In early September, a 23-second clip posted to Twitter teased that Kelela’s five-year break from music was soon coming to an end — and sent fans into a frenzy. The clip comprised several fan tweets begging for her comeback; one, plucked from the opening sequence of the animated series Avatar: The Last Airbender, characterized it best: “When the world needed her most… she vanished.”
After debuting in 2013 with her mixtape Cut 4 Me, the elusive, genre-bending singer upped the ante every two years, releasing her Hallucinogen EP in 2015 and then her critically acclaimed debut album, Take Me Apart, in 2017. Yet as the concurrent crises of the coronavirus pandemic and the resurgent Black Lives Matter movement took hold in 2020, Kelela says, “I think the uprising kind of led me into a place of wanting to rethink this whole f–king thing and, quite frankly, wanting to create a more liberatory model for myself.”
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The 39-year-old Ethiopian-American artist born Kelela Mizanekristos has always been openly critical of the music business, calling out colorism and other issues in interviews. But what was happening in the world helped her feel more galvanized to free herself from business relationships that she felt didn’t advocate strongly enough for her artistry. In 2020, she wrote letters to the various people and companies she had business with explaining her needs, and based upon their responses — or lack thereof, from some — she cut ties, including with Sony Music Publishing. (The company responded the same day, a source says.) “Because we had an uprising, Black people now have more permission to be like, ‘I don’t like that,’ ” she says. “I am a darker-skinned, Black femme who makes left-of-center R&B/electronic music. I need to work with people who get it.”
Kelela’s music is uniquely situated between electronic dance and alternative R&B, with the music of her childhood in Washington, D.C. — ’90s R&B, soul, jazz and world, like Ethiopia’s Mahmoud Ahmed and South Africa’s Miriam Makeba — serving as key influences. She became a fixture within the rave community for the way in which she paired retro R&B vocals with futuristic club beats — and kicked it up a notch when she recruited Black queer musicians like Kaytranada and Ahya Simone to warp her lead vocals on a Take Me Apart remix album in 2018.
Throughout her career, Kelela has felt she has had to straddle two audiences: Black fans who are mesmerized by her lush R&B vocals and white fans who are entranced by her club production, thus becoming “a point of discovery for both,” she says. “That’s how I was always thinking about it.” With her long-awaited second full-length, Raven — due Feb. 10, 2023, on her longtime independent label home, Warp Records — she plans to “service the people who are there in the front row and have always been there,” says Kelela. “Queer Black people.”
On Raven, Kelela offers poignant reflections about not allowing herself to be swallowed up in her sorrow but rather celebrating her self-renewal and relishing in her resilience. “As a person who has always felt outside, there’s a deep catharsis in finding an entire social network of people who are also on the outside and making a group based off that marginalization,” she says. “When I service my immediate community, I service myself. Before, I was taking that for granted. I would be like, ‘Those people are going to always be there no matter what I do.’ And I think that’s anti-Black, or there’s some internalized sh-t there that I don’t like, and that’s not serving me, that doesn’t help me.”
She explains, while reading aloud from Wikipedia, that ravens “often act as psychopomps” known to mediate between two worlds, an idea she feels speaks to her own music. On Raven — made of self-recorded demos she later engineered herself along with different producers around the world — the moments where her vocals aren’t present can be the most powerful. In their absence, a specific blend of sensual pop-R&B balladry with atmospheric drum’n’bass beats comes into focus. Being Black is not a monolithic experience, and Kelela’s music cannot be consumed that way either. “My pursuit is to get you introduced to club music and then be able to enjoy it when there’s not a vocal guiding you every time,” she says. “You can see that I let go more.”
Beyoncé shared in that mission with her latest album, Renaissance, a dance collection with a diva house lead single, “Break My Soul,” which became the artist’s first solo No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 14 years. The release ushered legions of Black people worldwide onto the dancefloor; Kelela believes it also provided newcomers a “reference point” to her music, which they might have overlooked even just a few years ago. “I’m so happy someone like B would help Black people own this music that has been obscured and not perceived as Black,” she says.
Ahead, Kelela confirms she’ll release a Raven remix set because, like last time, it allows her to not stress about the album version of each track. And she knows her community will always be ready for more. “Queer Black people have the range — and no one else has been having the range.”
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