You’re Touching Me Like You’ve Had It All Along

I didn’t know at first that Kelela’s Take Me Apart would become the soundtrack to my breakup.  But that’s what happened.  After trying desperately throughout October to hold onto something that was increasingly not working, the rope broke and we fell apart.  Come November, Kelela’s latest LP started to resonate with me in a new way.  Take Me Apart, Kelela’s third release since 2013 (yet technically her “debut” album), narrates the breaking down of two different romantic partnerships, along with the in between period of getting back out there into the world of looking, touching, and fucking.  With some of her strongest vocals yet and freshest electronic music collaborations with her co-producers, Kelela pours her simultaneous pain (of loss) and joy (of new possibilities) into her vocals—and interweaves all of it with keyboard, drum pad/machine, and other electronic music sounds that mirror the rise and fall of both people falling in and out of love and bodies falling in and out of sexual tension with one another.  On Take Me Apart, digital music technologies and experiential production become means of accentuating the very human (in both the bodily and emotional ways) aspects of going through and healing from a breakup.

So it was from this space of sharply connecting with the heartbreak of Kelela’s album that I entered her show at White Oak Music Hall in Houston, the last stop on her North American tour, three weeks after my breakup.  At the same time, I also yearned to be a part of the black and queer collectivity that is a hallmark of Kelela’s shows.  Similar to when I was at Solange’s set at ACL the month before, I know that I will only be able to access the blackness of the space from proximity, and not from an entry point of personal experience.  But to the extent that Kelela’s shows both draw a queer crowd and push radical ideas of sexual intimacy and fucking with gender binaries, I feel acutely at home in the queerness of the space.  In Houston, unlike either of the times that I saw Kelela in Austin during the past two SXSW’s, I am surrounded by people of color and fellow queers.  More importantly, I am in company with people who are ready to dance, sing, and talk back to the stage banter, i.e. to engage with the music in both a bodily and psychological way.  And so once we get through the tear-inducing (for me) moment of Kelela and her band doing “Better” at five songs into the set, I finally have to let go and just throw myself into it entirely.  By the end of the set, my body is seamlessly gliding along with the songs, stopping only in anticipation of the drops, pauses, and reversals that I know are coming from having listening to these songs so many times already.  As with a sexual and intimate encounter, I lock into the music.

Throughout her 90-minute-long set, Kelela gets in touch (in both a literal and figurative way) with questions of intimacy, vulnerability, and pleasure.  Sex is at the forefront—or at least hovering nearby—of nearly every Kelela song.  From “Blue Light” to “Truth or Dare” to “LMK” to “Rewind” to “Bank Head” to “Go All Night” (to name just a half dozen off the top of my head), sex is an intimate point of connection that is, at times, also that very connection’s unraveling.  On “Blue Light,” the instrumentation forwards and amplifies Kelela’s singing about abandoning herself to someone, despite having “hardened” herself from previous romantic experiences.  After the drop near the end of each verse, the beats in the song swirl round and round in the chorus as Kelela sings “My chains keep falling down” (a line that could, in addition to reinforcing the song’s narrative of letting one’s guard down, also be about BDSM and/or chattel slavery).  Similar to the above clip of Kelela performing the song in Miami in February, as the instrumentation explodes in the Houston performance, Kelela drops with it and/or soars up to the higher points of her vocal range.  Standing in the audience with my eyes closed at times, I am engulfed by the power of this (and the rest of the) song(s).  I don’t just hear it; I embody it.  I slip into a place of mourning the loss of a recent relationship that once seemed like it could offer me a safe harbor for this kind of abandon while I simultaneously hang onto the hope that this could yet still happen for me sometime in the future.  And while the thoughts cross my mind, I more often experience the viscerality of all of this on my body, as it receives and reacts to the songs’ vibrations.

I go through some version of this melding my past romantic experiences, present emotional state, and future desires for sex and love with every song that Kelela and her band perform.  When I open my eyes and look around me, I sense that many people in the crowd are going through this as well.  In the process of doing that together in a shared space, we begin to imagine different ways of being together, without romantic relationships even necessarily being in the room.  When I wake up the next morning after getting back from Houston at 3am the night before, I think about all the reminders from back-to-back weekends of conferences of how much theorizing begins with the lived experiences that we share with one another.  If there’s one thing that black feminist thought has taught me, it’s that we write about what’s real for us, about what calls to us in ways that we materially feel on our bodies.  And if there’s one thing that queer of color critique has taught me, it’s that we sift through the overlappings of race, gender, and sexuality—and by extension of sex and power—because our daily lives are so enmeshed in these entanglements.  Over the course of a mixtape, EP, and LP, Kelela has pushed me (us) to consider how all of these things are always (already) at play in both our bodies and bodily relationships with others.  Upon leaving her show in Houston, this registers with me in a new way.

The work that we do starts in our bodies.

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Weary of the Ways of the World

After the sun had gone down on the Friday of weekend two of ACL, it was Solange’s turn to take the Barton Springs stage.  As 7:15pm passed and there was still no sight of the singer, a message flashed on the big screen: “DUE TO UNFORESEEN TRAVEL DELAYS, SOLANGE’S SET HAS BEEN PUSHED BACK.  SHE IS RUSHING TO THE FESTIVAL AND LOOKING FORWARD TO SEEING EVERYONE SOON.”  As I watched throngs of people jump ship to go watch the xx or Jay Z instead, the rest of us firmly stood our ground and held onto hope of her arrival.  My heart jumped back to two years ago, when we (and perhaps some of the same “we” awaiting Solange) had stood waiting for Lauryn Hill to take the stage at what would be the last Fun Fun Fun Fest out on the southwestern lake (river) bank.  With all the instruments set up on stage and lighting done in dark but bright reds on tonight’s stage, we stood in heightened anticipation for a live rendition of one of the best albums from 2016—and certainly one of the most important and powerful albums for and by black people (and particularly for black women) to be released in my lifetime.

The stakes were high, both in terms of delivering a moving set but also simultaneously offering something to give we in the audience a break from the heaviness of the world around us.  Standing near the sound booth with a politically aware white lady friend, our voices erupted with joy as the band—and, finally, Solange—took the stage.  The ensemble began by following the order of songs on A Seat at the Table, smoothly transitioning from “Rise” to “Weary” (the latter portrayed in the video above).  After Solange and her backup singers finish flipping their hair—and their entire bodies—up and down, the bass line of “Weary” sends them strutting and crouching from side to side on the stage.  “I’m weary of the ways of the world,” Solange sings at the beginning of the song.  There is a tiredness in her voice that comes through in a stronger way in the live setting than on the recorded album.  But there is also a channeling of the weariness that we are only able to experience in the flesh.  As Solange begins singing, the bass player and guitarist move their instruments back and forth in sync with the beat of the song.  Not only do they also still move in spite of the weariness but they also move together; they push through.  The combination of shared exhaustion and making music together leads to a black collectivity on stage.

In the middle of the set, this black collectivity literally extends out into the audience.  Although the above video is from weekend one, a similar moment occurs when the group perform “F.U.B.U.” during weekend two.  Once again, Solange and her band enact a choreography on stage—but it is looser than the tight, synchronized movements of “Weary.”  After singing “Some shit is for us,” Solange moves to the edge of the stage and then eventually walks out into the crowd.  During weekend two, she approaches a middle-aged black woman with tied back dreadlocks and glasses, putting her arm around her and then holding her hand.  For the remainder of the song, she stays with this woman, looking her in the eye and being fully present with her.  The woman begins to cry—and everyone from the crowd warmly cheers as a way of letting her know that it’s okay.  Further back in the crowd, I break into tears as I watch all of this unfold on the big screen.  As I turn to my friend, I see that she is also crying.  What does it mean to be included in this moment as a white person, albeit one who also identifies as a queer woman?  Without being all the way up in the front (where many black women and women of color are crowding around Solange), I am a part of this from afar.  Given all the white privilege that I already have, I feel fortunate to even get to be there at all, standing in the background as black collectivity takes center stage.

I flash back to a few weeks earlier, when I’m driving around New Orleans with a trusted (and also white) friend and colleague, listening to A Seat at the Table.  We’re doing our sound studies and black studies thing, picking out particular parts of each song and then thinking aloud about how aurality and race are working together in those moments.  But, we’re also touching down in our ongoing conversation about what it means to be white people writing about black popular music.  As I get deeper into writing about 80s and contemporary black pop stars, I only have more and more questions for myself—and an increasing awareness of what I will never be able to fully grasp on account of my whiteness.  Solange seems to be acutely aware of how race affects one’s access to her music, as she now only allows women of color to interview her and prioritizes black women in her performances.  A special intimacy is reserved for women of color while the rest of us get to join in in the enormity of the festival space from behind.  When too many things (including so much art and music) have been about shutting black people out, Solange’s music works as a clever reversal of the ways of the world.  Yet unlike the white heteropatriarchy that governs everything, Solange does not completely reproduce the total exclusion of so many of these institutions.  We (white people) are allowed to enter on her—and black people’s—terms.  This is one of the greatest successes of her music.  And I am grateful to have been let in on it.

Race, Vulnerability, and Musical Openness

2017 has been a year for expressing vulnerability through music.  While we could also say that about any other year in pop music, the sense of agony, despair, anxiety, and rage induced by Trump’s election is incomparable to anything else experienced in my 30 years on planet earth.  In this moment, the output of new releases has been huge: Austra, Vagabon, Land of Talk, Sylvan Esso, SZA, Lana Del Rey, Zola Jesus, Emily Haines, Torres, and Kelela, to name only what I’ve had in heavy rotation.  Regardless of whether or not these artists’ music has been politically motivated, I’ve viscerally felt the simultaneous desperation and urgency of their music while listening to them at this historical moment in time.

At the North Door in Austin two weeks ago, I walked into a performance of one of this year’s heaviest albums, Zola Jesus’s Okovi.  After moving in a more pop-y direction on 2014’s Taiga, Okovi is Nika Rosa Danilova’s return to her dark synthpop form, incorporating everything from reflecting on a friend’s attempted suicide to running away/back to the woods of Wisconsin to escape the horrors of America in 2017.  With Shannon Kennedy on violin and longtime collaborator Alex DeGroot on guitar (and all the pedals and knobs triggering all the synth stuff), Danilova emits an affect that pulls all of us in the audience into an immersive experience with her sound.  Similar to the video above, the group opens with “Veka,” a standout track from Okovi.  “Look alive for the statues, no retake/ Look alive before the worst is over, carry your legacy/ When the world becomes you/ When the story builds you in/ Who will find you there?” Danilova sings before she soars up in her vocal register to belt out “Who-oo will find you?”  After her first run through of the chorus, a well-timed drop brings the percussion to the forefront of the song.  The entirety of the set plays with this tension: the desperation of the verses/of entire songs clashing with the urgency and even relative upbeatness of the chorus/the dance-y songs (i.e. “Vessel”) positioned at the end of the set.  Wearing a Russian shawl for large swarths of the performance, Danilova maneuvers between retreating back into the insularity that birthed these songs in the first place and throwing off the cloth—and throwing herself to the edge of the stage.  Her stage presence is mesmerizing and it is on her that I mainly focus during the hour-long set.

There is a performance art element to her stage presence, which is not at all out of place at the North Door, the closest thing to a queer performance space that we have in the city.  While Danilova’s sexuality (intentionally?) remains a mystery in the press, her performance feels right at home in space where camp (or at least over-exaggeration) and darkness are frequently intertwined.  In the company of my girlfriend and a queer friend, I feel enmeshed in the queerness of the space and what Zola Jesus’s set does to further bring that out.  When the world outside doesn’t automatically make a place for us, we have to carve out our own space.  We bring in particular artists or invite certain people into a space in the hopes that they will draw a crowd where a person’s gender and sexual expression will not be hostilely attacked or questioned.  At concerts, the artist(s) lead the way with openness and vulnerability and beckon the crowd to follow.  But what about race?  Minus a few people who might be Latinx, I hardly see any people of color in the crowd.  When music is created from a place of insular whiteness, what are the limitations of the reach of those sounds?  Given what we do and don’t internalize as hardship or oppression, Danilova’s (or anyone’s) turning inward may or may not register in an emotionally compelling way.  For all the ways that I love and connect with Zola Jesus’s music, I also sense the particularity of its appeal from the crowd that night.  Perhaps this is the result of genre or the experimental nature of Danilova’s approach to music.  Nevertheless, as the group kicks off the end of the set with “Exhumed,” the frantically-paced violin parts feel like both an opening up and a closing off.

~~~

Five days later, I have a very different experience when I journey to Emo’s to watch and listen to SZA perform.  For the first time ever at this venue, I walk through a metal detector and have the entirety of the contents of my bag combed through by security.  But as soon as I get into the venue, I walk into Ravyn Lenae and her band doing house-tinged r&b songs.  Although I don’t previously know her music (as I assume is also the case for many of the people around me), I instantly get moving.  By the time SZA takes the stage, I feel heartened to be in a crowd with as many people of color of any show I’ve attended in Austin, rivaling Kelela’s set at Empire Control Room during this past SXSW and the Janet Jackson concert at Frank Erwin Center last month.  When Solána Imani Rowe, aka SZA, comes out in an outfit fitted to the curves of her body, the crowd screams and puts up their cell phones to record the moment.  Accompanied by a keyboardist, drummer, and guitarist, SZA and her band jump right into it.  Beginning with “Supermodel” (which includes the lines “I could be your supermodel if you believe/ If you see it it in me, see it in me, see it in me/ I don’t see myself”) SZA sings and dances around the stage with a sense of openness and (albeit at times slightly awkward) comfort with herself.  When she asks, “Who was popular in high school?” before answering “Me neither” before going into “Prom,” everyone cheers.  The sharing of vulnerability creates a shared experience of the music.

SZA’s set is a simultaneously vulnerable and joyous space.  During “Hiiijack” and then during “Love Galore,” SZA runs around the stage, intermixing kicking, dancing, and spinning around, as in the above video from her performance in Los Angeles a few days before the Austin show.  As she sings song after song about getting her heart broken by shitty men, she at multiple points burst into a huge smile.  We are putting behind—or at least momentarily putting aside—all the traumatic things that stick with us and weigh us down.  Although Rowe uses the word “multidominational” to describe her music near the end of the set, the mood of the show has already been previously set by opener Lenae giving a shout out to all the “beautiful black people” standing at the front of the crowd—and then acknowledging the white people in the crowd after that.  SZA and her openers turn Emo’s into a space for blackness for the night, even as white people (like myself) also join in on the party.  To approach universal topics (such as heartbreak or sexual frustration) through the perspective of her experiences as a black woman is to bring race into the set—even as SZA is simultaneously mindful of appealing to people of all races.  Where the Zola Jesus set lands on my body as a manifestation of a heightened desperation unbeknownst to many white people before Trump’s election, the SZA set feels like something that’s been going on for a long time, due to the ways that racism and sexism intersect.  Her songs feel open to me without being entirely or primarily about me.  The tightrope walk of appealing to people with similar identities as you yet leaving something more universal for everyone else to grab onto has been a hallmark tension of people working in popular music for as long as it’s been a thing.  SZA gets this—and she does it very well.  Her set is an opening.