On October 1, 2013, electro-R&B futurist Kelela Mizanekristos debuted her inaugural mixtape, Cut 4 Me. The thirteen-track effort, released through Los Angeles-based indie label Fade to Mind, was a deliciously grimy, synth-informed foray through dubstep, R&B, hip-hop, and a fusion of other adjacent genres and futuristic sounds.
As a young transplant to New York City, where the world of underground clubs and niche pockets of subculture had opened me up to new iterations of multidimensional blackness—many of which I felt finally reflected my own experiences—Cut 4 Me felt intimate and absolutely soul-searing.
The project became a soundtrack to my newfound sense of freedom: I had finally left the small, white town of my childhood and migrated out of the South, where I'd attended university. I had also entered my first real relationship with a woman, and through wonderful friends, I was slowly coming to terms with being queer—and the fact that being so as the daughter of an African immigrant wasn't the end of the world, or the end of my relationship with my mother, as I always secretly feared it might be.
Living and partying in Brooklyn was my first real exposure to a community of creatives from the black diaspora (and beyond), who didn't see my broad interests and tastes as the trappings of the "weird" black girl, as had frequently occurred in my childhood. In fact, discovering these communities and falling in love with musicians like Kelela, who fearlessly rejected world-imposed labels and announced their presence by being uncompromisingly themselves, made my own desire for self-discovery feel more pressing and necessary than ever before.
Born in 1983, in Washington, D.C. to immigrant parents, Kelela's childhood as a second generation Ethiopian-American was informed by an innate familial connection to the African diaspora. The music of Miriam Makeba was just as commonplace as the sounds of New Jack Swing and the electric energy of Janet Jackson. She would also fall in love with R&B singers like Kelly Rowland and experimentalists like Björk, whom she has cited as an enduring influence.
These interests were also supplemented by a driving curiosity and desire to discover the cultural movements and moments happening around her. She first became enamored with electronic music through a random Napster download. In her Fall 2017 Fader cover story, the singer shared that her parents immigrated from the Horn of Africa during the seventies. Both attended university on affirmative action scholarships for African students. As Kelela related to writer Lakin Starling, the young couple met through a campus student movement that advocated for radical institutional change. This progressive, change-minded ethos is a quiet hallmark of Kelela's music and her interaction with the world as an artist and intellect.
Yet far before the days of Cut 4 Me, 2015's Hallucinogen, or last year's Take Me Apart, Kelela was an aspiring singer who believed her journey was destined to start when she was accepted to the prestigious Duke Ellington School of the Arts. As she told Fader, she was unable to attend due to the high tuition costs. Instead, she spent formative years in D.C.'s spoken word and performance cafés. She grew interested in jazz music and soon taught herself to scat and sing difficult jazz standards. She also became a fixture in and around Mt. Pleasant, the neighborhood where D.C.'s underground punk and metal scene thrived. And though she has said that the white, male-dominated nature of the scene could sometimes feel restrictive, it also became a space for experimentation.
Like her experiences, Kelela's work is innately global, spanning continents, disparate sonic landscapes, and experimental new genres. In channeling these interests, her music transforms into something that is inclusive and celebratory of otherness in an organic way. As far back as Cut 4 Me, Kelela has worked with a global roster of artists and producers with whom she creates a bridge that sonically connects the black diaspora and provides a glimpse into the promise of its future sounds. Hallucinogen, for instance, features production from London-based Night Slugs founder Bok Bok, who melds wildly different genres like Detroit house, Chicago footwork, and drill music with gqom, a South African strain of house music that's finally enjoying some well-deserved popularity stateside. Los Angeles's Daniel Pineda and Asma Maroof—together known as Nguzunguzu—also work within a similar scope, combining classic R&B with genres like zouk and kizomba, which originate from Angola.
Kelela's work with Venezuelan producer Arca, whose Frankenstein-esque pseudo-hip-hop productions have attracted the attention of Björk and Kanye West, also take global cues. Her latest project and debut studio album, Take Me Apart, continues the groundwork Cut 4 Me and Hallucinogen laid. Hazy, future-facing, and ultimately beautifully empowering, Take Me Apart is a deeply Afrofuturist work that explores our relationships with love, loss, and autonomy in a vulnerable, relatable way that takes you apart and puts you back together in the best way possible.
For many of us who feel that the spaces we can occupy safely are places on the fringe, artists like Kelela truly embody the beauty of otherness and cross-cultural experiences. In her careful hands, the things that at one time might have made some of us painfully other are broadened and transmuted into something joyous and blindingly ethereal.