July 9, 2019
Culture & Music
On the cover of her debut album Take Me Apart, Kelela sits stark naked, back arched, with floor-length pearl-stranded locs snaking around her body. It’s a statuesque statement of intent – a pose that demands more than attention. In her words, “There’s some styling that says, ‘I’m your friend, you know me, I’m familiar’. And there is some styling that says, ‘I’m not your friend, you do not know me at all. I am your idol’.” Kelela uses music, image and passionate politics to straddle both.
Right: Full look Givenchy
Left: Zimmerman coat & boots, Alan Crocetti jewellery
Left: Maximilian Davis dress
Right: Kenzo top, Celia Valverde dress, Christian Louboutin shoes
I’ve always been a fan of the East End’s Pearly Kings and Queens. The sartorial transubstantiation of meagre buttons into precious stones is an act of magic and an act of working class defiance. “It’s the same thing with a pearl,” Kelela says, when talking about Take Me Apart, “I don’t know why it spoke to me so much. A pearl is so familiar, but when you put it in a dreadlock it really changes the context. And also taking that… usurping the pearl from rich white ladies. That’s something I’m really interested in.” Like the button-strewn Pearly Queens: Kelela is regal and Kelela is real.
When I ask about having her picture taken and being styled, she describes it as an extension of her work as an artist. “I definitely have to use some of the same muscles when trying to take a good photo.” What is she trying to convey? “I dunno… pride and vulnerability at the same time. Tenderness and a strength.” These feline qualities are threads that run through all the work – and on the shoot, she treads lightly, posing in a subconsciously measured fashion. The contrasts form a lush, hypnotic and surprising album that swings from the raw and confessional to the otherworldly, “Back and forth. In the same moment, there’s an instrumental where you’re like, ‘Whoa, what is this?’, and then the vocal is meant to anchor you and make you feel, I know this.” Hence the instant iconographic album artwork. “Because I need the cover to embody the sound and the message, I have to be naked. I have to do something scary for myself. It has to embody me putting myself out there in a way that is risky and rewarding.”
It is not just with her sound and image that she takes risks. Click any article featuring Kelela and you immediately hear her confident and candid voice, cutting through the bullshit. The thing that wavers is not Kelela’s fearless honesty – but the bravery of the editor choosing to publish, or not publish her words. “I think there is a way that privilege, a way that gender, and a way that class intersect with whiteness in a specific way. It’s only important because it’s relevant to all of the stuff I’m constantly talking about and trying to make people aware of.” As Kelela and I talk about her ambivalent relationship with fashion, I ask her what advice she would give a pale and stale industry. She laughs.
“The first bit of advice I would give out would be to the women of colour, the black women specifically, who need to go into those contexts.
I would be more concerned to equip them with a few tools, with a handbook.” Kelela describes how grateful many of us working in the creative industries are, just to be able to “make shit”, and so if the establishment comes asking to collaborate, “If you come into the context with an ethic that leans on the side of ‘so grateful to be here’ you will be taken advantage of. One hundred thousand million gillion percent. Not maliciously, necessarily. I don’t think anybody is out there trying to get you. But they are out there to extract as much as they can from you while investing the least in you, and in your story and your narrative.” She calls it out as just ‘passing’. “Passing the diversity test, passing the ‘we include black people quota.’ And if you come into that context really grateful and smiley, there is a way that it can fuck with you.”
“Everyone is terrified of alienating the brand. Specifically when it comes to ‘you didn’t do that right.’” Kelela is very clear about how she feels the fashion world capitalises on the image of women of colour. “There is a way we as black women are brought into the fashion industry. It’s more on the performance side rather than the ‘we’re gonna build the class of the brand on these black women being on the front row’. We can build street cred and we can build social justice cred but we’re not going to build classy cred. You know, it’s not going to work on the Italian lady in Florence who needs to see white ladies on the front row. She just needs to see them, and she needs to see them in the campaign.”
Speaking of that Italian lady in Florence, it doesn’t get much more euro-glam than Fendi, one of the biggest fashion houses to invite Kelela to the party (she is one of the stars of the F is For Fendi website.) “With Fendi, I was included in their sort of diffusion. It’s not even a diffusion brand; it’s a platform they created for the niggas to be on the site. So it is very evident, if you go to the Fendi homepage, or the Fendi Instagram, it looks very different from the F is For Fendi site. And that’s not an accident. We are relegated to the corners, the crevices are where we can live. They can get their street-cred points. And we can participate and be all grateful and happy to be there.” Kelela explains it really clearly: “The other part is that I love Fendi shit! It sucks to be having the experience of ‘Damn, I love your actual output’.
Left: Marques’Almeida top & skirt
Right: Simone Rocha dress, Zimmerman boots
Respect the thing that you make but do not respect any of the ethic of the way you present it to the world. I’m not able to access that simply rewarding experience that white girls can access.”
Kelela is not being flip, or clickbaiting when she speaks so openly, “It’s a huge conundrum where, If I say something right now, well not if; I am saying something right now. I don’t know how that is going to affect my relationships and I don’t know how that is going to affect my coin. I am taking a very big risk by saying that. The hope is that I make the connections with the people and the institutions in the fashion industry who are trying to do things the right way. Maybe they’ll reach out. It’s terrifying, I don’t know what that will lead to, they might just shut me out.”
If the chess-like game of fashion (albeit with fewer black playing pieces) disqualifies Kelela, she will always have a home in the worlds of music she has spent the past three decades immersed in. “I feel like I have lived so many musical lives. And that, coupled with the culture of editing and remixing and just flipping, that’s something me and my friends are obsessed with. ‘Is it meant to be a Timbaland beat or should this be a Bjork moment?’”
Her collaborators range from Teengirl Fantasy to Solange, and she has travelled from classical violin (“In fourth grade”) to electronic R&B via the jazz world (“I was obsessed with learning standards and building up my voice.”) and indie rock. “I got really deeply into new music and I started ripping instrumentals from my favourite producers. I would write them a note on Myspace with a song attached that I had ripped and recorded over.
So I would collaborate with them by myself and use that as a method to collaborate with them for real. Rather than propose blindly, I was like, ‘I did this with you, you’re just finding out about it now, but we should do something more involved.’” This was the way Kelela started building her own thoroughly modern “conservatory of music.” Daedelus was the first to reply (in 2011) and the past six years have seen Kelela’s sound grow and evolve, culminating in this year’s debut full album: Take Me Apart. Kelela describes how each collaboration has led to another, “Opening me up into a broader, deeper well. A black hole if you will. That I never want to get out of.”
Right: Full look Givenchy
Left: Kenzo top, Celia Valverde dress, Christian Louboutin shoes