Kelela Embraces Being An Honest, Open And Radical Black Woman

Take Me Apart, Kelela’s 2017 debut album, provides a piercing glimpse of the Ethiopian-American singer’s appreciation of both pleasure and pain when navigating a breakup’s aftermath. Her 2013 mixtape, Cut 4 Me, was a shameless invitation into her intense lyricism as well as her compelling intimacy. In short, she simply radiates honesty and vulnerability as an artist.

On the surface, her artistry seems straightforward—Kelela is comfortable in her skin and her music videos are vehicles for individuality and universal truths. But when you delve a little further, it’s clear that complexity runs deep. “LMK,” while fun and slightly theatrical (in the video Kelela dons a series of wigs and completes choreographed dance routines), serves as a song about female sexual empowerment. “Blue Light” reveals Kelela’s naked body with her locs serving as both her freedom and confinement. In “Frontline,” Kelela swaps in a fierce SIMS-inspired version of herself, fully freeing herself from a lover who left her for a white woman. She is full of duality and knows how to express it in absorbing, visually stunning ways.

Kelela has also been vocally outspoken when it comes to race and the role it plays in the music industry. Throughout her career, she has publicly discussed intersectionality, misogynoir, and how both realities inform her creative output: she writes songs to uplift black women. It makes sense that Take Me Apart is intriguing, unapologetic and exceedingly genuine—characteristics that are at the core of Kelela’s being. Here, she opens up about how she approaches making albums and the importance of black women still fighting for a seat at the table.

VIBE: When I first saw you perform at Afropunk in 2015, it was mesmerizing. This was around the time you released Hallucinogen. How would you describe your creative journey between that EP and Take Me Apart?
Kelela: Hallucinogen was really carved out of album tracks. I was trying to make an album and I was told that I should release something sooner than later. I took some songs that were potential album songs and used them for an EP, and those songs just went really well together. When it came to the time between Hallucinogen and Take Me Apart, I was just continuing to write and make more tracks. That creative process wasn’t very different from the one before, if that makes any sense. It was just continuous. I would say Take Me Apart, for me, was more hopeful. It has brighter sounds that I wanted to explore.

You’ve previously said that Take Me Apart is a breakup album. Did you start the recording process with that particular vision or did it just happen to come out that way?
I don’t go into the recording process with any kind of conceptual intentions. I’m simply writing to get through my experiences, writing to heal, writing to feel better about what’s going on with me. I never approach it ahead of time with a concept. Up to this point in my career, I haven’t written anything from that place. I’m listening to the mood in the tracks, I’m listening to what’s going on in my life and trying to find a place to put that.

That’s so interesting, because it really details the relationship from beginning to end and feels so whole.
I’ve always been interested in exploring various elements of relationships through music. It’s not just a breakup record. It’s more about the phases that we go through in relationships. I’ve always wanted to illuminate and shed light on the parts that we don’t typically address, but that we’re all experiencing at the same time. One of my intentions as an artist is to not write about things in the way everyone else has written about them already. I’m interested in the specificity of falling in love and the hesitation that you feel when you want to jump [into a relationship]… and the moment you abandon that. I wanted to get into the specifics of how you’re feeling, whether it’s the beginning or the end or the middle of a relationship, but no one really talks about it.

“When you are black and a woman, you are not going to be able to get people to rally around your pain. Would everyone be wearing a white rose if it were a black woman’s movement? Probably not.”

And as writers, it’s our job to either further a conversation or start a new one altogether because if we don’t then why are we doing this?
That is central. If a song starts to go in a direction that’s boring and that hasn’t been thoroughly explored, I’m not very interested anymore. It’s not that I’m here for any particular sentiment, whether it be elation or sadness. There’s no particular mood I’m committed to; I’m more committed to you feeling, like this song hit the spot for this particular moment.

Have you ever regretted loving someone or being romantically involved with them?
No. Never, ever, ever, ever, no. Every experience is enriching, whether it’s really positive and brings up good memories or it doesn’t. Even when it doesn’t feel good, it’s still purposeful. There is so much purpose in having sh**ty experiences because we can still find so much of ourselves in the sh**tiest part of a relationship. I would never want to avoid that discovery of self that I’ve gotten through pain.

Your work is personal, vulnerable, confrontational and multidimensional. Do you think it has become easier for black artists to control their narrative?
There is definitely more that needs to be done. It’s always been important for me to express myself honestly. Actually, it’s my biggest priority. Part of my journey is trying to express my layered complexity through the music, the lyrics and the presentation, which primarily focuses on the music videos and live performances. Another part is taking pride in what feels like tradition, and for me that’s R&B. R&B embodies both of those things. Some of my crazy electronic references are actually R&B references. When people say “innovative R&B” or “alternative R&B,” it is a bit problematic because the genre has always been innovative and experimental. It’s important for me to express that while exploring a lot of different sounds and trying to fuse them together.

Your discography brings power, control and reverence back to women. Do you think your music and its message have become even more urgent in light of the #MeToo movement?
I would be very weary of connecting my music to that particular movement. There’s still a level of neglect when it comes to making sure that black women’s experiences, especially within the industry, are brought to the forefront and made overtly central. That’s the part that I feel is missing and why it’s really hard for me to feel a part of it. When we are asked to come to the feminist meeting, figuratively speaking, we’re asked to join hands and put our intersectional experience down or have it take a backseat. There’s a way that black women have been exploited while also ignored at such gross levels that it’s really difficult for me to listen or participate as if it were my movement when I don’t necessarily feel like I’m considered from jump. It’s a difficult line for me to draw. We need to have that meeting again because it hasn’t really been had. I haven’t seen too many white women committing to that because that’s actually what it would take: white women saying, “This is an experience that we’re not talking about and we’re acting as if this is everyone’s experience when, in fact, it’s just simply not.” When you are black and a woman, you are not going to be able to get people to rally around your pain. Would everyone be wearing a white rose if it were a black woman’s movement? Probably not.

“When people say ‘innovative R&B’ or ‘alternative R&B,’ it is a bit problematic because the genre has always been innovative and experimental.”

It is hard because I empathize with their pain. But at the same time, as a black woman, I’m tired of funneling our humanity through white people.
In order for us to talk about the human experience, we have to put down our own intersectional experience, but it’s part of our everyday life. That also means that if we want to be in any type of conversation and get anywhere, we have to wear a white rose and use the #MeToo hashtag. We do have to participate on some level. We have to appear that we are for all women, which I think we are. But time and time again, it’s been proven that participating in that way doesn’t get people to address the issue. What would be powerful for me is if a bunch of white women, who have white privilege and have experienced sexism, pointed to that problem within the feminist movement themselves. It’s not our job to dismantle white supremacy, it’s white people’s job to do that.

In a recent interview, Viola Davis said that if you’re truly dedicated to permanent change, you’ve got to let it cost you something. But people don’t want to lose their privilege, which is why it’s important for black artists to use their voices since it’s something we don’t hear enough of.
A huge part of my mission is to provide black women with a soundtrack that speaks to the complexity of their experiences, quite literally. For us to be able to feel really razor-sharp and also really soft and also all the things, you know? A soundtrack you can play on your way to work or on the way to pick up your kids or in your bedroom, whatever the case may be. If I can provide you with a song that helps you move through your day more fluidly, it could also help you develop the courage to speak up at work or when your child is being mistreated at school. That’s the only way I think that [my music] can relate to the feminist movement.