Last week, the Student Union at SOAS University hosted American-Ethiopian R&B singer Kelela for a Q&A session. After the release of her much anticipated debut studio album Take Me Apart, we dissect the album and conversation just in case you missed it.
Released two years after her highly acclaimed EP Hallucinogen — which scored an impressive 8.3 on music reviewing site Pitchfork — Kelela gifts her listeners with more fanciful synths and aggressive beats.
Once again, her new music seeks to transport us to the future of music – layered with lustrous and elusive vocals which have become her trademark sound. Using innovative digital production techniques and at the same time, providing us with the comfort of the past with its use of classic and familial R&B tones and vocals of the 90s era.
“There is no doubting who the record is indeed for, the black woman.”
Her lead song LMK an abbreviation of ‘Let Me Know’ encounters the familiar, surrounded by bassy percussion and an 808 style handclap. In LMK, Kelela croons about a situation that most will acquaint at least once during their romantic history. The ‘weird moment’ where you demand respect and communication from someone while at the same time, letting them know it’s not that deep, ‘no one’s tryna settle down’.
The second single Frontline which was featured on the hit HBO show Insecure opens with spacey synths, structured beats propelled by Kelela’s crisp, conquering vocals. “Hold on, wait, you’re fucking with my groove/ Gettin’ on this plane, making moves/ Cry and talk about it, baby, but it ain’t no use/ I ain’t gonna sit here with your blues.” A bold and blistering break-up song, Kelela sings about leaving behind someone who has been holding her back. Making such decisions unwaveringly and with no apologies, echoing Kelela’s general character. Frontline touches upon the sentiment that with a strong sense of self-worth, these testing life decisions can be made more accessible.
The content of Kelela’s tracks — songs that hold concepts such as romance, love and break-up at its surface — allow the album to be accessible to a broad audience. However, there is no doubting who the record is indeed for, the black woman. Kelela sits down with writer, presenter and SOAS Research Associate Emma Dabiri to discuss everything from the powers that dictate whether or not black musical styles are deemed as ‘real’ and ‘innovative’ or merely dismissed as low brow. The singer opens up about how she as a black woman, can navigate through white spaces that make up the music industry.
“How do you feel?” was the first question put to the 34-year-old singer. “A personal triumph… it’s a dream”, she responds. She never meant to take this long to produce a debut studio album. The hypothetical ‘toolbox’ she used for her previous projects were no longer compatible with the culture that surrounds the music industry. A tweaking of her kit was necessary to reconcile the oppressive nature that permeates the industry, an oppression that is apparent. Women of colour within the music industry constantly miss out on opportunities, particularly when the industry’s default setting functions is at a level which aims to specifically benefit white males.
To reconcile this awareness with wellbeing and navigate through spaces that are predominantly white, heteronormative and male-dominated. Kelela makes an effort to surround herself with black women at all levels, in her personal and creative experiences. She finds comfort in her queer black friends and also relates to people of colour who have at-large points of their lives being subject to predominantly white spaces. The navigation of white spaces was a topic touched on specifically in regards to her friendships with white women. Unapologetically and unwavering, Kelela claims that if she is unable to have critical and compassionate conversations about race with her white peers then “they should be cut”.
The only people that she can be creative with are those that can have these open conversations, the issues buried within them are integral to her identity and art. A white member of the audience who happened to be part of the music industry, diffidently raises his hand and proceeds to ask, “What makes a good white ally?” Kelela quickly remarks, “If you’re in the studio with Kels, we’re gonna talk about this shit”. She continued: “Bring it up before I bring it up and do not expect credit”.
“Kelela notes that in the history of contemporary music, past and present, the music industry has continuously used black artistry and sound to propel white artists.”
Another common question to anyone who encounters Kelela is how she’s categorised. “Has there been any problem in defining you as an artist?” Emma asks. Kelela contends that people have always had no problem when it came to categorising her, even before she had categorised herself. “I’ve lived in many spaces and places lived in jazz, gospel world, indie and clubbing scene”, Kelela mentions. Many music critics and journalists have repeatedly made the statement that Kelela’s processes and works have made R&B more innovative, a statement that she dislikes and rebukes. For her, claims like these suggest that R&B is limited and only once it becomes accessible in whiter domains does it become ‘real’ music.
Kelela points out how she often feels that her white audiences view her electronic reference points as being white reference points and thus in some way moving black artistry into something more Avant Garde when in fact, she emphasises that most of her reference points come from blackness. Artists such as Janet Jackson and her iconic producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, Prince, Donna Summer and Timberland, where their influence can be felt throughout this record. Kelela contends that these artists can live beside the likes of more ‘classic’ electronic artists such as Brian Eno, when it comes to their innovations and the way that they influence her work.
Rhythm and Blues are forward-thinking and innovative in regards to their sound, production and lyricism but the genres are sometimes considered as inferior. This is due to the Eurocentric and white supremacist reference points that are utilised when it comes to the instalment of their value in music. Kelela notes that in the history of contemporary music, past and present, the music industry has continuously used black artistry and sound to propel white artists. These white artists are then often considered in higher regard and intellect than the Black artists at the foundation of their success. From Elvis, Bowie, The Rolling Stones to Justin Timberlake and Adele have all benefitted from this. All the artists that influenced them are often left without praise or credit. Kelela mentions Amy Winehouse, although a fan, she recognises that she wouldn’t be able to do what she did without the works of black women before her. Acknowledging this, Kelela believes she has to work harder to prove herself in a way that white artists would not have to.
Kelela’s artistry and sound have had an impressive impact on both sides of the Atlantic. Kelela, however, notices a difference between the way she as an artist is received in the U.S. compared to Europe, particularly in London. She says that there is a distinction noting that the U.S. is significantly more racialised, rigid and conservative in regards to its interaction with music. U.S. demography is significantly more segregated even within its more metropolitan areas and thus so are the interactions with the musical genre. She identifies that in England and London individually, white people are in proximity with blackness, a more integrated geography which allows people to interact with genres differently.
As the talk comes to an end, the London crowd drown Kelela in deserved applause. At this point, you could feel a palpable energy and excitement in the room, especially from the woman of colour that filled the lecture hall. A power that Kelela’s art and words hold you to at the very moment of encounter, an energy of defiance, revitalisation, pride and self-knowledge. As I left SOAS, I could feel a simmering sense of revival and pride. This not only due to Kelela’s magnetic colloquy that I’d just attended but also due to the signed record I returned home with. Emblazoned on the front: ‘Black Power!, Love U! Kelela’.