‘Why did I feel rusty? White supremacy’: Kelela on writer’s block, outsiderdom and her long-awaited second album

‘I’m not seeking to be a bridge’ … Kelela.

‘I’m not seeking to be a bridge’ … Kelela. Photograph: Clothing Acne Studios. Stylist Mario Horne. Makeup Raisa Flowers. Hair Matt Benns/Justin French

The US singer and producer received mass acclaim for her debut album in 2017, then vanished. After a battle with perfectionism, she’s back with renewed self-assurance and one eye fixed firmly on the dancefloor

Kelela thought she had lost her touch. In January 2020, the US singer and producer had flown to Berlin to sketch out the outline of an album to follow her much-anticipated 2017 debut, Take Me Apart. She called up a few collaborators: LSDXOXO, real name Raus haad “RJ” Glasgow, her friend Asma “Asmara” Maroof (of Nguzunguzu). Standing in a recording booth, an instrumental playing over her headphones, she felt as though she had forgotten how to write songs.

“I remember coming out feeling so rusty,” she says now. Improvising over a song now called Closure, she thought: “‘You can do better than this, Kels.’” But she sang anyway, recording melodies that she would ordinarily tweak until they felt right. “I turned to Asma like: ‘Girl, I don’t know what’s going on.’ And she responded: ‘What? That was popping.’” She laughs. “I kept thinking that it was all really basic, and that I could come up with a better melody.” Rather than beat herself up about it, Kelela let the song be.

The moment speaks to the weight of expectation on Kelela (pronounced Kuh-luh-lah) Mizanekristos. This summer marked five years since she last released new music. During that time, fans of her dark, sensual electronic sound had tweeted consistently about her public silence, with reactions spanning from concern to faux panic. (“Every day I wake up, open my curtains and scream to the sky, ‘WHERE IS KELELA?!’”) It had become enough of a running joke for the Washington DC-born artist to gather some of the best one-liners for the video that teased her meditative comeback single, Washed Away, this September.

Kelela performing at the Pitchfork Music festival in 2014.
Kelela performing at the Pitchfork Music festival in 2014. Photograph: Roger Kisby/Getty Images

The song confirmed that her second album, Raven, was finally on its way, marking the return of one of the most groundbreaking artists of the past decade. It’s hard to overstate just how much Kelela heralded the arrival of a new, confounding sound when she released her debut mixtape, Cut 4 Me, in 2013. Then she was one of the few visible queer Black female artists straddling electronic and pop music: her feathery R&B falsetto and lyrics about love and lust mingled with icy production to evoke what you might imagine pulsing out of an underground club in a future dystopia. She ended that year with a spot on the BBC Sound of 2014 poll; three years later Take Me Apart received huge acclaim, earning her fans including Björk and Solange.

But Kelela wasn’t bothered about capitalising on those accolades, despite feeling like a late starter after breaking out aged 30. She went silent around 2018, only briefly reappearing to release an ambient mix the following year. “I really wanted to be able to stop and reconsider some things,” she says over a video call from her apartment on the Lower East Side in New York. Her close-cropped hair and brows are bleached, a look that’s now more lived-in than when she debuted it on a magazine cover in September. “To look and see if there were areas of my life where I might be able to reflect and make something feel new. I took it as an opportunity to reckon with a lot around me: my relationships, my work, my friendships.”

Even the writer’s block proved revealing. Why had she felt so rusty? “Well, white supremacy,” she says. “And capitalism.” I assume she’s half joking. “Perfectionism, I would say, is one of the central components of the culture of white supremacy,” she begins, and soon she’s on a winding path about capitalism and exploiting yourself. “There’s a way that perfectionism can distort where you’re at,” even if you have “the juice” and are already good at what you do. “This idea that: ‘I should be generating more. I should have a larger audience. I should always have more than what I currently have.’” That, she says, reminds her of how capitalism works; the constant growth and relentless productivity.

Kelela isn’t always so direct when talking about Raven. From time to time she zips up and down a black Adidas track top, her long nails pale and dagger-shaped. “I would say that this record feels … maybe more explicitly boundaried?” she says. Frequently, she asks to go off the record to clarify a point, “Black femme to Black femme”. When working through a knottier subject, she’ll catch up to what she wants to express when she’s already midway through the sentence. Granted, that may be because she’s smoking what appears to be a fat joint as we talk.

She harks back to the writing process for Cut 4 Me, which she describes as purely instinctual. “I was like: ‘First idea, best idea.’ And you can feel that when you listen to it.” Somewhere along the line, she wavered from that approach. Kelela broke out at a time when R&B was splintering. On the indie side, bands such as Dirty Projectors would get blog coverage for stiffly pairing R&B vocal hooks with guitars. Meanwhile, artists such as Banks, FKA twigs and ABRA blended melodic vocal lines with the more disconcerting corners of dance music.

Kelela became a bit of a figurehead for that group, and came to feel as though she had to extend an arm to listeners who wouldn’t have expected her voice to waft over skittery, sometimes ominous production. “With my previous work, it felt very outward-looking,” she says. “I was concerned with the ‘reach out’, worrying about how to get people invested.” With this record, she says: “I’m not seeking to be a bridge.”

Raven’s 15 tracks ultimately came together in a week and a half. It’s an expansive album that returns to some of the touchstones of Kelela’s earliest work: these songs either swell slowly or jolt toward the dancefloor two-thirds of the way in. And contrary to her initial expectations in Berlin, Closure now stands as one of the album’s strongest songs: a sultry, midtempo track about wanting to stop a back-and-forth exchange of teasing messages and consummate some sexting. The bass thunders like the floor caving in while Kelela sings breathily about ghosting. It doesn’t sound at all off the cuff; more self-possessed.

She still sings about relationships with the intimacy of a breath on the back of your neck, though this time they’re just as often about love as they are drawing firmer boundaries around her life: the title track is a kiss-off to people who weren’t actively anti-racist before and during Trump’s presidential term. For Kelela, Raven is an album about being an outsider who stops caring about whether she’s let in, and who stops making allowances for others. Instead, she found the confidence to make a record for her core audience of queer, Black listeners.

Kelela … ‘I can see that my audience really gets my politics.’

Kelela … ‘I can see that my audience really gets my politics.’ Photograph: Justin French

In the song Holier, she sings about going where you’re appreciated. It’s become a mantra for her. “I feel like so many Black people are concerned about the people who aren’t seeing them,” she says, relighting her joint. Rather than taking to heart every critique from white industry gatekeepers, she says, “what I would hope to see is that [Black artists] are clear about how we’re being assessed and can respond accordingly. But we’re not internalising that feedback about whether or not we’re doing a good job.”

She gets into a complex description of a chat she’d had with the musician Bambii (also a friend, and Raven collaborator) about the “right” ways that Black femme artists have to act and look to get approval from the mainstream. “If we put the unit [wig] on, a little eyeshadow, wear this outfit, a little heel, they won’t know what happened.” Kelela never took on this aesthetic – the closest she came was in Take Me Apart’s LMK video, with its nods to the R&B videos of the 90s and early 00s, looks she wore with a wink. She’s adamant that feminine Black musicians should feel able to look however they want, even if they don’t “create a certain type of response from the white gaze”.

Her new songs Raven, Holier and Bruises hint at distancing yourself from exploitative people and dynamics. They might have sounded like tracks written in response to the global uprising that swept parts of the world after the murder of George Floyd had Kelela not been talking about racism and colourism long before 2020. “I definitely didn’t write these songs in response to that moment,” she says. “I wrote them in response to the feeling I’ve always been having, that’s now bubbling to the surface.”

That so-called racial reckoning gave her a sort of permission to be even more upfront. “White people were like: ‘OK – this is now embarrassing me. Finally, I feel embarrassed by the lack of humanity that I have been displaying to Black people, as a baseline, in my culture.’” Kelela wrote a series of letters to industry associates in an attempt to establish business on her own terms, though today she would rather not name names. Based on their responses, she shed a fair few working relationships and ended some contracts early.

In interviews about her last album, Kelela seemed worried that she wasn’t openly political enough in her music. She’s very pro-Black and anti-bigotry. But her music doesn’t feature slogans in that vein. Does she still feel as conflicted now? “No,” she says. “But I remember feeling that way. That was the press run where I was able to share it all, in interviews.” She motions listing one item after the other on her fingers: “‘And another thing’, ‘and I don’t like this’.”

Now, she says: “I can see that my audience really gets my politics, and where I’m coming from. They get what it means to like Kelela. Even in the crowd at a show, if you’re being foul, everybody’s like, ‘What are you doing?’ It feels like there’s a culture that is fostered.”

The culture-fostering is also embedded in the DNA of her new album. Whether she’s referencing UK garage, 2-step or techno, Kelela uses Raven to showcase different strands of dance music as a Black artform. It’s a good time for it, after Beyoncé threw down the gauntlet for listeners to recognise the music’s origins with Renaissance earlier this year. How does she feel about following one of the world’s biggest artists in a similar lane? “For me, it just means more niggas thinking that four-to-the-floor is for them and by them,” says Kelela. “More niggas owning disco, owning certain forms of dance music. Having those popular references. It just adds value, no matter how you flip it, for me.”

Kelela at Sonar, Barcelona in 2016.

Kelela at Sonar, Barcelona in 2016. Photograph: Xavi Torrent/Redferns

Looking ahead, Kelela isn’t planning to fall off the grid again any time soon. She’s preparing for the opposite: getting in front of crowds. Touring now feels a fairly different proposition from when she was last on the road; an expensive, logistical nightmare. “It doesn’t add up for a lot of people. I’ll say that,” she says, talking about the economics.

More than an hour into our conversation, Kelela lights her second joint. Even when alluding to ideas, or speaking in weaving sentences that you have to untangle, she looks refreshed, excited about what comes next. I mention that she sings the words “far away” a lot on the new album. “I know,” she says, smiling. “It was not on purpose.” I posit that some of the songs tackle a relational and physical yearning. It’s clear I’m theorising more than she is. “I’m not a conceptual artist. I don’t go: ‘This is the mood board for this record,’” she says. It’s only when she looks back after the fact that she might realise she’s inadvertently coined a motif.

Once she clocked this one, she resisted changing the lyric for variety’s sake. “Maybe there’s a type of isolation that both the line and the record speak to,” she wonders aloud. She’s still working through what that may be, even now as she promotes the album. Kelela’s hiatus may be over, but she’s still off in her own world.

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