Kelela: “America Hasn’t Ever Dealt With Whiteness”

The L.A.-based vocalist on Trump, race, and her “disruptive” debut album, which likely arrives this Fall.

March 23, 2016

In her live show, Kelela sings with such concentration that it can seem kind of stressful. At The FADER FORT Presented by Converse this March, she performed new interpretations of her club/pop hybrid tracks like “Bank Head,” “Enemy,” and “Rewind,” where her strong and sensual vocal didn’t quite ride the off-kilter beat, but circled it like a membrane and stretched it in different directions.

Kelela screws around with sounds we know, in songs you want to screw around to. Just as commercial pop and hip-hop stars often have a clutch of watertight producers at their command, she’s perhaps curated her own alternative canon from her underground community. On her Cut 4 Me mixtape (2013) and Hallucinogen EP (2015), she’s worked with progressive electronic artists such as Kingdom, Arca, and Jam City to problematize pop, dipping into tropes from R&B, club music and Top 40. Amidst sometimes difficult, unusual beats, her vocal acts like a lightning rod, fully charged up and firmly at the center.


At The FORT, Kelela’s set was comprised of revamped versions of material that’s already out there, but after the performance her thoughts seemed firmly fixed on the future. Backstage, she spoke of her conflicted thoughts on being embraced by the fashion industry, what Trump's rise says about race relations in America, and her debut album—which she says is finally due this “Fall, probably.”


How have you reacted to the rise of Donald Trump?


The rise of Donald Trump is sort of a symptom of the fact that America hasn't ever dealt with whiteness. Overt racism is something that is very much in the forefront—[but] in that discourse, we're pointing to people of color, and we don't actually point to whiteness and the experience of being white in America.

What Donald Trump represents to me is a sickness that we haven't dealt with: the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow and all the other dumb shit that continues to exist. It hasn't been addressed in a very public and [on a] large grand scale kind of way. Also, it pulls up into question whiteness on a larger, global level. That population that Trump is resonating with [in the U.S.] is a population that not only exists here—it exists throughout the whole world. We have not dealt with racism on a global scale; we have not dealt with white privilege. White privilege is a term that needs to be used by a lot of people in this world, and it's not used by anyone. I think it's asking the question to white people, ‘Are you with us? Or are you not with us?’


Your last EP put you on the radar of people who might not have heard you before. Has that success influenced your approach to music?

The term that I made up, is that I am trying to ‘hybridize space.’ Basically, I find that sounds are so associated with our identity that when you have this type of sound at the party, it's going to be this type of people. Oftentimes it's highly racialized and classist, and there's all kind of ways that it separates all of us.

At the very front of my shows it's usually queer and black or brown folks, and their white friends. And then the next level would be the heads, mostly white indie folk and their brown friends, and then at the very back you have the randoms.

One of the central tenets of capitalism is to divide people by social strata, their racial background, or their worth to society. With that in mind, seeing this diversity at your shows must feel powerful.

Yeah. That politic. For me, that shit always has to sound street. So don't ever get it twisted, it should sound street, it should sound soulful, and sound black. For me that is a very radical thing, especially in spaces and in places and in contexts where you don't actually expect to hear that.

The lyrics of your Cut 4 Me mixtape were about a relationship that ended. For your new album, what personal place are you writing from?

The mixtape was very much a breakup record, and the the [Hallucinogen] EP is sort of a P.S. to that. Like, just in case he didn't understand, let me bring it all home for you. I want you to hear the door slam.

[But now] I’m in love. It’s crazy and beautiful. So [the new album] is definitely more hopeful. It speaks to how I feel. I remember feeling nervous about whether or not my sound was inherently like ‘sad girl.’ Or, ‘What's gonna happen when I'm not sad?’ But I realized that actually there's a bit of sad girl even in my happiest songs. The maximum is hopeful; it's never fully bright, it's just [that] you feel like things might be okay.

Is that just the kind of person you are—sad even when happy?

Yeah. I never want to feel ‘arrived’ or triumphant. I guess that’s why I never want to stop pointing to struggle. I never want to stop allowing people to relate to my experience through a little bit of pain. Vulnerability is something that I never want to lose. I do get that whoever's resonating with my music right now is basically trying to get in their feelings when they hear a Kelela song, so I never wanna take that away.

People have told me, more than once, that they’ve put on your music while having sex.

I know! It makes me so happy, because I feel like intimate music right now is not so trendy. It's not something that's happening on the radio right now. Intimacy [in songs] used to be a thing that was paired with turnt. My thing is like, 'Why can't this one night stand be really intimate?'

“[Arca and Shayne Oliver] are doing their thing so fucking hard, it just makes me wanna do my shit harder so that you know we’re all bad-ass motherfucking people.”

You spend a lot of time in London, and I saw you yesterday at FADER Fort going off to Stormzy. How does a London sensibility feed into your sound?

I sort of live in the middle of the Atlantic. So for me, it's about trying to draw the line between American production and U.K. production. I think I've always just been trying to say that these things are not so disparate. That's been my manifesto, my point. A lot of times, I want a trap beat and then I want the grime beat to come in. I sometimes will just ask a DJ to keep the BPMs the same and let the two live together at the same time. The most beautiful part for me is that middle in between. I'm constantly trying to explore that area and sing the songs there.

What are you experimenting with on the new album that we haven’t heard from you before?

I think there's an ambitiousness. Not just in terms of the intersection of sounds, but also in terms of how big, or grand [it can be]. It's been exciting to make it big, and that means sometimes trying to use drums and trying to reference things that are happening in pop music right now.

So if pop is dominated by tropical house beats, you’ll be giving your flip on that sound.

Exactly. What's my version of that? How would I do that? In the same way, "Rewind" is sort of my take on the So So Def sound, or “Go All Night" is my version of a stripper song—it’s a trap beat, but it’s also very melodic. On the [new] record I am exploring almost every permutation that I could possibly explore, because I don't see my sound inherent in one type of beat.

You’ve been embraced by the fashion community in the past six months or so, by brands like Calvin Klein and Louis Vuitton. As a woman of color, has being embraced by that industry brought any struggles or issues of tokenism with it?

I think you could ask that question to any person of color who’s visible, and if they were honest, and didn't think that they were going to lose opportunities by speaking on it, they would definitely answer yes, almost every time.

I have thought extensively about whiteness in the fashion world, or [the] white establishment really. Black culture is constantly being capitalized off of, there are actually very few black people in that context. I have been standing on the outside, trying to think about how I would fuck that shit up. But also, I have four or five friends of color [in the fashion industry] who are smashing it.

You’re close with Shayne Oliver of Hood By Air, for example.

Yeah. All of those alliances [with Shayne Oliver, etc] mean so much to me because of the feeling of peer activism, or activism through the thing that you actually fucking do. [You don’t] even necessarily need to comment on it so overtly, but the business decisions and the [choice of] ‘Whose faces am I using for this?’ matter so much and they change the context. You can't go to a Hood By Air show and not see people of color, and queer people of color.

Are you continuing to work with Arca on the new album? How’s your relationship with him evolved over the years?

He's definitely on the next record. [Our relationship] is beautiful. I talk about it all the time, I talk my boyfriend’s head off about it actually. It's like super electric; you don't have to say a lot of stuff. When we're making music we are very much like having an extraordinary time. It's exhilarating. His freedom to explore the things that he knows are part of him really makes me feel like I can do the same. It’s the same with Shayne. They are doing their thing so fucking hard, it just makes me wanna do my shit harder so that you know we're all bad-ass motherfucking people. That's the thing that I never want stop. You’re not reinventing necessarily but it's like, 'Well, did you know about this part of myself?’

Kelela: “America Hasn’t Ever Dealt With Whiteness”