Kelela & Co-Producer Asmara Talk 'Take Me Apart' Remix Album & Highlighting Queer, Black Artists

Nhu Xuan Hua


"I'm going to go ahead and say I think the majority of people on [this project] are queer, black people," Kelela says.

Kelela was a child of Napster. She revealed that she spent a few years on the now defunct file sharing site, which was known for hosting an international (and most times illegal) library of music downloads in a recent talk with The New Yorker.

Her membership allowed her to survey the entire world of music, regardless of language, regardless of genre and in her latest project, a 20-track remix record based on her debut album Take Me Apart, she looks back to that digital history. Not only in her expansive survey of electronic and experimental music, but even in just the naming of the project and it’s tracks: BPMQ tags are left on, as are underscores -- which, in earlier internet days were used in lieu of spaces in file names. Case in point, the new project’s name TAKE ME A_PART.

Billboard caught up with Kelela and Asmara, the Los Angeles-based DJ who co-produced the project alongside the singer, about hearing the tracks reworked by some of their favorites, and the importance of working with other black, queer artists.

I wanted to start with the cover art and how the idea came about.

Kelela: It started with an experiment that I did maybe two and a half years ago for my stylist and creative director, Misha Notcutt’s friend Hendrik Schneider who's based in London. He wanted to do an experiment with a 3D scan of my head. We weren't really sure where it would go, and we did it during [my 2015 EP] Hallucinogens. There's a photograph actually that we used for merch around that time period that’s me with two of my dreads over my eye — that image is not a photo in that sense, it’s a 3D scan.

When it came to figuring out what to do for the artwork for this project, it was like this very natural moment. I've always been obsessed with this one image that was a render that he did off this scan that was black, and it was matte so I just looked like -- I don't know, there was a way that I looked like everybody, and no one also. It really resonated with me, and it felt like not even me. So there was just a way of interacting with myself.

The idea for the whole artwork was to take those scans and actually create a 3D print of my head. We actually printed a bust and then took photographs of the bust with different wigs on the bust to sort of reflect the variation and the breadth and depth that you hear in the music. It was trying to take the same things, the same facial structure and sort of recontextualize it as many times as possible. Those were probably the nine best wigs, the best ones that we felt were strongest.

A lot of this project, like the way the song titles are written, is very digital focused. Thinking about that in relation to the collaborators, are they mostly also digital connections?

Kelela: I've met a lot of them. There are some that I've never met. I'm trying to think -- the only person I can think of is like, Skyshaker, I've never met. Rare Essence, I’ve never met, and I think I’ll crumble if I do.

What did it mean for you guys to have Rare Essence included in the project?

Asmara: It meant a lot to both me and Kels, being from the DMV area, being born there and just listening to music; they’re basically icons of DC. I still can't believe it happened, that we have a remix -- because go-go remixes in general are very dear to us, you know. There's just a sense of home, and it's just really cool to even hear one of Kelela’s tracks be interpreted in this way, because it just feels so close to the heart and they're just really… They're icons.

You mentioned the word “interpretations,” and since all these tracks are essentially other artists' interpretations of your work, I’m wondering if there was a specific one that came out of left field, or would have been impossible if it not for the artist being given the autonomy to do what they wanted to do.

Kelela: To be honest, I feel like everybody's kind of out of left field. Like, that's who we sourced. It's not out of left field for them or us, but if you're writing for people who are outside of the world that we're in, then I would say yes. It's gonna feel and sound very left field. And the goal for us as music makers was to make it so that we don't lose you while you're listening to something you may not be familiar with. We were trying to figure out a way for you to enjoy that, and really get not just a snippet, but a good taste, so that you want more and want to keep digging.

The culture of digging for music, of digging for new sound -- that sort of practice that we all sort of find ourselves in, in one way or another -- is not the purpose, but it's one of the byproducts of making something like this. You sort of fuel that culture, and you make people get into discovery mode, because you're dealing with a compilation rather than a single-artist project. But I like the continuity of it being all based off a single-artist project, because there is something about the way that it proves a point.

Asmara: The project can be contextualized as many genres, but at the same time it's still very much R&B, and is a conversation around what that is. If you look in the dictionary and look up rhythm and blues it's like it'll read something like, "a beat with a soulful voice." It's something very vague in the description, and that's the common thread in this record -- that it's like, "This is all that, and we're speaking on that idea of R&B being all of these songs."

?Kelela: Producing something you’re going to use in a DJ set is very different from something you’re listening to in your car, listening on your way to work, and not necessarily listening in the club. The edits that we made are just ones that when we're clear that a person who's not in the club, who's in their car probably just wants to hear the drum loop for 15 seconds, 10 seconds. And then, we can move on to the meat, the bulk of the song. This a type of edit that we made.

But we were really careful not to water down and to not adulterate the whole point of getting that producer on the project. Because for me, it's like -- I want to retain the juice, and I want to keep all of the beauty in what they're doing and all the uniqueness, and I also want people to be right there with them. I know there's certain things that we can do in terms of song form.

Asmara: That's what makes Kelela so interesting as an artist, because she also really understands what music for the club is without a vocal. A lot of the times, working with a vocalist, they normally want their vocal very present; Kelela really understands when it needs to be present and when it needs to sit back.

Reading about the album, when it first came out there was sort of this idea of it was about sort of “topping from the bottom.” I was—

Kelela: Oh my God.

It made me think when I was listening to this album -- did you feel like the remixes could change the meaning of either the overall project or the tracks themselves, just by the ways that these different artists interpreted the track?

Asmara: With DJ Lag’s “OnanOn,” that kind of got recontextualized in a way where it feels like the "We go on, we go on” is more referencing we go on all night in the club, because we're partying. That's how I kind of interpret it more. In the original it's more about feelings between two people. That one very much feels like a different story from the original.

And then, there's ones like the Divoli [S’vere] one, “Truth or Dare.” He dives deeper. His original track was called “Gameplay Remix,” and he turned it really into a dance battle, which is very important in ballroom culture. That kind of flipped it ... It's still within the storyline, but it feels like a little segue. A lot of them do that. Even the “Enough,” harp version [with Ahya Simone.] It's the same world, but it dives into a different realm.

Kelela: For “Enough,” there's so many layers to this process. I actually re-recorded it live with harp. Anytime you sing a song, even if you sing the original version live, you can feel new feelings from just going through different things in your life and singing the song in that new time of your life and even the same lyrics can create different interpretations just because of what's going on.

For this song I didn't want to embellish so much, like vocally, when I re-recorded. The feeling I have about that song and just about that sentiment as it relates to the relationship I was in when I wrote it, I was just even more done with it. So I didn’t want any fluff on the runs or the vocal performance.

I actually wanted to ask a little bit about how you linked with Ahya Simone.

Kelela: Well, I saw her on the internet with Juliana Huxtable and I was just like, "Who is this fabulous person?" And I like, moseyed on over to her page, and I just couldn't get enough of just all the intersectional things that mean so much to me. I think for somebody who is from club culture, it's just so beautiful when you're able to find home with people who are coming from similarly disparate places -- if that makes any sense.

I have a classical background, so I grew up playing classical music, but I feel far away from that right now. There's a way that when we started working together and we started collabing, I just reached out [last winter] and I was just like, "Hey, I'm on tour. We're going to be in Detroit tonight. Do you want to come and play?" And she came to the show. We improvised the beginning of “Waitin'.” She started the whole set with me and it was just this really sweet beautiful experience even though we just didn't know what we were doing and it was just kind of improvised. Then I thought of her for this project.

There are a lot of people with intersectional identities on this project — particularly queer people of color — with Serpentwithfeet, Ms. Boogie, Ahya...

Kelela: I'm going to go ahead and say I think the majority of people on [this project] are queer, black people. I'm trying not to homogenize, but I'm going to go ahead and say when I think down, it's more the exception if you're not a queer, black person on this project.

How purposeful was that choice?

Kelela: There's a way that, especially in electronic music and experimental music, what's put under that category just always gets whitewashed. One of the goals that I had for this project was that it would not be whitewashed, and the way that I'll do that is not by creating some rule that you have to be a non-white person to work on it, but just by reaching out to as many people of color in experimental and electronic music as I possibly could. So that's what we did.

We just said if we wanted to showcase how many people of color -- how many brown people are participating in this world of music that don't necessarily get play online or don't get these same opportunities? If we were to just focus on reaching out to those people first, what will happen? That's kind of more the message. It was just like, going to make a concerted effort to reach out to people of color who are doing this right now. If there are other people we can think of that we're still interested in and excited about, then we'll add them to the list as well.

There was initially a more mixed group of people and then we focus on excellence at that point. The only way that I control the pool is by being like, "I'm going to reach out to this many people." But when it comes to what they send, all we were going off of at that point was which ones are the best or which ones are feeling like, “This is very special, it's making me jump up and down and I'm having my own reactions.”