Kelela's new album, Raven, charts dance music's Black queer future : It's Been a Minute If you haven't stepped into an underground club in the last decade, you might be forgiven if you don't know Kelela. But the Washington, D.C. native has had a seismic impact on dance music since she broke into the scene in 2013. Now, after a six-year hiatus, Kelela is out with her fourth and latest record, 'Raven' – and with it, she's remaking the future of dance music. This week, host Brittany Luse sits down with Kelela to discuss Black queer liberation, and how she hopes this record helps folks find freedom on the dance floor.

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Hey, hey. You're listening to IT'S BEEN A MINUTE from NPR. I'm Brittany Luse. A couple weeks ago, music history was made when Beyonce took home the Grammy for best dance and electronic album.


BEYONCE: Thank you so much. I'm trying not to be too emotional.

LUSE: She became the first Black woman ever to receive the award, which is funny because Beyonce's "Renaissance" was an homage to the massive Black queer contributions to dance music.


BEYONCE: I'd like to thank the queer community for your love and for inventing the genre. Thank you.

LUSE: If Beyonce was drawing from the past, my guest today, Kelela, is charting dance music's Black queer future.

KELELA: Black people know that that's their music, that that's us.

LUSE: Kelela released her last album, "Take Me Apart," in 2017. But over the past six years, she never disappeared from the dancefloor. That's because her sound had a seismic influence on electronic music. And for years, her music has been a staple of underground dance parties around the world. Now Kelela is back with a new album called "Raven," which once again remakes dance music in her image.


KELELA: (Singing) We're taking a ride, 405 through the west side. We're party to party. It's late, but we're wide awake.

LUSE: You know, I've always felt that your music, you know, people always use that phrase like ahead of the curve, ahead of its time, rather. And I always think that phrase puts whatever they're discussing out of step with time. I have felt more so that your music is about pulling us into the future. What future are you imagining when you make music and whose future is it?

KELELA: I guess, for me, that future is one where the work that we're doing, especially as Black femmes and nonbinary people, is acknowledged, recognized, and who are doing this sort of emotional work and leading with tenderness and vulnerability while also being treated like [expletive]. That's just a thing, a pattern that I see happening throughout the world.

LUSE: It's like across cultures, across nations, yeah.

KELELA: Literally cross-cultural, like, just everywhere all the time. And I guess I wanted this to be the soundtrack to that work.


KELELA: (Singing) Hey. Yeah. Loneliness, I see in your eyes. It might just render you blind.

LUSE: "Raven" is all about liberation. From what? We'll get into that. But to tease you just a little bit, it has something to do with the push and pull of emotional labor marginalized people have to put in every day. And you can hear that as Kelela shifts in and out of thumping dance beats into watery, wet ambiance.


KELELA: (Singing) When the lights go out, get down low, want to feel your mouth.

LUSE: Today we're soaking up Kelela's future - one where Black queer people like herself are raving at the front of the dance floor, and where liberation for these folks is created not just by themselves, but by those who profess to love them. After a quick break.


LUSE: Kelela, thank you so much for joining me today.

KELELA: It's a real pleasure to be here. I've been listening for a long time. And yeah, I'm excited.

LUSE: Listening to what for a long time?


LUSE: What?

KELELA: I mean...

LUSE: You blew my mind.

KELELA: You know, it's like, I haven't listened to every episode, but I have...

LUSE: No. I know. Look. My mom hasn't listened to every episode.

KELELA: It's really cool to be part of the legacy, girl. Come on. It's cute.

LUSE: You know, I've read that, you know, any underground Black queer dance party, they'll play your music. I wonder, what is it like for you to see Black femme people up at the front of your party or on a dance floor dancing to the music that you made for them?

KELELA: I couldn't ask for more, to be honest. It really hits the spot because also, there's a feeling of security it builds inside me when I'm throwing out, like, many different references, you know, and I'm, within the same track, even, sometimes moving between two different sounds.

LUSE: Right.

KELELA: I think about queer Black femmes and nonbinary people who can't lean into masculinity, maleness. You know, that intersecting experience makes it so that you understand a lot of different references.

LUSE: But you feel like the people that you're making the music for are able to ride with you through all of the contours of what you created.

KELELA: Period. That is essentially what I'm saying. And, yeah, I would say the people that are reliably front and center, you know, at the shows and the ones who are screaming the lyrics in front of the DJ booth are people who are dealing with that intersecting experience, and that is just a beautiful thing to kind of, like - to not, like, dictate that literally, but to have intention and then it kind of manifest in front of you that way is really beautiful.

LUSE: Absolutely. Is there a moment that sticks out in your mind where you saw people, like, just totally getting your music and being taken over by your music and dancing, and you were like, yes, like, this is the future I want, this is the future I am always creating into?

KELELA: The times that I can think about that - it's when it's happened in the club, and I'm hearing an edit that a DJ made. The way that I've heard my voice recontextualized in the club - you know, I'll be listening to the beginning of a beat, and I remember there was one in particular, Total Freedom, who saw what I was doing and really just, like, I felt seen by. He played, you know, this Rick Ross "Got It" - you know that "Got It" beat?

LUSE: Yeah.


KELELA: OK, so he did an edit that is one of my songs called "Enemy." So you put this "Enemy" vocal over the "Got It" beat. So I heard this thing - I thought we were about to listen to "Got It," and then it's, like, the beginning of that beat, and then it's like, (singing) you're all up on me now that you're my enemy.


KELELA: (Singing) You're all up on me now that you're my enemy.

Hearing that over that beat...

LUSE: Wow.

KELELA: ...I'm screaming, and I'm running to the DJ booth, and I'm like, what is your problem? What is wrong with you? You are not well.

LUSE: (Laughter).


KELELA: (Singing) Don't know how to get it through you.

Yeah, it's just a very exhilarating experience to hear yourself contextualized and recontextualized. And that's just a very beautiful Black tradition. You know, people might reduce it to editing and remixing, but really we're talking about arrangement, where people are using the tools that they have available to recreate something, to make something feel new. And that's just something I love being a part of.

LUSE: I want to talk about this album. You know, it makes sense that, you know, we talk about, I don't know, just feeling free. You talk about feeling like you're so excited to release this new music into this sort of new moment that we're in, in Black music in general. You know, even when you talk about just the freedom that you're trying to offer your - you know, the audience that you really want to speak to the most, like Black, queer, femme people...


LUSE: ...It makes so much sense because at the heart of your new project, "Raven," is this idea of liberation and feeling free.

KELELA: A hundred percent.

LUSE: And on the title track, "Raven," you sing, over the line, leave it all tonight. Over the line, closer to what I need tonight. And that gives way to this, like, dark club beat.

KELELA: Period.


KELELA: (Singing) Over the line, closer to what I need tonight.

LUSE: It caught me a little off guard when I was listening to the album all the way through the first time in a good way - caught me off guard in a good way. But what liberation have you found for yourself in making the music on this album?

KELELA: You know, when I first started working on this record, I didn't know, like, the sound. But what I did know was that I wanted to use this process to feel good with myself, like, to build my confidence. And when I think about the liberation that it's provided me, it's through that practice of editing myself less. It's through working with other Black and brown producers, especially Black femmes. So there's a lot of liberation in sharing that labor, in making it not just my job to - you know, to do the liberating.


KELELA: (Singing) You wait for the encore. Wait till it breaks with the something to change. I can't relate, boy. But I changed my fate, and my girl did the same. And we came to destroy. You're feeling so next, but it's sad 'cause you're late. You're not going to take more. Find another way.

LUSE: Much of your new album - it reads as a breakup album.


LUSE: Who are you breaking up with? Because I suspect there could be someone in your life or was someone in your life. But I wonder if it's also, like, a breakup album with - I don't know - on some levels, cis men, on some levels, anybody who is...

KELELA: Say that. Period.

LUSE: Said - but just bringing...

KELELA: Just making this hard for us. Making this harder than it already is. One thing I'll say is that it doesn't articulate anything around any singular relationship. There's three people or two or three people that I'm able to evoke on this record. I wasn't in an official relationship with any of them. I even dealt with somebody last fall who displayed some of the same things. And I told him, you're going to think that I wrote the songs about you...

LUSE: (Laughter).

KELELA: ...But I didn't know you when I wrote the songs, but they apply. But what we're talking about is a dynamic - right? - where I'm having to deal with an emotional stuntedness, male stoicism. And I - you know, when I finished writing the record, I remember feeling and looking back being like, ooh, do I sound like a bih (ph)? Do I sound like a bih? And I remember being critical of myself at first, and I quickly stepped away from that 'cause I was like, actually, hell no. Like, that is what patriarchy would have you think if you're critiquing that, you know? But the real dynamic that I'm challenging is this one where you are being really stoic in the face of vulnerability. You're kind of faking a little bit. Like, I'm being really tender right now and welcoming still, but you are being weird, you know? You are being weird right now.

And the withholding is kind of what I'm speaking to, and it's kind of - it's interesting because I'm not speaking to a singular relationship, and I wasn't in an official relationship to even break up, right? So it's not a breakup record in that sense. But I did have some friendship breakups, and I did have to draw some boundaries. And I think that what you're hearing and the way that I would frame it is it's a boundary-setting record. I've always led with a certain amount of vulnerability and tenderness in my work, but I think now the difference with this record is that there's - you're hearing boundary setting happening at the same time.

LUSE: Well, I mean, what is setting a boundary but being gentle toward yourself?

KELELA: Exactly. And making room for your real experience and being honest about it.


KELELA: (Singing) We start. Where to begin? No need to rush. It never ends...

LUSE: If you've ever struggled with creating a boundary, Kelela's got some advice for you. Coming up, she writes a letter to break up with the people in her life that don't work toward her liberation. We'll be right back.

OK. Before we get back into it with Kelela, I've got a little backstory for you. In 2019, Kelela was bold. She wrote a searing letter to her friends, family and colleagues. And in it, she laid out how some of these relationships needed to change in order for her to feel supported as a queer Black femme. After she sent it, she lost some friends and ended some contracts early. But for her, it was clarifying.

KELELA: In that letter, what I was saying, actually, was more - I was sharing with them what I had been experiencing. So it - you know, it presented some solutions and some things that I need them to do in order to make it safe for me. But for the most part, the letter was articulating, like, the time, the ways that I have been experiencing marginalization, you know, in their company or with their company. And then, you know, towards the end, it's like, you know, this is what - I need to have a conversation with you in order to make this feel different. And I got, you know, some really good responses. One of the most humane things is, like, being able to to leave agreements that don't work. This is not a good place for me. This is, like, a good place for somebody else, you know? So I wanted to make that clear. And then, you know, the primer is where I really go into - which I did not share with all of those people. I shared the primer with my close team, you know, after that, who are actually going to be advocating for me on this record.

LUSE: This primer included readings on radical Black feminism, along with Kelela's notes, everything from Kandis Williams' "Reader On Misogynoir" to a popular article titled "Straight Black Men Are The White People Of Black People" and "The Will To Change" by bell hooks.

KELELA: So I think all around, I've just wanted this process, you know? Like, not just the release, which I think is where a lot of artists are encouraged to focus - is just the release, like, getting it to your audience no matter how which way you get it to them, no matter how which way you make it. No matter what you do, just get it to them. And then that's when the liberation starts - when you start to share with your audience. And that's not - for me, I wanted to make sure that the liberating experience has already happened while I'm making. There's a lot of liberation in sharing that labor, in making it not just my job to - you know, to do the liberating.

LUSE: You want to be a community of people and have it not be all on your shoulders.

KELELA: Yes. There's a lot of white people who advocate for me. You know, there's a lot of men who have to do that, as well. And I didn't want it to be a thing where I'm like, I'm telling them this is the framework of understanding. I wanted to be like, you guys read that and engage that, and then you'll understand intimately - not only will it help you advocate for me, but let's - even more importantly, it will help you be a better person in this world. It will help you be more in touch with not just me but other marginalized people that you are around.

LUSE: There's a lot of baptism imagery in this album, from the album cover, which shows, you know, the rest of you submerged below water, and we just see your face above the surface. You repeatedly return to the phrase washed away. There are aquatic sounds throughout, and even, you know, talking about floating down a river. Like, it's in the lyricism. It's in the imagery.


KELELA: (Singing) Washed away.

LUSE: You have said that Black dance music is a, quote, "healing knowledge." What comes after this kind of baptism and healing?

KELELA: I sort of started moving towards this thread when I sang "Washed Away" over the first track.


KELELA: (Singing) Moving on, a change of pace. And I'm far away.

I know that from this moment, I won't need a break in the way that I needed a break before.

LUSE: Yeah.

KELELA: Setting boundaries, like, for the first time is really hard. You know, like, obviously, it's not the first-first time, but I would say, like, I think I was getting into boundary-setting in 2019.

LUSE: Yeah.

KELELA: There wasn't enough context for what I was trying to do, and it's not until 2020 where I felt like the world changed around me, and it was like, no, now you can. Now everybody understands what boundaries are. And now it's, like, acceptable, socially acceptable to be like, I have had enough. Thank you so much. Like, I am not doing this with you anymore. It has to be different in order for us to move forward.

And that's something I think I want to give permission to my audience to do that. And I'm just going to go and say it's more like I want to affirm the boundary setting that I feel like marginalized Black femmes and nonbinary people are already setting right now. And the liberation that follows is what we're after. We're after less stress.

It's really simple. Like, I'm not - it's nothing crazy. It's just like, I would like feel cared for regularly. I would like to not try to swallow things that I've grown accustomed to swallowing. If I'm struggling, I want the people around me to know that that's what's happening, you know? To share the burden, you know? And I feel like all of the things I've been describing in terms of how I changed my practice or how I was trying to liberate myself through this process is available to all of us. And I think it's not about flipping tables, right? But it is - sometimes, we need to flip a table. I feel like sometimes...

LUSE: Every once in a while.

KELELA: ...We need a little cooking line (ph). You know what I'm saying? Sometimes, it's appropriate, but it's not that we want to be doing that every day. We want it to be so that everyone in the world understands and has more compassion for this experience.


KELELA: (Singing) Your lips and mine, babe, out on the floor. We're intertwined, babe. I'm wanting more, more, more, more, more.

LUSE: Well, Kelela, thank you so, so much for joining me today. You are fantastic. We are excited about the album.

KELELA: Thank you so much for your support. I really appreciate it. I'm so excited to share. I'm excited for those club moments. And I'm excited for those, like, bedroom, car moments as well, for people to have this sort of intimate experience with themselves and the record.


KELELA: (Singing) We're too far away. I'm reading all the writings on the wall.

LUSE: That was Kelela. Her new album, "Raven," is out now. This episode of IT'S BEEN A MINUTE was produced by...





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LUSE: All right. That's our show for today. I'm Brittany Luse. See you next week for another episode of IT'S BEEN A MINUTE from NPR.

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