PAPER is proud to present a conversation with Kelela -- emerging pop star and member of the Beautiful People Class of 2015. Read on for her take on the American Dream (the theme of our April issue), and meet Kelela's classmates here.
What can you tell me about your forthcoming debut album?
There's definitely post-heartache and post-breakup songs, songs that were surrounding a relationship, and then a few songs that point to the actual cusp of change. And then there's this sort of... I mean, I wouldn't call it resolve, but I would call it the next page, I guess. And it's sort of falling in love again, experiencing very new and exciting stuff, you know? The experiences that I've had over the past two years have been like dreams coming true. I used to feel insecure about what I'm supposed to do next, because I knew I wasn't in the same place that I was before when I wrote the mixtape [2013's Cut 4 Me]. Like, What does Kelela say when she's like not heartbroken? [laughs] And then I realized halfway through -- my ticket, how I essentially identify myself is more vulnerable than heartbroken. So whether it's about heartache or about being in love, it's definitely tears of some sort. And that's definitely what I can say is the thing that I do.
Is that carrying straight through the full-length, do you think?
I think there is a feeling of triumph or arrival or coming into one's own. But even that experience through Kelela's lens... I don't think I'll ever feel like I've truly arrived. And I never want to step out of that. I never want you to think I have it all figured out, if that makes sense.
And that's reflected in the sounds as well, with that sort of restraint and ambiguity. Why do you think it comes out that way?
I think it comes from having been othered growing up, and then finding solace in it. Being really, really uncomfortable and wanting to be normal. I went to a pretty mixed school, but I hung out with the upper-middle-class white kids -- being also the child of East African immigrants and not really being able to identify as African American culturally, but also growing up in the United States and being black, you know what I mean? I don't feel solely culturally situated in that zone either. Over time, it's moved me into feeling attached to being othered. Being on the outside is a very comfortable thing, and excavating spaces that haven't been excavated or pointing to spaces that sort of exist in the cracks is more interesting to me.
Was Ethiopian music part of your upbringing?
It sure was. I mean, in Ethiopian culture, if you go to a wedding, you're obliged to at least clap and sing along. No wallflowers. So it blurs the line between performer and audience, and I grew up in a context where that was normalized. I didn't really listen avidly until I was in my late teens. After high school I sort of became obsessed with a singer who goes by Gigi. She was sort of marketed as like a world artist, but this was like one of the few Ethiopian singers that has been really seen in that context. My dad actually did the translation for the lyrics, the booklet, and so he would tell me what the lyrics were. They were so poetic and sort of situated in all these rural contexts, as a lot of Ethiopian lyrics are. Vocally, I want to do comparisons between like Kim Burrell, who's an amazing gospel singer, and some Ethiopian countryside singers, you know, the way that they inflect their voices -- it's sort of comparable, but like completely different. So I'm definitely interested in the intersections between world music, Middle Eastern music and music in Urdu and Hindi. I used to just imitate all voices, for sure.
And these days, do you play your music to your parents?
I definitely send them links and stuff. My dad is more so on the Internet, like actively lurking. He lives in Addis Ababa, in Ethiopia, but he's at an office every day, so he's definitely checking things out. And my mom actually writes music as well. She plays intermediate flute right now; she learned recently. And then she started writing hymns and now her church -- you know, we have an Ethiopian congregation -- my mom's church now sings the songs that she writes.
What denomination is the church?
Well, my mom is religious and she's Catholic. But it's an Ethiopian Catholic church, so the sermon and the whole mass is in Ge'ez, which is sort of like the Latin of Ethiopia. It's the language that only existed 7-800 years ago or was spoken around that time and is now completely solely used in the church. Nobody speaks Ge'ez, but everybody knows it.
What parts of the country have you visited that have sort of struck you the most, whether for like beauty or being messed up for one reason or another or whatever?
Um, I haven't really been to those places on a Kelela tour, but...
Just in your life, it could be.
My ex-boyfriend is a sort of prodigious guitarist, just an amazing guitarist. He plays metal and operates mostly in the metal context. So I went on tour with him in summer of 2011 and it was 29 dates in 30 days in a 19-passenger van. So that was more punk than anything. It's basically, you know, riding dirty, going through middle America and the south, through parts that nobody, in my context, currently is going through, you know? Like Mobile, Alabama, and Wichita, Kansas. But like, the venue that they ended up playing in Wichita... I mean, it's unfair to call it a venue. But it also put into perspective, how much metal means to kids in middle America, and how it is their only solace, their only outlet. I saw quite literally how much the music means when you're in the middle of nowhere.
OK, last question. What is your American dream?
Um, to capitalize off of who I actually am and only that.
That is incredibly succinct.
I think that's where we get into trouble, or where I get into trouble, is when I'm trying to make a living off of or trying to survive off of something that's not who I am, or doing things that aren't true to myself. And so I can avoid a lot of trouble and still feel really successful if I just stick to who I am.