Interview: Kelela Talks Sex, Vulnerability and Navigating the Music Biz as a Black Woman - Beat Magazine

Interview: Kelela Talks Sex, Vulnerability and Navigating the Music Biz as a Black Woman

Since its release, Kelela’s long-awaited debut album proper, Take Me Apart, has very quickly become the black girl’s soundtrack to a carefree life, and the embodiment of a confidence we can finally express. Five years in the making, its beats and lyrics speak both to longtime fans of nineties r’n’b as well as serving an authentic sound to those who were born in the noughties. Despite it being an album that is taut with precision and sharp with detail, there is a languid deliciousness to these tracks that only Kelela could pull off.

To celebrate all that, I spoke to Kelela about navigating the industry as a black woman, vulnerability and sex. Lots and lots of sex.

Did you set out to make the sexiest album of 2017?

(Laughs) To me, the intention is to create a context for intimacy, which is like an umbrella that hangs over sex. Sex is a part of that. I think the intention behind each song, once I’m in the song and sort of trying to refine it, is just to express what the instrumental is giving you or what I’m feeling. It feels so good to me to write in that sort of mode, and it’s really gratifying and really healing for me, especially as there are a lot things that deal with internal and external conflicts; songs that deal with things that aren’t necessarily sexy. It’s a really interesting thing, because I do see how they sound collectively sexy together. It wasn’t my intention before that. I guess that’s the eternal mood (laughs).

Sexiness is completely subjective. It’s what I took from it and – looking at the response – other people feel that too. ‘Let Me Know’ kind of confirmed that I should be able to be in control of my sexuality, the erotic, my own body. Too often you’re made to feel like you’re trying to set up house with someone if you say ‘do you want to come back to mine?’
That is essentially what ‘Let Me Know’ is dealing with. I would want each song that alludes to sex to be imbued with that knowledge. The knowledge that there’s just a context around us and our partner, the people that we’re interested in. There are a lot of assumptions that are made if you specify what you like. I’ve wanted to provide songs for people to sing, for women specifically, and for black women to be able to sing, that make them feel, even in the most disempowering situations, empowered. Or even in the most like, “this is not cute like right now” situation, they can speak to how something is not cute, while also not submitting to the circumstance or acting like they’re the victim. There are so many tropes I’m trying to steer away from when I write lyrics, so it means a lot to me that it would feel sexy for you because then I know it speaks to how specifically and how safe my intention was to make it. Safe for you to speak the lyrics and still feel really vulnerable. There are some lyrics that are out there about sex that I think the world has decided are vulnerable but really they’re just kind of disempowering, you know what I mean?

I think when people hear black women talk about their own sexuality, they change it into how they want to see it, how they want to see us and how they want to respond to our sexuality. They’re seeing it through their own lens.
Totally. I guess I wouldn’t be able to navigate that if I didn’t have tools or a map, you know, from the women previous and all the women of colour who have been able to write about their experience, or talk about it, or express it in some way, shape, or form. And I’ve always wanted to add to that map. Like when I get together with my black women friends, we’re theorising on the regular and deconstructing on the regular.

I think it’s really hard to have superficial conversations anymore. It all boils down to why we feel the way we do and how we’re made to feel. It’s a lot of emotional labour, day to day.
Emotional labour…A really important term that I’ve never heard of and I’m putting in my pocket, girl.

What did you want to say with this album?
I guess it’s really not a concept album, I just expressed myself continuously. I’d just be sharing so I can heal really, and making songs so that I can feel better. The thing that I’d want people to get in retrospect after having done the album is like me being this vulnerable and this tender in a world and in a context that is not at all tender with me. And as being part of a tradition of black women in R&B specifically, and in jazz, and the whole of black music; the way that black women have that tenderness to the world, just by having to come through the fucking back and perform for the people that want to access tenderness that day.

I think that black women love like no other. We love so much and we don’t always get it back, and I think it shows in all work that we put out.
Exactly, exactly. It shows up all the time, throughout. I think it needs to be illuminated and respected overtly, no more beating around the bush about that.

I’ve wanted to provide songs for people to sing, for women specifically, and for black women to be able to sing, that make them feel, even in the most disempowering situations, empowered.

You know what I mean? I think we’ve been beating around the bush.

And pandering all the time.
Amazing. Exactly.

Take Me Apart was five years in the making. How much did you, and the album, evolve in that time?
For each song there’s about five different versions. That was in part because I’m coming from this place of “I don’t know”, this world of remixing and editing, so basically the number of sounds that me and my friends appreciate fully is so varied and that made it so that it was difficult to figure out which version is the OG version! Another reason it took so long is because my confidence as a black woman in the music industry had to be built.

And how confident are you navigating yourself and this space as a black woman?
Now I feel equipped. But racism and sexism constantly morphs, so once we have the analysis down, the people on the outside, they change their method and it becomes covert again. That’s why we have to be so fucking intelligent and so on point, because as soon as that shit switches you can be like ‘no, that was a new one, I see the new one!’

We have no space to fail!
Exactly! And one of the most prominent things is figuring out how to stop people from bulldozing over you, especially because you’re entering a context where white men are in positions of authority and basically are constantly exercising that authority on you, even when it comes to your own artwork. They feel very comfortable telling you what you should be doing.

And you’re taught that you should feel grateful that you’re there, that you’re allowed to be there.
Exactly. As a person, I am grateful, but as a black person being grateful really is the most unproductive ethic that you could come into a white male-dominated context with. It is actually the last sentiment that you should be feeling. On a practical level, I feel like there should have definitely been a rolodex of black people that you can work with in the entertainment world. I don’t know when I’m gonna start that, I don’t know how, but that needs to happen. So that when you enter [the industry], you’re not like “well they said that this white girl can only do my hair and she sent me one example of a black person that she did” and everybody gets insulted if you say “she can’t do my hair” and it becomes a big ass deal. When you’re entering the context, everybody’s telling you that you’ll lose the opportunity if you try and impose your way on the company and so it just ends up being one of the most devastating experiences. The way my image is used as opposed to a white girl’s image to convey and sell products, it’s different. For a black girl, for a woman of colour, just entering the context for the first time and being grateful, truly honestly grateful, it can fuck with your shit when you come in.

Stylist: Mischa​ ​Maffia​ ​/ Hair: Virginie​ ​Moreira​ ​/ MU: Daniel​ ​Sallstrum​ ​/ Nails: Jessica​ ​Thompson​ ​/ Art and Movement direction: Pat Boguslawski

This interview is taken from BEAT issue #23 – get your copy here!