LA’s London Grime-obsessed ingénue chats exclusively with Wonderland.
Dress by MIU MIU and choker (worn throughout) stylist’s own
Kelela Mizanekristos is done for the day, clearly. Sitting with a chunk of British weed in one hand and a stroller-heater between her legs, her shoot for Wonderland comes at the end of a frantically paced year for the Maryland-born, LA-based synthologist. “You want some of this?” she asks, pointing her perfectly rolled joint at me. “Go on, then,” I reply. Things were off to a good start.
Despite her seemingly laid back vibe, Kelela’s occasional standoffishness suggests hardship. A child of two first-gen Ethiopian immigrants who, in the 1970s, moved to a very WASP Washington DC, Kelela vividly remembers the rejection she felt from her surroundings. “I related to a black experience, but not culturally from an African-American standpoint,” she explains. “For example, my family didn’t do typical African-American things. My mum has an accent, too, so there are so many things about me that didn’t quite fit in on a social level. I was being ‘othered’ both ways: as a person of colour, and as a person who wasn’t culturally American. It was a lot for me in school.”
Black cropped top Kelela’s own, trousers by MARTINE ROSE and perspex bracelet by CHANEL
From a young age, her musical ambitions overshadowed academia. “I’d be wailing Whitney Houston songs on the table at four years old – they knew music was in me. But they wanted me to have a back-up plan, to study.” Instead, Kelela trawled vintage YouTube clips of Lauryn Hill, Erykah Badu, Whitney Houston, and Kim Burrell performances. “The thing that I’m trying to find in R&B is an actual sound; it’s like the balsamic in your vinaigrette,” she laughs. “The balsamic is actually the gospel element.”
As a twenty-something, Kelela’s focus lay in LA’s live jazz circuit. “Writing isn’t necessarily the focus in jazz – your standard comes first – and I didn’t find it all the way fulfilling to sing standards,” she says, before quickly adding: “I’m not saying that jazz doesn’t have depth, because it does, but I wouldn’t be able to sit down and write a jazz tune. I remember feeling frustrated all the time in the scene: I was around all of these great jazz musicians and all I wanted to do is sing a Lauryn Hill tune.”
Kelela counts Swedish experi-pop clutch Little Dragon as a key influence, too. In fact, she is obsessed: the singer contacted Yukimi Nagano on MySpace back in 2009 with an enquiry about backing singer vacancies. But with no music to show on Kelela’s page, Nagano urged her come back with material and, two months later, she was the proud owner of three songs. “‘Enemy’ is a break-up tune and I was going through one at the time, so it was natural to write. The songs before that, though, were ‘Bank Head’ and ‘Keep It Cool’, which are the only two happy songs I’ve written [laughs].”
Denim dress by CLAIRE BARROW
Released in October, Kelela’s debut mixtape Cut 4 Me is a haunting, utterly gutter-sounding masterpiece. It was put out via Los Angeles-based label, Fade To Mind – the independent sister of highly influential London-based grime imprint Night Slugs. Fade To Mind is run by producer Kingdom, who grabbed switch-flipping duties on the much-blogged about, rumbling brood-pop track “Bank Head”. Elsewhere, tales of broken relationships and self-discovery are cut into shape by the likes of Nguzunguzu and Nite Slugs’ Girl Unit.
For many, it revives a period in East London grime called Rhythm and Grime, when rumbling synth and bass subs met the lilt of a female R&B vocalist – spearheaded in the mid 2000s by the likes of Hyperdub’s Terror Danjah and singers Sadie Ama and Lauren Mason. “For me, grime is the most honest and gratifying sound,” offers Kelela. “I’ve always loved fucked-up productions. I was into UK Garage when I was in high school, too. I didn’t mind if none of my friends knew who Artful Dodger were.”
White jacket by MARTINE ROSE, jumper and shorts both by CHRISTOPHER SHANNON
and thigh high leather boots by CHRISTIAN LOUBOUTIN
Cut 4 Me has both a throwback bounce and futuristic sheen: think of it as a mutant offshoot of early-00s Playstation, Fruity Loops, and Ruff Sqwad-influenced two step. It has the Wonderland office cutting shapes one minute (Opener, “Guns & Synths”) and crying into a bottle of red over your ex (Morri$ beat, “Go All Night”), the next.
And her talked-about forthcoming debut LP? She’ll finish it when she’s good and ready, and on her terms. “I’m going to make my album the way I envisioned,” she asserts. “I don’t want anyone telling me how it should sound – I’m not into that. I’m going to sit with every producer and songwriter to make sure the vibe is right. There will be more ‘new grime’ – other fucked-up sounds, too – but like, for real. I’m so excited about it. The levels are definitely going to go up a notch.”
Words Joseph ‘JP’ Patterson
Photographer Sam Bayliss Ibram
Fashion Editor Jayson Hindley
Makeup Thom Walker using CHANEL LE LIFT S 2014
Makeup Assistance Lo Moorcroft