a long talk

Sincerely Kelela

Raven is her first album in nearly six years. The wait was intentional.

Photo: Clifford Prince
Photo: Clifford Prince

Kelela’s 2013 debut mixtape, Cut 4 Me, is a wondrous recombinant of flesh and tone, metal and concrete — its industrial clanging, furious dance beats, and warbling synths providing the backbone for a voice that is at once soft and ferocious. She then spent the next decade messing with the knobs and dials, while her longtime collaborators Nguzunguzu, LSDXOXO, Kingdom, and Fauzia grew adept at transforming her sensuality to all measures of textures. Kelela’s second joint, Hallucinogen, became a breakup story told in reverse with its principle cosmonaut wandering the galaxy tethered only by bass and malleable melody. 2017’s Take Me Apart was set squarely on the move — crash-landing on an Earth with crushed blues, where the club feels less like a backdrop and more like a necessary reprieve from the bullshit of a failed romance.

Raven, her new album and first in six years, presents something further afield. Kelela’s voice is now almost indistinguishable from the sound. Her approach isn’t lacking for lyrical ferocity, but there are moments where her words are as melded to the melody as a body floating in the ocean, the undulating current syncopated to a slow, steady flow of air into lungs. The change makes sense: In the years she spent between projects, Kelela has engaged with her long-held feelings of isolation within her creative space, valuing the life she leads outside of music. The inhumane demands of the industry bearing down for years could’ve stifled her. If Raven is any indication, it certainly was a fight, but one that she has come out of with a more evolved appreciation for herself.

Over a Zoom call last week, Kelela spoke to me about the process of making her new record, what it meant to set boundaries around her personal and professional relationships, and the changing sounds and colors of underground dance music.

It’s been nearly six years since your last album. How are you feeling about Raven?
Honestly, I’m very excited. It feels good being able to work on something from such an intentional place and then share it with intention. The dominant framework of making and sharing music right now is centered around releasing things consistently to never let people forget about you. There are so many rules of engagement that just didn’t apply in a different era. I have done my best to share in a way that feels natural for me. Obviously, I have to make a living, and there’s constraints there. It’s hard to put it succinctly, but I would say that I wanna make coins off of things that feel sincere and real to me. I wanna be able to sustain myself off of output that is in alignment with my values, in alignment with my perspective artistically. I wanna be able to stand my ground on both of those without losing security. And so I have definitely had to move courageously in that.

I’m trying to lean into this idea that it’s the type of relationship you have with your audience that’s gonna dictate whether or not they forget you. This feels very much like a homecoming where I’m just being who I am and people are attached to that. Not to be this bot that’s just like producing constantly. I’m not saying that on some guru shit; I’m just getting that now through this experience. I have learned that it’s the quality of your output and it’s the real feelings, the amount of risk that people can hear in the music, that is going to dictate their attachment to you. That’s kinda what I’m seeing play out right now. And it’s a very delicious feeling.

I remember tweeting this a couple of times: Basically, Kelela, drop whenever you feel like it; I’m just here to listen.
That’s a very beautiful thing. I remember seeing those types of tweets. And that is an immense amount of faith that I think stands apart. A lot of audiences right now are feeling very entitled to the output of artists and them being present to their needs and what they’re trying to hear. Back in the day, it was giving, like, You get what you fucking get, you know what I’m saying? Like, if niggas didn’t feel like it, you didn’t get that this year, and that’s just what it is. It feels very nice to see that a lot of people had a lot of trust in the time I was taking. It’s almost like they knew it was gonna hit.

I’m not saying that people can’t make things that have a lot of depth quickly. I am just not one of those people. [Laughs] And I think that what we should be asking of artists is just make the quality thing, whether that’s fast or slow. I just wanna foster a culture that allows us to do that without an amount of pressure to perform and stay on top.

Your first three projects, Cut 4 Me, Hallucinogen, and Take Me Apart feel like breakup records. Is that accurate?
I would say the first two for sure. A lot of what’s on Take Me Apart is also that or, at least, the tail end of the relationship. It’s not giving full breakup, but definitely we about to be on our way out.

On Raven, the breakup feels more communal. There is that feeling of isolation but then of something being severed. Did you sense you were personally breaking from something as you were making it? 
It’s weird. I would say the severing or the breaking, I did it before — like, the feeling of isolation, it’s always been a feeling. It’s been a constant. On this record, I didn’t consciously say, This is what I’m gonna talk about. I never approach it this way. I’m thinking about the sound of this instrumental, quite literally. I’m just like, What is this giving? And the feeling that came over me on certain songs was just wanting to speak on some town-crier shit, wanting to express myself, speaking to my experience outside of romance.

That’s something that I have spoken to on certain songs, like on “Altadena” or “Jupiter,” where it’s about me and my place in the world, my relationship with myself and all of us — it’s more like a capital “Us.” It’s a muscle I’ve explored. But, on this record, there were a few instrumentals that came up that just felt very much like, Ooh, this is definitely that. Like “Holier,” for example. I don’t know who I’m talking to. But the lyrics came so naturally. That’s why it’s hard for me to describe my intention when I was making it. I’m improvising, and then after I improvise, I’ll be like, What do I mean? Because it’ll be gibberish. I look back and I be like, “I’d rather be holier.” That’s what I keep saying, but I feel crazy saying that. Like, who the fuck do I think I am? I would never colloquially say that just talking to a person. But it felt too good to not reference the organ sounds and the feeling of being in some cavernous church.

There are moments where it’s almost like my mouth is moving in response to the sound of the thing. And I am finding out after what I’m even speaking to. Something similar happened with “Raven.” Like, as soon as AceMo started playing the synth, I was like, Yo, I’m about to talk my shit. Even after I wrote a lot of these songs on the record, I realized a lot of what I’m dealing with is the emotional stuntedness of men.

Say more.
That’s what I’m confronting throughout, like, when it’s romantic, even when it’s a sweet song. I’m still struggling, trying to get this person to break out of their shell or encourage them to stop faking. That’s basically a theme that I know is running throughout. And when I finished writing all the songs, I was like, Ooh, do I sound like abeg? I was like, Ugh, I don’t like that. I was having a hard time standing by that. And I think a lot of Black femmes will feel me on this. When you’re being intimate with a man, just a feeling of having to push the person. At least for me, I am that courageous person in the relationship. This is like my response to stoicism, both when it comes to men and I would also say when it comes to Raven: It’s white people and men and people in positions of power, even non-Black people of color.

Your response also reminded me of writers like Gwendolyn Brooks or M. NourbeSe Philip, who are guided. Their art reflects back to them what is going on. 
Actually, that’s what it is. That’s what you’re looking at. I would say you are looking at me looking in the mirror.

Like the water!
That’s where the water comes in as well. I knew when I heard that synth on “Raven,” I was like, This is the title track. I’m not sure what I’m saying, but I do know that it’s gonna be like this. And when I went to write it, I originally said, “A phoenix is reborn.” That’s the typical narrative. And that’s what it meant for me. I was like, Yeah, you thought she was taken out, but a bitch is back. Afterward, I was like, I can’t use “phoenix” ’cause that’s just played the fuck out. No more phoenixes. We’re done with phoenix. Phoenix is dead. And I was like, They always make the white birds good and the black birds bad, so we’re gonna choose a black bird. Then I just started Googling different birds; the second one I Googled was “raven.” And I was like, Period. And then I looked at the meaning, symbolism.

What did we find? 
Okay, so this is what it says: “Because of its black plumage, croaking, diet of carrion, the raven is often associated with loss. And ill omen.” So I thought that was really deep. The artwork, the sound of this album — I think a lot of people would say it’s darker. And maybe, topically, people would receive that sadness. Yet its symbolism is complex. It says that, as a talking bird, the raven also represents prophecy and insight. Ravens and stories often act as psychopomps connecting the material world with the world of spirits.

So I’m not saying I’m all of that on the album, but I can say that I am a translator of emotions. What I want to do, or what I’m seeking to do, is to translate a feeling into a sonic landscape that makes more space for that feeling, makes you feel safer in that feeling. It gives you a house to feel it in. I feel like I go between the sort of emotional interior experience and the external communal experience that we’re having with other people and help you translate those two not just figuratively, like in your own mind, but also quite literally when we talk about the club and when it comes to how we share. I feel like Kelela fans, it’s like you have your own experience by yourself, and then you’re in the club and you see somebody else knowing that song, and it’s like you automatically feel it.

There’s a filter.
You know we can connect on something. I just know I can connect with you. It’s a value system. It’s like, sure, we love this music and this is a thing, but it also says something else about us and what we’re seeing.

There’s movement on “Raven” — at one point, it breaks out, and then it feels like you’re running.
It’s like you’re running in slow motion but still so fast taking different turns. Basically, I want it to feel like a whirlwind. Or like a slide. When you’re on a water slide, it gets dark at a period right before it spits you out. It always makes a crazy turn; it kicks you off guard, and it spits you out into the other thing. That’s basically what I wanted the fall into “Bruises” to feel like. So I worked with Fauzia to make it have these twists and turns, and I engineered a lot of that. Then there’s this new beginning where you’re giving birth to yourself or you’re being reborn. It feels kind of like passing through a pretty traumatic chute but also a delicious one.

You explained that you have this impulse to try and pull on the stoicism of people, but then in “Raven” there’s “Don’t need no favors / It’s all good, I’ve moved on … Over the line, goin’ in tonight … ’Cause I know what I need tonight,” where you’re just like, Fuck that, I’m not doing that shit anymore.
Exactly. There’s a boundary setting on this record. That’s another thread/theme. I’ve always led with tenderness and vulnerability. Those are staples I would say on this record. But I’m also setting boundaries in a way that I’ve never set them. And that’s for real life and also for song life.

It reminds me of something Arca, who I know you’ve worked with before, said in the New York Times: “Out of all the stories that we write and we choose to share as world builders, as storytellers, for me, the ones that are most exciting are the ones that point to a recognition of a boundary.”
Whew, yeah!

Photo: Xavi Torrent/Redferns

I wanted to ask you about this because you did bring up the club. Like, do you be going to the club?
Absolutely. [Laughs] Absolutely. I don’t think the album would hit in that way if I wasn’t going to the club. Like, I’m just gonna be real with you: I feel like I could hear who’s actually in there and who’s making what they think it gives.

Come on! Let’s be for real about it.
Like “Happy Ending” and “Contact” are not just club tracks ’cus they sound like they’re club tracks. I’m literally talking about seeing somebody in the club and it being a whole night of just being wrapped up in that while also partying. It’s such a sight for me. I don’t know how to explain it. Like, the bedroom, the car, the club. That’s where you’ll find me. I’m trying to think of other contexts like on top of a mountain. On a boat, maybe.

We have seen you on a boat now.
Yeah, it’s giving modes of transport.

The last five years of dance music has been fascinating. We’ve seen a dilution of popular white male DJs and I think we’re seeing more queer and trans DJs. More color. We’re changing the records. What impact have you seen on the scene from that perspective, and how do those gains feel in light of more mainstream pop gaining an appreciation of dance?
When I first started, no one gave a shit at least about, like, left-of-center R&B dance music — just like that whole pocket that I’m in, whatever the fuck that’s called. On the one hand, it was like the era of left-of-center music, indie music. It was mostly giving indie white boy bands … When I think about that period, it’s a dark time for left-of-center Black music, for Black music that is experimental, because white adjacency was legitimate in a very literal way at that time. I’ll also say that R&B had not been accepted by the white gaze the way that it is now. So there was just a way that I remember making my first project and just didn’t feel like there was a context for that, if that makes any sense. I definitely have references of artists and people who were doing their thing. Like, innovative Black underground artists. I could name so many that were existing in that period, but they were also relegated to a very Black audience. It was very segregated. Like, when Little Dragon started touring in the United States, their first audiences were completely Black. I remember at one point it was just, like, me, SZA, and twigs. So I did not feel like [the album] was going to be received in that type of way.

As time passed, it felt like this pocket had expanded. Even when Take Apart came out, it did not feel like that was fully what was going on. And now it’s just boom — from the bottom up in terms of the most marginalized to the top down in terms of a pop star making a dance record. And even my remix projects— I felt like there was nobody doing remix projects. Let’s talk about that. Right after, it was a standard move that everyone is making after they make an original album. And for me, I was like, That’s gonna be my staple every time I do a record. Now everybody gets a Jersey Club remix. That was the purpose of the remix project, to be honest. It was to make note that these people exist and that this culture exists. That it doesn’t just have to exist in this underground way.

It feels like that gray area between gatekeeping and allowing everybody to do your shit, right? Of saying like, No, niggas did this.
Exactly. This is niggas, and don’t ever get it twisted. It’s like 22 tracks. There’s one white person on the entire thing, and there’s a real clear reason why that person’s track came on. Like, ain’t nobody gonna be like, “Don’t put that on there.” And it was just like everybody else is Black or brown. The purpose is to uplift the most marginalized and talented at the same time.

’Cus it’s us they want!
Yeah. Like, you crave this culture, you crave this sound, we know it. Then you want it more. We’ll do it again with more people on this next project. That’s the kind of legacy I wanna create.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated a Kelela quote about “the white gaze.” It has since been updated.

Nigerian word for “please,” as in pleading. Never heard it used as an identifier, but, yeah, put that in your pipe and smoke it. Water is a constant motif on Raven. There are water sound effects between songs and mentions of floating and falling away. The album’s cover also sees Kelela almost fully immersed. Kelela released two remix versions of Hallucinogen and Take Me Apart.
Sincerely Kelela