Lessons from Kelela
The singer-songwriter on compassion, fucking shit up and navigating the world as a Black queer woman
Last week, singer-songwriter and all-around babe Kelela visited SOAS university for a conversation with writer and broadcaster Emma Dabiri as part of the university’s Black history month programme. When Ayoade, our senior editor, asked if I wanted to come along, I replied with an immediate yes. I knew that hearing these two intelligent, revolutionary Black women in conversation would be nothing short of magical, and I was certain that I’d leave with gems to take home, digest and apply to my daily life. (I’ve also just been trying to put myself in more Black spaces in London – something that’s turned out to be more difficult than I'd thought).
Kelela spoke candidly about her experience as a Black queer woman navigating a strikingly white and male-dominated music industry, America and the world. She told us about compassion and the different ways to ‘fuck shit up’ (aka disrupt the system). Here are the most powerful takeaways from the evening. Thank me later.
Black identities (as portrayed in the media) are expanding
There’s still more work to be done, but at least now we can be seen through the multiplicities of our identities to a certain extent. (Personally, I believe this is due to the contemporary Black renaissance we’re experiencing, which has been largely fuelled by social media).
There are so many ways to be radical
You can fuck shit up from the outside; build your own institutions right next to the ones that didn’t let you in and chose not to acknowledge you. Or you can ‘play nice’ until you’re in a relative position of power within whatever industry/ space/ field you’re willing to change and disrupt it from the inside. Choose whatever method works for you. What matters is that we’re all working towards the same thing.
Telling some white friends they can no longer come to the party
Kelela mentioned how she now only has two white friends (aka true allies). Personally I’ve been battling with the issue of shedding myself of white friends I had before my ‘conscious awakening’; the white friends who aren’t thinking about what it means to be white, who aren’t thinking about race or their privilege in critical ways, and who could (quite frankly) do a better job of becoming allies. Kelela has let go of those white friends and I found it reassuring to hear that I wasn’t the only one thinking in that stream.
How to be an ally
Be very quiet and listen intently. Take on what is being said and believe the person who is saying it. Spot the fucked up shit before anyone else does. Don’t do any of this to get a reward or a pass, because you won’t.
Don't listen to anyone who says they’re ‘just playing devil’s advocate’
Claiming to play devil's advocate is another way people (usually white men) may try to get you to "prove" that a racist or sexist incident happened, therefore attempting to erase or invalidate your lived experience. Let them know that Devil’s Advocate Racism is actually a thing.
Message to corporations
Run your ads by Black queer people first. She said: “Ask one of us if shit’s fucked up and we'll tell you. Just do that first and you’ll save so much money! As a capitalist, you should understand that.”
Sisterhood is sanity
For Kelela, like many of us, her Black women friends keep her grounded. “Everything is about the conversations I have with my Black women peers. It’s how I stay sane. The level of analysis [we partake in together] is so deep yet compassion intersections with the critique”.
Despite it all, remain compassionate
It’s easy to be eternally pissed off, angry and frustrated with everything going on (and rightfully so). But Kelela mentioned that despite it all, it’s important that we remain compassionate. Even if it’s only to maintain our selfhood and emotional and mental wellness.
Kelela's debut album Take Me Apart is out now.