As she releases her debut album, Take Me Apart, Kelela reflects on her experiences as a woman of color in the music industry.
When you're visible, there's a way that your value and under-privilege intersects that is more exponential and robust. So if you're right, you're really right. And if you're wrong, you're really wrong. There's a culture of trying to extract the most from you while also investing the least.
That is the culture of the music industry vis-à-vis artists in general (cuz: capitalism), but there's a way that it's more predatory, more mean when you're a black woman. It's a different type of mean, it's a different type of unbearable. Because what they're trying to extract from you is your blackness or your womanhood, or the way that those two things intersect.
What it does for me is it creates a dynamic between me and brands or companies—or whatever the institution is that I have to interface with—that is purely extractive from their end, and framed as an opportunity for me. It takes a while to catch on that actually this has nothing to do with opportunities for me. That is so not on their radar, it's the rhetoric that they're using to articulate that they need me to do something that is really for their benefit. When they approach us with "opportunities," they really mean "We've found a way to capitalize off your image as a black woman, when before we could only make sense of white women's faces. Now we see that we could sell products to your people, too." I wish they would just say that and keep it moving.
The first shock of being a woman of color in music is learning experientially, through really overt mistakes and terrible experiences and tears and heartache, that a) most of your opportunities are in fact highly transactional, and b) what you're transacting is actually not something that you necessarily want to sell. There are a couple of new rules that I've developed as a queer black woman artist:
1. It costs way more (and I mean waaaaaaay more) to tokenize me (as the only black/brown person) than it does if you invited me to promote your brand with other people of color.
2. It also costs more if you haven't stood with/for black people, which is the overwhelming majority of these companies. The way I see it, black people especially should be getting paid some crazy next level rates for helping all these historically white companies quietly slide into "progressive" mode.
I think something interesting is behind that, even though its manifestation is really uninteresting and problematic: capitalism is intersecting with social justice in a way that it never has before, and that means that it's quite literally bad business to look racist or sexist, to have overt examples of how these dynamics are showing up in your company or your brand or whatever. If you are not actually doing something proactive, you're looking really dumb as a company. It's another variable that has shifted, which has so much to do with what I'm experiencing as a fairly newly visible black woman artist.
This new intersection is actually quite advantageous for my black women peers and I (even though I'd obviously prefer white people to stop being racist before it affects their pockets) on a couple of different levels. One, it's easier for black women artists to generate money that can be funneled into other things that we care about. There are quite a few examples of this—Janelle Monaè with Wondaland, Solange with Saint Heron, Beyoncé with Ivy Park etc.—there's a way that we can enterprise and flip it when we earn a few tokenizing white dollaz. Some people have a hard time seeing that there is activism in this.
In addition to allowing us to enterprise, the circulation of our images also changes minds/feelings on a very basic level. When you're a young black girl and you see black women in ads, magazine covers etc., it subconsciously (at the very least) makes you feel like you can, too. When I was younger and consuming a lot of publications in an obsessive way, a black woman on a cover did something for me. I didn't know what the backstory was—what the experience was like for that black woman and how it came to be—all I knew is that there was this black girl on the cover and it was giving me life.
Whatever the politics are behind the whys and the hows, there is a level that it affects people on that just has nothing to do with real social justice for that individual. This is a lot of the reason why my peers and I choose to participate when we know the shit is foul. Even in 2017, where it's more commonplace, a black woman's face on the cover of a magazine holds so much weight. Companies use our faces to make them look progressive, and a real byproduct of that is that we live lol. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
On the other hand, I would say my generation—my peers and I—are actually not interested in just being included. I think that did it for a lot of our elders. Now the question is: how do I want you to include me? What are the ways that it needs to be in order for me to feel safe? Now we have a qualitative sort of way of understanding what's happening, rather than a purely quantitative, did-you-get-the-person-or-not approach.
We're in what I've been calling a post-Pepsi/Kendall era. If you have people of color at your company who have a voice and aren't gonna be dicked down by all the white people in power in the company, you won't have a situation like Pepsi and Kendall. Because if there were people of color in there who were hired to be critical, who felt like they could be, they would've been like, "Excuse me y'all, this mood board/treatment/pdf is painfully problematic." That's a lot of people for something so stupid to run by, and it resulted in one of the biggest fuck-ups, in overt terms, by one of the largest companies.
My thing is they definitely have people of color that work at their company. The problem is that they don't have a voice, so it's not about just including them—it's about asking them to do a specific thing, to bring their experience as people of color to the table, rather than just trying to tokenize.
When it comes to the music industry, we have a lot of people of color contributing to the art; we don't have a lot of people of color in positions of power who decide on what gets to be put out there. There's nothing that can prepare you for the shock—that no matter how many black people they got on the label, there is still gonna be a white guy at the top, for the most part.
What I'd like, if I could use my platform for anything, is to send the message out to these companies that it's actually not about quantity; it's about the quality of the interaction. And it's also about your practice prior to even including me. They have to be open to talking about that.
I recently went through a similar experience with a large, old, established fashion house. That interaction was so highly, overtly and painfully extractive that I actually had to pull the entire thing. Initially I made it part of the contract that the content would only go out if they agreed to put out a statement that addressed some of these issues, because it's the only way I'd feel safe, as they'd never included people of color before in this way. They said OK. I wrote the statement; they couldn't deal with the implications of what I was saying, and they wanted me to basically mute everything substantive about the statement.
As a result, I had to pull the content, so it will never be seen in the world because I've had enough experience to get to that point to know that I need it to be a certain way. Almost every shoot that we do as black women artists is colored with this weird extractive dynamic. It's what makes it hard for me to leave these conversions at the things that I actually make.
Also, as a black woman, people just don't think that you have an idea of what you're doing at all. They don't think anything you do is crafty or deliberate. They think that you're just emoting and it just comes out like that—"she doesn't even know she's doing what she's doing." I have a friend who is a visual artist that everybody's really obsessed with right now. One of the questions that she's constantly approached with is, "Do you know what you're doing? You're doing this, this and this." They begin to tell her what she's referencing and how. This is what I faced while making the album, from a lot of people.
Obviously with white men, and with black men also, the white mainstream has a lot of time for an erratic "genius." There's a way that the white establishment allows black men to occupy a "zero fucks" kinda space that isn't afforded to black women. We lose our respectability as soon as we go there—or we turn into "divas." There's a way that black men can escape through their malehood from so many dynamics, and from some of the ways that racism shows up. I'm not saying that that actually gives them a way out, I just mean there are ways that our experience just doesn't intersect at all. My womanhood is intersecting with my blackness. The feeling is no one thinks that I know what I'm doing. There is a struggle I go through where I have to constantly ask people to "trust me," versus a man or even a white woman (obviously, they experience sexism, but not in the same way) when they say, "This is what it is." There's a way that I'm always challenged when I collaborate. It happens less and less the more I've expressed this dynamic, but it's a lot.
I made Take Me Apart so that I can have a platform to talk about the real shit that I'm experiencing. When I first finished all the songs on my album, none of them were overtly addressing these issues that I'm speaking of. And so I felt very incongruent, if that makes sense—out of alignment with myself. When I go to write it's vulnerable and tender, it's just so much about my primary relationships. It took me a while to be like, that's chill. It's beautiful that I can bring you in on some very human heart frequency, and now you have to find out what I have to go through in order to get there.
Part of being a black woman is that your humanity is stripped from you on a daily basis. Despite that, there is a way that black women in the world have expressed tenderness and have helped people around the world access that for themselves—I'm speaking to the tradition of R&B, jazz and black female vocalists in America since forever. It's wearing your heart on your sleeve, despite the fact that the world treats you like shit. It's the tradition of disarming, of making people feel vulnerability over everything. Take Me Apart is an ode to all those things.