Kelela’s road to releasing her first full-length album Take Me Apart was not exactly smooth. The first obstacle was her family. As the daughter of African immigrants growing up in D.C., a career in the arts wasn’t considered a sustainable choice. “Every second generation kid can relate, I think on some level, to the notion that [art]’s not a viable option,” she says. Then there was her journey to music: although she said she came “out of the womb with lyrics,” it took her dropping out of college before she turned to it as a career. And finally there was the industry itself, which proved the biggest stumbling block. As a black woman, she explains, “you’re in this constant state of questioning what is actually happening between what you see and what you feel and what you think.”
But now Kelela, a collaborator with Solange Knowles, is proving to be one of the most distinctive and thoughtful voices in R&B. Her sound is experimental and undeniably sexy, filled with echoes and layers through which her sinuous voice floats. Just don’t call her “innovative.” Instead, she says, her neo-soul sound is part of a tradition of black musicians pushing the limits.
“It’s a weird thing to be singled out as the start of a wave of something, [this] innovative R&B, as if it were the first time being innovative,” she explains. Her project: to continue moving it forward, making it easier for the black women who come after her to get heard. “The whole point of this is, I’m trying to play a game, trying to see how much I can push while using myself as the tool for that change that I’m trying to see in the world,” she says. “I want to be very literal and overt and clear about that: it’s white men who lead and are still in control of the music industry, while people of color — specifically black women — have been contributing and influencing so much. That’s the dichotomy that I’m overtly trying to attack.” And as she challenges seductively in one track on the album, “It’s my turn now. Truth or dare?”
TIME spoke with Kelela about the challenges of navigating the music industry, her all-important friendship with fellow artist Solange and the power of sharing vulnerability.
TIME: What was the turning point for you in pursuing music instead of anything else?
KELELA: The moment I gave it a go was after I pursued academia. I had one semester left in order to finish, and I couldn’t explain it — I was really interested in the classes, but I was not connecting with doing the work. After it became clear that I was not going to graduate, I had this moment where I was like, ‘I need to not sulk. I need to pursue — at least try — to pursue music. But if I don’t try, I’m going to be a really bitter middle aged lady working in a cubicle.’ I was like, ‘Give yourself one good hard go. And if it doesn’t happen, I can at least say that I gave it my all, and I can accept it.’ What’s beautiful is I’m still on my first go. My first real, undying effort.
This album has been over ten years coming. What took you this time to bring it together?
I had to live my life. I had to live the experience that the album depends on. That’s one part. Another part is, there’s just a lot in terms of the music industry as a whole — the expectations, the pressures — all of the things I experienced as an artist. And add to that being a black woman in the type of music realm I’m in. I just didn’t have all the tools for that. There’s a lot of emotional learning that needed to take place in order for me to navigate with intention.
The rulebook is a different one. So I had to compare notes with other black women peers, and figure out: How are you navigating that thing? That’s weird, right? It was a lot of that, which affects your confidence, the ways that you make things, your gut, the way that you move through your creative process.
I have to know the context for [things], feel like I am familiar, that I’m not crazy. As a black woman, we’re constantly like, “Did he just…? Did she just…? Did they just…?” You’re in this constant state of questioning… with this expectation that you are about to go off at all times. That intersection is a really tough place to be. In reality there is truth behind what it means to sound white, what it means to be evoking blackness. It requires a lot of energy for any black woman. I was not ready for that.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received in navigating this process? Or is there someone who has mentored you?
Speaking of hope and light, Solange Knowles!
What’s your relationship with Solange like?
I mean, from the beginning she was like, ‘Would you like to be part of this?’ A simple gesture like, ‘Do you want to be my friend? Want to go to brunch? Do you want to hang out?’ It was just such a kind ethic in a place that, when you’re entering that world, did not feel kind. She made me feel safe immediately. On a really practical level, [she helped me] when I had my first shoots and they said they had somebody that could do black hair — and on my last one they said they had someone — but it didn’t turn out that way. They were scared, and they were being white with my hair and it made me feel uncomfortable.
A black woman’s handbook in this industry is, whoa. The chapter on “Don’t go there.” The chapter on “How to say that nicely,” how to express that you don’t like something so that you don’t lose the opportunity — which is what we’re doing all day long.
It sounds like this is a handbook you need to write down.
Oh, believe you me that we have written all kinds of statements. We have discussed publishing them. We’ve tried to be very smart about how we approach this. We do have plans.
Also my other peers — I have so many peers in similar places. As we take baby steps forward, we’re looking to the side like, ‘How’d you deal with that one?’ It’s all happening in real time.
What gives you the energy to keep going?
It is exhausting. But the way that I can heal is through thinking about stuff and deconstructing. To understand what is actually happening and to feel that community around that is what is actually happening, it changes the whole game. Then it feels like you’re playing a game. And then it feels like you’re just scamming everyone.
What are you pushing back against — what’s accepted or expected of you?
I’m pushing back against the white misogynistic heterosexual establishment in the music industry. Like, literally, in all its forms. I’m trying to make a decision that’s not just going make it easy for me to get paid, but for every woman and every black woman after me to be able to do the same thing. Even women who don’t have the privileges that I also have access to. That’s what I’m out here to do. That’s what I’m pushing back against.
Your album, though, is love songs. It’s about very personal romantic and sexual experiences. How does your project of pushing back align with the content of your work, in your eyes?
The way that I think about it is that I’m being so tender and so vulnerable and wearing my heart on my sleeve in a world that is not at all considering my well being, and in an industry and a context as an artist that is not kind to me. That is not made for me to be successful. So that’s how I would have those two things intersect.
And that’s not just me, that’s what black women in music have been doing in music since the beginning. The tradition that I want to be a part of is something that’s been going on since Josephine Baker. Since before. All the people of the world are able to access tenderness, sexiness, intimacy. White people — their soundtrack to what it means to be intimate is soundtracked by black people, specifically black women. It’s something that I find very interesting and is borne out of a set of very specific values, and have created something that’s actually one of the most beautiful things in the world. And that’s something I’m trying to be a part of.
My exercise to myself is to be human. To be having human feelings, experience human relationships. And to be vulnerable still in a world that’s being so mean.
People have referred to your music as retro-futurism or neo-soul. How do you describe your genre?
I just want to shed light, illuminate and turn the spotlight over to all of the black people who have been being futuristic and innovative since instruments were plugged into a wall. With computers, machines, and music, black people have been contributing to that a great deal for a long time.
That is the first thing that I would want to speak on, in terms of where I’m coming from. I want to be adding to that. I am still coming from a long tradition; my reference points are so black. I’m not thinking about Brian Eno, I’m not thinking about Massive Attack. I’m thinking about Prince. I’m thinking about Stevie Wonder, Herbie Hancock. I’m thinking about the way that machines were used in that music, in R&B for a long time.
So you’re situating yourself as part of, or a continuation of, that innovative tradition?
Exactly. That’s important to me because I didn’t really have the language to articulate why that was problematic early on when I was being hit with all the questions about innovative R&B and what I’m a part of. But there are so many people who I consider to be part of that tradition that are not being acknowledged by white people.