How the R&B Innovator Kelela Unlocked a New Level
In mid-January, Kelela Mizanekristos emailed over the document she shares with everyone who plans to work with her. It’s a syllabus for the university of her mind, a guide to help the 39-year-old R&B musician’s collaborators understand the foundation on which she builds her art: her experiences, good, bad and in-between, as a queer Black woman.
There are readings (“Decolonizing Love in a World Rigged for Black Women’s Loneliness,” by Shaadi Devereaux), audiobook recommendations (“Minor Feelings,” by Cathy Park Hong), films (“The Last Angel of History”) and websites (make techno black again).
“You can’t be advocating for me properly unless you do some homework,” she said, adding an expletive, over lunch at Sisters Restaurant in Brooklyn a few weeks earlier.
Six years have passed since Mizanekristos, who records simply as Kelela, released her debut album of intimate, intricate R&B, “Take Me Apart.” Fans have been clamoring for a follow-up, but Kelela has been taking her time and doing the work — researching, digesting, synthesizing, curing, living — accumulating experiences to write about, and finding the knowledge to process them.
“I’m committed to understanding what’s at the bottom of things, and so I’m always wanting to engage in what’s really going on,” she said, half a Lambrusco in her hand. (Later, she admitted, “I’m a nerd.”) Dressed in black track pants and a Telfar sweatshirt, Kelela bloomed and drooped like a flower over our conversation, her hoodie alternately moving up and down to match her passionate and more contemplative moments.
The result of those years of deep thinking is “Raven,” out Feb. 10. Building off the spacey synth beats from her previous work, Kelela’s second album explores textures and tempos that burrow deep into the listener’s core. Its single “Happy Ending,” a bass-heavy Euro-pop dance track, sounds like a missive from the future, or perhaps a soundtrack for an alluring life on Mars. The whole project is connected by an underlying vibe: “I really want to be sexy in a nuanced way,” she said. “We want our sexy moments to feel one of a kind, that’s why it feels sexy — because you don’t think that it’s run of the mill.”
Conscious of — and often feeling isolated by — the dearth of Black women leading in the dance world, Kelela makes music she wants everyone to move to, but for certain groups to really feel. “She doesn’t even have to be saying a word, but you feel her,” said Asma Maroof, a longtime friend and collaborator. “Not many girls can do that. It doesn’t need to be spelled out.”
KELELA WAS BORN in Washington, D.C., and grew up in nearby Gaithersburg, Md. Her parents immigrated from Ethiopia in the 1970s, and she still felt close to their culture, largely because her family rebuked the assimilation narratives of immigration.
“My mom’s side was not buying that,” she said with a laugh. “They were just like, ‘You’re going to learn Amharic. If you want something from me right now, ask in Amharic.’”
Her parents never married and instead co-parented from separate apartments in the same building. By the time Kelela was ready for kindergarten, she and her mother moved to the suburbs in hopes of finding a better school.
Her mother’s record collection skewed jazzy, leading Kelela to discover the smooth vocalists Natalie Cole and Sarah Vaughan. At her father’s, she fell in love with Tracy Chapman’s first album when she was only 5. That same year, he took her to see “Sarafina!,” the South African musical set during the Soweto student uprising of 1976, introducing her to the powerful, political music of Miriam Makeba.
“Even now, when I’m writing lyrics, I’m not, like, ‘This album is gonna be about this,’” Kelela said. “I am trying to fill in the blanks of the phrasing riddle that I’ve created.” Credit…Gioncarlo Valentine for The New York Times
At school, she took violin lessons and sang in the choir. While at home she indulged her love of pop goddesses like Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey, to fit in with her classmates, she listened to emo and punk. Over time, via file-sharing services like Napster, she was able to discover new genres, like grime.
College proved unsatisfying and Kelela didn’t finish her degree, but during that time she decided to pursue music seriously. She was struck by the work of Amel Larrieux and began singing jazz standards at open-mic nights.
Jazz started to feel too restrictive, all that emphasis on the standards. By chance, she met Yukimi Nagano, the lead singer of the Swedish band Little Dragon, who inspired her to start writing her own songs. Kelela began spending time in Mount Pleasant, a D.C. neighborhood with a strong punk scene, and formed the indie soul-rock band Dizzy Spells with Tim George, a guitarist.
True inspiration came when she started to make music on her laptop: ripping a song she liked from Myspace, recording a verse over it and sending it back to producers in the hopes they could start working together. Eventually, she quit her job as a telemarketer and moved to Los Angeles to devote herself to music full-time.
One of her demos ended up in the hands of Teengirl Fantasy, the dance-electronic duo Nick Weiss and Logan Takahashi, and the three collaborated on the airy, percussive track “EFX.” From there, she met Ashland Mines, a D.J. and producer who performs under the name Total Freedom, who made a fateful introduction, connecting Kelela to producers from Fade to Mind and Night Slugs, two indie labels at the center of underground dance music.
The rocket ship took off: Their collaborations resulted in “Cut 4 Me,” a glitchy, moody mixtape that mashed up make-out jams, booty-shakers and crooned love songs, all flecked with enough grime and synths to build a new kind of R&B. Finally, at 30, Kelela had arrived. She picked up famous fans like Björk and Solange and fielded offers from major record labels, ultimately signing with the indie Warp because it offered the most artistic freedom.
Her next project, “Hallucinogen” from 2015, expanded her palette further, adding collaborations with DJ Dahi, a hip-hop producer, and Arca, an experimental artist and producer with a vast sense of what electronic music can be. Intensely personal, the roughly 20-minute EP featured the work of 12 producers alongside Kelela as she explored the wounds of romantic and existential heartbreak. “Take Me Apart,” her first full album, teamed her with Romy Madley Croft from the xx and the pop producer Ariel Rechtshaid alongside Night Slugs’ Jam City and Bok Bok, and others, as Kelela reveled in the space between the fringes and the mainstream.
“RAVEN” IS ONCE again a feat of elaborate collaboration, featuring contributions from 15 producers, including Yo van Lenz, LSDXOXO and Florian T M Zeisig. Maroof, who was also involved, said work in the studio evolved in layers: Kelela would tinker with an idea, Maroof would add to it, then additional producers like Bambii or Kaytranada would sprinkle more on top.
“Looking back on it, you’re like, how did we do that?” Maroof said.
Racism, sexism and misogyny have always been at the forefront of Kelela’s mind, but not always reflected in her music. As she was building up to “Raven,” her primary goal was expanding the canon of Black female emotional art. The album delves into the existential heartbreak of a marginalized identity: betrayal from inside the house. “White supremacy isn’t just operating through white people,” Kelela said. “And patriarchal women can do the most damaging things to your spirit because you let your guard down.”
Setting and breaking boundaries was a priority, after decades of learning how to establish them. The social justice uprisings of the summer of 2020, spurred by the murder of George Floyd, resulted in an atmosphere in which the singer’s community, particularly white people, were anxious and clamoring to have the hard conversations.
On songs like the sparse, ethereal “Holier,” she declares that Black women can depend most on themselves, and in our conversation she cited the writer Amber J. Phillips’s “choose the Blackest option” — a conscious choice to avoid the sanitized, commercialized delivery of Blackness often employed to help those still becoming comfortable with race.
Kelela said she supposed there are three or four musicians, whom she didn’t name, who really uphold the theory. “Everyone else is like, ‘I gotta make this coin,’” she said. “It feels like so few people are willing to put something on the line at all.”
She had other plans, focusing on lyrics that “help Black femmes heal,” she said. “It’s gotta be a lyric that Black and brown women and nonbinary people, marginalized people, can scream in their cars on the way to work a job that they actually don’t want to do.”
Kelela’s lyrics arrive rhythm first, the words coming later. She compared her writing style to how her mother and her friends would try to approximate English when they were growing up in Ethiopia — trying to speak in a language you don’t yet know, wading through the feelings anyway.
She avoided listening to any of the initial tracks before entering the studio, to maintain the purity of her impulses, and recorded her improvisations. “Even now, when I’m writing lyrics, I’m not, like, this album is gonna be about this,” she said. “I am trying to fill in the blanks of the phrasing riddle that I’ve created.” Playing her improvisations back, she asked herself what it sounded like she was saying: “What is real for me? What’s the relationship to the feeling that I have about the sound? And how does that relate to anything that I’m actually experiencing?”
Water, as a theme, runs through the album in various permutations: lust, ebbing as slowly as a waning ice cube; isolation as vast as the sea; anticipation dotted on the brow like sweat. The album’s first and last songs, “Washed Away” and “Far Away,” flow into each other, giving the album the effect of a full sonic circle. “I want to convey, melodically, this wonder and discovery,” Kelela said. “I’m finding my way, as you are when you’re here for the first time.”
Maroof, who collaborated on the record from Zurich, praised “the sonic world” that Kelela builds with each album. “She can bring all sorts of different sounds together,” she said, “and you can even hear how they mix, as one fluid thing as an album, and in that way you have a deeper understanding of the music.”
The issues Kelela sought to explore on the record — justice, safety, the value of Black life — are ones she’s been grappling with for years. The difference now is the conversation is leaping from the Google doc to her listeners’ ears.
She doesn’t want anyone to think that her work was in response to anything but her own experiences, though she appreciated the tangible changes that were brought forth. “I’ve been wanting to engage critically about all these things within my friend groups,” she said, “and there wasn’t a culture to support that.”
Though those appetites lessened, in recent years, she’s noticed a newfound ability for people from marginalized communities to be able to draw boundaries and voice their social discomfort — her included. Black people “were able to be like, ‘I don’t like that anymore,’” she said. “And for those Black people, it had lasting effects.”