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.