the electric future of r&b
Do you remember that one girl in high school? You know, the devastatingly popular triple threat: beauty, brains, brawn, and beyond? The all-star workhorse with a lion heart and a butterfly soul? The one you ogle open-jawed, shaking your head, asking yourself how the hell she pulls it off? Because, yeah, the girl can croon like a diva, she’s a knockout brainiac, always dressed to kill, a downright charmer, and, of course, as if all that weren’t enough, she’s stop-in-your-tracks gorgeous with a splash of class and a taste for rebellion. She’s Supergirl, and even if you couldn’t muster up the courage to talk to her back then, you need look no further than Saturday’s opener, Kelela (pronounced: k?-l?h-lâh), for a second chance at chatting up the class It Girl. (She has been known to mingle with the audience at concerts.)
D.C. born and Maryland raised, Kelela (born Kelela Mizanekristos) grew up in an Ethiopian-American household where her immigrant parents supported her artistic adventures from the start, but also maintained lofty expectations. The Bank Head songstress said of her folks’ attitude in a 2013 interview with Rookie Magazine: “[It’s] like, if I came all the way over here to bust my ass so you could go to nice school in this upper-middle-class white suburb, then you better kill it.” In other words, she had a small handful of career options that would make mom and dad proud: doctor, lawyer, or maybe international politics so she could give back to the homeland.
After graduating from high school in 2008, Kelela spent some time at Montgomery College near her home in Maryland before transferring to American University, where she studied sociology and international relations, focusing on non-Western models of development in Africa. It was in her last semester at American that she made the risky decision to drop everything and do music for real. “I have something stupid, like, 12 credits to graduate,” Kelela told Interview Magazine in 2013. Nevertheless, “I have to do this,” she told herself. “I have to give this one good go.” And so, with her degree only a heartbeat away and what would have been a stable academic future ahead of her, Kelela opted for the great unknown, setting a course straight for Los Angeles, where she’s remained ever since.
That was in 2010, and for the four years that followed, she worked obsessively on her music, all while singing jazz in cafés, nannying, training solar-power telemarketers, doing anything that would pay the bills. She started listening to producers like fellow Spring Weekend performer Hudson Mohawke, trying to make her slinky vocals match pumping EDM numbers. Eventually, she struck gold when she fell in with U.K. electronic record labels like Fade to Mind and Night Slugs, and the former became the producer of her first album, Cut 4 Me. Fresh off the release of that rave-reviewed 2013 mixtape (off of which two tracks were selected for Solange’s 2013 compilation album Saint Heron), the now 31-year-old dance/R&B singer might be hard-pressed to catch a breather amidst the kickoff of her 2015 tour and the constant buzz for her yet-to-be-released EP Hallucinogen, set to hit the web in early May.
Given the stardom ahead of her, perhaps what most defines Kelela is her honesty. Rocking her signature waist-length dreads and an inextinguishable grin, she wields an unassuming swagger that’s both intimidating and inviting. At the close of her 2014 Pitchfork performance, she admitted to the crowd, chuckling: “It’s also kind of funny because, when I wrote this song, I wrote it outside of my range, like, I don’t sing normally in that register at all. I wrote it and then had to learn it, and I was like FUCK.”
Although she’s in her thirties, with her stunning empress complexion and sick style, Kelela could definitely pass for a rabble-rousing teenager. She’s real and raw, and she’s taking advantage of her current rookie status to connect with her fans. “I was just on the fuck-it train,” she said, commenting on her 2014 SXSW performance where she scaled the stage barricade and dropped down into the crowd, joining her fans, bumping along to the beat of her own otherworldly jams. She prefers to be totally open, vulnerable even, her heart on her sleeve and her feet on the ground. In fact, in a 2014 clip for Okayplayer, the ever-cheery, ever-charming artist slowed things down during a trip to NYC to hear her first tarot card reading, shedding a few silent tears at the end because it was really “on point.”
For Kelela, people matter more than sound, and that’s what keeps her music so sharp and electric. Speaking with Lily Mercer in 2013 about the making of her then hot-off-the-presses freshman album, Kelela illuminated her musical modus operandi: “My manifesto was basically … I was trying to make a record of tracks that sounded like remixes—except for that’s how the original song goes.” She recontextualizes her melodies, bringing what’s usually in the background into the foreground, giving the secondary characters a chance to shine. Her ethereal debut mixtape features sexy siren song vocals draped over steely, hypnotic instrumental tracks thrown down by breakout U.S. and U.K. trap producers: Bok Bok, Kingdom, and GIRLUNIT, to name a few. Somber soulful lyrics are her specialty: “You don’t even see me / Are you even breathing? / I should have known better / So I’m gonna let your body go for sure.” Those spellbinding lines come from her newest single, “Message,” released a few weeks ago. The music video features what seems like a paint-spattered, hallucinogenic rendition of Beyoncé’s intimate “1+1” clip.
An AV guy once working her shows called her a cross between Beyoncé and Björk. (Funnily enough, the Icelandic chanteuse showed up and rocked out at one of Kelela’s 2014 gigs—no news, however, on the whereabouts of the Knowles clan.) But pinning her down is tough. She sounds like FKA Twigs, sing-talking through her verses and then belting crystalline, futuristic arias that would be fit for the Civic Opera House on Mars. She’s cool, she’s hot, she’s young (and yet actually pretty old to be entering the game this late), and despite the wildfire rumors circling that say she is forging the future of PBR&B (Pabst Blue Rhythm and Blues, the hipster arena of R&B), it is the singer-songwriter herself who captures her essence best, quipping in an interview for Saint Heron that her sound is basically “doing what Brandy did, but weirder.” She’s right. It’s those same heavenly harmonies, but Kelela is more magnetic and metallic.
So, who is she? Is she Destiny’s Child on acid? Is she Aaliyah’s electronic successor? Is she R&B’s millennial messiah? Whatever the case, what better proving grounds than the Main Green Spring Weekend, where she’s guaranteed to kill it?