As a teen in Washington, D.C., Kelela Mizanekristos took great pleasure in doing impersonations of ’90s R&B titans. “I grew up imitating Faith, Tamia, Erykah, D’Angelo, and then I landed on Amel Larrieux,” she says of her early influences. Still, it would take her until 2009 to find the nerve to perform on a microphone in front of people. “I didn’t start working on my vocal chops until 2004 or 2005, through jazz mostly. I was in school, feeling really torn about what I was pursuing…it was Foucault and music, but I didn’t know how to integrate the two.” Since then, Kelela has managed to harness her philosophical ideas with song, building a sound of her own, thanks to collaborations with Teengirl Fantasy, Nguzunguzu, and other artists coming out of L.A.-based Night Slugs’ sister-label Fade to Mind, founded by Ezra “Kingdom” Rubin (pictured), the producer with whom she works most closely.
“I met Kelela through Total Freedom and Nick from Teengirl Fantasy,” Rubin says. “She’s the first vocalist I’ve met who seems to really understand the lens through which I see R&B. Together we find a balance between the sweet softness of that as we know it and some raw, experimental, off-the-wall energy too.”
Kelela points out that the current creative synergy she’s experiencing was hard won. Though she moved to Los Angeles hoping to find like-minded musicians, it was slow progress until she finally struck up friendships with Total Freedom (Ashland Mines) and fellow Fade To Mind-er Prince William. She also cites Swedish band Little Dragon as a key influence. Earlier this year, when she was offered an opening slot on tour with Solange, audiences were surprised and enraptured by her dark, powerful vocal delivery and eclectic sound. “It was kind of crazy playing to a sold-out audience who’d never heard of me before,” she says. “It was really exciting and really scary at the same time, but I feel like her audience was quite responsive.”
This summer Kelela raised her profile performing guest lead vocals on Kingdom’s EP single “Bank Head.” Next, she takes center stage with a mixtape release of her own, featuring collaborations with Girl Unit, Jam City, Morri$, and other underground sonic pioneers. “The Kingdom-Kelela vibe is its own special zone,” Rubin says. “I love it. There will definitely be more collaborations in the future.”