fbpx

An award winning media company committed to sharing the perspectives of people of colour from marginalised genders

Photography by Mike Mora

‘Am I going to die if people don’t like my work?’ Kelis on getting comfortable with herself

To kick off our Kelis guest edit, the singer talks us through her new song Midnight Snacks and the art of being carefree

11 Oct 2021

Kelis is one of those people fortunate enough to be so culturally impactful they’re referred to only by a mononym. And with that level of fame and attention comes a protective drive to self-define what that one word means and who she truly is. Throughout her career, she’s made it clear she’s not afraid to be alternative, to tread off-piste beats into futuristic sounds, to reinvent herself, or even switch careers entirely.

“It’s so important as a woman that you know yourself and get comfortable with whatever that is,” she tells gal-dem. In a world where comparison is constant both professionally and aesthetically, which sometimes dampens your own self-assurance, it’s this “super solid” self-belief that keeps the artist grounded enough to take risks. 

Food, released in 2014, was Kelis’ sixth and last studio album. Since then the pop star and Black alt girl icon has happily been consumed by its titular world, making good use of the Cordon Bleu cookery training she completed in the late noughties as a way to decompress after the stressful recording of her fourth album Kelis Was Here. “That was the only time where I felt like I was being pulled in different directions. There were too many cooks in the kitchen,” she says over Zoom.

“Kelis has made it clear she’s not afraid to be alternative, to tread off-piste beats into futuristic sounds, to reinvent herself, or even switch careers entirely”

We actually first met in 2016 when she cooked for an ensemble of British press to publicise her pop up restaurant in Leicester Square before subsequently taking a food truck on a tour of UK festivals. The food was divine and she seemed a little tired clad in white chefs overalls but only because she’d clearly given her all. Riding on the new wave of legal weed ventures, she also fronted Cooking with Cannabis, a Netflix cooking show where contestants laced each course getting the judges and special guests high. 

Bored by Los Angeles, she relocated to a more rural corner of California just before the pandemic to start her own farm on 24-acres of land where she could escape the well-earned fame accrued from her megahits like ‘Caught Out There’ and the Grammy-nominated, very catchy track, ‘Milkshake’. Now, the only boys in her yard are her husband and her sons Knight and Shepherd (who were recently joined by their 1-year-old sister) and while the milk is not in a shake, it is probably coming out of the teats of her cow, named Whitney Houston. Though Kelis wouldn’t describe any of this as a ‘pivot’. “It’s more of an expansion,” she explains. 

When we video call, her lush decor is in full view. As someone who is, by their own admission, a “homebody”, she takes great pride in her homes which have been featured on Nowness and Harper’s Bazaar. Behind her is a canvas adorned with colourful vertical brush strokes, some of it obstructed from view as she relaxes into her blue sofa, her back supported by mustard-coloured cushions. 

“Food and the sensuality of women go together. Like food porn”

Kelis

The 42-year-old singer’s new single is entitled ‘Midnight Snacks’, which she tells me is her effort to make returning to music “feel fun” and inject some “light and easy, breezy” relief into what’s been a “crazy year”. ‘Midnight Snacks’ is one of her many food-themed songs, an area she often finds herself exploring because it appeals to one of our most “carnal” desires. “Food and sex and the sensuality of women go together. Like food porn,” she adds.

The video which she describes as “eccentric” was released on Friday and directed by Adrienne Raquel – an extremely in-demand director and photographer who has recently shot Rihanna, Issa Rae, Megan Thee Stallion, and Lil Nas X to name a few. In it, Kelis is in a dark room which is possibly a closed fridge, sat next to some jelly. She poses and shimmies as clips of food intercept the saucy scene.

“I built the entire video –  the creative direction, my wardrobe, everything – around my hair,” Kelis reveals. “I know what I want to look like because every season, every era has a different vibe for me. When I was recording the song, I started thinking about what the sound looked like. To me, all I kept thinking was pink locs and a bob.” She explains she returns to pink hair as her safe aesthetic as it feels like her natural colour.

She also lets me in on another key inspiration for embarking on the track. Boredom. “I feel like, to me personally, right now this is not a super epic music time, that’s just my personal opinion,” she explains. “I feel like things have gotten kind of monochromatic and so I just wanted to do something that sonically sounds a little bit different and fun that reminds me of like, the 90s.”

Kelis didn’t put together a playlist of reference songs for herself, because she already feels inundated with information and doesn’t want them to obstruct her originality. But for comparison’s sake, it has sonic relatives both within and outside of that era. The flow of the ‘Midnight Snacks’ chorus is Migos-like in its staccato delivery. Kelis’ vocals in the verses are sweet and sensual, backed by simple finger clicks.

While the baby’s laughter that has been worked into the beat is reminiscent of Aaliyah’s 1998 hit ‘Are You That Somebody’, the sound isn’t overtly 90s, in spite of Kelis suggesting it was key to her thinking and approach to the track. However, perhaps the 90s feel isn’t coming through sonically, rather it’s coming through in the way Kelis is approaching the art she’s making. In that she’s embracing experimentation and finding joy in “scary” creative choices.

Kelis’ explosive 1999 debut album punctuated the era, an exclamation teeming with futuristic soundscapes, underground style and effortless coolness which flipped the expectations of what a Black pop star could look, sound, and act like. When speaking to her it’s clear that age has brought her closer to a higher level of comfort within herself. “My mom used to always tell me your 20s are gonna be fun but you’re kind of a mess. You think you know, but you don’t really know anything. Then you hit your 30s and all of a sudden, you’re a woman. She said I was gonna feel really good. My 40s is when I’ve actually felt the sexiest and the smartest, and just solid.”

“Kelis’ explosive 1999 debut album punctuated the era, an exclamation teeming with futuristic soundscapes, underground style and effortless coolness”

This conviction is what led her to embark on living off the land and rearing her own livestock, despite being a city girl with no former agricultural experience. “It’s creating your own eco-system, somewhere where you can hear the wind and the birds,” she says. “Brown people, Black people, indigenous people were always attached to the land. And so the attack on us is always inadvertently or directly through the land.” Nationally in 1920s America, Black people owned 14% of farms, and by 1940, they were 35 percent of tenant farmers in the South. Due to this she thinks it’s important that we can feed ourselves and survive of our own accord and take “control of our own food”.

She adds: “The image of a rancher is a rich white guy. And the reality is that behind that rich white guy, even today, there’s always a bunch of brown guys. Even bigger than [that], most of the harvesters around the world are brown women.”

During our chat, it becomes apparent that Kelis is a very animated conversationalist. When she is convinced by an idea she can talk about it uninterrupted for minutes at a time. The subject of being comfortable with being disliked is one that sparks a brainwave. She has recently been unfiltered about the truths in her past: about her allegedly abusive relationship with Nas, one of the most beloved rappers in recent history (which the rapper would go on to deny).

She also bravely told The Guardian how Pharrell has swindled her out of cash, but he is so revered he’s been rendered untouchable in the entertainment industry (see also how ‘Blurred Lines’ and Robin Thicke are seen as an issue, but Pharrell wrote and produced the track and still came out smelling of roses – perhaps because he dropped the kid-friendly hit ‘Happy’ as a palette cleanser). Speaking out on these sorts of topics is dangerous for women in music, and yet Kelis does so openly. 

Her speech continues: “I tell my kids, I have one chance to do this. Whatever the date is today, you’re never going to get another one. There’s a sense of romance and beauty in cherishing each day and time and not zombie-ing through, missing moments, being afraid. You can have fun doing the most mundane regular stuff. There’s a self-confidence in that and it’s a choice. Nobody can take that from me and no one can give it either.” 

“The difference between a pop star and an artist, is that a pop star always has to be good. An artist only has to be genuine.”

Kelis

When we talk, there are murmurings of her family life that can be heard in the background, faint babbles can be heard off-screen. At times her husband, Mike Mora, reminds her of a word she may have forgotten in her answers here or there. Literally helping to finish each other’s sentences. Recently the pair revealed that the photographer has been battling stage 4 stomach cancer. He’d first noticed it when the pair moved to the farm last year. Perhaps this tumultuous diagnosis, alongside her carpe diem ethos, has encouraged her to embrace a new era and take on new challenges.

Her ease with herself and willingness to try to strive to do good is impacting how she approaches work and the criticism of that output. “The difference between a pop star – which I’ve never considered myself to be – and an artist, is that a pop star always has to be good. Right? An artist only has to be genuine,” she explains. “I think people are constantly looking for validation and acceptance and all these things, which is human nature, it’s nice. I would much prefer people to like my record than to not like my record, but am I going to, like, die if they don’t like it? No. Is it gonna stop me from doing another one? No.”

You can check in at this link for all the Kelis guest edit items as they come in through the week.