It's rush hour in Midtown Manhattan, but Kelela is safe from the frenzy. She’s nude and lying across from me at the oasis-like Juvenex Spa in Koreatown. We’re sliding around sudsy tables as two women lather every inch of our brown bodies. I start to drift as my legs are lifted, ready to be scrubbed. Suddenly I hear a crash of water. My eyes fly open and I catch a glimpse of Kelela. She’s serene and mermaid-like as the masseuse rinses her off with water from a bucket, glazing her curves — she is sparkling. She looks back at me and sums up the experience with a simple evaluation: “Girl.”
Recently, she’s been feeling “spent,” so instead of conducting our interview during a museum visit, as we’d initially planned, this slightly overcast day in August is devoted to restoration. “Sometimes I’d feel like I hadn’t done that big thing yet in order to deserve doing nice things for myself,” she says as we take a dip in a tub full of floating lemons. But today, she’s taking the time.
On the way to the spa, Kelela had explained why she was so excited about getting a body scrub. “There’s just something about the way that the Korean women handle my body that makes me forget I’m black for a moment,” she told me in the chilly backseat of a rented SUV. “They don’t touch me in a white way. They aren’t so careful with me.”
Kelela is living between Los Angeles, and London but comes to New York every once in a while. Earlier that morning, at a small table in the Lower East Side’s Russ and Daughter’s Cafe, we share halves of a whitefish and wasabi bagel, a snack that she has to eat every time she visits the city.
The occasion for our chat is her ingenious debut album, Take Me Apart, soon to be released on Warp. Kelela is never one to rush — she worked for four years on her first mixtape, 2013’s Cut 4 Me, then followed it up with just six more tracks on 2015’s Hallucinogen — and her album is the work of someone who, after a period of struggle, has become in-tune with all parts of herself. Take Me Apart deepens her relationship with the electronic music world, but it’s fully grounded in R&B’s brave emotional honesty. And now, having risen up through the indie music scene, Kelela is ready to be a pop star.
Kelela Mizanekristos was born in 1983 in Washington, D.C., a June Gemini and a second-generation Ethiopian-American. Her parents had immigrated to the United States independently in the 1970s to attend college on full scholarships, under an affirmative action initiative that funded the education of African students. “My parents met through a radical student movement that was interested in reform. They were about social justice,” Kelela says. As their only child, she inherited this passion for change and spent much of her youth trying to process her place in society. “How did white people take over the world? I could not get off of this question. It consumed me.”
“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.” —Kelela
Her parents lived in the same apartment building in Gaithersburg, Maryland, a major suburb more than an hour outside of D.C., but on different floors. It was at her mom’s place that she would sift through soul and jazz records: artists like Miriam Makeba, Sarah Vaughan, Bobby Womack, and Janet Jackson. And at her dad’s, she fell in love with Tracy Chapman’s definitive self-titled debut album at the tender age of 5. Kelela took up the violin and sang in her school’s choir. Later in life, she realized that she inherited her voice from her mom, who always led songs at weddings and family gatherings.
In 8th grade, Kelela nailed a voice, violin, and dance audition for D.C.’s prestigious Duke Ellington School of the Arts. She was elated at the thought of thriving with other talented black youth, but her family couldn’t afford the out-of-district tuition. She was crushed and demotivated. The angst she felt from “missing the boat” at Duke Ellington was something that would trickle over into her 20s — for years, she thought it was too late to become a star.
As the daughter of Ethiopian parents, an American, and a black girl who had friends of many races, Kelela always felt like she was in the middle of many worlds. She communicated her resistance to being boxed into a singular narrative through her style. She’d match trendy “urban” denim brands like Parasuco jeans with a pair of skater-friendly Vans to make it tricky for her classmates to pinpoint where she was situated, she says: “I’d rather be the bridge.” During this developmental time, Kelela got into electronic music thanks to random Napster downloads. “I was thinking of myself as a part of it,” she remembers, “non-verbally agreeing with myself that one day I would be inside of that world.”
In 2002, when she was 19, her boyfriend introduced her to experimental jazz and encouraged her to pursue a singing career. Kelela knew she wanted to be an artist, but first wanted to study the structures that fatigued her. “Every time I experience racism and sexism, the intersection of both, or misogynoir, it’s almost like I go back to the drawing board. Why am I still so busted up by this shit?” she says. “I feel so crushed and hurt every time.” But a brief stint as a sociology student at American University’s School for International Service proved stifling, and she returned once again to music.
Determined to stretch her voice, Kelela taught herself to sing songs in Arabic and Urdu. In 2007, she challenged herself to perform jazz standards during open mics at local D.C. spot Cafe Nema, but she had a hard time unearthing new ideas under jazz’s rigid criterion for perfection. There wasn’t much room to explore the space she always returned to: the in-between. By the time she was 25, in 2008, she still hadn’t written a song of her own.
A Little Dragon concert in D.C. provided some fortuitous direction. After the show, she met the band’s lead singer Yukimi Nagano, one of her vocal idols, who gave her some painfully simple advice on how to start: “Be with people you like. And just jam out.”
That helped — but Kelela still needed more of a push, and, on the recommendation of a friend, she enrolled in a transformative workshop in 2009. A mix of stimulating lectures, mental exercises, and debriefings, it left a big impression. “It taught me that if you want something to happen, it’s not by chance,” she says. “The greater the risks and the more uncomfortable you feel, the greater the outcome and the potential gain.”
Ultimately, that fearlessness is what would allow Kelela to sing with authority and sincerity about love and sex. Along the way, she took a detour to D.C.’s punk neighborhood, Mt. Pleasant, where she experimented with sounds at the house of a friend who played guitar. Being around punk culture, Kelela felt the leeway to mess up, but the very white, very male scene wasn’t necessarily the most comfortable of zones, even as she began to earn praise.
“Kelela! You’re so incredible,” she says in a gnarly tone, mocking the voices that would cheer her as she played in the punk house, before bursting into laughter and baring a mouth full of gleaming teeth. “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,” she explains. “The urgency in which you have to nail the thing is so high because it’s your ticket out, to get in, or to go somewhere.”
That February, with a soulful, electro-poppy love tune called “Laser Night,” Kelela wrote her first song.
“When you demand somebody take you apart, then you’re the boss.” —Kelela
The dreary morning after our spa day, Kelela greets me with a tight hug. She’s wearing white like she did the day before, and her face is glossed from a good night’s rest. “You look amazing,” she drags out, when she sees me. “You’re glowing.” She’s gassing me up just like she did an older black lady the day before, who was decked out in a red and gold headwrap and matching set; Kelela had affirmed her with an impassioned “Go off, Miss!” It’s raining, so our plans to go to the beach are a flop. But even if it was sunny, we still probably wouldn’t make it to the shore because, although Kelela is in high spirits, her back hurts really bad.
Over breakfast, Kelela and her assistant, Chakkana, are glued to their phones looking for an acupuncturist she can see today. I join in the search for a black woman who can lay her hands on Kelela’s back, until we finally lock in an office that’s staffed with specialists of color.
This isn’t the first time Kelela’s been ridden with this agony; she felt it a week ago while visiting Berlin. A doctor in London told her that it’s common for singers to have this issue because of the constant pressure on their diaphragms: an exhausted core overworks the back. As we drive to the acupuncturist, it’s clear that she can barely move, but there’s still work to do. The graphics for her newly announced headlining tour have arrived by email and need to be approved; Kelela has the final say. She doesn’t like the version she’s been sent so she carefully leans forward to return her edits on her phone. A little while later, the image comes back fixed to her satisfaction.
The acupuncture appointment is not as successful, and back at the hotel her anguish returns. “I don’t feel like myself,” she says, hunched over in a red chair, allowing herself a sulk. But the moment passes and, determined to continue our interview, Kelela takes a few drops of an herbal elixir to ease muscle tension. She moves aside a cheetah print heel in her suitcase to find a Thermacare wrap, pulls it around her lower back, and we head outside so she can curb the throbbing by smoking a spliff.
On the way, we pick up her favorite drink, a chai latte with almond milk, from a café nearby, then post up in an inconspicuous nook of a one-way street around the block. Cloaked in an oversized hoodie, Kelela barely lights the tip of the joint before she takes a gentle toke.
Leaning against a brick wall, she tells me how she took the same approach to the album art for Take Me Apart. In one of the photos, Kelela is pictured on all fours with her back arched like a sugary crescent as the golden stripes of stretch marks that agonized her while growing up shoot around hip and waist. “Right when I decided to take the photograph I’m like, Why did I do this? Why did I ever sign up to do this whole fucking thing?” she cringes. “But I know that the juicy part — the healing bit, the part that’s going to give me growth — comes from this thing that’s so hard. So I always go there.”
Before Kelela and I met for this story, The FADER had asked her to describe her idea of paradise. She’d replied that laughing and lamenting with her circle of friends temporarily soothes the suffering, but she wouldn’t call it a paradise: “That would imply that all the problems are gone.”
In the years between 2009 and 2011, the boundaries between indie and mainstream became blurry. “There was a departure where mainstream black shit got embraced by white indie bros and almost usurped,” Kelela says. “But what happened to black people’s contributions in that blurriness? I’m a black girl who has dreads and is making R&B music, which is just not a sensational and fashionable music except for when it’s sung by white people.”
Musicians today often supplement their incomes by appearing in fashion campaigns, but Kelela has found that industry just as frustrating to navigate. While she’s stunning and model-like, it’s often hard to find a fit with brands. When thinking about whether or not she is a candidate for an opportunity, she assesses the data that informs her eligibility. “Either I’m not included or I’m included in a way that is servicing that institution,” she explains. “I become the exception. You can capitalize off my brown skin, and, once you put me on, you are making a political statement.”
Other times, Kelela is completely counted out because the brand wants to use blackness, but not her particular skin tone. This leaves Kelela disoriented in a world where she is not a viable option.
At one point, she almost signed to a major music label but decided against it because it required a 360 deal. Now, after going through several changes in management, she’s finally found a home under her best friend Solange’s Saint Heron Management company. They’re building institutions independently in this way that Kelela is interested in: the creation of safe and fruitful space in the industry for women of color.
“There’s a way that white men were still able to hold all the power through the industry’s transformations,” she explains. “They still sit in those chairs. So when it comes to creating the ‘thing’ and promoting yourself in a mainstream way, you need to garner their support.” And as a black woman, it’s challenging to break through without taking what could be perceived as an uber-aggressive approach. That’s why Kelela’s celebration and command of sensitivity and rawness in her music is both fortifying and revolutionary.
“If you want something to happen, it’s not by chance. The greater the risks and the more uncomfortable you feel, the greater the outcome and the potential gain.” —Kelela
This all comes together on Take Me Apart. Over 13 uninhibited tracks, Kelela unfurls the culmination of six years of writing — time that she says she needed to not only to create, but also to explore sounds, experience life, and strengthen her confidence.
“One of the principles that the establishment has in place is: If you were tight, you would’ve been done it [by now],” she mocks. “If you were that poppin’ we would’ve seen it.” While she worked on the album, Kelela often felt inadequate, rushed, and, as a result, considered too many ideas from executives. “Now, I feel really good about it,” she says. “It’s the truth about who I am and how I see the world on some level.”
The album documents two of Kelela’s relationships, in chronological order: a split from one lover, a segue into singleness, and then into the rapture of a new relationship. There are tempestuous break-up songs, hot-blooded cuts that own fucking and making love, and tracks where she’s ungrudgingly down to risk it all. She doesn’t settle for half- hearted intimacy or dick appointments on what I like to call the “grown-ass woman” trilogy: “LMK,” “Truth or Dare,” and “S.O.S.” On all three songs, Kelela is lucid and unafraid to tell her partner when, where, and how she wants it. “If you’re silent, people don’t know what to give to you, what to bring,” she says, a lesson in sexual agency she learned during an open relationship with a former longterm boyfriend. That experience illuminated her sense of her own power, as well as the bountiful rewards that are the result of honesty and full self-expression — the rest of her self-knowledge came with time.
On the title track, Kelela sings about the whirlwind rush of ordering an ex to come over and break your emotional and sexual walls back down. “It’s topping from the bottom,” she says. “When you demand somebody take you apart, then you’re the boss.” A frequent collaborator, songwriter Mocky, came up with the album’s title, but its message is completely Kelela’s. “It’s so strong,” she reflects. “You must have a lot of confidence to say that comfortably. It feels risky, I feel my heart pound a little bit harder, but that’s who I am.”
Producers Jam City and Arca have a big presence on the album, in addition to other heady beatmakers like Bok Bok, Total Freedom, and Aaron David Ross. Kelela was immersed as an executive producer on the record, working hands-on with each of them. “I’m asking each person to give me their go, and then I put it together the way that I see fit,” she explains. “I am designing each track.” Under her leadership, they crafted a nuanced sonic world that mirrors the depth and layers of Kelela’s pointed storytelling. Each song resonates with a sense of both physical and emotional space, full of sounds that caress the ear like a lover.
“The whole record seems warmer, more intimate, but also less hurried than some of the past tracks,” Jam City says. “Kelela’s taking her time, and I love hearing that. I’d hit a different phrasing by accident and she’d be like ‘Go back, go back! That’s what I’m looking for, do that again,’ and sure enough, that would be it. She was basically my musical director. She knows exactly what she wants.”
There are also wistful moments throughout the album that pay homage to her R&B influences. When Kelela played me “S.O.S.” for the first time during a studio visit in July, I swirled my index finger and painted every note of her closing melody out in the air. I told her this is a song that I could see me and my girlfriends attempting to harmonize to with our eyes closed. “Solange said the same thing: ‘All the black girls are going to love this part right here,’” she laughed. Kelela’s friend, the singer Jessica Chambliss, helped her create that moment: “‘Girl, give me Tweet,’” Kelela says she told her. “I just want to go there.”
After finishing the album, however, she had a moment of worry — none of the songs blatantly reference her blackness. Kelela was frustrated for a bit, but she soon realized that all that she bears is informed by that slice of herself. “It’s a very black thing to be tender and vulnerable on a track. And I didn’t really process that until a little bit later. It’s silly to even think that there’s only one way that we can express our identity.”
Back on that first afternoon, that we spent together Kelela and I had walked down Avenue A on the Lower East Side. At one point, she dipped into a small shop selling chic household appliances. She picked up a spiffy water filter pitcher and a new teapot for her friend Madeline Poole, whom we were going to visit. She always looks out for Kelela, so these are thoughtful tokens of appreciation. When we got to the apartment, I plopped on a purple velvet couch and listened to Kelela riff and hum as she unpacked and washed the two items.
“Sorry, girl!” she yelled from the kitchen. The water had been running for quite some time. I got up and leaned on the doorway to see Kelela standing over the sink. The waistband of her Calvin Klein underwear peeked out over the top of sagging white jeans and her clavicle-length dreads fell forward while she carefully made sure the gifts were squeaky clean for her friend.
I’m thinking about that thoughtfulness when, on our final day together, I go with Kelela to retrieve my backpack from her hotel room. We sit for a minute at a small circular table against a window that overlooks a green yard freshly watered by the rain. I thank her for trusting me and tell her that the bravery she showed while we were together is inspiring me to tackle my own struggles with vulnerability. She asks me if that affects how I approach romance. I tell her it does, and she sits back in her chair and warmly goes into auntie mode.
“Here is your exercise,” she says slowly and with direct eye contact. “If you see someone that you like, you go up to them, and you let them know they’re beautiful. You tell them your name, you get theirs, and then you ask, ‘Are you here with anyone?’ If you tell people what you like, they’ll give you more of it.”
On my walk to the train, I digest my new assignment and wonder why Kelela took the time to impart those gems. Then I remember her explanation for being so slow and thorough in the kitchen: “I just like to leave things better than I find them.”
Warp will release Take Me Apart on October 6. Preorder it here.
Hair by Nai’vasha Johnson for Exclusive Artists using Kerastase Paris. Makeup by Raisa Thomas.