Kelela Is Done with Censoring Herself
She speaks about pouring vulnerability into debut album 'Take Me Apart,' radical blackness, and feeling more self-assured than ever.
Photo by Dicko Chan via PR
It only takes a few minutes to be both disarmed and dazzled by Kelela. I learn this quickly as we start our second conversation about her expansive, rich, and long-awaited debut album Take Me Apart. After following a winding hallway tucked deep inside London's Tate Modern museum, when we sit down in a staff room she says she wouldn't be speaking to me for this piece if I weren't a black woman. This isn't because she has a particular policy; you'll have seen over the past few weeks that she's been interviewed by journalists who are white, black, male-identifying, whatever. But, setting the tone for the rest of our chat, she wants to make it explicitly clear that she wouldn't be doing an interview with a VICE site otherwise.
Why? Well, quite plainly, "I've always been othered by VICE", she says. Oh, damn, OK. I wonder if she's about to call the whole thing off. But rather than keep this off the record, as I first think she might, or reach over the table and end our chat with a cordial handshake, she asks that I turn my recorder on. "I'd really like to go there because I hate it, and every time I talk about what's wrong in the world in terms of what publications are doing, VICE is my number one example." I'm blindsided. She references what she considers a particularly egregious 2014 THUMP article, in which producer Kingdom—who worked with her on her 2013 debut mixtape Cut 4 Me—was interviewed in a piece about R&B vocals like hers. By talking around her, rather than to her, she felt silenced; ironic, she says, given the piece was mostly about black women's voices. But after this, you might be pleased to hear that she basically just gets on with our interview. To call it a shaky start is an understatement, but I respect her position, understand how the whiteness of the media more broadly leaves blind spots in coverage and mostly want to get down into the nitty-gritty of talking about the album.
Sonically, Take Me Apart picks up where Cut 4 Me and following 2015 EP Hallucinogen left off. Her head voice (what sounds like falsetto when women sing) still flutters over thumping, slow-burning "Blue Lights," so packed with harmonies that after one listen it makes me feel full, like I've eaten a sack of marshmallows. She still makes dancefloor-ready marriages between 90s R&B vocal lines, metallic synths and handclap samples on lead single "LMK." Even though she mellows you out, pulling you into the quiet embrace of "Turn to Dust" or album closer "Altadena" as she's done in the past on "The High" or "Something Else," this album whispers or sighs or trills in your ear with a renewed urgency.
As one of the most arresting artists to come out of that weird phase when R&B inflections rubbed against indie and electronic music a few years ago, she now sounds more self-assured than ever. She sounds blacker. And yes, that bleeds into how she wants to conduct herself out in the world too: in interviews, on social media—making statements about the correct pronunciation of her name ("Kuh-luh-lah", not "Kuh-lay-lah") and what it feels like to move through the world when being hit by racial and sexist microaggressions. She's fully aware, though, that you might not be able to pick up on how radical she is from the music alone. "I'm happy to talk about this stuff," she says, referencing her openly political blackness, "because that's not necessarily how I wrote the record. So it's cool to be able to tell people what the record's about, but also the larger context of the world the record's living in: how radical it must be for me to be so vulnerable and tender in a world that feels so unsafe."
We've just spent the previous half hour or so weaving our way through the Tate's Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power exhibit (of her choosing), so it's no wonder race and identity are at the forefront of her mind. The exhibit is hard to stomach, as a black person. You walk through art from two decades of resistance against the pain wrought by white supremacy, looking at work referencing activists killed by the police, the bloodied fight to be considered more than three-fifths of a person, the campaign to smear the Black Panthers as a terrorist organization. And then you remember it's 2017 and there's a Ku Klux Klan newspaper-endorsed white man in the Oval Office. It's bleak. As curator Priyesh Mistry leads us through, Kelela often exhales deeply, stopping in front of different artworks to gaze at parts of her home's history that had been shrouded in darkness. Every so often she turns to me to say things like "we didn't learn this shit in school."
That in itself is part of what inspires how clearly Kelela now verbalizes the nonsense of being belittled for being both black and a woman (and one who describes herself as queer, but straight-passing). Born a second-generation Ethiopian in Washington, D.C. and raised in the suburbs of Gaithersburg, Maryland, she grew up so used to being othered that she learned how to shapeshift between worlds. "There was a layered reality from jump. There was never a moment where I didn't have to split my brain and be like, 'OK, when I go to school, I'm like this, and this is what I do. Got it, that's school,' and then thought, 'I can't really do the exact same thing at home.' I've always known I was going to connect the dots because I've always translated across worlds." This has allowed her to make music that straddles boundaries too. She's used to not slotting into one "comfortable" place. And so she has a bird's eye view that lets her fuse textures from one genre or sphere—of wibble-wobbling basslines, quivering synths—with others (of the melismatic and breathy, Janet Jackson-esque vocal melodies steeped in black American music), which would seem totally incongruous to someone who hadn't spent their life code-switching.
The first time we meet, we really get into all of this. It's a late afternoon in August, and I catch her in an east London hotel as she's getting ready for a flight. As I step into her room on the top floor, the smell of weed smacks me in the face like a soft pillow. She's sitting on a couch, the ends of her dreads adorned with clear chandeliers strung together like beads on a necklace, clinking against each other as she gesticulates or laughs. "I've always known I was going to connect the dots, and I've never not felt that," she says, pulling her words out slowly like you would chewing gum from your mouth with one finger. "I've always translated across worlds. It's about reading space and people because you're growing up in a society where it's generally unsafe for you as a young black girl. There's so many layers to that. But that's where you can have insight, and pair it with compassion. You can see how things are happening and why, which I think comes from my experience as a black woman."
For a while, this approach seemed to confound critics. Because Kelela came up around the same time as acts like fka twigs or Banks, it could've looked as though she was riding a trend's wave and blending musical styles to capitalize on that. Her journey from an unknown to a Fade to Mind/Night Slugs affiliate placed her in the slightly itchy territory that other black women will know of: being one of a few non-white faces in the electronic music rave (extra-ironic, given house and techno's black roots in America).
"I used to be really afraid to say, 'give me the power'. But now I know the best thing I can do is stop faking, and just be real: 'I am that bitch'"
So she became something of a novelty: while white kids were picking up their blog nods for stiffly singing R&B licks over echoey guitars, she was depicted as a strange figure in music that crossed between pop, R&B, and electronic. It was as if people had never before known of a musician who wasn't willing to just sit in one box. At this stage, Solange's Saint Heron project then exposed Kelela to a new audience via blog and compilation features. But all along, lyrics hinged on love and heartache have anchored her work. You can hear that explicitly on the album, which to me sounds ready to join the likes of SZA, Solange and Syd's recent records as ones that will become places of refuge for fans who need to feel sheltered from a relentlessly brutal news cycle.
To do that, Kelela cloaks you in several layers of tenderness. She doesn't shy away from nestling into the folds of intimacy. Lines like "I'm feeling a lot of pressure / Only you can help me out / Was tryna make it easy / Now your finger's in my mouth" glide over "SOS." There's "Fight off the tears, I got the taste down / The type when your life is deep into the ground" on "Onanon" or "When the high dies I fall apart / And you're sorry, I see it in your eyes" on "Enough." Just as SZA's "The Weekend" set to song the feeling of happily being a side chick earlier this year, Kelela scripts the tension of modern relationships throughout Take Me Apart. She leads you through the push and pull of an 'on again, off again' love affair in the space it takes to leap from opener "Frontline" to follow-ups "Waitin"—which uses a deceptively jaunty melody to communicate that horrible, dizzying feeling when you're back in the presence of an ex and can't resist them—and "Take Me Apart." All along, she sounds unafraid to express the sort of hot-on-the-back-of-your-neck detail that can make people squirm.
"I used to be really afraid to say 'give me the power, give me the platform' because I felt intimidated by it," she says, crossing her legs beneath her body on the hotel room sofa. "But now I know the best thing I can do is stop faking, and just be real: 'I am that bitch'"—she laughs—"you know? And I want every other bitch to be like, 'yes, I am that bitch. Yes it's me,'" she says, laughing again. "I'm building my confidence up so I can give you the most. Even when I'm weak, I can still give you my best self by being vulnerable, and showing you I also don't have it all together."
If you're feeling beaten down by the lingering sneer of bigotry or disrespect or lovers who refuse to acknowledge that you're worth more than an afterthought, that vulnerability steps in. Her music becomes a cure, even if just a temporary one during the moments when it swells through your speakers or headphones. I mention how I've been making cuts in my life, getting rid of people whose ignorance becomes a burden I don't want to carry anymore. She laughs. "Oof, readjusting. Like, alright, you've got to go! Man, the cut? We've been calling it 'the trim.' Literally every black woman I know, especially over the past year, has had to readjust." She immediately understands how so much of western feminism assumes whiteness and can fail to understand how being harassed for both your gender and race can feel overwhelming. I've got four white women left, I say, who I feel I can trust to empathize with how it feels to have the double weight of sexism and racism shoving me towards the floor.
"I was gonna say, I can count the number of white woman close to me on my hand. Less than: it's three I can think of, off the top of my head." And so, she says, "I wanna have a convention or something, of radical black women in the arts and how we interface with all these companies especially—the ones asking us to give them credibility. How do we create our own organization that's going to negotiate from a different place? We need to OPEC that shit." But before we can get into much more, our time is up.
We've got along well, so by the time we meet again a few weeks later (about a month before Take Me Apart's release) I wonder if, after the way our conversation starts, she'll be ready to talk about finally getting out an album that she says took about a year and a half to tweak. Though initially she sounds reticent, soon she's running through how new the album still feels for her. "One thing I do, which is so dorky and silly, is pretend I'm my idol and am listening to it. I try to imagine when they'd be like"—she makes an 'interested' face, brows raised—"'oooh', or like"—now she frowns and grimaces —"'uugghhmm what is that?'" She lets out her first real laugh of the conversation. "I try to imagine for every one of my idols that there's one thing they'd like and possibly others they wouldn't."
Then it's like something snaps. A mention of how affecting I've found the album's compassion suddenly makes her cry. Not dramatically, just the sort of tears that can rush out of you when you didn't know you'd been suppressing them. "It means so much," she begins, inhaling shakily while her voice wafts into a whisper. "So much, that you would feel safer or protected or shielded." She stops for a while, letting herself cry. "There was a period where I was so mad at myself for not writing about politics," she says quietly, her voice breaking, her sentence fragmented by near-silent sobs. "I don't feel that anymore at all. Before you share something with others, there's the celebratory feeling from finally getting it out. But alongside that comes an automatic critique: 'girl, why don't you write about all that shit you talk about all day?'" Her voice quivers. "And now, I simply don't feel that way. It feels so good."
She doesn't have to feel that way, because now her album can speak for itself. I want to reach over and hug her, but it feels a step too far. I offer a hand instead. In an industry renowned for making black women feel they have to contort themselves into a template set for "urban," "soul," or "R&B" music, she's standing out on a ledge and defying those definitions. After a few moments of quiet, she wipes her face and starts again: "The breaking out of what you think I am is something I'm really affected by. I guess it means so much to know that there are so many ways to be resistant. There's so much freedom in that, for all black people. I think I've just been operating in such a white space that it evokes a lot of emotion for me. Because I wrote this record very much in my black girl experience, and how I experience love. The idea that it could just be 'got' is a new thing; it feels good to be heard in that particular way."
For the second time, the clock's run out on our time together and she has to jump into an Uber to a clothes fitting. We hug goodbye by the car. Weeks later, while out near my east London office with a colleague, I spot Kelela walking across the street, talking on the phone wearing headphones while dressed in white. She sees me over the top of a parked car, waves and smiles, without stopping her conversation. Again, it just takes seconds for her to surprise me and in a flash, she's gone again. Like I said, she'll easily disarm you.
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