ABOVE: KELELA IN NEW YORK,OCTOBER 2013. SHIRT: MAISON MARTIN MARGIELA. PANTS: CEÌLINE. EARRINGS: JELENA BEHREND AND WENDY NICHOL. BELT: EMPORIO ARMANI. RING: JOSH DOTSON. SOCKS: K. BELL. SHOES (VINTAGE, COURTESY OF RESURRECTION, NYC): COMME DES GARCÌ§ONS.
“It definitely feels different to perform to people who know your music,” singer Kelela muses over French takeout at a friend’s apartment in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. “Because people’s feedback is not just, ‘Oh my god, that was amazing. Who are you?’ ” Following the release of her buzzed-about debut mixtape, Cut 4 Me (Fade to Mind), in October, it seems unlikely that Kelela will have to keep answering that question for much longer. Kelela’s yearning, crystalline vocals on Cut 4 Me—think Janet Jackson’s circa Velvet Rope (1997), with a vocal range as impressive and as angelic as Aaliyah’s—provide a perfect foil for the dark, methodic, futuristic R&B production.
Born Kelela Mizanekristos, Kelela, now 30, began writing music the winter before her last semester at American University. She was studying sociology and international relations, with a focus on integrating Western and non-Western models for development in Africa, but never finished the degree. “I have something stupid, like, 12 credits, to graduate,” she says. She couldn’t rid herself of the idea that her future lay in music, not in academia. “I said to myself, ‘I have to do this. I have to give it one good go.’ It’s working out, but I sort of took a long time to ferment.”
After moving from Washington, D.C. to Los Angeles, she spent the next four years doing what paid the bills—nannying, training solar-power telemarketers—while working obsessively on her music. She also fell in with the producers and musicians affiliated with Fade to Mind and Night Slugs, bleeding-edge record-labels-cum-collectives based in L.A. and London. Songs like her breakout single, “Bank Head,” produced by Fade to Mind founder, Kingdom, and the tough, urgent Nguzunguzu-produced “Enemy” are sophisticated and self-assured, informed by experience. “I’ve done all my fucked-up, weird shit in another realm, an academic realm,” she says of her twenties. “I just basically made it so my musical fuck-ups weren’t visible on the Internet.” Now, though, she’s ready. “As much as we like to pretend we’re just getting on stage and whatever,” she says, aping a blasé gesture, “it’s like, no, I practiced in front of the mirror my whole life. It’s the most sincere thing I could say.”
COSMETICS: DIORSHOW, INCLUDING SOURCILS POUDRE EYEBROW PENCIL IN SAND. HAIR PRODUCTS: SHU UEMURA ART OF HAIR, INCLUDING ESSENCE ABSOLUE NOURISHING PROTECTIVE OIL. HAIR: PETER GRAY/HOME AGENCY. MAKEUP: KARAN FRANJOLA/MAREK AND ASSOCIATES.