“Some of you don’t know who the fuck I am. My name is Kelela.”
It’s Friday afternoon at the Pitchfork SXSW day party at Barracuda and Kelela is midway through her set as the headlining act. After doing the three singles from her universally acclaimed 2017 LP Take Me Apart, Kelela and her DJ, Lirik, jump to “Go All Night,” a fan favorite from her 2013 mixtape Cut 4 Me. With the exception of the pockets of us hovering near the stage, people are talking. I get the feeling that a lot of people are there to be there, that they’re curious about this outspoken black woman with an amazing voice and catchy, beat-driven songs that everyone’s been talking about lately. As I’m standing two feet away from Kelela for the entirety of her set, I sense that she’s tired from touring and doing all the press for this album. As a queer black woman, she’s supposed to be able to speak for everyone who’s not a straight white man—and seems especially invested in making music for queer black girls. As the hoards of mostly white people continue chattering behind me, Kelela finally breaks mid set to say her first full sentences of the afternoon: “Some of you don’t know who the fuck I am. My name is Kelela.” Remembering her saying this same line during her appearance at the two previous SXSW’s, I feel a bit taken aback that she feels the need to say it this time, when she is presumably riding the high of her most recent album’s success. But perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised at all, given how much popular music as an entity—and gentrifying cities such as Austin—want to take the contributions of black people and make them a footnote in the narrative of how supposedly more benign white heteropatriarchy has become in our post-civil rights, post-Roe v. Wade, post-gay marriage contemporary moment.
“The rise of Donald Trump is sort of a symptom of the fact that America hasn’t ever dealt with whiteness… What Donald Trump represents to me is a sickness that we haven’t dealt with: the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow and all the other dumb shit that continues to exist… We have not dealt with racism on a global scale; we have not dealt with white privilege.”
In only two years’ time, Kelela has come a long way from performing at Fader Fort during SXSW 2016. As the warm up for Yo Gatti and special guest Drake (and his entire OVO label), Kelela’s music seemed quiet in comparison for what was to come later in the night, the kind of songs you would listen to alone in your bedroom or while having passionate sex with a lover. When performing “Rewind” at the Fort, her turned down vocals felt like a whisper over the blare of Lirik’s beats, a quiet beckoning for our attention as she shared (sang) her feelings. I don’t remember much about that set since it was the first time I got to see and hear her live—and I felt very caught up in just taking in the moment of being in the same space as her. As someone who grew up to listening to 90s r&b and feeling my feelings intensely, Kelela’s music has always resonated deeply with me since the moment I first listened to her mixtape back in early 2015, as I was continuing to dive deeper and deeper into my somewhat recent love for synthpop and synth r&b. And even before learning that she, too, identifies as queer, I felt an affinity with her along the lines of thinking and desiring differently. In the presence of a racially diverse and gender-bending (and presumably also queer crowd), I experienced one of my moments of first feeling at home in Austin.
Some days later, I read an interview that Kelela did with The Fader before her set at the Fort that Saturday. Given the connections that both make between music, affect, and politics, it’s no surprise that The Fader and Kelela have been co-conspirators from the beginning. Nevertheless, I am struck by her declaring, “We have not dealt with racism on a global scale; we have not dealt with white privilege” in the middle of one of her responses. And for that moment that she and everyone else played Fader Fort that Saturday, (East) Austin was actually diverse (in terms of race, gender, and sexuality) in a way it’s rarely been during my nearly four years living here. Not only was racism not permitted in that space; it was also actively combated by making space for people of color by bringing in black and brown artists. To this day, Kelela has never written a politically explicit song. But her music has always been political, due to how she centers black sounds in a way that carves out space for anyone who can get down with that—and with all the politics and history (and working to do something with our privilege) behind that. When I read the news nearly two years later that a Whole Foods is being built over what used to be Pine Street Station, I think about how imagining this kind of racial, gender, and sexaul solidiarity and, in the case of we white people, doing something with our privilege means facing the bulldozers of patriarchy.
“I have one mission today. People think r&b is this simple genre. I’m here to show you otherwise. The range, breadth, depth that exists [in r&b] has fucked up every genre.”
The next time I see Kelela in concert, it’s 2017 and she’s headlining the SPIN SXSW day party. At Empire Control Room on E. 7th, we’re west of I-35 but still east of Red River, in an in-between zone that I consider a sort of extension of the east side of town. Time-wise, it’s about six months after Kelela’s EP Hallucinogen dropped, which got favorable reviews from publications like SPIN—and got people wondering when her first official full length will be coming out. After Saba finishes his set, a lot of the crowd (and especially the white men in the press section) empty out. I look at who’s moved to the front and see that it’s myself and a group of black fans lined up against the railing. We’ve been here for four hours, waiting to see Kelela, which included standing through the borderline transphobic comments of Diet Cig’s Alex Luciano. Although we’re only a few blocks away from where Fader Fort happened last year, we somehow feel miles away the expansiveness of its vision—and manifestation—of radical diversity. Where are the rest of the black and/or queer people who were at the show last year? Perhaps as a response to the crowd for this show, Kelela won’t schedule a stop for her 2017 fall tour in Austin (and so I, as I imagine others from that day did as well, would go see her in Houston instead).
Working with the blue and red lights flashing on the stage, Kelela weaves in and out of both their colors and Lirik’s beats. One year later, Kelela’s vocals sound confident and assertive, like she can already anticipate what’s about to happen when she drops her LP in October. I feel this show in a different way, perhaps because I’m closer to the stage and can hear the sound a lot better this time. And then, midway through the set, I hear Kelela drop the powerful line, “People think r&b is this simple genre. I’m here to show you otherwise.” After this monologue about r&b, Kelela launches in “Gomenasai,” the second track from Hallucinogen. After Kelela sings, “I ain’t playing around,” the drum-clap beat amps up intensity with Kelela’s vocals. As she sings, “Put your hands up” (trailing her voice on the “up”), the chorus launches into the song’s first major drop. Out in the audience, I plunge along with it (into the memory of angry sex—and into the beat as sex), only to be pulled back out when all the instrumentation drops out as Kelela sings, “You’re my bitch… tonight.” In this song and in this moment of the sexual encounter, she is the one in control—of herself, of the sexual encounter, and of the movements and emotions of the crowd. When I research the song’s origins later, I learn that Kelela wrote it after watching 20 Feet From Stardom, the documentary about backup singers. The song is also an anthem for black women singers.
“This song is about an ex I broke up with, a long time ago. And he didn’t get that it was over. He used to come see me at my old job… This song is called ‘Enemy.’”
After bringing a full band to her show in Houston in November and bringing back her backup singers for her show in NYC earlier in the month, it’s just Kelela and Lirik again for the Pitchfork SXSW party at Barracuda. Standing literally in front of Kelela for the entire set, I’m also in front of the speakers—and therefore can’t really hear anything besides her vocals coming out through the vocal monitor. This doesn’t stop me from dancing, though, as I’ve listened to the songs so many times at this point that every drop, twist, and turn is ingrained in my bodily memory. Being so literally close to Kelela (and the vocal monitors) allows me to listen closely to her vocals in a way I haven’t before. And I feel blown away all over again by her incredible talent. Of anyone I’ve seen in recent memory, she really is the best singer, both in terms of technique and emotional delivery. The ways that Kelela carries her voice along—and then above—the synths and drum machines is emotive and inviting at the same time. More than on any of the other occasions that I’ve seen her, it registers just how much her power is in her vulnerability. Slowly crawling through the era of the Trump presidency that she feared so much when she talked with The Fader two years ago, we’re all just trying to get to the end of the day together. In that sense, the tiredness that I sense in her is likely from a combination of things: being vulnerable and open in general, being a queer black woman in Trump’s America, and being a black female r&b singer in an indie pop/r&b world still dominated by white men handing out crumbs in acts of generosity.
For someone who says a lot of politically astute things during interviews, Kelela doesn’t talk much during her sets. The only monologue moment Kelela takes on Friday is to tell a story about the inspiration behind “Enemy,” a track from Cut 4 Me that I’d yet to hear her perform live. “And he didn’t get that it was over,” she says (with some side eye) of an ex she broke up with a long time ago. Against pounding synths and drum beat, Kelela sings, “I need someone who knows/ Someone who gives a fuck.” The force of both the beats and her delivery hits me hard. I think about the comments Alex Weheliye made about her in a recent talk about r&b vocal delivery and black femme potential. Weheliye posits that the radical potential of r&b in the 2010s (and throughout its history as a genre) is how it works as an avenue for black people to sing intimately and vulnerably… about intimate and vulnerable things in their lives. In this way, r&b becomes a repository of lived experiences of black people in a world of oppression. In interview after interview for Take Me Apart, Kelela talks about feeling conflicted that she didn’t make a more politically explicit album this time around, given the current state of the world that her friend Solange and many others have been singing about. But then Kelela concludes that by writing about her experiences as a queer black woman, she has done something radical and political. By juxtaposing the (increasingly less harsh (over time)) synth and drum machine sounds against her vocals, Kelela gets at the conundrum of being a black woman (and, quite frankly, anyone who gives a progressive/radical fuck) in America right now. As she sings over the noise of the crowd, it feels as if she’s singing over the noise of a gentrifying Austin, if only for just a few moments. As I walk back home, her words move with me.