Do you remember your first concert? For Kelela Mizanekristos, it was 1995 and some of her favorite acts — Boyz II Men, TLC and Erykah Badu — were on the lineup for the Washington, D.C., leg of Budweiser Superfest.
“Literally every single person you could care about in terms of black music [was there],” the singer, who goes by her first name, recalls. She and her cousin had neglected their bedtime one night to call into their local radio station, WPGC 95.5, and much to their surprise, they won the giveaway tickets. With Kelela’s father’s blessing — he chaperoned them — the two girls went to soak up the sound.
Now 35, Kelela has gone from attending festivals to playing them. She performed at Coachella last weekend and will return on Friday for her second set. She’s been to the mega-fest before “technically,” though she didn’t get to attend any shows the first time around. This time things are different — “except they took my weed, so it wasn’t that different, you know?”
Growing up on albums like Badu’s “Mama’s Gun” and “Butterfly” by Mariah Carey, Kelela knew she wanted to pursue music at an early age, but didn’t know how to go about it. After releasing a mixtape in 2014 and an EP the following year, she unveiled “Take Me Apart,” her debut studio album, in 2017. The 14-track offering, alternative R&B infused with electro-pop, has been out for six months, but Kelela is only just starting to unwind from it.
“I’ll never make an album like that ever again — I think that it’s plagued my mind-set,” she says. “The first one takes the longest because you don’t know what you’re doing and you want to try all the ways and all the things that are possible. There’s so much messaging out there that says you don’t got this. Even when you did it, there’s so much messaging out there that says you’re a piece of s–t and you won’t ever do it again and that that was a fluke.”
The album received positive reviews, but the “grueling” way in which it came together took a toll on her. She’s sure, however, that she’ll be back soon enough for a follow-up.
Asked for her thoughts on the current music landscape, Kelela offers an analysis on the intersection of the art form with the economy and social sphere. “On a very basic level, it’s a warm climate for somebody like me to thrive, not because people actually care more, necessarily, but because it’s really a bad business to look like you’re not progressive,” she says. “There are people who are definitely trying to change the landscape, but I would say that in terms of business and in terms of campaigns and being public-facing on a corporate level, it is really because it’s a bad look for the company to not be involved with people who are saying meaningful things in the world. Maybe we need that first and maybe that makes it so that people understand the messaging that’s coming through all of that.”
Progressiveness — or a lack thereof — is also something she’s mindful of when participating in fashion industry events. She attended the latest rounds of New York and Paris fashion weeks, and is close with designers such as Telfar, Raul Lopez and Shayne Oliver. She works with a stylist and creative director, Mischa Notcutt, whom she credits with helping her take risks in healthy ways. She says she surrounds herself with “incredibly stylish people” — though not on purpose — and is interested, but wary of cultivating a presence in the fashion world.
“It’s a really unsafe place, but they [her fashion friends] made it so that I could walk in that space and not feel so sh–ty,” she says. “There’s moments where I feel unwelcome even when I’m invited. It’s a mixed feeling, but I don’t feel uncomfortable a lot of the time because I don’t feel tokenized.”
As she knows, an invite to a show is only the start because inclusion isn’t guaranteed by simply an invite. Inclusion, rather, is a mind-set.
“Sending an invite out, it was enough in the Eighties and the Nineties,” she says. “At this point, I want to dictate how I’m included. It’s the ‘how’ part that a lot of us are interested in curating.”