the entertainment industry’s tone-deafness towards black entertainers and audiences.)
“A lot of that experience is palpably related to me being a brown-skinned woman with locks who sings R&B. I can never get away from that, even when I want to be interpreted neutrally” – Kelela
“It often feels like brands associate themselves with you so they can speak to brown people or the quote-unquote urban market,” she says. “It’s significant for someone who thinks about the intersection of capitalism and art. It’s doubly significant when I feel I am included so they don’t come off as such a white brand. The dilemma is how do I infiltrate without becoming a part of the problem? It’s particularly hard when you love and are asked to associate with an established brand, and you also know that they haven’t been thinking about you or anyone who looks like you until recently. Is it more in alignment with my principles to disrupt that lineage, or do I reject that brand completely? It’s not an easy decision.”
It’s especially difficult, she says, because she so believes in the power of style. “It’s a struggle, mainly because I want to challenge why (fashion) has been so centred around and catered to the rich white person’s experience. I also think that what we wear is one of the most significant forms of expression – it’s not superfluous. But the problem is systemic: the system is white. There can be people of colour who are allowed in those spaces, but they are often the people of colour that (the industry) feels won’t disrupt the white establishment. In the same way that women can be complacent in the disenfranchisement of other women because of patriarchy, we have a lot of people of colour who may not want to challenge the establishment because they are in survival mode.”
If any song became the unofficial anthem of spring 2016 fashion, it was “Rewind”. Produced by Kingdom with Kelela and Nugget (with additional production by Girl Unit and Obey City), the track had viral moments soundtracking interpretive dancers at Opening Ceremony and Kendall Jenner’s runway strut at Fendi. Described by Kingdom as “the perfect balance of 808 minimalism and sex appeal”, the song blends Kelela’s sultry vocals with a Miami freestyle booty bass backbeat. “That song was a collab all around,” Kingdom says. “It was a really fun one to work on. Elements of the beat and the vocal were already in place. She knew I could bring that authentic roller-rink So So Def Bass All-Stars thing to it.” Kelela plans to bring a similar level of pop songcraft to her debut album, out this spring.
“I want it to be like, Carole King or Dolly Parton will want to take it to the piano immediately,” Kelela says. “In thinking about cool sounds and the future, we aren’t thinking enough about resonance. We’re thinking about otherworldliness, what we like, and what feels good. But the balance can sometimes be off, the vocals can sound really meek. There’s a lot of reverb and the vocals aren’t always in your face. But there’s something about the tradition of R&B and gospel of singing hard. I love that feeling of, ‘Wow, you’re going so hard vocally right now,’ paired with electronic music that goes hard too. I wrote a lot of the songs on the record, discovered my own knack, and went in on it. Everyone says your first album is all life experience and it’s a little overwhelming. It’s become easier for me since going through the process of exercising this muscle, sitting with the producers I’ve been working with and seeing the range of their palettes.”
“I want to challenge why (fashion) has been so centred around and catered to the rich white person’s experience... But the problem is systemic: the system is white” – Kelela
Kelela cites Alejandro Ghersi (Arca), Jack Latham (Jam City) and Alex Sushon (Bok Bok) as central collaborators on the album. “It’s like trying to sew a big-ass quilt together,” she says. “You can imagine from what you know of these artists that it’s a difficult quilt to sew. But it does make sense to me, you know?”
“Her musical brain is so muscular and beautiful,” says Ghersi, “full of grace and playfulness and curiosity – a reflection of her personality.” Ghersi and Kelela met on a boat party where she performed with Teengirl Fantasy in August of 2012, and found they were mutual fans. They instantly made plans to collaborate, the first fruits of which became “A Message”, the first single on last year’s Hallucinogen EP. “There’s never been any rush,” Ghersi explains. “I don’t think we walk into sessions with any goal other than to make something we both love. Coming from such different upbringings, but having similar outlooks on catharsis and poise, I think we know that if we both overlap and harmonise about a musical idea there is something exponentially solid to it.” Pressed to describe that synthesis, Ghersi rejects terms like ‘futurism’ and ‘otherworldliness’.“I like to think that both Kelela and I make work that is about communion, oneness and integration, insofar as it puts emphasis on humanness – tragedy, loss, longing, gratitude and joy – and dips it in an acid of discomfort to prove a point about how facing those things can be uncomfortable, but feeling them leads to growth. Kelela is someone who is tapping into something that I think will age beautifully, because of how truly vulnerable she allows herself to be in her life. On an emotional level, she is an open person. You can tell by the way she wields her voice: it goes from fragile to commanding to playful to pained in the blink of an eye. That means she has to tap into different sides of herself very quickly, and that requires openness. Staying open isn’t the most comfortable thing, especially when she’s in a position where she amplifies heartache or loneliness in her work.”
“She’s ready to make pop,” argues Sushon. “But she has this intensity about her work, an ability to make the personal accessible that reminds me of the greats I grew up listening to.”
When listening to a handful of tracks from the album, it’s apparent that Kelela is continuing to draw on the sonic thread she’s already begun to weave, but when sharp hooks and danceable beats emerge from the swirling atmosphere, she guides this thread through the needle’s eye of pop. On one Jam City-produced track with an uptempo beat and whispery vocals reminiscent of Janet Jackson, she even adds a throwback to the chorus of “Bank Head”, singing, “It’s all I dreamed of, it can’t get started.” On another, more party-ready track, she basks in her own sexual liberation, singing the refrain, “No one’s trying to settle down, all you have to do is let me know.” It’s a track that fans of “Rewind” will instantly put on heavy rotation.
“I know I can make a song,” says Kelela. “I’ve shown that through the mixtape. I knew when I did the mixtape I would call it that because it doesn’t have huge choruses on every song. I knew I didn’t write a bridge for every song. The album is a bunch of people going further with their own visions: how weird can this get? How big can it get? We’re all trying to crack that code.” As she explains, the record’s hidden nods to the past are intentional and specific. “Do you remember this? Do you remember this also? What about this?” she says. “A question I keep asking is, ‘Is this too much nostalgia?’ Maybe that’s how you construct your map. There’s something relatable there, but there also needs to be a sense of what is happening right now – that feeling like your face is falling off sonically. It’s about range. I don’t have to sing one hyped-up thing over and over again. If I’m going to say something about the debut album, it’s this: it goes from 0 to 20. Just like real life.”
Kelela’s debut album is out in May
Hair Ramsell Martinez at Streeters using Bumble & Bumble, make-up John McKay at Frank Reps using Shu Uemura, set design Spencer Vrooman, nails Marisa Carmichael, photographic assistant Katelyn Reeves, fashion assistant Len Burton, production Connect the Dots
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