Raven Reborn: Kelela Interviewed

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Six years after her critically-acclaimed last release, Kelela is demarcating new lines with an expansive new album. An invite-only space beyond the white gaze, Kelela’s curates a club night for the outsiders, the marginalised, the hustlers and the survivors.

“A reckoning is happening…” Kelela declares like a prophet over Zoom from her hotel room in Paris. We’re speaking on the cataclysms of 2020: the spectre of death, loss and insurrection, in a year within a year that saw the mass-televised reportage of the hollow structures upholding systems of exploitation and racialised violence. “The reality is I’ve been sitting with these feelings all my life; I’ve bobbed and weaved my whole life. Now everything around us is starting to shift in a way that feels closer to my values,” a world-weary Kelela says.

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The diminutive Ethiopian-American artist is a public-facing figure once again after a near six-year hiatus. One minute she’s in the City of Lights, sat front row at Kenzo’s Fall fashion show wearing a preppy mod-inspired grey jacquard suit; a few days later she’s filming in Rio, frolicking with an on-screen paramour for new single, ‘Enough For Love’, later memorialised with a performance on The Jimmy Fallon Show mere days before her new album hits the ether.

In her decade-long career, 39-year-old Kelela Mizanekristos has articulated a vision of queer Black womanhood through Dionysian euphony. She views herself not as a spiritual guide or a guru but as a translator of emotions. “I help people connect with what their feeling and put a name to it through song.” Now, her creative model involves branching out into liberation work. “I feel inspired right now. I’m here to talk my shit; defend myself, my community, my friends,” she says ardently.

By 2020, Kelela had already sowed the seeds of a new project when surface-level conversations around anti-racism, workplace equity and emotional labour began taking over socials in the form of “what to do” communiqués. “I’d thought up this concept before the pandemic and protests. The best things come from not having too much pretence and expectation, but my work is a lifelong meditation on what it means to be marginalised,” Kelela explains.

Having to circumvent daily indignities in her personal and professional spaces, Kelela armed herself with knowledge, performing acts of edifying self-care by studying the words of bell hooks and Shaadi Devereaux. She sent letters to her white friends and industry peers; not just an appeal for base-level empathy but a request for the actual work they’d need to do to remedy the pulverising mistreatment of black woman in music. The response to these entreaties would motivate her to cut ties with Sony, and inspire greater autonomy and stronger ties with her community and creative team.

“I’ve had friendship breakups with white people,” Kelela confesses. “I’ve written letters to male friends of mine where I said ‘you suck at being there for women’. For white people there’s a trickery that’s happening because of their adjacency to this brown or black woman – that they must be good because they’ve half-done the work. I’ve always been feeling this way, always been challenging these disparities in my interviews. Yes, I’m tired but I have to continue to push for the safety of people that need it.”

With her debut mixtape, ‘Cut 4 Me’, unveiled on SoundCloud as a free download in 2013, Kelela sang over instrumentals by producers from nocturnal indies, Fade to Mind and Night Slugs. A retro-stylized collusion, ‘Cut 4 Me’ endured beyond what Kelela could have imagined. A mutable, hi-tech take on rhythm and grime, the mixtape’s dissonant design was its draw, even if the slap-dash approach was necessitated by a desire to treat the project like a rap record. “I wanted to be light, airy and not entirely tethered to one sound. I was honouring the rap tradition more than anything because I knew I’d be judged harshly if I’d call it an album,” Kelela explains.

Wary of the misdiagnosis and misogynoir around racialised genres as languishing art-forms in our consumerist hellscape, Kelela considers R&B as the thread that binds her work together. “It’s taken time for me to be proud to say that R&B is revolutionary. It’s crafty, sophisticated and innovative. Now, I’m here to remind people that black people originated this sound and they’re responsible for its evolution,” she avows. Kelela refers to the pervasive effects of sonic racism by white gatekeepers, the ways they determine or diminish its credibility as a marketable genre. “It has so much range but they call it basic? For the girlies that like traditional or mainstream R&B you’ll love ‘Let It Go’. It’s light and airy, with the heritage of Motown and Stevie running through.”

In 2015, Kelela released ‘Hallucinogen’, a nebulous take on club sounds exploring a deep, lurid kind of yearning. EP closer ‘The High’ was the climax. Over a minimal bass thrum echoing a heartbeat courtesy of producer Gifted & Blessed, Kelela intoned “I’ll do anything for the high…”, a technoid fever dream holding onto the shards of a fragmented relationship. “This was my first formative experience as an artist. I’d just moved to LA. It was a fresh place and I was trying to find my way. I’d bought a VoiceLive Touch which I took to a session with Gifted. The initial edit went on for 30 minutes; it was me in my Erykah bag just ad-libbing,” Kelela says.

‘The High’ is foundational: the source of Kelela’s earliest experiments exploring the contours of her supple voice and her embrace of morbid sensuality, stillness and space, channelled more fervently on 2017’s ‘Take Me Apart’. The track bears atonal similarities to Kelela’s collaborative mix, ‘Aquaphoria, made with friend and frequent collaborator Asmara. The mix featured the work of Berlin-based duo OCA, Yo Van Lenz and Florian T M Zeisig, and in 2019 Kelela procured their production services. Between sessions with OCA and fellow Berlin producer LSDXOXO, in six days Kelela had recorded thirteen of the fifteen tracks on what would become ‘Raven’. “These ambient works healed me in some way,” she says. “I felt stuck and in a zone. Once I felt that newness, a feeling of risk – that spark – I knew I needed to incorporate and replicate the feeling somehow.”

Kelela recalls the thrill of discovering something novel by an artist she revered: how they overcame sophomore slumps and stifling expectation by renewing their sense of purpose as provocateurs. She references the sonic progression from D’Angelo’s ‘Brown Sugar’ to ‘Voodoo’ and Erykah Badu’s one-two punch, ‘Baduizm’ and ‘Mama’s Gun’, as loose frameworks she followed after the success of ‘Take Me Apart’. “If I’m not on the edge you will hear it. Part of how I express myself is going to a place that isn’t entirely comfortable for me. Those are the pillars that hold me up as an artist. I didn’t want to make ‘Take Me Apart’ 2.0, I wanted to honour my own integrity,” she tells me.

‘Raven’ is far from fan service. On first listen it lacks immediacy. As you listen more, it starts to effervesce, drawing you into its widescreen devotionals. A split-screen between analogue and digital brushstrokes – Kelela opts for a subaqueous mix of underground club excursions. This isn’t a reclamation, but a reminder that all across the electronic spectrum a Black innovator was responsible for its genesis. “I’m showing you all the ways that I fuck with Black music: This house moment is Black, ‘Fooley’ is a Portishead-Black moment, this ambient moment is Black. The album is continuously mixed so it aids a point of discovery,” Kelela clarifies.

“The hype will never waver…” Kelela sings with impeccable clarity. She pauses before singing the line again. “Can I get the lyrics up? I need to break these down for you,” Kelela politely appeals, eager for me to partake in a study of the album’s apotheosis: the title track “that feels like you’re soaring until it spits you out”. Kelela is right. ‘Raven’ is a Drexciya-inflected bipartite with synths that seethe before building to a filthy crescendo until they evanesce into vapour waves. This is the moment Kelela uses the dimensions of the dancefloor as her place of metamorphosis.

Exploring the holistic and regenerative effects of raving, home to aphorisms and affirmations, ‘Raven’ frames this peak epiphany as a communal utopia: “I’m thinking about the two ways people experience a rave: the escapist route and the cathartic route. I want you to experience catharsis, to help you deal with tomorrow in a much healthier way. I don’t want you to get back to a fucked-up reality with no sense of how you’ll tackle it. You’ll wake up feeling a sense of renewal.”

The club continuum has long been the birthplace place of Kelela’s nebulous dance creations, but it’s more acutely explored on ‘Raven’. There’s a simmering tension between the hazy comedowns and the breathless forays into breakbeat and Baltimore club. The dancefloor is a veil between earth and a divine power; between the cloistered, revolving rooms of a heaving club where pain is exhumed and healing ensues. When you press play Kelela is speaking to all of you, the exposed parts as well as what’s hidden. “I want all of your attention, not just the thrill-seeking fun part. That’s why I stand out as an artist. I’m leading with my heart on my sleeve; I’m leading with tenderness and intention,” Kelela explains.

Fastidious in her appreciation of the annals and archives of Black music history, Kelela hones in on the queer scene ambassadors who altered the course of dance music. Invoking the etymology of Black femme and gender-queer expression, Kelela toys with prescribed gender roles with coded vernacular and pitched distillations in her voice. On ‘Contact’, Kelela sings the line: ‘You want a top and so I’m following on the low/Is that all you got?’ Here, she’s the chief instigator coaxing her lover to acquiesce to her demands, no longer a passive bystander in private spaces.

Survival is a prescient theme across ‘Raven’s’ 15 tracks: Kelela’s club dominion is a protective enclave for her chosen family to not only exist on their own terms but thrive. “This record is specifically for black queer people, but also anyone who is experiencing marginalisation,” Kelela lays out plainly. “We hold so much space for other people. The amount of patience and space in our hearts…we are treated like shit on a daily. Yet we deal with the world with so much humility, kindness and warmth. It’s a fucking feat! This is me saying I see you, I am you, and I acknowledge the work we’re doing together.”

On June 6th, Kelela will enter her fourth decade on this planet. I ask of the principles that have guided and sustained her as a person and artist, principles that have her made her a musical stalwart in our imaginations for over a decade. Kelela draws breath before unleashing her final missive. “The current says that if you go away, they’ll forget you; it says if you don’t participate in this game in the most robust way, they’ll forget you. When it comes to personhood, I can’t be sustained by staying relevant. Staying relevant today means trying to continually produce in an industry that’s highly extractive. We’re not talking about the source or the art.”

She continues: “I just try to articulate the emotional autonomy you have to summon to not be concerned with outside voices; to not feel compelled to rush out a project. It’s important that I didn’t release from a place of inadequacy. I had to be inspired and I had to be whole in order to tell this story.”

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Order your copy of Clash 124 HERE.

Words: Shahzaib Hussain
Photography: Aidan Zamiri
Fashion: Jordan Kelsey
Creative Direction: Rob Meyers
Hair: Kei Takano
Make-up: Porsche Poon