Kelela is BFFs with Solange, has toured with the xx, and is a sought-after collaborator for the likes of Gorillaz’ Damon Albarn — and she’s only just released her first album. But the 34-year-old has attracted a who’s who of tastemaking fans thanks to her fantastical, heady fusion of R&B and electronic music, showcased first on her 2013 mixtape, Cut 4 Me, and now on her debut studio album, Take Me Apart.
Touching multiple corners of music has long been a goal for the artist, whose full name is Kelela Mizanekristos. After growing up in suburban Maryland, she began a quest to find what she describes as “the place between Björk, Sade, and Beyoncé.” (She teamed up with producer Arca, a frequent cohort of her Icelandic muse, on her 2015 EP Hallucinogen, which landed on many critics’ best-of lists that year.) Those artists’ meticulous and fearless approaches to their craft embolden her: “I feel like there’s no confines.”
But Kelela is aware that the musical space she’s looking to occupy hasn’t been explored by many people who look like her. As a second-generation Ethiopian-American woman, she’s trying to expand the canon of black musicians who have infused elements of electronic music into their work. “My reference points for the record are Janet [Jackson] and Prince, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis,” she explains. Her identity also informs her approach to her lyrics: “I’m trying to make all the words be empowering, for women and for black women, especially. Even when you’re in despair and being treated like s—, you can still talk about that in a way where you’re not the victim.”
Now that the years-in-the-making Apart is finally out, Kelela’s goal for her listeners is simple. “I hope that they find some solace,” she says. “Just softness and tenderness and a place where they can feel all good and safe and cozy.”