new yorker festival

Kelela Describes Asserting Herself As a Black Woman in the Music Industry

Kelela. Photo: (Photo by Brian Killian/Getty Images for The New Yorker)

During a New Yorker Festival event Saturday night, the R&B musician Kelela described what it’s like to be a black woman in the music business, and how she’s had to train her team to understand the difficulties she faces as an artist trying to challenge the establishment. It started with handpicking people who were willing to learn: “If they haven’t dealt with a black woman artist before, they’re going to tell you there’s a whole host of things that they’ve never had to deal with that are nuanced, that are hard to describe, but that are ever present in every transaction,” Kelela told Vinson Cunningham at the Ailey Citigroup Theater. “They are now having to consider a thing that they just didn’t have to consider before.”

As a black woman artist, Kelela said, she has to navigate opportunities and options differently. “There’s so many ways I have to assert myself: You can’t do this because that’s just now how it’s done. Well, how come that white girl did it? I saw her, her, her, and her do it. Why can’t I do that, too?” The musician described something deeper than moral support or industry savvy, rather that she’s surrounded herself with people here for her, not just her music. “It’s brought me so much solace that the people that I’m working with closely are really for me in that way, and not just for my art,” she said. “I think that’s actually the issue, that’s actually part of a black woman’s experience: feeling like your output is so valued. People love the [vocal] runs, but they can’t love the experience that that comes from.”

Kelela Describes Asserting Herself as a Black Woman in Music