kelela on her forthcoming album and using her platform for good
As she plots her move from LA to London, Kelela discusses grime collaborations and what she plans to do with her growing frustration with racism and sexism.
2015 saw Kelela unleash her Hallucinogen EP on the world. A follow up to the very brilliant Cut 4 Me LP — which featured production work from the likes of Bok Bok, Nguzunguzu and Kingdom, and introduced the LA-based artist as a maker of music so sultry, so catchy — it's impossible to sit still to. Performing last week at Rough Trade East for the launch of the new McQ Swallow collection, she gave a powerful live set in front of a gold streamer backdrop under deep pink and purple lights. We caught up with the singer post-show to discuss grime, music as activism, and her forthcoming album, a record she reckons would be right at home soundtracking Poetic Justice. Like the 1993 movie, which stars Janet Jackson and Tupac, this is a story of losing your fear and finding your way.
Hi Kelela! That was great! How do you feel when you're on stage?
I feel good. There's this thing where I can't quite believe that it's over… 45 minutes really doesn't feel like 45 minutes anymore. I used to be like, 'how am I ever gonna do 20 minutes?!' But singing is like a muscle you exercise. It's cool to know that that can feel just fine. It's heartwarming.
Do you still get nervous?
I do. I don't really know anybody who doesn't feel some of those anxious feelings. My friend does Roberta Flack's make-up and she told him that she always gets nervous; if she doesn't get nervous then something is terribly wrong. I think it says that we care. Being excellent is one thing, but for me the point of being excellent is that you can be vulnerable. The point of it is that you can sing one note and fuck people up, you know? That's why I try to cram in scales and really focus on the parts that are hard.
You're living between LA and London right now. Which feels most like home?
My boyfriend is here, so London feels more homey.
Are you thinking of relocating?
I will, yeah. I'm gonna be moving here over summer.
Exciting! Have you found that your geographical location influences you musically?
Of course. Each city has different things to get into; the way that dance music lives here is in a regular people's way, an everybody's music kind of way. It's not like that in the States; dance music is obscured in the States. When I say dance, I mean double time, 4/4, or house. When it comes to R&B vocal on a 4/4 track, even though it originates over there, it has remained something that was only popular on US radio when CeCe Peniston was out. Then it evolved underground. Over here that evolution happened quite overtly. And then there's grime… I feel like I can put my songs over any of those beats.
Have you been working with any grime artists?
Yes. I've been working with Terror Danjah on something for my album. I haven't heard the final thing but I'm really excited. He's incredible and I respect his work so much. The intersection of what I'm doing with what he does; I've thought about it for a long-ass time. It's very exciting because it's like, the dream idea.
You mentioned that you're in a relationship. Will the record reflect that?
Yes. It starts off where the last record left off, and it has a similar arc to Hallucinogen too, but a longer narrative. There's a lot of new love and falling into things.
Did you find that you approached making music differently because of your different mindset?
I approached it differently because I wanted to see how far I could go. Because all the other stuff that I had done was so situated in a heartbroken vibe, I was kind of concerned about how things would turn out when I was happy! Like, what would my happy sound like?! I mean, "Bank Head" comes form a sort of wondrous potential-love place, so I've had practice, but this time I worked with songwriters and producers I'd never worked with before because I wanted to make sure I was covering ground that was new for me. I'm pushing myself.
Do you consider music a form of activism?
I think it's always been used that way but right now people are more willing. Personally, I think I've gotten to a more frustrated place. My experience of racism, sexism, homophobia, etc… I think I've experienced them in a different kind of way than I had before. Obviously being a not so visible brown girl for most of my life, it's been challenging just to get through that, but when attention is on you and people are digesting your image in a way that way intersects with what you do as a performer, it's something that I hadn't really processed until I got into this situation. So I think at this juncture, while all my songs on this next record are all focused on very human experiences with lovers, I would say that I'm gonna use my platform around those songs to express whatever it is that I find problematic. Sometimes it's enough to write about it, but I want to be loud about it.
Are there any particular artists that you admire for the way in which they use their platform for good?
I mean, James Baldwin. Then there's an artist named Adrian Piper, she's an incredible performance artist and thinker in general. And in terms of peers; Solange, she's one of my very good friends and we're actually helping each other deal with some of these issues, but also just the abstraction of Solange and the figure that she is in music is really important. Amandla Stenberg too, she's fucking incredible. I'm really inspired by so many of the women around me and their many forms of activism.
Finally, which film do you think your forthcoming album would best soundtrack?
Poetic Justice, that's kind of the vibe. It's like, urban and emo… my boyfriend calls it 'urbo.'
Text Francesca Dunn
Photography Amelia Karlsen
Kelela wears the McQ Swallow collection