Combining the futuristic production of Timbaland and the neo-soul of Erykah Badu with an inspired wave of experimental electronica, Kelela Mizanekristos is arguably the most forward-thinking out of all the female performers currently attempting to emulate the golden age of R&B.
Born and raised in Rockville, Maryland by Ethiopian parents, the dreadlocked vocalist grew up listening to everyone from Miriam Makeba to Janet Jackson and performed in an indie-rock band and as a jazz singer before settling on her “deliberately off-putting” take on the urban sounds of the 90s.
But it wasn’t until she approached the relatively late age of 30 that Kelela, who had previously majored in International Studies at Washington D.C.’s American University, began to make any inroads in the industry. Indeed, she was still working as a telemarketer as recently as 2012 when Solange invited her to be the support act on her US tour.
After guesting on abstract electronic duo Teengirl Fantasy’s Tracer (“EFX”), Kelela began working on her own material with progressive label/DJ collective Fade To Mind, resulting in last year’s critically-acclaimed Cut 4 Me mixtape.
Voted The Guardian’s No.7 album of 2013, the mixtape’s 13 tales of twisted love proved that Kelela had more of an edge than most of her younger alt-R&B peers. None more so than on “Enemy,” which combined the sweetly-sung melodies of classic TLC with the jackhammer synths of Dizzee Rascal’s daring debut. Elsewhere, the warped Purity Ring-esque “Keep It Cool,” the spooky sci-fi soul of “Do It Again” and the throbbing electro of “Guns & Synths” also showed that Kelela was far more interested in subverting the genre than merely paying tribute.
Since then, she’s appeared on Solange’s hipster compilation, Saint Heron, been shortlisted for the BBC’s prestigious Sound of 2014 poll and is currently working on her debut album proper, due for release later this year. Telemarketing’s loss definitely appears to be the R&B scene’s gain.