Rising R&B star Kelela grateful her fans are willing to dig deep

Kelela performing in Philadelphia in September.
Michael Zorn/Invision/AP/file
Kelela performing in Philadelphia in September.

Kelela makes futuristic R&B both intimate and epic, fluid explorations of love and loss that thread her sinuous vocals throughout a cavernous soundscape of pulsating beats and shimmering synths. The effect, overall, is nothing short of hypnotic.

On “Take Me Apart,” the debut studio album she released to widespread acclaim last month, the singer, 34, deepened and evolved her unique sound, doubling down on intricate sonic textures and more complex vocal arrangements to create a record that would cement her dual reputations as one of R&B’s fastest-rising stars and its most daring experimentalist.

Now, Kelela’s taking the album on the road, touring North America and Europe. Ahead of her sold-out stop at the Middle East Downstairs in Cambridge Saturday, the singer spoke to the Globe by phone about the tour and her thoughts on the role of the artist as social advocate.


Q. What does it feel like to have “Take Me Apart” out in the world?

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A. I feel really blessed, because everyone seems to be taking it really personal, which for me is really cool. Everyone seems to be in their feelings about it, and having a moment with themselves with it. It’s not the thing that everyone’s listening to together; it’s an intimate experience with yourself. I’ve got messages from friends and fans, and one thing I’ve noticed is that my fans are really smart, really complex in terms of their thinking. They think in layered terms, in really complex terms. So the way they’re giving me reinforcement is so specific; they’re describing details, and that’s really cool.

Q. How do you feel about taking the album on tour?

A. There is a little nervousness. [Laughs] You want to be on point, and I’m very critical of myself when it comes to that, though I’m also really excited because it’s the first time I’ve worked with background vocalists, and the first time I’ve incorporated that with keyboards, and leaned into the full-time permutations of what I’m trying to say. There’s a whole other way I’m able to communicate the songs live.

Q. Are you particularly excited to play any of the songs live?


A. I’m excited to do “Better.” I’m really looking forward to really all of them, but especially that one. There’s a different way these songs are translating live, and that makes me feel happy and fulfilled in a different way. It’s through the new things that are being added, the keyboards and backing vocals. “Take Me Apart” is really cool, “Enough” is really cool. They’re all songs that feel quite epic, and I’ve always just wanted to be really grandiose, and I think that is going to happen, which I’m pretty excited about, even in pretty small venues. [On the album] I just wanted to share what was really going on with me and trying to be honest about what that is, and then there’s the other side of hoping it gets received in the way you intended. What I’m experiencing now are all these affirmations and confirmation that the music is very relatable, and that people get me. I feel understood, at the end of the day. I can’t wait to see and feel that live.

Q. You recently wrote a piece for Resident Advisor about the specific challenges of being a black woman in the music industry. What was that experience like for you?

A. After it was complete, it was really nice to feel that I had expressed myself. Black people can find a lot of solace in reading the experience of a peer, but I basically wrote that piece so all the white boys who read Resident Advisor can be processing their positionality in the world, and thinking about the way they understand things to be differently. I’m excited to continue to do stuff like that, because I feel like what I’d write for my black peers is different than what I’d otherwise write. There’s so much context that matters. I feel very happy about putting my feelings out there in all the ways that I can.

Q. You’re politically vocal in many of your interviews. Do you feel like prominent artists have a responsibility to address social issues through their platforms?

A. I don’t think anybody has to do that — especially black people. Black women are dealing with a lot already, and explaining it to the world or being some beacon of social justice and fairness, being the Statue of Liberty or whatever, like I’m good. Having to deal with the world from that place is already enough, and there are ways in which we contribute that don’t manifest themselves in that particular way. It’s something I actually have been discussing a lot with my black women peers, where it’s like I want to participate in the way that I want to participate, and I want to contribute to things getting better in the way that I want to do that, and I don’t want people policing me on how to do that.


Q. To the tune of what you’re saying, it’s infuriating how often people of color are still being asked to perform the emotional labor of educating white people about social injustice, particularly those issues that most affect people of color.

‘It’s an intimate experience with yourself. I’ve got messages from friends and fans, and one thing I’ve noticed is that my fans are really smart, really complex in terms of their thinking.’

A. It feels redundant, also. I do this every day. Not only do you have to deal with the thing, but also you have to be the bulwark of it, and that is asking Angela Davis to volunteer. [Laughs] None of us are Angela Davis, but it’s like asking someone who’s constantly on their grind to grind harder for you, so you can improve. That’s a thing. And [expletive] that.

Interview was edited and condensed. Isaac Feldberg can be reached at, or on Twitter at @isaacfeldberg.