Lessons we learned from her recent Q&A in London
It says a lot about Kelela that the first thing that happens when she steps onto the stage to be interviewed at a recent Q&A in London, the interviewer gets schooled on how to correctly pronounce her name. “It's Kel-LEL-a,” she tells presenter Emma Dabiri, rather than Kel-LEE-la. It's brushed off as the interview goes on, and the pair walk off stage hugging.
But in the unlikely, stark setting of a SOAS University lecture hall, there's much deeper things to be explored. Looking stunning with her half-shaved hair, thick beaded braids, sky high burgundy boots and fresh off the back of releasing her debut album last week, Take Me Apart, Kelela is ready and raring to divulge what's on her mind.
The conversation revolves around blackness – her conceptions of it, how it's affected her journey into the music industry, the nuances around intersectionality and competing with whiteness.
Although born in the US, she has Ethiopian heritage and currently splits her time between LA and London, and says that “music in the UK is not racialised in the same way as it is in the US”. She goes on: “In the US it’s more rigid and conservative. And white people in the UK, have more close proximity with black people and people of colour in general.”
Here's some insights from the talk which position 34-year-old Kelela, who counts Solange amongst her friends, as one of the most articulate and important black voices in the music industry today.
THERE'S A GOOD REASON HER LONG-AWAITED DEBUT ALBUM TOOK SO LONG
“It means so much to be able to share myself with the world. I didn’t take so long making it intentionally. I was feeling behind the entire time. And annoyed by myself for being one of those people. Most artists are going into the studio for a fixed period of time and they say that’s their album. I can’t relate because I’ve never made music in that way, I come from a culture of editing and remixing. The other reason why it took so long was because I had a toolbox that worked for my previous experiences and it just didn’t work in the music industry. By that I mean I had to learn how oppression works in the music industry, specific to my experience as a black woman, as a queer black woman. It just took a lot of time to adjust to that experience.
“Black women are really grateful, as humans, to be able to make the work that we’re making. But beyond that we’re just happy to be around people make tight shit. At a human level it’s exciting being put in the same context as people who are fucking shit up. It makes you want to well and it makes you not want to lose opportunities. Every time you are challenging power you’re met with this notion that you’re going to lose opportunities. It take a while to figure out how to push, in terms of imposing your way on others. It’s the only way you can actually feel good. Because the default setting is created for white men, and perhaps in this day and age, black men, to succeed.”
“I had to learn how oppression works in the music industry, specific to my experience as a queer black woman. The default setting is created for white men, and perhaps in this day and age, black men, to succeed” –
BLACK WOMEN HAVE TO WORK HARDER IN THE MUSIC INDUSTRY
“If you can get a white girl to do the same exact thing I’m doing, you are in bigger, better business. People are going t think she’s way more of a genius, they’re going to be enamoured by her. There’s so many examples of the white powerhouse singers who are singing in the style of black women. That frustration is a really important thing to pay attention to. A lot of black women are like ‘mmm-hmm’. While we love Amy and Adele, we know that if they were black women, they wouldn’t be able to be do the things they've done. So it begs the question what are we to do? You have to get creative. And you have to be really feeling yourself on a level. It’s a different type of strength.
SHE WASN'T IMPRESSED WITH THE CRITICAL REACTION TO HER FIRST MIXTAPE
“When I first came out and released the mixtape CUT 4 ME, it seemed like people had no problem naming or categorising what it was I was doing. People were taking a lot of liberty. There was a rhetoric around it being the first time that R&B got innovative. It implies we have such a low expectation of this genre that ‘now it is palatable and now it is worthy of praise’. It felt like there was a moment where white people got the R&B memo. I'd find myself at a party with a bunch of white people and they’d put on R Kelly.
“It’s fine to be introduced to a genre of music but there’s a way that whiteness usurps and snatches. I use that word because it feels quite violent. Every seeming triumph, it’s still tainted by that weird thing. The world still has it out for you, even when you’re getting praised. It’s a really difficult thing for me to wrap my mind and heart around as a human being. Now, it feels more blurry and my intention was to create an album as robust and pop as I can be. Not to stray away from mainstream, but to shift it. Maybe Take Me Apart is complicating what it means to be pop, R&B and making electronic music.”
“There’s a way that whiteness usurps and snatches. I use that word because it feels quite violent. Every seeming triumph, it’s still tainted by that weird thing” – Kelela
SHE DOESN'T HAVE MANY WHITE FRIENDS
“(White people) are expecting us to rally with them in a particular way right now and I think they’re just finding out we’re not. With white women they’re like ‘you always took care of me’. We have, we have always put up with your shit, but I can’t now. I need you to do the work. I need you to do your homework. You’re not getting a feminist or queer pass – because your privilege has allowed you to live in a bubble.
“Especially when it comes to beauty, and it comes to how my image is used to sell products, promote things and communicate things to the public – that’s when it matters. Because white girls who enter the industry in a similar way, they’re not being used to say ‘we’re down for social justice!’. That’s why some of those relationships have been breaking down, recently. We’re in a moment of intolerance where we’re all like ‘we’re making cuts!’. I honestly have two white girlfriends left. Be grateful, be listening, be quiet!”
QUEER BLACK WOMEN KEEP HER SANE
“My queer black women peers are the ones who make me not feel crazy. The way we act is so instinctive. You just need to clock it, put in your pocket, but not be reflexively rude. Sometimes you do need to be loud, and you gotta use a lotta neck, and there’s hand grabs, because sometimes people don’t understand you when you speak in a different way. But queer black women are like miners canaries. Ask one of us if shit’s fucked up and we'll tell you. Like, run that ad by black people. Just do that first. And you’ll save so much money! On a basic level! As a capitalist, you should understand that.”
“Queer black women are like miners canaries. Ask one of us if shit’s fucked up and we'll tell you” – Kelela
SHE WANTS TO ‘FUCK IT ALL UP’
“The Beyonce and Jay Z, take all the money approach – that is so radical for me. That idea of ‘let’s do all of it and take it ALL’. When I think about their bedroom conversation... Like, let’s just take it all. And let’s build our own institutions. And fuck these people. I don’t think it’s for me. But I think it’s one of the ways you can fuck it up. Every fucking transaction you have as a black woman in the industry is imbued with this tone that if you challenge power in this way you’re going to lose the thing. So you have decide whether to take the opportunity and fuck shit up on the inside, or fuck it up on the outside. I've done both.”