"I'm a Black woman": Kelela on owning her identity

Kelela performs at Camp Flog Gnaw Carnival 2017
Kelela performs on the Flog Stage during day 1 of Camp Flog Gnaw Carnival 2017 on October 28, 2017 in Los Angeles, California. (Rich Fury/Getty Images)
Jeffrey Bissoy-Mattis interviews Kelela
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On Sunday, R&B/electronic singer Kelela was in town, performing at First Avenue as part of her nationwide tour. I got the chance to chat with Kelela (pronounced Kah-leh-la), on her swagged-out tour bus, about her newly released album Take Me Apart, which has been topping charts worldwide. We also talked about race, identity, and her musical journey from a second-generation Ethiopian-American to an internationally renowned artist.

Take a listen with the audio player above or read the interview transcription below.

What's it like being at First Avenue, made famous by the late Minnesota legend, Prince?

I am so honored and I just found out that history today. It's an honor and I just did sound check, so even more so after sound check, the room is so small and cozy and intimate. I'm really excited to play in that sort of setting.

As an artist, is there a difference between being in an intimate space, such as First Avenue, in comparison to an arena or a larger stadium space?

It's really different. You just basically don't have the same opportunity to bond with your audience in the same way. You have another opportunity to bond: you can bond with a large group of people, and you can also switch gears into a small number of people [and create a more] intimate feeling. It's really beautiful. I love both; it's like different parts of myself.

When you're performing on stage, how are you interacting with the crowd?

Sometimes, there are certain moments in the songs that make me look into people's eyes, that make me want to lock in with people, and there are other parts of the performance, where it feels better to just sort of stare out into what feels like the sunset or the backdrop, and pretend that you're in a movie. So, it sort of goes between the two for me.

Your debut album, Take Me Apart, released early October. How does it feel to have put so much time and energy into this project and see it be as successful, as it has been thus far?

It's really heartening. A lot of people can work really hard on something and then put it out in the world, and it could very well not land or not be received. So, I know that at every turn things don't have to keep getting better and better. I just feel very grateful, just so happy that I'm able to do this for a living. And beyond that, that people connect with it -- that it means something to people -- is like an additional-plus thing.

I try to make music from a place of it fulfilling me, and just make it so that you like it, so that you keep it moving and then hopefully the people like it, but my feeling of success isn't dependent on what other people think of it, but when they do feel very close to it ... [When] It doesn't feel like people just like it, it feels like they're taking it personally, and that's what matters the most to me.

How long did you work on this album, and when did you know you were ready to share it with the world?

It's hard to say; it's a blur line. I knew I was getting closer. It's weird for me because writing does not at all signify the end of the album-making process. For a lot of people, the writing process is all that needs to be done. It's like you play the song, and you record that and that's your album version. It's not how I make records.

So, what that means for me is I finished writing 2-3 years ago. For the most part, most of the writing was done over two years ago, so I'm spending the last year and a half to two years just in post-[writing]: worried about production, worried about sonics, and then [...] I also learned that the mixing process is a blurry process for me as well.

The difference between mixing and production, for the type of music that I make is meant to be blurry or it sounds blurry. That's the whole thing. You don't know what is it: is it production or is that a mixing thing? That's part of my sound is that you don't know which one it is.

Many people classify you as an alternative R&B artist, but how would you describe your sound?

I just use the words "R&B" and "electronic." I just think about -- all my reference points for electronic music, for the most parts are Black references.

Who are some of your big influencers, when it comes to R&B and the electronic sound?

it probably goes back further than this, but like Stevie [Wonder]: that's electronic music. Herbie Hancock, Prince, disco like Donna Summer, Patrice Rushen. I think about electronic music as music made on machines, a sort of quantized sound. Janet Jackson, Jimmy Jam with Terry Lewis: that combo is electronic music to me, and [the list] sort of goes on and on and on, but those have been my references, so that's the place that I've always come from. There are other ones, but I didn't grow up listening to David Byrne or Aphex Twin. I come from a different place.

In a recent Fader interview, you said, "White people don't understand that the reason Black people are so good is not always that we're necessarily more artistically inclined, it's more because we don't have the space to suck." When I hear that I think of all the energy, effort, and the overtime that Black people have to put into their craft, just to find some level of success.

Just to even make a splash, and for Black women I would say it's even more so. The amount that I have to do, in order to create the same type of hype and energy around me, and me being excellent in the world compared to a man in the same position is just different. I mean that as a Black woman compared to Black men, it's even more complicated. Black people just have to excel on another level, in order to even get in the game.

How would you describe your musical journey as a Black, second-generation Ethiopian-American woman from the D.C. area?

It's a very layered experience. Gaithersburg, Maryland, where I'm from and where I grew up is actually the number-one most diverse city in America. I just looked it up, like I looked for a top-ten list. So I grew up in a very diverse area, but I was bussed to a school that was in an upper-middle class white area. And the culture of the school, even though it was quite diverse, the culture of the school was white, if that makes any sense. So, you're pretty anomalous or you're outside of what it's like to be the dominant culture of the school, if you're like Black or if you're just a person of color period.

So, I guess, my experience is kind of layered, and that part of it has to do with me dealing with being second-generation. Part of it has to do with just having parents that aren't from the U.S., so that makes it difficult to relate to other Black people. Or more specifically, Black people whose parents are born in the U.S. and who for generations have been in the U.S. And then, there's also the layer of dealing with the whites. [With] the whites in my school, it was also a whole other level of just trying to navigate both of those things at the same time.

It's just a lot for a child, and usually when your parents don't come from a racist country, your parents aren't really thinking that this is a hostile environment. They're not operating in that way, like, "We have to bombard you with all kind of positive thinking, so that you can dismantle all the things that you're going to be faced with as a child." Any Black child has enough to deal with and there's different ways that all of our experiences, as Black children, are colored by different things. Some of us have a parent who is dealing with addiction; some people have a parent who is from another country. There's just different ways that we're experiencing our blackness.

So, that was one way that it was colored in my life -- Ethiopian heritage -- there's also a sense of belonging and pride that comes with that as well, but also of alienation from my other Black peers. The first ones to make fun of me were also African-American kids in my school. That's a layered thing to try to understand what the project is for another Black child, whose family has been here for generations, like what would that be [like]? That's a hard thing to process, until you're an adult. So it's just really complicated.

Definitely. I mean, it's the double consciousness of, "I am African. I am Ethiopian. I am also American. I am also Black."

Yeah. Quadruple consciousness.

If someone asked you right now, "How do you identify yourself?" How would you answer?

I'm Black. I'm a Black woman. Even if you asked me five years ago, I would say, "I'm Black." Now, I would be like, "I'm a Black woman," 'cause I do understand in more clear terms how my experiences is actually not as parallel as I thought it was to Black men. This is something that's [been] illuminated more for me in recent years.

Speak a little bit about that. Not parallel how?

With Black men, there's a way that they can deflect some of the racism that they're experiencing through their malehood, or slither out of the experience of facing racism. There is more choice. You can choose to see it and face it in a different way than I can. It's part of the reason why a lot of Black men will be like, "I don't see color, or I don't really experience that," it's because their race is not intersecting with their malehood in a way that is disadvantageous. Their race isn't intersecting with their malehood, in a way that actually allows them to not experience some of the wrath that is out there for them, as a Black person.

So, you're saying that their male privilege obscures them from the realities of racism?

There is just privilege, and there's an under-privilege in that people are afraid of you, but there's also a privilege in people being afraid of you, as well. [As a Black woman], I don't have that. I don't have that thing, where I can scare people off in that way.

Through your music, are you trying to reflect your Black woman persona?

No, I'm not thinking about it in that way. I am thinking about it in a way that I'll make the thing, and then when you sit and ask me questions about it, I'll talk to you about that stuff ... When I write, I am thinking quite consciously about making sure it is safe for a Black woman to sing. So, I do a lyric check and I'm thinking about Black women specifically, making sure it is something that's empowering, even when I'm talking about a disempowering situation.

You spend some time in New York and Los Angeles, but you also spend a significant amount of time in London. How did you a girl from the D.C area end up in the U.K.?

I've always had a relationship from music of the U.K., since I was in high school. Just connected, I guess, with Girish, specifically. I found it on Napster and that was very special, and it's been really cool to have this sort of abstract relationship with a place and then be able to explore it yourself. You know it was an abstraction, basically, this thing that I like that's very far away that you know, "I hope one day, maybe, I'll be able to intersect with," but then on the other hand, I always knew I will. It's a weird thing.

Like, it was sort of an innate feeling?

I just know I'm going to work with those people. I'm going to make that type of music. Like, I could feel it in my body and I would just make it. So there was both of those things just kind of operating at the same time, so when I went to go make things, when I try to make something that felt like myself, sonically, it was difficult to find that. The producers that inspired that movement that I do come from, in terms of like production, and sound -- it's very inspired by U.K production. It's just really cool for me. It's like a dream come true to be able to participate in that way with some music that I've just found so inspiring from far away, from my bedroom in Gaithersburg, Maryland.

So, it's kind of come full circle for you, then?

So, it feels natural, you know. When I make my set, a lot of the time I'm making it for London [...] it's like the intersection that they get is just so special.

What's it like being on tour, being away from London and being on a tour bus traveling across the states?

It's actually a dream come true. It's a dream. I've asked my friend to open the tour. My friend Lafawndah, she's an incredible artist, and she's one of my best friends. [For] us being able to do this together is like actually an endless mobile slumber party. [laughs] That's what we've been calling it. I always feel like my childhood self is always at the forefront of my brain, in this way that I can't ever let go of. Maybe it's cause I fulfilled my dreams -- my passion -- later on in life, but it's very palpable for me, I don't forget. I'm not used to it. I'm so grateful and I'm feeling happy. It's just a beautiful feeling.

Kelela's performance was amazing. It was filled with bright lights, positive vibes, and dancing throughout the evening. Her tour bus is heading east to Chicago, Detroit and then the Northeast region of the United States, before crossing the Atlantic for scheduled shows throughout Europe. Kelela's debut album, 'Take Me Apart,' is available on ITunes and Spotify. I highly recommend you check it out. I promise you won't be disappointed.