There was a time when Kelela Mizanekristos—known mononymously by her first name—did not know how to translate the ideas in her head into music. A second-generation Ethiopian with a love for music—despite the confusion—the talent was always there. As a young student at American University, she found herself regularly singing jazz standards in D.C. cafés. Later, after moving across the country to Los Angeles, Kelela joined with Teengirl Fantasy, contributing vocals to 2012 track “EFX” (a pairing that, between the duo’s 8-bit soundscapes and her strong alto now sounds incredibly forward-thinking). But it was a meeting with Yukimi Nagano 10 years ago that truly shape her artistic life. The Little Dragon frontwoman gave her some annoying-simple advice that would change everything: “jam with your friends and see what happens.” At the time, Kelela wasn’t a believer. Could it really be that easy? Three months later, she had her first original song.
From taking the stage at the Hollywood Bowl today, to guest spots with Danny Brown, Gorillaz, and Future Brown, and her own recently released debut album Take Me Apart (out now on Warp), she’s since become a recognized force in the music. Still, Kelela says the elemental craft of songwriting hasn’t changed much. Just sit down and down it. It’s just that lately—between a rising profile and a society riddled with strife—the stakes are so much higher. Thanks to game changers like Solange and Kendrick Lamar, both of whom she namechecks as debunking the idea of R&B’s lack of innovation, she’s finally in the position to be heard.
“Anyone who tells you they’re not affected by the outside world is lying,” Kelela tells CR. “That is not true. On a basic level, I am trying to rebut a lot of the things I find problematic in the world, and, at the same time, maybe embrace things that aren’t being embraced or being exalted. Bringing things to the surface that people aren’t thinking about. Answering to stereotyping. Answering to the marginalization…the conversation around whiteness and white privilege and Black Lives Matter, there’s a lot of new language that entered the conversation—not new language but language that’s new to a very public sphere. I think that’s something that helps people understand and receive where I’m coming from.”
Along with her mixtape debut Cut 4 Me and the 2015 EP Hallucinogen, Take Me Apart marks another chapter in the musician’s sonic rebellion, a lead-by-example document of a woman refusing to be tied to a single sonic idea. Presiding over a deep bench of heavy-hitting producers (including Ariel Rechtshaid, Arca, and Mocky) Kelela’s acrobatic alto soars over skittering electronics, drum and bass beats, and slow-burning keyboard compositions. This is her Janet Jackson in space moment, an exploration of the seemingly contrarian idea that being tough and sensitive are mutually exclusive.
“There’s a belief that if you’re winning, you’re a strong woman,” Kelela confirms, expanding on yet another trope she is hoping to dismiss. “You’re overtly strong and tough. You don’t break down. Especially for black woman. People expect us to be the rock. The person who you can cry on their shoulder. I’d love to add to musical and visual language that answers to that.”
The album is Kelela’s attempt to explore the before, during, and aftermath of two long-term relationships. She laughs at the idea that she’s capable of writing from a conceptual viewpoint, and confirms that her often self-analytical and heady lines, like the “Onanon” chorus, which contains the telling declaration, “It’s not a break up, it’s just a breakdown” come from a very real place. (“I don’t think I’ll get to conceptual albums for a little bit,” she admits. “It goes from this part of my life, to that part of my life. And then the next album will probably be from the next part of my life.”) It’s a diverse sense of self that she’s comfortable exploring. As her music reveals, Kelela isn’t a romantic or a realist—she’s every point on the scale at once. With any luck, she’ll encourage listeners to do the same.
“I love the delight and discomfort of that we experience when we have a crush. It’s terrifying and delicious,” she muses. I’m obsessed with that feeling. When I feel that feeling I love it; I feel alive. I feel like I’m tapped into what’s really good in the world. There’s a notion that part of being in love is a certain type of suffering. I don’t think it has to be that way. Pain is fine, but despair and continuous feeling of discomfort is not…I’m trying to operate with more wisdom but without losing the child-like approach to love and goodness. I never want to not have that response to romance. I never want to feel jaded. My music is for people to restore their faith in love. If you’re jaded it’s a perfect remedy.”END
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