25 Songs That Tell Us Where Music Is Going

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The 33-year-old musician Kelela favors the kind of fashion aesthetic that science-fiction films sometimes use to signify characters from the future: gravity-defying materials in iridescent or metallic colors. For a recent rainy night in Strasbourg, the small city in the northeastern corner of France, she strode onstage dressed like a lieutenant in an anime cartoon, in an oversize gray bomber jacket, matching shorts and heels made from white fabric that stretched above her knees. She raised her hands and gave a hard stare to the crowd. “My mission tonight,” she said, “is to show the breadth of R.&B. music. It has influenced every genre, pretty much, so anyone who thinks it is basic or rudimentary has another thing coming.”

There were no whoops, claps or even smiles. The audience remained passive. Kelela likes to keep an eye out for the edges of the crowd, where her core fans (“the queer black and brown weirdos” as she put it to me) usually congregate. But tonight, the scene was homogeneous in a very European way: Women favored striped boatnecks, red lips and messy topknots; the men, zipped-up pullovers and spotless white trainers. Kelela nodded at her D.J., Loric Sih, a sweet-faced boy with bleached blond hair and wire-rimmed Harry Potter glasses, and they dove into her set. True to her word, amid the switchbacks of her feathery falsetto voice, there was no mistaking the roots of classic R.&B. — all set to spacey electronic beats far outside the traditional canon. The room became a sound installation of Kelela’s reverb-y vocals and synthetic ’90s-era Miami bass.

Kelela’s stage was minimally adorned, but her lighting team is adept at creating James Turrell-like lightscapes that drape her figure in rich reds, purples and blues. At one point, her face and body were illuminated by an electric shade of cyan, while the background remained shaded in dark azure. The effect made Kelela look as ethereal and spectral as the music radiating from the speakers. The handful of times I’d seen her perform in the United States, the audience was rapt for the entire performance — reverent during her atmospheric songs, breaking into exuberant, feverish dance during her fast-paced ones. (Her music can keep the lovesick company in bed just as easily as it can shepherd a party past sunrise.)

Erik Madigan Heck for The New York Times. Stylist: Mischa Notcutt. Hair: Virginie Pinto Moreira. Makeup: Michelle Boggs.

But that night the concertgoers remained inscrutable. When she transitioned into a new song — “Blue Light,” the first single from her long-awaited debut album — I pulled out my phone and sent the recording to some friends back home. Some 4,000 miles away, they seemed more excited than the people physically present in the concert hall. Finally, about 30 minutes into her set, Sih began playing “Rewind,” the closest thing Kelela has to a pop song. The audience, charmed at last, succumbed to the irresistible beat and danced along. The moment was buoyant but short-lived: It was her last number. She thanked the crowd and then bounded offstage.

When she was back in her dressing room, the composure Kelela had projected to the audience quickly dissipated. She stood with her hands on her hips, chewing on her lip. Her boyfriend — a filmmaker named Cieron Magat, with whom she shares an apartment in London — murmured words of reassurance and handed her a cup of homemade ginger tea. “That was one of the worst ones,” she said, sighing and taking off her earrings. Magat told her not to worry, but Kelela wanted to deconstruct the performance.

“The thing I’m always looking for are the eyes, or even the face that’s like, I don’t know what this is but I’m into it,” she said. “But I got nothing.” She peeled her clothes off absent-mindedly and paced around her dressing room. “I was this guy” — she threw her arms up in imitation of the shruggie emoticon — and sighed again. “But it’s unrealistic in this context.”

By context, Kelela meant that she wasn’t the headliner — most people were there to see the main act, the moody British band the xx. Earlier in the day, while roaming around Strasbourg, I noticed that the posters advertising the show didn’t even mention her name. That night, in the nearly sold-out venue, a space that could hold 4,000 people, only a few attendees were black; her “queer black and brown weirdos” were missing. In the United States, Kelela is part of the vanguard of black female musicians who make emotional soul, women like Solange, SZA and Syd tha Kyd. The music of these women is aimed squarely at the heart chakra of young black women; it legitimizes as much as it asserts the value of being yourself — even if that self is thought to be a little off-center. Kelela, in particular, explodes the notion that blackness is monolithic, a single Pantone square instead of untold variations. Her music is geared to a generation that lives for juxtapositions and unexpected arrangements, sonically and visually.

In 2012, Kelela was performing at a show that Solange’s manager happened to see. She asked for a demo and gave the song to Solange, who asked Kelela to come on tour with her later that year, introducing Kelela to an audience who could appreciate her innovations in R.&B. In October 2013, Kelela released “Cut 4 Me,” an impressive mixtape composed of 13 songs that were initially free online. At the time, Kelela wanted to see how far she could push herself as an artist and play with the boundaries of R.&B. Kelela’s uninhibited experimentation, as well as the rich latticework on songs like “Send Me Out,” impressed critics. Pitchfork gave the collection a rare 8.3 rating out of 10 and said she had “the talent to make herself heard, and the intelligence to get it all together”; Spin called the collection “stunning” and said the singer could “go anywhere from here.” That November, Solange chose two of Kelela’s songs for “Saint Heron,” a compilation album released by Solange’s label of the same name. In 2015, she released a six-song EP called “Hallucinogen.” Her sound on the EP somehow managed to evoke Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, Björk and Donna Summer all at the same time. It felt like a sonic relic of the past unearthed 100 years in the future. Since then, fans have been waiting for her first full-length album, which Kelela expects to release this year.

In her dressing room, Kelela folded herself into a pretzel on the couch next to me. A candle burned in the background. She knew it had been an off night, but because she loves performing so much, she was still buzzing from the energy. “The goal,” she explained, “is just — how many people can I put on, just so they can name it, even if they don’t know what it is yet?”

Kelela Mizanekristos was born in 1983 to Mizanekristos Yohannes and Neghist Girma, students who escaped war-torn Ethopia and immigrated separately to the United States. She was raised in Gaithersburg, Md. Kelela’s parents introduced her to the violin when she was a child, and she practiced singing along to the radio in her bedroom at night and composing medleys in her head. Her father was fond of Blues Alley, an all-ages jazz supper club in Georgetown frequented by Dizzy Gillespie and Sarah Vaughan. He often took Kelela with him, and she fell in love with the culture of music. She listened to Kirk Franklin on the radio and learned to sing in ge’ez, an ancient language used primarily in the Ethiopian church, which she attended with her mother. You can still catch the influence in her voice — the way she turns sounds into sacred geometry, almost unconsciously stairstepping through the vowels and consonants.

In her early to mid 20s, she would go to a Washington bar called 18th Street Lounge for its Sunday-night house sessions. A D.J. named Sam Burns played eclectic soul and deep house music, and after a few drinks, if she heard a bit of music that reminded her of another song, she would jump on the microphone and blend the two in real-time. “I would run to the microphone and figure out a way to sing it. I would create a flip,” she says. “That is where I live.”

Her first boyfriend, Kris Funn, whom she met when she was 19, played the upright bass, and she sat in bars for hours, watching him and his friends play. She joked to me that she was a “jazz wife” but also admitted that she received an unexpected education: She learned to listen to music, to get a feel for it. Eventually the couple broke up, but Funn encouraged Kelela to trust her instincts and not be intimidated by her lack of formal music training.

By that time, Kelela was a student at American University, studying international studies and sociology. “I was the only brown girl, all the time, talking about African politics,” she told me. “I thought I was going to be an academic. In my head, I am supposed to be a college graduate. I wanted to finish. But I was not motivated to sit there and do that paper. I had a lot of resistance.” She felt alienated by the program. She dropped out.

This was in 2006, and synthpop, epitomized by bands like the Knife, was trending. She began recording in a punk house in Washington, a city with a hard-core lineage that included acts like Fugazi and Bad Brains. She thrived in an environment devoid of rules. “What’s so beautiful about punk culture,” Kelela says, “is that the whole idea is that you don’t have to be perfect. Just try. Let’s just try to make it ourselves.” At first she sang over indie rock, but it didn’t feel authentic to her. She wanted to experiment with electronic music — “not real instruments,” she says.

She spent hours on MySpace, scrolling through pages of music and listening to instrumentals. She recorded herself singing over sounds she liked. Then she would send the artist her sample, along with an invitation to collaborate. Two notable electronic producers agreed, including Daedelus, who featured her on a track. At the same time, a friend introduced her to the electro duo Teengirl Fantasy, and they created a song. Will Boston, a founder of the music label Fade to Mind, heard their collaboration and was impressed by what he described to me as her “wealth of startling honesty, felt through her vocals.”

By then, Kelela was living in Los Angeles, and Boston brought her a thumb drive of sounds from the label and its British counterpart, Night Slugs. Kelela spent the next several days poring over the files, improvising lyrics over the sounds she liked, turning them into songs. She loved the otherworldliness of the instrumentals — staccato mixes that used sound effects like tinkling glass and guns reloading over drum machines. The music complemented the gossamer scales she likes to sing in. It was “exactly what I’d been looking for,” she says. Two of the songs she produced during this time were on the mixtape she released in 2013. Kelela took care to describe her role in developing the mixtape, to make certain I knew how active she was in it — perhaps to counter the idea that she isn’t self-made or in charge of her own sound. “The first thing people want to take away from me is my agency,” she told me.

Kelela performing at the 2016 Sónar festival in Barcelona. Xavi Torrent/Redferns

Alex Sushon, an electronic producer who goes by Bok Bok, was one of the artists Kelela met as she was working on her mixtape, and these days, she tends to work mostly with British producers like him, possibly because they’ve been pushing the boundaries of R.&B. more aggressively by blending it with grime, the East London style of dance music. Electronica, Sushon told me, is referential in the same way that R.&B. tends to be. “That’s how we think about music, inserting small samples from other genres, little shortcuts that are saying something by playing something,” he says. Because of the internet, he explained, musicians can share references more easily than they did in the past. Google, YouTube and SoundCloud make it easy. Sushon compares this dynamic to “memes, but in musical form.”

The closest analogy is sampling, but it’s more complex than that. I watched Kelela and her D.J. perform this trick onstage, during one of their songs in Strasbourg. While she was singing “The High,” a fuzzed-out, gritty ode to desire, Sih mixed in a few seconds of a 2002 song by Tweet called “Oops (Oh My),” and Kelela segued into its vocals. Here, suddenly, was the thrilling flicker of a decade-old hit that had almost entirely faded from popular culture, tucked into her own noir love song. It was the perfect encapsulation of Kelela’s odd 21st-century gift for taking familiar sounds and repurposing them in a new context, a kind of lyrical déjà vu.

After the show, back at her Strasbourg Airbnb, Kelela changed into oversize gray sweatpants and a black button-down crop top, and padded into the kitchen in white slippers. She plugged in an electric kettle and made another cup of ginger tea as our conversation turned to her debut album. I expected her to talk about its sound, but she wanted to speak about the intention behind it. She described the album as “something that speaks to power.” When I asked her to elaborate, she paused, then said: “I’m not talking to black people, to be honest. I don’t need to tell black people that R.&B. is deep. It’s about the music industry. When I say the white gaze, I’m not just talking about white people at my show. I like that. I like playing to mixed crowds. For me, it’s really just the way I’m treated by people of positions of power who seemingly hold the key.”

The dynamics that bothered Kelela in college didn’t disappear when she became an artist — if anything, they intensified. As a student, she was introduced to black academics and feminists like Audre Lorde, Bell Hooks and Angela Davis. These women helped her make sense of the racial and sexist forces that shape the world, and she still turns to them to navigate the music industry. She internalized their insistence to not be apologetic for her womanhood or blackness and not be debilitated by exclusion.

Sprawled on the bed in the apartment’s master bedroom, Kelela told me that Beyoncé’s loss at the Grammys depressed her and made her question the metrics of success for mainstream musicians. “If that’s the highest we can achieve in that framework, it doesn’t even make sense to try,” she told me. A notebook was open to a blank page on the night stand, alongside “B Jenkins,” a Fred Moten poetry book that explores the interstitial space among jazz, black aesthetics and politics. Moten’s work concerns itself with the “resistance of the object” and the way that blackness refuses commodification. Kelela is aware of how artists like her get co-opted, morphed into something symbolic that they no longer control, and is determined to avoid it.

I had already heard the lengths to which she would go to prevent this from happening. The first night we met, I asked her how she managed expectations as an artist in an age of hyperconsumption. I mostly meant her reserve on social media, despite the disturbingly insistent demands in her Twitter and Instagram mentions for her next release. Instead, she described an encounter with Fendi, the Italian luxury brand, which invited her to perform at its new headquarters in Rome to celebrate the start of a new website aimed at millennials. Researching the headquarters online, she discovered that the Palazzo della Civiltà Italiana, the impressive white marble colosseum that Fendi had taken over, was built to be a propaganda tool under Benito Mussolini. “I’m Ethiopian,” she reminded me: Mussolini invaded Ethiopia in 1935, just before World War II. She didn’t want her body, her blackness, to be used by a brand, even a big fashion label like Fendi, as a proxy for cool in this context. She asked Fendi representatives to agree to release a statement addressing her concerns as a condition of her involvement. “That flipped the whole damn script,” she said. They’re still negotiating the partnership, but the interaction speaks to how Kelela views her role: “If an artist says something, people listen,” she told me. She sees herself as someone who can wield her status as a celebrity to catalyze change.

As the evening wound down, Kelela invited me to get comfortable and listen to some of her new tracks. She gave me earbuds and left me alone to listen. (When I pressed her about a release date, she made a coquettish face and demurred, saying the songs were still being mixed. In reality, she just signed with Warp Records, which will take over the release of the album.) Earlier in the night, she said that as politically aware as she feels she is, she didn’t make an album that addresses those views. “There was a period after I finished all the songs, I was nervous because I was like: There’s nothing about my experience as a black woman overtly in this. But I could never not make anything from any other place.” The songs instead deal with the agony of falling out of love and the ecstasy of finding it anew. Her voice is as pretty as ever, rising and crashing like cresting waves over beats that swing from a druggy drone to throbbing bass lines perfect for dance-floor grinding. In their own way, they are a quiet protest: They feel radical in the way a Kerry James Marshall painting or a Ntozake Shange poem expresses the humanity and beauty of black life. “All of that is happening in a world that does not want me,” she said. “It is a safe space for us to feel, and not necessarily for anyone else.”♦

Jenna Wortham is a staff writer for the magazine.

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Source : https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/03/09/magazine/25-songs-that-tell-us-where-music-is-going.html

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