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“There was an intensity to the way she listened,” says Yohannes, who is now a development economist living in Washington and Addis Ababa. “She was indiscriminate in the way she would sing in different languages, and she had a capacity to memorize songs after just one or two listens.”. Kelela Mizanekristos was born in 1983 at George Washington University hospital in Washington. Her parents — both Ethiopian immigrants — never married, but lived in separate apartments in the same building until Kelela started kindergarten in the District.
“Mom wasn’t having it,” Kelela says of her mother’s decision to move her daughter to Gaithersburg, Md, “So she literally went as far dance pointe shoes as the Red Line (commuter train) would take her, The whiter you go, the better the school.”, At home, Kelela forged her own fantasy world, mimicking what she learned from VHS copies of “The Sound of Music” and a compilation of “Rhythm Nation”-era Janet Jackson videos, She’d put on impromptu plays with her cousin, She’d teach her aunts and uncles how to do the running man, She’d leap onto tables and belt Whitney Houston ballads, her eyes fixed on an imaginary stadium filled with adoring fans..
But she didn’t feel as free at school. She took up violin in the fourth grade, but couldn’t make those strings sound like TLC or Boyz II Men. At 13, she went through a phase of “trying to fit in with my white guy friends” that involved Green Day and a pink electric guitar, but she couldn’t escape the gravity of Mariah Carey and SWV. “I felt quite far away from being able to create something like that,” Kelela says. “Popular music was this abstraction — an abstraction that I was relating to immensely but was ultimately far away.”.
By the time dance pointe shoes she graduated from Magruder High School in Rockville, Md., in 2001, she felt as though she had missed her chance, “Prodigiousness is the only ticket,” she says, “It’s like: ‘If you don’t have it at 18, you might as well just give up, It’s done.’ “, But throughout her 20s, she would pinball around town, finding encouragement in surprising places, At Montgomery College in Rockville, she’d get a shot of inspiration when her classmate, local rapper and producer Oddisee, would play beats for her in his car..
After transferring to American University — where she focused on international studies and sociology, but never earned her degree — she began singing jazz standards at HR-57 and Cafe Nema. In 2008, she got a formative pep talk backstage at the Black Cat from Yukimi Nagano of the Swedish pop group Little Dragon. Soon after, she joined an indie band called Dizzy Spells and even tried singing prog-metal after meeting Animals As Leaders guitarist Tosin Abasi outside a Washington cafe where Kelela was trying to bum a couple dollars for a soy chaipuccino.
“She was like, ‘I’ll sing you a song in exchange,’ ” Abasi remembers, “I was thinking she was cute and I didn’t want her to sing because what if her voice sucked? I didn’t want her to ruin it.”, The two dated for a while and dance pointe shoes began writing songs, until Kelela learned how to record on her new laptop, The creative privacy gave her something she always craved: the freedom to make mistakes, “That’s literally when I started writing my own music,” she says, “Being able to pursue it and [mess] up? I couldn’t get it with other people like that.”..
Now she was more determined to get it than ever. “She was super-driven and -inspired,” Abasi says. “Kelela believes that reality should answer to her, instead of the other way around.”. In late 2010, she migrated to Los Angeles and eventually made a fortuitous a-friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend connection with a team of producers behind the innovative dance label Fade to Mind and it’s sibling London imprint, Night Slugs. Everything finally clicked. Alex Sushon, the London-based producer who co-founded Night Slugs and records as Bok Bok, says that collaborating with Kelela has helped give both labels — known for their high-gloss, icy-metallic aesthetic — a distinctly human touch.
“We don’t want to be making awkward music that pushes people dance pointe shoes away,” Sushon says, “We want to be making music that makes people feel a range of feelings and emotions, Just like real life, you can feel a number of things while essentially enjoying something on the surface, But it can be a trigger for more.”, As with “Cut 4 Me,” Kelela says the recording sessions for her new album have taken place in Los Angeles, London and across the digital plane, Fittingly, the music video for Bok Bok and Kelela’s squeaky new single, “Melba’s Call,” features an empty studio with the singer Skyped in on a video screen..