This story appears in Issue 16 of Highsnobiety Magazine. Kelela has made a career out of haunting, ambient soundscapes and a lyrical rawness that shines on her debut album, ‘Take Me Apart’. Her career is a case study in modern self-actualization and the importance of measuring success on your own timeline.
For most people, the path to success is not a straight line—it’s a circuitous trail punctuated by roadblocks and alternate routes. Often on social media platforms like Instagram, we’re saturated with images and dispatches from artists who “make it” in an astonishingly short time. It can create a toxic environment for aspiring creatives who feel like if they haven’t broken through in a couple of years, it probably means they never will.
Kelela meets me at The Beekman Hotel in New York. Clad in a slim white turtleneck and track pants, her signature beaded braids falling in her face, she pushes some arugula around her plate before she realizes I’m the one interviewing her. It’s the second time I have seen her this week, which happens to be New York Fashion Week: Men’s.
The first time was during the debut fashion show of New York menswear label, Abasi Rosborough, designed by Greg Rosborough and Abdul Abasi. It’s a very promising label whose designers previously worked for RLX (Ralph Lauren’s performance-oriented ski line) and cult Japanese-American menswear label Engineered Garments. For their debut show, the design duo tapped heavy metal guitarist Tosin Abasi (Abdul’s brother) and Kelela to compose a song for the runway.
It brought back memories of Washington, D.C.—where the Abasi brothers, Kelela, and I grew up and experienced most of our formative early 20s. Before the mononym, she was Kelela Mizanekristos, a second-generation Ethiopian immigrant from the nearby suburbs of Gaithersburg, Maryland, where she discovered artists through her mom’s record collection. She was especially fond of Tracy Chapman, Janet Jackson, and Amel Larrieux. She got into experimental jazz later in life, at 19, through an ex-boyfriend, flirting with D.C.’s thriving jazz scene in the process. The District boasts some of the country’s best jazz clubs like Blues Alley in Georgetown and Twins Jazz in the U St. Corridor. In the mid-2000s she began dipping her toe into open mic nights at Cafe Nema.
A few years later she met Tosin Abasi, and the two began dating. We all were involved in the city’s small-yet-bustling creative scene of artists, musicians, and dilettantes with government day jobs. The two stood out because they both had an inimitable sense of style, and a galvanic chemistry that not only characterized their relationship, but the music they made together. Abasi composed complicated, metal-inspired riffs on a classical guitar that Kelela improvised melodies to—which would become a signature part of her creative process. It toed the line between jazz, progressive rock, folk, and R&B. I was part of a four-person music blog that filmed some of their early performances at smaller venues and neighborhood coffee shops. To say it was easy to tell from those moments that Kelela would blow up would be a huge disservice to her hustle and her journey.
The interesting thing about Washington, D.C.’s culture is that despite its predominantly black population, its ’80s hardcore punk and post-punk heyday, and the success of newer artists like Goldlink, its cultural arbiters remain overwhelmingly white, and its nightlife scene remains almost exclusively divided by race. It’s a sentiment Kelela remembers all too well.
“Indie culture in D.C. was so stifling because it was so white,” she says. “I struggled. Not because I didn’t dig anything in it, just because it didn’t consider me.”
That feeling of “otherness” and disenfranchisement is shared by children of immigrants trying to succeed in that kind of paradigm. On the one hand, there’s a desire to assimilate and be accepted, but on the other, there’s the idea that you shouldn’t have to sacrifice who you are in order to be taken legitimately.
“I think I first needed to feel really shitty about where I was and hate it,” Kelela admits.
If anything, being in that environment was an inspiration for her gestation period. If Kelela had stayed on the East Coast any longer, she imagines the best-case scenario being a future where she’d have a frustrating day-to-day life, and ultimately be the kind of overbearing stage mom trying to live vicariously through her children. That feeling gave her the motivation to head to LA. It wasn’t just about working on her music, but herself. An incubation period was necessary to kickstart her self-actualization. So for the next few years, she formed a cocoon from her experiences to figure out how she wanted to evolve.
“It’s less about the dream coming true and being fulfilled in a total sense, and more about having tried my fucking best.”
Kelela relates wholeheartedly to the torturous self-doubt of artists trying to make something of themselves. Most of her experience in the industry is characterized by disillusionment and impostor syndrome—the feeling that despite your talent and accomplishments, maybe one day you’ll be exposed as someone who doesn’t deserve to be in your position. This is especially true for minorities in creative careers, where a lack of visibility and mentors who look like you only reinforce that internalized struggle that you don’t belong in the first place.
“It’s less about the dream coming true and being fulfilled in a total sense, and more about having tried my fucking best.”
That self-doubt is exacerbated by the seemingly quick path of many new musicians and artists who happen to catch a prominent cosign early on. There are numerous stories of young people getting their big break on Instagram, or through a chance meeting with an A&R or agent through a family friend. In the age of “industry plants” who start their careers from a position of privilege or nepotism, it can leave complete outsiders feeling discouraged and frustrated about their possibilities.
“It’s what kept me feeling small and underneath my experience for so long,” she says. “Feeling like, if you were gonna do it, you would have already done it. And that’s a fucked-up culture.”
Kelela is an antithesis to that mode of thinking, what she describes as a “culture of prodigiousness.” Her career and rise is a visible grind, having dropped her debut mixtape, Cut 4 Me, at age 30.
“It was hard for me to hear how simple and easy it was for so many people. That plagued me for a long time, and it’s still a voice that I have to shut down,” she admits. “It’s a slow process—developing the courage to pursue your dreams. For me, it happened piecemeal, little by little and little by little. I think that’s something that isn’t illuminated so much; it’s not a real common success story.”
Cut 4 Me is slightly reminiscent of those first sessions I witnessed with Kelela and Tosin Abasi—seeing her improvise melodies and lyrics over instrumentation—except this time the tracks were provided by notable producers like Jam City, Bok Bok, and Nguzunguzu. It’s ironic, given that some of the album’s material is directly inspired by the demise of their relationship. The mixtape earned universal acclaim and praise from the likes of Björk and Solange, who would go on to tap Kelela as one of her muses for Calvin Klein’s Spring/Summer 2018 “Our Family” campaign.
Kelela and I talk about jazz, and bring up the term “woodshedding.” Originating in 1930s jazz culture, it refers to a musician retreating into a literal woodshed to perfect her or his craft, allowing ideas to evolve and be perfected. She refers to the practice as being “in the shed,” and credits the method for helping her fully flesh out her sonic identity.
“Before you go into the shed, you just listen, and you’re grabbing all the things. I think some people just go straight to making from that place, but the shed is really about synthesizing all of those things—and really getting them in to the fabric of what you make,” she says. “All of us, we’re still battling on some level. There’s what you think you have to do, what people like, what people don’t like—I know I still deal with those voices—but if you go in the shed and you focus inwardly first, it becomes easier to pursue your vision, irrespective of what the world is saying you should do.”
As a result, there’s an intent and self-assuredness to her sound that feels more grounded than younger artists. It helps explain the two-year gap between her Hallucinogen EP, a six-track narrative about the lifespan of a relationship, which saw her reunite with her former collaborators in addition to revered producers like Arca and Ariel Rechtshaid, and her debut album Take Me Apart. It took Kelela four years to work on the album, but for fans and critics, it was well worth the wait. Take Me Apart is equally an exercise in self-deconstruction and self-exploration. Its cover, depicting her nude but concealed by a long strand of locs, is a literal interpretation of the artist baring herself and the raw emotion behind the songs.
The 53-minute soundscape transcends genres and portrays Kelela in her out-of-the-shed final form. Her influences are clear, but have been tempered by personal experience and given enough breathing room to coalesce into something truly new. Kelela has transformed a lifetime of “otherness” into a universe of her own making. The accompanying music video for “LMK” depicts her changing locations and looks several times; in one, she sports a blonde wig and black cutout dress, then a red wig with leather coordinates, and finally her natural hair while clad in all white. While visually striking, it speaks to the multitudes Kelela has had to contain, and on a cerebral level, speaks to the code-switching necessary for minorities to navigate between different social and industry circles. Her visual and aural identities touch on underground and outsider culture, filtered through the lens of a strong, self-confident identity rooted in her black, feminine perspective.
“I feel like so much of my lens comes from the tradition of black people in this country trying to get free,” she says. “People of color throughout the world – and not just black people – have found so much solace and freedom for themselves in the analysis and deconstruction of fuckery in this country.”
An avid reader of James Baldwin, Kelela feels his work in establishing the elaborate dichotomy of race relations in the United States has become an archetype for the rest of the world. As she’s about to embark on a European leg of her tour, she talks about the rise of neo-Fascism in the West and the domino effect of Brexit, Trump, and Geert Wilders in the Netherlands. For her, it isn’t just about idealism, but there are very real considerations people of color have to account for when going abroad – like radical changes in geopolitics. As Baldwin himself said in a 1961 interview, “If you can discover the terms with which you are connected to other lives, and they can discover, too, the terms with which they are connected to other people.”
She discusses a recent text from a black friend in Milan advising her to be careful when she performs there. He mentions far-right extremist Luca Traini, who shot six Africans during a two-hour drive-by in Macerata. After his arrest, police found copies of Hitler’s Mein Kampf, other Nazi-centric publications, and a Celtic cross in his home. She brings up the fact that in the United Kingdom, there’s a different intricacy to black and white race relations because black people there, for the most part, are not direct descendants of slaves. These heady conversations aren’t just on her mind daily, but in the group chats she shares with her friends – where everyday microaggressions are deconstructed and laughed about in the same breath.
“White supremacy is sort of going on everywhere. White hegemony, whatever you want to call it. That shit requires an African-American lens. That pair of glasses is the only one that gets underneath the surface.”
“The framework of race, and the framework of understanding difference and social justice that comes specifically from black people in the United States, is a framework that’s useful in the world only because of the level of extremity of white supremacy,” she asserts. “White supremacy is sort of going on everywhere. White hegemony, whatever you want to call it. That shit requires an African-American lens. That pair of glasses is the only one that gets underneath the surface.”
Kelela’s rise coincides with a sentiment of consciousness and awareness about intersectionality, representation, and social justice in the arts and on a global level. Social platforms like Twitter are a hotbed for hashtag-fueled movements like #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter, though admittedly a ton of the energy is coming from activists and community leaders largely based in the United States. It’s a zeitgeist that is ushering in a new era of diverse creativity, but she points out it’s occurring at one of the darkest political times. Despite the rave reviews for Take Me Apart and her continuously growing fanbase, she is adamant about using her platform to advocate for her beliefs.
And Kelela, who once lamented that she didn’t start writing about politics sooner, is seeing the transformative power of her art, realizing that by simply embracing who she is and being in this highly visible position as a lauded creator, paints a portrait of an artist as an uncompromising, headstrong black woman. One who is so fully aware that she deserves the best kind of love that she isn’t afraid to quickly fall in and out of it, and comes out of broken relationships even stronger and more ready to give her energy to the world. It calls to mind a line from Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time: “To be sensual, I think, is to respect and rejoice in the force of life, of life itself, and to be present in all that one does, from the effort of loving to the breaking of bread.”
That in turn is influencing a new generation of children, who see it’s possible to break through without having to compromise your identity. Ironically, we bond over the portrayal of this in the Disney film Zootopia, in which the main character, Lt. Judy Hopps, overcomes adversity in an attempt to become the world’s first bunny police officer. The film’s message is about overcoming stereotypes and preconceptions the world may form about you solely based on your looks, which is fitting given Kelela’s overarching message.
“Kids are growing up not even thinking about those things—it’s just like, that’s the default setting,” she says.
Within the past 50 years, she points out, the fight for social justice and equality has become more visible than ever. And although there have been great strides, oppression and institutionalized racism won’t go away overnight, let alone in a few years. Resting on the laurels of small victories can be a distraction from the larger struggle.
“I guess I just don’t want to lose sight of how much fuckery still exists,” she says. “Punk music was coming up against Thatcher-era policies. Hip-hop was born in that moment before Reagan took power.”
Her words call to mind a recent exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Titled “An Incomplete History of Protest”, it culls from the museum’s collection of socially-conscious art from 1940-2017, including works from the anti-Vietnam War sentiment of the late ’60s, the AIDS awareness of the ’80s, and the Guerilla Girls’ fight for visibility of women in the arts and the 1960s Civil Rights Movement. It exhibits pieces by Faith Ringgold and Emma Amos, as well as more modern pieces from Glenn Ligon and Dread Scott, who repurposed the NAACP’s “A Man Was Lynched Yesterday” banner to read “A Man Was Lynched by Police Yesterday.”
The Whitney puts protest art in a different vein than other creative means of social commentary, adding that some think of protest “with the long term in mind, hoping to create new ways of imagining society and citizenship,” according to the museum’s description of the exhibit. And although it’s hard to deny we are currently witnessing a new renaissance for unabashed artists of color, what Kelela wants to remind everyone is there’s still much work to be done.
“It’s hard for me to call it the ‘Golden Age’ because it don’t feel so gold. But it is triumphant and really important.”
This story originally appeared in Highsnobiety Magazine Issue 16, which is available now from our online store, as well as at fine retailers worldwide.
- Photography: Bryan Luna
- Styling: Corey Stokes
- Hair: Virginia Moreira
- Make-Up: Raisa Flowers
- Lighting & Photo Tech: Jessup Deane
- Styling Assistants: Krystal Benson & James McCollum
- Assistants: Noah Roberts, Iman Bokhari & Josh Sobel