Kelela, in particular, explodes the notion that blackness is monolithic, a single Pantone square instead of untold variations. Her music is geared to a generation that lives for juxtapositions and unexpected arrangements, sonically and visually. She asked for a demo and gave the song to Solange, who asked Kelela to come on tour with her later that year, introducing Kelela to an audience who could appreciate her innovations in R.
At the time, Kelela wanted to see how far she could push herself as an artist and play with the boundaries of R. Pitchfork gave the collection a rare 8. It felt like a sonic relic of the past unearthed years in the future. Since then, fans have been waiting for her first full-length album, which Kelela expects to release this year. In her dressing room, Kelela folded herself into a pretzel on the couch next to me.
A candle burned in the background. She knew it had been an off night, but because she loves performing so much, she was still buzzing from the energy. Kelela Mizanekristos was born in to Mizanekristos Yohannes and Neghist Girma, students who escaped war-torn Ethopia and immigrated separately to the United States. She was raised in Gaithersburg, Md. He often took Kelela with him, and she fell in love with the culture of music.
You can still catch the influence in her voice — the way she turns sounds into sacred geometry, almost unconsciously stairstepping through the vowels and consonants. In her early to mid 20s, she would go to a Washington bar called 18th Street Lounge for its Sunday-night house sessions.
Her first boyfriend, Kris Funn, whom she met when she was 19, played the upright bass, and she sat in bars for hours, watching him and his friends play. Eventually the couple broke up, but Funn encouraged Kelela to trust her instincts and not be intimidated by her lack of formal music training. By that time, Kelela was a student at American University, studying international studies and sociology. In my head, I am supposed to be a college graduate.
I wanted to finish.
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But I was not motivated to sit there and do that paper. I had a lot of resistance. She dropped out.
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This was in , and synthpop, epitomized by bands like the Knife, was trending. She began recording in a punk house in Washington, a city with a hard-core lineage that included acts like Fugazi and Bad Brains. She thrived in an environment devoid of rules. Just try. She spent hours on MySpace, scrolling through pages of music and listening to instrumentals. She recorded herself singing over sounds she liked.
Then she would send the artist her sample, along with an invitation to collaborate. Two notable electronic producers agreed, including Daedelus, who featured her on a track. At the same time, a friend introduced her to the electro duo Teengirl Fantasy, and they created a song.
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By then, Kelela was living in Los Angeles, and Boston brought her a thumb drive of sounds from the label and its British counterpart, Night Slugs. Kelela spent the next several days poring over the files, improvising lyrics over the sounds she liked, turning them into songs. She loved the otherworldliness of the instrumentals — staccato mixes that used sound effects like tinkling glass and guns reloading over drum machines.
The music complemented the gossamer scales she likes to sing in. Two of the songs she produced during this time were on the mixtape she released in Electronica, Sushon told me, is referential in the same way that R. Because of the internet, he explained, musicians can share references more easily than they did in the past. Google, YouTube and SoundCloud make it easy. I watched Kelela and her D. Here, suddenly, was the thrilling flicker of a decade-old hit that had almost entirely faded from popular culture, tucked into her own noir love song.
After the show , back at her Strasbourg Airbnb, Kelela changed into oversize gray sweatpants and a black button-down crop top, and padded into the kitchen in white slippers. She plugged in an electric kettle and made another cup of ginger tea as our conversation turned to her debut album.
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I expected her to talk about its sound, but she wanted to speak about the intention behind it. I like that. I like playing to mixed crowds. These women helped her make sense of the racial and sexist forces that shape the world, and she still turns to them to navigate the music industry. She internalized their insistence to not be apologetic for her womanhood or blackness and not be debilitated by exclusion.
Kelela is aware of how artists like her get co-opted, morphed into something symbolic that they no longer control, and is determined to avoid it. I had already heard the lengths to which she would go to prevent this from happening. The first night we met, I asked her how she managed expectations as an artist in an age of hyperconsumption.
I mostly meant her reserve on social media, despite the disturbingly insistent demands in her Twitter and Instagram mentions for her next release. Instead, she described an encounter with Fendi, the Italian luxury brand, which invited her to perform at its new headquarters in Rome to celebrate the start of a new website aimed at millennials. She asked Fendi representatives to agree to release a statement addressing her concerns as a condition of her involvement. She sees herself as someone who can wield her status as a celebrity to catalyze change. As the evening wound down, Kelela invited me to get comfortable and listen to some of her new tracks.
She gave me earbuds and left me alone to listen. When I pressed her about a release date, she made a coquettish face and demurred, saying the songs were still being mixed.
In reality, she just signed with Warp Records, which will take over the release of the album. But I could never not make anything from any other place. Her voice is as pretty as ever, rising and crashing like cresting waves over beats that swing from a druggy drone to throbbing bass lines perfect for dance-floor grinding. In their own way, they are a quiet protest: They feel radical in the way a Kerry James Marshall painting or a Ntozake Shange poem expresses the humanity and beauty of black life.
The video , which has been viewed over million times and depicts a summer romance on a Greek isle, is followed by hundreds of comments from jubilant global citizens who have finally trapped their earworm. For nine weeks, it was the most Shazammed song in the world. The retro, cheerful, almost cloying guitar riff?
The result is youthful magic, the aural version of dancing until dawn with a boy you just met. Of smoking cigarettes on a rooftop all hot summer night. These days, an enterprising year-old can browse YouTube, find something that catches his fancy, transform it and broadcast it to the world. Our atmosphere is on track to become one long hot summer night.
In harrowing times, this earworm asks little and gives a lot. Sometimes you just want to kill somebody, you know? Really end their life: make mourners of their friends and family, make orphans of their children, leave a hole in the world where a person once was. But sometimes you do.
But if you do, when you do, maybe sometimes it kind of gets away from you, right?
Would you cover your tracks? Try to hide the body?