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How Kelela Found Her Voice

The R&B singer talks about her forthcoming debut album, ‘Take Me Apart,’ the black women who have shaped her, and her place within the vast genre

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

In May, on the second of the two back-to-back nights I saw Kelela perform, it was cold. And wet. The unpredictable nature of a Toronto spring made it so that on the first, Kelela took to Echo Beach’s outdoor stage, bathed in magic-hour sun, her jeweled crop top glittering in the fading light. On the second, she wore a camouflage dress and a nearly floor-length white raincoat with the hood up, an unrelenting bright spot in the bleakness of overcast gray skies. Both times, Kelela swayed and dipped, performing a mix of fan favorites and unreleased songs from her upcoming full-length debut.

In her few short addresses to the audience, Kelela was transparent about her message. She is a child of R&B, insistent on emphasizing the genre’s importance. And the purpose of her opening set, no matter who watched, was to showcase just how vast R&B was, and is, and likely will always be.

On the first night, Kelela stood on one side of the stage and mouthed, "I love you," to a three-deep congregation of black girls singing along to her every word. Later, she smirked as she made her way to the stage’s opposite end, hearing elilta, or ululation, from another black girl and me during a brief moment of transitional silence. And on the second night, she sang "Rewind" to the newly merged pocket of us, personally invited by Kelela through Twitter following our embarrassingly adoring post-show tweets. "Electronic music and R&B music have intersected in a particular way," she said as the DJ queued up the next track. "It’s always been intersecting, but I think something is happening now." As the beat for "The High" swelled, she sang about the numb pain of the comedown. Slowly, the original’s heartbeat-like instrumentation transformed into Tweet’s "Oops (Oh My)," a subtle nod to the R&B singer and a signal to those well-versed in glossy, hip-rolling hits of the genre in the early ’00s.

On both nights, Kelela left the stage as quickly as she appeared, conveying an implicit understanding of the crowd’s desire for the main act, British band the xx. But after seeing us, dancing and screaming and singing along to every word, she departed smiling.

Kelela first erupted on the scene — that is, the niche, music-obsessed pockets of the internet — in 2013 when she dropped Cut 4 Me, a mixtape that buoyed her through the motions of heartbreak, in all the haziness and intensity that it can birth. It was, at its essence, a mixtape of experimentation, Kelela’s voice effectively cutting through its grittiest beats ("Enemy"), lacing its slinkiest ("Send Me Out," "Go All Night (Let Me Roll)"), and luxuriating in its most bare-bones form ("A Lie," "Cherry Coffee"). Cut 4 Me was made entirely in-house by the Fade to Mind camp and its production team — Bok Bok, Nguzunguzu, Girl Unit, Kingdom, and Jam City, primarily. But in 2015, when she released Hallucinogen, the delayed follow-up to Cut 4 Me, she tagged in producers Gifted & Blessed, Ariel Rechtshaid, Arca, and DJ Dahi along with the usual suspects for the six-track EP teaser in anticipation of her debut album, Take Me Apart.

Hallucinogen favored stripped-down, bass-heavy instrumentation over the end-of-night, club-friendly, electronic feel of its predecessor. After the oft-delayed release of Hallucinogen, Kelela found a broader fan base and glowing reviews. For Pitchfork, Anupa Mistry called it "a sensuous, sensitive, hi-definition approach to R&B," describing Kelela’s vibrant, urgent approach to music as though it "feels like there is blood flowing through it." The Spin review by Harley Brown applauds her evolution, recalling a time when Kelela’s ambitions spanned wider than her then-technical capability: "The Los Angeles singer has been gunning for the peak so hard that she wrote her 2013 breakout single, ‘Bank Head,’ for ranges of her vocal register she couldn’t even reach at the time." But Kelela caught up to her ambitions, and Hallucinogen cemented her place as one to watch in a rapidly growing DIY-wave of R&B resurgence.

Despite her budding fame, Kelela saw the jig of the industry, loud and clear. "The American psyche can’t really process black women, especially without a major label behind them," she said to The Fader’s Ruth Saxelby in 2015. "Unless you’re on a major label, you’re not busting out the woodwork and making your mark in the indie world if you’re a black girl."

Kelela is never one for mincing words, and her lyrics reveal her at her most vulnerable. In them, she chronicles her romantic ups and downs, existing entirely outside the lines of moral inhibition. Her word crafting is concerned more with complex, messy recounts of love and lust than the pristine, formulaic narrative that characterizes much of "Pop&B" or increasingly popular dark, moody "Trap&B." Most notably, though, Kelela’s writing is a living extension of long-held characteristics of the genre and its black — and often femme — originators and torchbearers. That decision is deeply intentional.

"I read Amandla Stenberg in an interview that Solange did with her. She said that a black woman existing robustly is radical," Kelela recounts with me. "Really radical, actually. I want to use my platform to talk about [that]; how the experience of love and romance and vulnerability through the lens of relationships happens in front of this backdrop that is inherently challenging for black women.

"When I’m writing, I’m usually writing for black girls. That’s who I’m thinking about. I want them to feel better. That’s who I’m trying to speak to."

In the southern region of Ethiopia’s Wollo province, there sits a small town in a dry and hot stretch of land a little under 200 kilometers from the closest metropolis. And like many other small towns in the country — like Bati, my parents’ teeny-tiny hometown and inspiration for generations upon generations of singers — there is many an ode to it. One of these Amharic folk songs, sung at weddings and other respectable gatherings, is a testament to the fortitude of its people: "Kelela new betwa, ya’berral tiyeyyetwa." Its dull English translation promises "Kelela is her home, and her bullet is shiny." Over 9,000 miles away, Kelela Mizanekristos, a now 34-year-old singer professionally known as Kelela, carries the same name.

Before her foray into music, Kelela was in college, a student of sociology. Before she reached college age, the daughter of two Ethiopian immigrants was a resident of Gaithersburg, a city nestled in the suburbs of Maryland.

"I grew up with two parents who could express themselves clearly, but my dad is very critical and very outspoken and is willing to sort of be the party pooper if he has an idea that doesn’t fit into what people think about any given subject," she comments with a laugh during our first conversation in October. "He’s a smart guy and he thinks about stuff a lot," says Kelela of her inherited inquisitiveness, adding that her father’s English — his "third or fourth language" — was better than hers, despite it being her mother tongue. "It’s really crazy," she ends, in awe of his accomplishments, still.

Kelela also credits her father for much of her musical and artistic evolution throughout the years, a guide of sorts for what was yet to come. She describes youthful excursions, like trips to the local theater to watch South African plays during the height of anti-apartheid mobilization in the United States, as not only memorable, but especially intellectually nurturing to her younger self. "I remember my dad, actually, when I was 5, took me to see Sarafina!, an opera musical at the Kennedy Center, and I remember not understanding everything but hearing the music and associating it with a freedom movement. This is something that happened to people and this is how they got free," Kelela says.

The Mbongeni Ngema play, inspired by Winnie Mandela and set during the student-led Soweto uprising of 1976, was not for the lighthearted. The play’s plotline follows its star, Sarafina, as she struggles to make sense of life and its many contradictions under an apartheid regime. "And I guess I associated [Miriam Makeba’s] music with that, so I grew up really admiring that. She [was] an activist and a singer," continues Kelela. That motif — getting free, owning your voice, and remaining true to it, at all costs — stuck with Kelela as she transitioned from childhood to adulthood, and from an avid consumer of art to a creator in her own right.

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Her father’s record collection, she says, is something serious, too — both in terms of volume, as well as in its cultural and political weight. "These are records, mind you, that my dad put in front of me," she footnotes, mentioning the lasting impact that singers like Tracy Chapman and Betty Carter and Miriam Makeba have had on her. "They weren’t things I just found outside at 4 years old."

Tracy Chapman is, of course, a singer of epic capabilities and technical form, but what stood out most to a young Kelela was Chapman’s bold reconfiguration of norms imposed on black women both within and outside the industry.

"With Tracy Chapman, I also appreciated the sort of gender fluidity [she possessed]. I didn’t know it was what I was appreciating, but I knew that I found it wondrous," says Kelela, each word more deliberate than the last. "I was intrigued by the fact that she didn’t look so girly. I didn’t feel so girly even though I might’ve looked it and done femme, girly things, I wasn’t so girly like that. I felt safe; it was really important. And she’s black," she says with gravitas, coming to a sudden full stop.

Kelela’s discovery of Betty Carter, another source of endless inspiration and someone who instantly comes to mind when Kelela is asked about the originators who impact her present work, was at once revelatory and mournful: "As soon as I discovered [Carter’s music], I remember trying to find out where I could see her. So I went straight to the internet, I found out she had passed maybe four, five years prior. And I immediately just started crying." Kelela, as she often says, felt "very, very affected" by Carter; specifically by her markedly precise delivery. "She is someone I look up to, like, with lyrics. She’s really sort of colloquial and really sort of conversational in her writing. She really, kinda … Tells it like it is. You can feel how she really talks in her music."

Listening to Kelela speak in that moment — a fan absorbing another fan’s recounting of her own early fandom — clarified much of how the artist approaches her own process. The vocal, lyrical, and instrumental layers of her own music were, in fact, Kelela’s method of roping in the most striking quality of each of her influencers. What came out of that alchemy was, again, something serious.

Actively, it seems, Kelela was researching not just sounds but legacy, piecing together the fragments of an underdocumented and underserved musical history. And it was through this digging — through her father’s stacks, the internet, her feelings — that Kelela constructed her own blueprint. As time passed, more names joined the high ranks of Kelela’s personal canon: Amel Larrieux ("She just made me wanna go hard"), Solange ("Her volition … she’s one of my best friends"), and King Bey ("I cannot deny the effect of Beyoncé"), to name a few.

What all these women shared was greater than varying degrees of commercial success. For Kelela, and for their legions of respective fans, these women were more than mere celebrity. Her creative and professional inspirations are each additions to the larger landscape of Kelela’s artistic bloom. Outside of their personal trajectories, these women’s foundational differences are just as valuable as, if not more valuable than, their similarities.

It makes sense, then, that Kelela chose to sing. And she sang. Jazz. Metal. Classic R&B after school. She configured and reconfigured her voice to suit the ever-changing mood and style of her pen’s mark, wherever it led. But ultimately, Kelela returned to her mainstay. She is, after all, an R&B singer — there are no two ways about it.

As equal parts student and artist, Kelela operates from a position of knowledge and respect of those who came before her and her contemporaries alike. From Amel Larrieux’s stage presence to Betty Carter’s pen to the undeniable cultural reverberation of Beyoncé, Kelela has no shortage of forebearers influencing her work — how she works in her music and how she works in the world. Much of Kelela’s instinct toward reverence is born out of her circumstance and a desire to find likeness in an environment and at a time that didn’t always reflect anything of the sort, for her. Kelela, through her music, was unflinchingly intimate, in all the ways one could be. It’s through her foraging and piecing that Kelela has made a path for herself and artists who, like her, are daring and deeply experimental and in the process challenged views of blackness as a monolithic entity, or what the New York Times Magazine’s Jenna Wortham called "a single Pantone square instead of untold variations." And it’s exactly in this space between rosy nostalgia and steely futurism that Kelela performs at her best; stage after stage, project after project.

"Maybe it’s because I’ve always felt outside. There’s an inside and an outside and that feeling — always on the gray against the black, of not being able to get into a group and feel really accepted — that was what created a knack and a wanting to [learn and speak up]," she says of her desire to learn people, soaking up the vastness of their experiences in the world. "As a kid, having two little Ethiopian girl friends and realizing like, ‘Damn, I gotta open this up. How am I going to figure it out?’"

"I want to express that I’m coming through a lot of trauma in the same way that a lot of people are. Especially in my black womanhood. There’s a lot of trauma that we experience that we don’t even know we experience. We don’t even know it was an actual thing that hurt us," she tells me, catching her momentum. "As I grow, that becomes more and more apparent, how much that has affected my experience. How much the experience of being a black woman has shaped me and the thing that I want everybody to understand about me is probably, at this juncture, the songs that I write are really coming from that place. Of trying to create an empowered person in a situation that maybe wasn’t so empowered, a situation that might be disempowering."

And for so many of us, the young and black and femme and artistically-inclined, our imaginations became our gateway into a world closed off from our immediate realities; one that we may not have known to ever exist. Art can be one way of finding solace from both trauma and loneliness. "Courageousness, I guess, is the main thing for me. Being vulnerable over and over again," Kelela says, as if she was realizing this for the first time. "I guess it has to do with love superseding everything and being the most powerful sentiment." And Kelela’s honeyed voice, at once sensual and taunting, vulnerable and defiant, is her vehicle.

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

But now, Kelela is very much manifesting. The past year has seen her touring with the xx; performing alongside Solange, Moses Sumney, Blood Orange, and King; gracing the covers of magazines like Nii Journal; and finishing up her debut album, slated to release "sometime this year." One of her most poignant features was on Solange’s "Scales," off of Knowles’s acclaimed A Seat at the Table. "Your love is kind, but your love ain’t blind," Kelela sings on the outro, her register climbing higher and higher, still steadied throughout. "Your world is kind, but your world ain’t blind."

Kelela’s lyrics are perfectly in line with the rest of the song — that is, Solange outlining the life and times of young black boys in America who grow up to be young black men in America who become black memories of America — but also speak to a more persistent and driving truth in her work: "If I’m going to feel good in this world, one of the ways that I can do that, most simply, is to surround myself with a lot of women who have shared experience and similar ethics," she states with certainty toward the end of our conversation. One thing was for certain: She isn’t in the business of mincing words.

Then, Kelela comes full circle, returning to a concept first instilled in her at only 5 years old. "To want that freedom to be the most important thing; for us to feel like we can express ourselves in all the ways that we want to. I’m being deliberate about that at this point." To getting free, then, from all that holds us captive — and staying that way.

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