Music Review: up-and-coming Ethiopian-American artist Kelela

by Jordan McDonald | 11/14/17 12:00am

In “The Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power,” Black feminist writer Audre Lorde critiques the ways in which Western patriarchal societies have suppressed and falsely encouraged women’s sexual expression. In the piece, she asserts that “the erotic offers a well of replenishing and provocative force to the woman who doesn’t fear its revelation, nor succumb to the belief that sensation is enough.” With these words, Lorde calls for a full-bodied praxis regarding the body, one which acknowledges sexuality as a basis for reclamation and degradation.

Ethiopian-American artist Kelela released her second album, “Take Me Apart” in October. Kelela explores this very notion of the “erotic” as a source of power and its implications in her life as a queer Black woman. Throughout the album, she examines what one can lose and gain in the midst of relationships in which one’s body, time and energy are exchanged. She challenges herself and anyone else listening to examine our apprehensions surrounding intimacy and to go beyond our respective traumas, asking: “What is so popping about this thing that we keep saying we don’t want but then find ourselves in again and again?”

A soundtrack to her life, “Take Me Apart” takes Kelela’s fans on an intimate trip through emotional destinations where many find themselves in relationships, romantic or otherwise. “Blue Light,” one of my favorite songs on the album, has Kelela sing of a personal transformation that takes place due to the connection between two people. Their chemistry results in a liberatory chemical reaction: “Baby, leave that blue light on / Chains they come fallin’ down.” On songs like “Better” and “Onanon,” she counters this particular dynamic with that of a relationship spiraling into dysfunction. In this way, “Take Me Apart” functions as a truly raw and honest engagement with the intermingling of ideas like love, sex and power.

This investment in intimacy and its different manifestations was not limited to Kelela’s album; in fact, it was smoothly carried over into her live performance through which she built connections and disrupted traditional barriers between artist and audience. On Nov. 11, I went to the Middle East Nightclub in Cambridge, Massachusetts to see Kelela perform. Her Cambridge show was one of the only stops on the Take Me Apart tour that was close enough to New Hampshire for me to see. I had not been able to see her back home in D.C. as I had originally hoped. I arrived early to the sold-out show in the hopes of getting a good spot close up. In such a big crowd I found myself pressed against the speakers by the stage, my senses of touch and sound heightened by the vibrations and beats that hit me first. It was a visceral experience, my heart beating fast with the bass as my favorite songs came to life. Dress in all white, managing to appear angelic yet accessible, Kelela glowed as blue, yellow, pink and red lights illuminated her and the stage. The crowd came to feel familiar with one another, at least momentarily, as we shared in the experience of hearing songs that, for many, evoked memories of loss, desire and freedom. In a way, it was the perfect time for me experience a show like this. Taking place at the end of my ninth week of the fall term, Kelela’s show was an opportunity for me to remind myself of all the things that exist beyond Dartmouth. The concert-going experience allowed me to take the time to restore my energy and reflect on my own journey as Kelela shared hers.