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. “It’s just about where the world is.”
Musically at least, the world is at Kelela’s 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 they’ve always been on that and skip over owning how missing they’ve been from that conversation,” she shrugs, “but no one will say, ‘We haven’t 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, she’s chosen to opt out of being around anyone who isn’t woke – or trying to fix it. “It’s interesting,” she says, “because at this point, I don’t 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.” She’s 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 we’re meeting isn’t 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 it’s work. I was spent. If I’m having to explain [racism] to someone, to prove that it’s even happening, it’s simply taxing and I’d 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 we’re 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: ‘it’s bad.’” She curls a soft fist over her giggle. “Yeah, girl. Yeah, it’s bad!”
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 I’m 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 we’re in. In other art forms you don’t make your title shit until you’re 40, 50 years old. In music – especially with women, and women of colour – it’s 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 I’m not.”
It’s a streak of ruthless perseverance that has filtered down to Kelela’s personal relationships and abstractly permeated her music: it’s 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. I’m not that bitch.”
It wasn’t 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 can’t 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. London’s Night Slugs and Los Angeles’s Fade to Mind crews became secondary families when she started out; producers Bok Bok, Kingdom, Nguzunguzu and Jam City have been instrumental to Kelela’s sound, providing her with the slinky, futurist palette to sing twitchy sex jams and icy put-downs. She’s developed that team further since those early collaborations; 13 producers, including Arca (Björk; FKA twigs), Kwes and Ariel Rechtshaid are on board for Take Me Apart where, arguably, Jam City’s 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 aren’t overtly political. Writing modern templates on falling in hook-ups, heartbreak and love is one thing. “I was mad I didn’t write anything that addressed what I’m talking about 90% of the day. I had a problem with the fact I didn’t 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 there’s nothing I can make that wouldn’t be imbued with my experience as a black woman.”
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, it’s fair to say) wouldn’t 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 there’s so much black art and so much of black people’s work circulating, so many people imitating what black people do, you would think that there’d be more black people on the business side. It didn’t cross my mind that every label head, for the most part, is a white guy.”
Warp, however, got it. “Artistically, I’ll have all the agency to control every aspect, I’m 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 I’m trying not to be, I don’t wanna be that way. I’m not a control freak – I wanna protect my agency. It’s a weird question as a black woman.” Which is true, if you consider that black female artists deeply invested and committed to their work aren’t ranked alongside Bowie or Bob Dylan or Prince, they’re called divas.
“See? There are no black women geniuses that are being named in canons. I could name a bunch but it’s not part of common knowledge. It’s 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 it’s framed, I’m like … I’m opting out of that question as a black woman.”
Take Me Apart is out now