Kelela Talks Saint Heron, R&B's Racial Politics & Working with Arca, Hudson Mohawke

Matt Fry


Less than a year ago, Kelela Mizanekristos — the Los Angeles-based, Ethiopia-descended R&B and electro pop singer — was working as a telemarketer, trying to make ends meet as an artist in a city inundated with them. She finally quit her day job last December after Solange, a fan, booked her as an opening act on tour.

In October, Kelela found many more fans after the release of her critically acclaimed mixtape "Cut 4 Me" on the celebrated L.A. electronic label Fade to Mind. She quickly followed the tape with a handful of standout live performances at the CMJ Music Marathon. Kelela makes two appearances on another project: Solange's "Saint Heron" (Nov. 12) a carefully curated compilation that's designed to showcase a new wave of R&B.

In a phone conversation from her home in L.A., we talked to Kelela about the racial dynamics beneath R&B's resurgence, putting on skits for her parents as a child and invoking Janet Jackson on her forthcoming Arca and Hudson Mohawke produced debut album.

It seems like the last couple of years have been almost a golden age for forward thinking R&B artists experimenting with electronic sounds.
Yeah, I'm happy about it. But at the same time I'm like "Huh? What just happened?" [laughs]. You know what I mean? I feel both things simultaneously.

What do you think it is about this moment that has allowed for that?
The bottom line is R&B has always been pretty big and popular, especially among black folks. So what has to have changed is that white people either let go of something or embraced something. And so the question for me is more like "What happened in business or the corporate world with white people?" I'm trying to figure out, what are the big things that made a difference? The fact that R&B is having this moment, that just means that there are a lot more white people at R&B shows now; a lot more people buying tickets and looking for that music to give them something. And if we're talking about what is it about R&B, I think that it is pretty visceral. It's music that is situated in the club but is rooted in gospel. Gospel plus club music? That's like a death stare. You can't really fuck with that. If you hear a gospel run, something is wrong with you if you don't have a reaction to that. If you don't go "ooh" on some level. So I think that's what some people have gotten real about. It's like "OK, this is actually really, really amazing. I'm letting go."

Before I think R&B was seen as basic or not advanced, not deep, you know? As someone who's been singing this music since I was a kid in my bedroom, it was never about a trend for me. So I know who was embracing it at different times. And I can see what's changed now. If you go to a Solange show, it's one of the most diverse audiences. If you go to a Little Dragon show, it's like this is actually really cool, wide-ranging audience. I'm trying not to think too much about it. I've been thinking about this just because I'm a nerd and an academic, but I don't encourage other people to think too much about it because it doesn't necessarily make sense [laughs]. I'm just like "Oh, now it's here! OK, great! Awesome."

What did you think when Solange asked you to be on Saint Heron?
I thought it was great, wonderful, amazing. I really do like Solange, sincerely. I'm down for her and I trust her judgment. It's awesome to be included and I know and appreciate the contributions of the other artists. It's nice to be presented to the world in that context, especially because it does spill over into the non-indie contexts of R&B and urban music, which matters to me.

It definitely seems like she's trying to present certain things in a certain way.
Yeah, I think that she sees what's happening and is saying, "I'm going to get specific and show you what's really going on through my lens." I think that's important because right now it is "trendy." It's a cute music to like and I think what's important to me is that it gets taken out of a fetishized context. It's like "Actually, we been had R&B and let me tell you what's going on right now." That's what I feel like she's doing and that's what I really appreciate. Because there are all these "Top 10 lists" going around. I got put on this list of like "Top 10 R&B Singers Right Now" and it's like "Who are you? When have you ever been… You don't get to do that," you know what I'm saying? It's not until something enters the indie context that that happens.

And you think Saint Heron is going beyond the indie context.
I really want it to. It may never, you know? Straight up. I'm not even in the dark. It may never and I might just need to go back to my telemarketing job in a little bit. I don't know, I've been thinking about it and I'm just going to do my best and hope that that equals the biggest, widest impact and hopefully the biggest, widest money [laughs]. I just have to get all those things to coincide. I would like to connect with as many people as possible.

When did you first realize you wanted to be a singer?
That's a hard one because I know I've been doing that since I was a kid. It's hard to pinpoint. When I was little my parents would have these gatherings and it was a common thing for me and my cousins to have to put on, like, shows. That could mean stand on the table and sing [Whitney Houston's] "Greatest Love of All" or it could mean an entire skit.

My family is Ethiopian and we used to have this kind of second generation, in-between skit where a lady from Ethiopia was visiting an Ethiopian American and there would be this kind of culture clash. So it was like acting and all kinds of modes of expression that we were expected to use to entertain. So I did do that a lot growing up. And then in school I would be in the chorus and do solos, so that was sort of the beginning of me finding ways to express myself. But I didn't really, really start to pursue singing as sort of an adult career until three or four years ago. That's when I moved to L.A.

What made you pull the trigger?
Well I guess the first thing was seeing Amel Larrieux live back in 2004. That messed me up. After that I was like "OK, I guess I have to do this" [laughs]. I saw her in D.C. at the Lincoln Theater, which is like a circle theater on U Street, and it was a seated, proper situation. I remember being so impressed that she could make you feel things while you were sitting. It wasn't a hype thing or a situation where you could mosh with your friends. If you suck, from far away it's really gonna suck.

And then in 2008 I saw Yukimi Nagano with Little Dragon. Amel made me think "I need to practice and make this my thing." Yukimi made me think I might have something to say in terms of writing. I hadn't written a song until I saw that band live. It very directly inspired me to write music because I heard something that was in my head but had never been manifested.

And you went to college somewhere along the way.
Yeah, American University. That's where I spent five-and-a-half years [laughs]. I spent a lot of time in college. I was just being academic and discovering myself through reason and analysis.

What was your major?
I majored in international studies with a focus on development in Africa. I was also studying sociology at the same time. With sociology it was more of an analytical deconstruction of social work that I was interested in. I was interested in dealing with poverty in Africa in a really deliberate sort of head on kind of way.

That's a pretty big jump to go from that world to the art world.
It's quite a jump. But I always saw some continuity. There's a line there that wasn't being drawn. It's an abstract one, but it's there.

Why move to LA?
It just felt like there were so many more opportunities to do something creative. I visited before I moved and I had more musical activity in four days than I did in four months in D.C. And I was able to move in with my friend and her son and work as a nanny. We did kind of an exchange so I could move here with a place to live and a gig of some sort. That was kind of my transition.

And you also worked in telemarketing?
I worked a telemarketing job all the way up until my first Solange gig last December. I quit my job the week right after. I totaled my car and I got a check for that. That's what allowed me to transition out of the day job. It was this horrible thing, but it was also a blessing.

And then you teamed up with the Fade to Mind guys. What about their music attracted you?
I think the fact that it's heavy but it doesn't involve wobble. There's a lot of subverting and a lot of withholding. It's not about drops. Even right now all the most popular electronic music is focused on drops. I feel like it does something to listeners when the point of every build up is so that it can drop. That's why Fade to Mind and Night Slugs are so important, because they're presenting you with another way to listen to club music. It means a lot to me. I sort of see them as like the jazz of club music. It resonated with me to hear that level of meticulousness and care in the club context.

What was the first music you remember having an emotional connection to?
My dad had tapes in his car and those are the ones that I would listen to. Tracy Chapman, Motown, and Harry Belafonte. I would say Tracy Chapman was the first time I obsessed over an entire record. I knew every song, I knew the exact amount of seconds between each song. That's the level of obsession that I had.

Before you put out your mixtape, you contributed vocals to tracks by Fade to Mind producers and other electronic artists. That must have been an interesting challenge to be tasked with bringing the vocal, human element to an electronic track...
That's interesting that you should ask that because I did want to be a jazz singer before, so I was already prepared to sing over music that wasn't necessarily made to match the vocals perfectly. I guess I'm attracted to songs that are resonant but not quite what you would expect. There were a couple of moments in the Teen Girl Fantasy song ["EFX," from their 2012 album "Tracer"] that I loved as instrumentals that I didn't know how I would ever fit in. Upon listening, these tracks aren't tracks where you're like "Oh, I know exactly what this is." But now I feel more comfortable. If I'm presented with a few options for beats I say "I'm going to make one of these work really well." I've sort of developed a knack for getting into really weird tracks. I can find the thing in it that is catchy or resonant and create pop form or pop melody within a context that's trying to subvert pop. But yeah, in the beginning my muscle wasn't strong yet and it was really heartening to actually come up with something! I remember being like "Whoa. Phew. This sounds like a pop song even though it only has one verse and then goes straight into the chorus and then the bridge and then you're out." That song is kind of fucked up. You're kind of like "What just happened?" And that's the point. You should be like "Oh, I love this part! Oh, I love this part! Oh, I love this part!" but you don't know each part is coming.

That's sort of how I approached the mixtape. With the mixtape I was presenting you with ideas. I presented the idea and then I let it go a little bit. I wasn't trying to make every song an epic pop radio hit, you know what I'm sayin'? It was like "I'm going to show you what this palette and sound is."

For the album I'd like to take it further. I want to make it so that every song is super, ultra epic and there are a million interludes. I want it to be Janet vibes. That's where I'm trying to take it. Really huge songs that you wanna hear really loud, and then songs that you want to hear in your bedroom with your girlfriend or boyfriend.

Is the album coming out via Fade to Mind or have you signed another deal?
I haven't decided at all. I'm focusing on the actual music first, which is kind of like an alternative approach, I guess. I'm making it so that I write all the songs and the beginnings of the music first, and then, in order to fund actually making everything with my friends, I'll sign a deal.

I did the mixtape primarily over Dropbox. So it's a dream for me to work with a producer in the same room and also songwriters. I'm working with a lot of the same producers from the mixtape plus people like Arca, Hud[son] Mo[hawke], Evian Christ and Rustie. I'm really excited because all these people make music that I would like to bring under the same roof, literally. I want to make a statement that all these things have a thread.

Check out Kelela's "Cut 4 Me" mixtape below:

EFX ft. Kelela by Teengirl Fantasy