Kelela: Power in Vulnerability
For singer-songwriter Kelela, fresh from the release of her genre-defying album Raven, there’s power in openness, embracing vulnerability and facing fear head on.
A dialogue between past, present and an imagined future, Kelela's (she/her) music captures multiple moments. The singer-songwriter and producer was catapulted into the spotlight in 2013 following the release of her first mixtape, Cut 4 Me, an ambitious debut setting the tone for a body of work that defies convention, now a decade old but as fresh as the day it landed.
Blending the RnB of her Maryland childhood with ambient synths, jolts of drum & bass and a rich and expansive vocal, her first studio album, Take Me Apart, arrived in 2017, cementing her reputation as an arch innovator.
A significant hiatus from music-making followed, with the long-awaited Raven dropping in early 2023. Signalling a distinct evolution both in sound and intention, Kelela had returned with an ode to the Chicago, Baltimore and Jersey club scenes, honouring the Black femmes at the centre of these ground-breaking movements.
Catching up on life after Raven and the birth of her idiosyncratic sound, she discusses openness, embracing vulnerability and her mission: ‘to soundtrack the intimacy that people share with one another but also with themselves.’
‘There’s beauty in being really vulnerable on the record and then, suddenly, the strings kick in. That juxtaposition creates a richness. I love that drama.’
‘When I reflect on the range of music I’m into as an adult, I can see that the seed was planted early. We didn’t have a ton of records but there’d be pop vocals like Whitney Houston and Janet Jackson, alongside jazz greats like Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald. We’d listen to World Music artists, Miriam Makeba and José Feliciano and then random musicals like Fiddler on the Roof and The Sound of Music.’
‘Raven sonically traverses a lot of different sounds under what we might consider “dance music” but really has its roots in so many forms of pop and of Black music, period. It’s a snapshot of my experiences romantically with, for the most part, men, and this wall I keep hitting. I’m expressing that in many different forms throughout the record.’
COLLABORATION AND SOLITUDE
‘There’s a certain vulnerability as a songwriter when you have to improvise in front of people. With Raven, initially I did a lot of it by myself and would share it with friends and ask what they thought. Then the pandemic hit and I found that having time alone was useful for my process. I welcomed the obstacles; I’ve never dealt with a constraint that didn’t add richness to the text.’
‘I’m always looking for a contrast in the way that I express, specifically, club music. When I started making the mixtape, the very first project I worked on, I really wanted to have crude and aggressive-sounding drums and production to balance out the air in my voice and the softness that’s inherent in how I write.’
‘I was waiting to become fearless, but in reality that’s not a useful concept because I will always feel fear. It’s about accepting that fear and finding the courage to do it anyway.’
‘There’s beauty in being really vulnerable on the record and then, suddenly, the strings kick in. That juxtaposition creates a richness. I love that drama – that soap opera, main character, everything-in-slow-motion energy. It also creates a safe gateway for others to explore their own vulnerability, especially in the club, and I love that – wielding vulnerability in this seemingly harsh space, wearing your heart on your sleeve.’
‘When I’m making music, I ask myself, “does this feel like a new idea?” If it doesn’t, I’m not as interested. Before Raven, I had music I could have released as the next record, but it just didn’t work for me in that moment. I wanted to say something that felt completely new. With my music, I was waiting to become fearless, but in reality that’s not a useful concept because I will always feel fear. It’s about accepting that fear and finding the courage to do it anyway.’
‘Centring marginalised Black people in my work benefits everyone and I think about that a lot when it comes to legacy. As a Black woman, claiming the space can mean so much to people in the same way that it meant so much to me. It’s my job to make this a little easier for people like me who are coming into this space by demystifying it and creating a map.’
STYLE AS SELF-EXPRESSION
‘My dad really set me up to love expressing myself through clothing, he’s always been very stylish and really cares about quality and craftsmanship. We’d go shopping together, never sticking to just the boys’ or girls’ section. I always felt very stylish and have always moved back and forth between masculine and more feminine styles. That’s definitely fed into my adult life.’
‘I’m wrapping up the Raven remix project. Then we move onto the next record.’
What was the last book you read?
The Mastery of Love by Don Miguel Ruiz
If you could catch a flight to anywhere tomorrow, where would you go?
What’s your all-time favourite film?
Claire Denis’ Chocolat or Abderrahmane Sissako’s Bamako
What’s your most treasured possession?
I’m not so attached to my possessions. Maybe a ‘K’ necklace my friend gave me. Or files, all the work on my hard drive.
Words by Words by Lena Dystant
Kelela wears the Autumn Winter 2023 collection for COS.
Photography by Daniel Jackson.
Styling by Jane How.
Acting Responsibly with Will Poulter
The Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 star talks about inspiring positive communication, truth and togetherness
Rewriting Roles with Havana Rose Liu
The actor and model talks about challenging stereotypes and finding beauty in contradiction.