Answering the question ‘Where do you come from?’ isn’t easy. It’s so loaded with implications about identity, home and culture that even asking the question feels straight-up rude, and when we do start unpacking our origins we often end up in limbo, feeling like ‘not a girl, not yet a woman’–era Britney pondering life on a cliff edge. If anyone’s familiar with navigating these spaces it’s Kelela, an artist, a woman and a second-generation Ethiopian raised in Gaithersburg, Maryland. Growing up between worlds left her with a natural inclination for connecting people, and it’s these in-betweens that define her music: vulnerable R&B inflections and heartfelt lyrics hang above tricky production and screwy beats. In this composite space Kelela once again acts as a careful liaison, helping us to understand the different parts of her musical and personal identity.
Lucy Jones: I want to start off by asking what the word ‘origins’ means to you. Where does your head go when you hear it — to ideas of culture, home, identity, or somewhere else?
Kelela Mizanekristos: For me that word brings me to several places in each of those domains — culture, home, identity… My parents are Ethiopian immigrants, I was born in the States, I’d primarily identify with being a black woman — a second-generation black American. So it’s several places — Ethiopia; Washington, D.C.; being American; being a woman — and maybe because I haven’t been able to fit comfortably into one category it’s caused me to want to create empathy for difference in others. So I sort of see my identity as multilayered.
Totally. I think we live in a world where identity feels more and more split between places and split between things. Most people feel in-between when it comes to cultural identity, sexual identity…
Yeah, for me all of that has been blurry. Living in between being queer, being second generation, being a person of colour and a woman — all of these things cross and overlap and intersect in some tricky-ass ways. I think I’ve always wanted to point to those intersections so that anyone who may be having an alienating or othering experience can feel like we’re in the same boat.
How did your family and the town you grew up in shape you? What were they like? What are the most memorable people and things about that place?
I was born in Washington, D.C. but I grew up in a town called Gaithersburg in the state of Maryland. It’s what we used to call a ‘ghetto’ suburb, which basically means it was a neighbourhood that was working class — very mixed, lots of immigrants. My parents are Ethiopian and there were enough in the area that we had a pretty Ethiopian life on the weekends. I was pretty much a suburban kid on the weekdays and then kind of a city kid [who] was going to Ethiopian church and hanging with cousins on the weekends. I think I’ve always felt like the weird one for being different at school, but also at home I’ve always felt like the outlier — I think there were enough family members who thought outside the box, but traditionally Ethiopian culture isn’t really accepting of the whole ‘I’m trying to become an artist’ thing. That declaration is generally not welcome [laughs], it just implies so much risk, so I think [I was] feeling a bit alienated on both sides.
I feel like if you have a sense of place that isn’t completely right for you it pushes you to go outside of that and find where you fit, and if you can achieve that as an adult — the feeling of ‘this is my thing and these are my people’ — it’s so good!
Yeah, that feeling didn’t come ’til I was out of high school, honestly. My school was so segregated around class and race; if you didn’t want to commit to a category you were really demonised. I remember my friend Debra and I noticing how divided the lunch room was and deciding to eat our lunch quickly every day so we could hop around and talk to everybody. I’ve always wanted to be the liaison; the one to make difference more acceptable for people and to illuminate the beauty I see on each side to the other. I think it comes through in my music: I’m trying to write songs that are just good songs so that the people who listen for catchy melodies and lyrics can be there; I’m also thinking about the people who love R&B vocals — runs, the sort of pain in the inflections, etc.; and then the third category is probably the people who are listening for production. Songs, vocal performance and innovative production often cancel each other out. Like if the track is cool the song is just OK; if the song is amazing the production and vocal performance are just run of the mill.
I think by bringing all those elements you create a fuller feeling or a fuller story, especially when the songs are about things like relationships and breakups — it’s cool there’s a complexity there; it helps communicate that you’re not dealing with simple, clean-cut things.
Exactly. I’ve always been interested in talking about hardship in an empowered way or in a way that allows me to sing the song over and over again — [for example] if it’s heartache, always being able to point to why I’m subjecting myself to the bullshit experience [laughs], or how I’m participating. That allows me to think it’s something I am choosing and can therefore choose not to do. Also, reasoning through it that way allows it to be less painful because I’m basically just reminding myself through song that I am making it all happen, that nothing is just ‘happening’ to me.
I think that’s why it’s so easy to relate to your music: because there’s that melancholy but there’s also a bunch of other feelings coming across, and I think the nature of a lot of the beats you work with helps drive home that empowered, ‘I don’t give a fuck’ message.
[Laughs] That means a lot. Yeah, I want us to get in our feelings but in a way that strengthens us. Music is kinda dangerous in that catchy melodies can have us singing any lyric, so I’m trying to combat that a little and see how I can find simple pop phrasing that does the job of resonating with a lot of people but in an empowering way.
You’re doing a good job so far! Is it frustrating for you when people comment on songs about overt female sexuality as though they’re a statement? A track like ‘Gomenasai’ for example — are you just like, ‘Get over it,’ or do you want to start some sort of conversation?
I think it’s in and out of both to be honest. I am definitely trying to be fluid with what I’m feeling and thinking, but I’m also thinking about whether or not the lyrics and production are in alignment with my politics. I haven’t had too many experiences of people pointing to the sexual elements in an objectifying way — several couples have come up to me and expressed that they make love to my music [laughs]. I don’t know why it’s comfortable, but the ones that have had the gall to say it have been so respectful. People say it’s their sensual music, which to me means it sounds intimate which is the best compliment ever. I miss the days of intimate radio; we don’t really have that in the States, we only have turnt radio. Aussie radio is more layered — popular radio, I mean.
Do you think part of that ‘sensual’ sound is to do with that music having its origins in the club and the way people react to music in a club? Is that something you still think about when you’re working on songs?
For sure, I think about the club a lot. I think about the bedroom, I think about being alone in a car, and I think about the feelings that exist in each, and I sort of fixate on the sound of a song that has a steady kick going in and out of a filter in the club, or the sound of being underwater or in the womb. Those types of sounds work best in the car because you’re literally surrounded. So ‘The High’ was me trying to create the feeling of being inside the womb, in water, and the sound of a heartbeat. It’s such a healing, comforting sound for me. I think about each song being played in each of those contexts and I try to make sure the production, the mix and the master allows it to sound good in all contexts.
Can we talk for a bit about the grime scene and how you found your place in that?
Sure, but it would be hard for me to say that I’m really in the grime scene. I know that I love grime and I’m influenced by it, so I’m still finding my place, but I know I’ve always wondered why there weren’t a lot of vocalists singing within the genre. Grime’n’B happened and then wasn’t able to flourish for whatever reason or wasn’t being acknowledged by the powers that be, so I think I’ve always wanted to illuminate the soft, intimate side of what it means to be street or hard, whether it’s within the grime-influenced production, trap-based beats, or when it sounds more electronic.
You land in that in-between place again.
I’m attracted to how mean and aggressive those styles of production can sound because it makes me feel like I can be as sweet as I want to be and then we have a proper balance. Just the tone of my voice alone makes me want to have a certain type of [music] bed. Obviously there are exceptions, but that is generally how I’m thinking about it. I’ll always bring it back to being in-between, wanting to check multiple boxes.
I made up a term to describe what I’ve been trying to do — through sound and also what I intend to do more through visuals: ‘hybridising space’. Sort of what I was talking about earlier, where I want to be the liaison that invites the nerds, the cool cats, the people who exclusively listen to radio music, etc. into one space because of how it sounds and then how it looks. Over time it becomes more and more apparent that’s what I’m trying to express.
I like that! It sounds sci-fi.
Thanks! [Laughs] I want people to come to the show and maybe be in the room with the people who they aren’t [usually] in rooms with. I get a lot of satisfaction when I see how diverse my audience is.
Everyone is there for a different part of the music. We talked about ‘Gomenasai’ before and I read about how you came across the Lisa Fischer sample in the documentary on backup singers, 20 Feet From Stardom. What impact does the legacy of other black female musicians have on you and your music?
Actually it was Asma [Maroof, of Nguzunguzu], the producer of the track, who told me to watch the film and placed the sample in her instrumental. From far away it looked cheesy but then after she encouraged me I watched and was just in tears the entire time. That film has helped a lot of people fathom and acknowledge the contribution of black women in popular music — the way that black women’s voices have been used, imitated and sampled without those women being able to capitalise off that contribution. That thing is really important to take a look at, even in today’s landscape. There’s a default setting I think is invisible for a lot of white people, even those who see themselves as allies… Imitating black women — in hair, body, speech, style, etc. — is so pervasive and the experience of being a black woman is so disenfranchising that it just [makes you] question: what isn’t being acknowledged or understood? That film focuses on the way that comes through just in the sonics, which is such a real thing for me.
Yes! And I think that’s such a positive way to look at it.
R&B hasn’t been embraced by the establishment as sophisticated or innovative or futuristic music, but it’s one of the traditions that has always been those things. So I’m always in an uphill battle because I think the sound of R&B is sort of the essential sound of the struggle, the sound of blackness. For whatever reason my friends and I have always known that a white woman who sings in the tradition of R&B is always going to be more marketable than a black woman who does the same. That is a painful reality to constantly be meeting. I don’t know how articulate that was, but it’s the feeling that your culture is being embraced without you being invited to the party. Appropriation is a tricky thing to point to because influence can be sincere and centred around shared experience.
Yeah, and it’s crazy that’s still so real in 2016. Do you feel like it’s changing?
I think it’s changing slowly, but most people in the music industry in positions of power are white men. Until the industry says out loud and as a unit, ‘Something is wrong here,’ nothing drastic will change.
There’s so much pressure to be a spokesperson nowadays, which is hard because you’d hope the choices you make and music you produce could speak for themselves.
Yeah… I know my music doesn’t always come off as political, so I enjoy being able to use the platform of releasing music as a way to communicate these types of ideas with my audience. I think we undermine our audiences a lot or think they won’t get it. My friend Shayne said that to Arca — he told me recently and it stuck with me — “Don’t undermine your audience; they’re smarter than you think”… or something like that [laughs].
I feel like, more than past generations, people creating now think they’ll be able to change things — change the world! It’s maybe naive but at least if you go into it thinking you’ll be able to shake things up it’s going to have a positive effect. And totally, I think audiences are really on to it when it comes to this kind of stuff.
Yeah… I think our generation can change things, but the first thing we need to demand is a courageous conversation around difference.
I think we’re starting to do that from a more real and personal place — owning up to our privilege and so on. So hopefully that’s a step in the right direction.
Yeah, I think white privilege is a particularly powerful notion because it allows for people of colour to point to this thing that’s always been everything and nothing at all — something that disappears as soon as you point to it — but then there’s also the other feature of pointing to white privilege and that is that white people get to have an opportunity to acknowledge guilt, fear, anger, resentment and a lot of other feelings that have accumulated… I remember being so crippled in that conversation around race because as soon as I brought it up there were no racists around so it looked like I was making up a feeling. But overt racism is just one fact of white supremacy; another is white privilege, which all white people benefit from without asking to. I think the conversation around the way this affects everyone is quite stunted. I hope to be able to aid that conversation through the platform I’ve built.