Kelela: I know deep down Im a star

The R&B singer talks about epiphanies, privilege and eliminating old friends

Deeply serious and sitting in a cartoonishly oversized white hoodie that exaggerates an already tiny frame, LA musician Kelela tells me her clear-eyed, no-holds ambitions to be huge. I think I could fuck shit up, she says. Its just about where the world is.

Musically at least, the world is at Kelelas feet. It has been exactly four years since she released her breakthrough mixtape Cut 4 Me, which, alongside FKA twigs, Frank Ocean and the Weeknd back then, played a part in realigning the parameters of avant-garde pop. She followed it up in 2015 with the witchy futurism of Hallucinogen and a couple of collaborations with Solange and Gorillaz, but her debut album proper, Take Me Apart, has taken its time to come together. Had the intervening period not seen a critical mass of black artists shifting the musical landscape, Kelela might have missed her moment. As it is, bedroom R&B auteurs like her have now been declared the reason that arena-selling straightforward indie rock bands have dwindling cachet in contemporary culture.

A lot of people look at Pitchfork every day and when [black artists] are driving and guiding what Pitchfork is saying, it matters, she says. It affects the context. [Pitchfork et al] can pretend theyve always been on that and skip over owning how missing theyve been from that conversation, she shrugs, but no one will say, We havent been on this; this article we wrote five years ago is problematic.

That lag between where she and her friends are politically and musically and where the wider world is, is one that bothers her less now. Last year she posted a mini-essay on Instagram about the structural damage of racism and why she was tired of white people telling me what I should feel. Now, shes chosen to opt out of being around anyone who isnt woke or trying to fix it. Its interesting, she says, because at this point, I dont really have any white friends who are not prepared to outright, out loud, before I say it, call out something as fucked up. I am not dealing with any white people any more who are not in that place. Shes lucky to be in that position, I say, but it is a cosseted one.

Kelela angles round on the sofa, so we sit directly facing each other. The starkly minimalist east London hotel suite where were meeting isnt a particularly intimate setting but our conversation is intense. She says she had to eliminate a lot of white girls from her life to get to this point. Did she feel any loss? She gazes at me, eyes widening. No, because you know its work. I was spent. If Im having to explain [racism] to someone, to prove that its even happening, its simply taxing and Id rather eliminate those dynamics.

The one advantage she sees in the Trump presidency is that the exhausting conversation around race has evolved among liberals, at least. White people believe us in a different way now, period. She talks about our relative experiences hers as a queer black woman, mine as a Muslim Asian one. What were facing is so extreme. I spent a lot of time before this past fall trying to prove how bad the problem is. Now, I feel like white people are like: its bad. She curls a soft fist over her giggle. Yeah, girl. Yeah, its bad!

Star quality … Kelela performs in Quebec City, Canada, in July. Photograph: Scott Legato/Getty Images
Kelela Mizanekristos was born to first-generation Ethiopian parents in Washington DC, 1983. She spent a good portion of her teen years as an extrovert then, later on, anxious that she might have left it too late to pursue a career in music. I know deep down Im a star, she says. But it takes a lot of work to try to muster the courage in the culture of prodigiousness that I feel were in. In other art forms you dont make your title shit until youre 40, 50 years old. In music especially with women, and women of colour its so scrutinous. And the window is so small.

Her own unstarry epiphany came from attending an experiential workshop called The Flow in DC, around 2009. Here, in a roomful of around 40 strangers, she practised a series of trust, confidence and empathy exercises. The result? She shed her personality and started again. In that moment, I literally decided, because I wanted to be a musician so bad, I knew I had to abandon any personality that I think I am, or think Im not.

Its a streak of ruthless perseverance that has filtered down to Kelelas personal relationships and abstractly permeated her music: its not for nothing that Take Me Apart, released on Warp to a wellspring of critical acclaim this month, has been lauded for painfully nailing the cues and tensions of sex and love. Despite the intimacy of fragile vulnerability in each encounter she sings through, being tough in love and smart of heart is more her thing. The first part of the record centres around a previous breakup and in that relationship I was with someone who was still in love with their ex. When it came to light that we could be in this cycle for ever and go on and on and on She looks sullen. Well, that is not happening. Im not that bitch.

Freedom of speech … her mini-essay on Instagram. Photograph: Instagram

It wasnt a clear-cut journey to achieving that level of self-awareness she admits she had to make a lot of horrible mistakes in relationships, with friends, and do really stupid things to learn that I cant be careless with people but it helps that Kelela has come up through one of the most tight-knit and innovative collectives working in music over the last decade. Londons Night Slugs and Los Angeless Fade to Mind crews became secondary families when she started out; producers Bok Bok, Kingdom, Nguzunguzu and Jam City have been instrumental to Kelelas sound, providing her with the slinky, futurist palette to sing twitchy sex jams and icy put-downs. Shes developed that team further since those early collaborations; 13 producers, including Arca (Bjrk; FKA twigs), Kwes and Ariel Rechtshaid are on board for Take Me Apart where, arguably, Jam Citys industrial scrapes and tics take centre stage on singles Frontline and LMK.

She has gradually settled into feeling proud of the album, despite a nagging frustration that the songs arent overtly political. Writing modern templates on falling in hook-ups, heartbreak and love is one thing. I was mad I didnt write anything that addressed what Im talking about 90% of the day. I had a problem with the fact I didnt do that, it took me a while to get there.

On the flipside, an artificially constructed song on the importance of #blacklivesmatter or the discussion of privilege would be hollow, immediately obvious so why sweat it? Right, she says. I sat in that shitty feeling for months until it clicked: that actually theres nothing I can make that wouldnt be imbued with my experience as a black woman.

Philly blunt … Kelela performs at the 2017 Made in America festival in Philadelphia. Photograph: Zachary Mazur/FilmMagic
She talks about early meetings with Warp, and the importance of making the label understand exactly that how it felt to navigate the industry as a black woman and why she (much like every artist, its fair to say) wouldnt be pigeonholed. Entering the music industry is pretty shocking to understand, she explains. A lot of that has to do with race. As a black person on the outside, because theres so much black art and so much of black peoples work circulating, so many people imitating what black people do, you would think that thered be more black people on the business side. It didnt cross my mind that every label head, for the most part, is a white guy.

Warp, however, got it. Artistically, Ill have all the agency to control every aspect, Im working with a label that has a legacy of wanting to participate in incredible artwork and wanting to do forward-thinking things. Has she caught herself becoming a control freak? I do like things the way that I like them. She pauses to roll a joint. But Im trying not to be, I dont wanna be that way. Im not a control freak I wanna protect my agency. Its a weird question as a black woman. Which is true, if you consider that black female artists deeply invested and committed to their work arent ranked alongside Bowie or Bob Dylan or Prince, theyre called divas.

See? There are no black women geniuses that are being named in canons. I could name a bunch but its not part of common knowledge. Its not how the world is taught to think about black women. She slicks down the tobacco paper. So when I think about being bossy or a control freak or extra, or whatever way its framed, Im like Im opting out of that question as a black woman.

Take Me Apart is out now

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