Kelela Talks New Album 'Take Me Apart,' Being a Black Woman in the Music Industry

Daniel Sannwald


"I just wanted to be something that resonates with people and challenges them at the same time."

Kelela is a name that has been buzzing around since 2013 when the R&B singer dropped her first mixtape, Cut 4 Me. In the years that have passed, the Ethiopian-American crooner released her Hallucinogen EP, toured with The xx and collaborated with the likes of Solange, Danny Brown and Gorillaz, all while meticulously putting together her debut full-length studio album. Five years after its conception, Take Me Apart was ready for the world and released via Warp Records on Oct. 6.

The anticipated 14-track record lives up to its hype, as Kelela redefines what R&B music is in 2017. Lyrically, she focuses on personal experiences of new love and love lost; vocally, she hones in on the past and channels her inner Janet Jackson; sonically, she looks to the future with dreamy, ethereal electronic arrangements and crunching, industrial undertones.

On paper, Kelela has it all -- a well-received freshman effort, a newly announced world tour, a career on the brink of stardom -- but like many artists of color, she struggles on a daily basis trying to proves herself. Billboard caught up with the rising star to discuss her experience as a black woman in the music industry and why it took so long for her to release Take Me Apart.

Billboard: You’ve been making and releasing music for years now, but Take Me Apart is your first full-length, studio album. How does it feel to have it out in the world?

Kelela: It feels really good; it’s a dream come true. It’s been a long time coming.

What made now the right time to release the album?

Now is the only time it’s been done, quite simply. I released it the year I finished it. I started making music how I wanted to make it --the sort of sonic intersection that you hear now and know me for -- in 2012. When I started making songs, some of them read as mixtape-y and some of them read as album-y. I started working on the mixtape and then when I finished the mixtape, I still had a few album tracks.

When I was working on the album, I was told that I need to release music immediately. So I took some of the album tracks and made an EP -- that’s what Hallucinogen is. That was me submitting to the pressure of, “You’ll become irrelevant if you don’t release something right now.”

That’s what I was told by several, several, several people in business positions and I succumbed to that pressure and put together an EP sort of haphazardly. So I was just kind of like, I’m just going to do my best at putting together something that’s cohesive, but in no way, shape or form is this my intention or the trajectory I designed. It’s kind of ironic, but you hurry up to release something so you can do more work and take more time on the large project that everybody’s waiting for.

The music industry is such an interesting beast right now because artists do feel pressure to continuously put out music because so much music is coming out and the general population lacks the attention span these days.

My theory is that if you only put sick shit out, they will remember you. Sometimes people will take a break and then they don’t deliver. When they don’t actually deliver is when they become irrelevant. What those people who pressured me to [put out music] are experiencing is a lack of quality and a lack of sincerity and a lack of richness when it comes to the artwork -- and that is actually what’s creating an artist falling to the wayside.

Our society is so quick to judge and to throw things away...

Exactly! And I think people do that because they can critique the actual work. I guess the bottom line is I don’t make music that is consumed en masse. [My fan base] is not a lot of people, but the concentration and devotion in that group of people is pretty high.

So it’s interesting because I think I’ve created a relationship with my fan base that is really intimate -- I was succumbing to people who don’t really know what that relationship is and what makes up that connection. It’s almost like they only know the results.

They’re trying to pinpoint the variables that lead to those results, but they don’t know exactly what that is. I know why it’s tight. I know why people [were] fixated on the first thing I released. And I knew why when I made it, before it ever got put out into the world. Before any one of those people who pressured me to make the EP knew.

These are all lessons in confidence and lessons in being able to combat the status quo.

Have you had any other instances where someone tried to pressure you or try to steer you in a direction you didn’t agree with artistically?

Yeah, I think that as women in music, there’s a way that we experience that. As a black woman, there’s an intersection. Like, there can be white girl geniuses, but when it comes to black women’s contribution to the world basically it’s like we’re these objects that make this naturally. We’re not pensive or calculated or crafty. There’s a gender thing, but more than that it’s about the intersection that I am black and a woman, so no one thinks I know what I’m doing.

The assumption is simply that I hit on all the things I’ve hit on so far by accident, that my talent is just this raw thing that pours out of me, and then white people feel like they have to come in and contain it, refine it and bring it to the place where it can been released. I think in general that’s been my relationship to white people in the music industry. The default setting is if I’m sick, they’re attributing this sickness not to my craftiness but to sheer talent.

Almost like a primal instinct.

Yes, exactly! And I would say that’s a general thing when it comes to any black person and their art. I have a friend who’s a painter and has just become very visible and the thing she keeps being approached with is white people coming up to her and being like, “Do you know what you’re doing?”

Like she doesn’t know what she’s referencing or didn’t arrive at this place where she’s getting your attention through intention. So yes, on a regular fucking basis I am challenged on my vision and what I think it should be, and what other people -- especially white men -- think it should be.

That’s so frustrating. How do you overcome that?

The way that we do that -- and I say “we” because the only way to survive it is to get together with your black women friends who are artists and be like, “That shit’s crazy, right? Are you experiencing this? Is it just me? Am I crazy?” And that’s what you do, reflexively. It is very relieving and cathartic and keeps you sane.

Just knowing that the dynamic is there and that you should deal with it accordingly, it does so much. You don’t have to have the solution, but just knowing that that’s happening and you’re not a crazy bitch does so much.

You began releasing music in 2012, just three years after writing your first song, and your music sounds so different than anything else out there right now. It’s got to be hard trying to navigate all this while pioneering a new sound.

Yeah, it is. My intention was to find a new place for me -- it feels like it matches up with how I feel. It feels familiar and other-worldly at the same time. Trying to tread that line throughout the whole record took a lot of time and intention.

It really does a good job of balancing those concepts.

Thank you. And again, I was just trying to make something fit for me, I wasn’t trying to be like, Look I’m so new! I just wanted to be something that resonates with people and challenges them at the same time. It feels so good when that lands; when that complexity inside [the listener] feels like it’s been satisfied.