Though it was only released a month ago as I write this, Kelela’s album Raven has been on constant rotation: whether it’s the summery “On the Run,” the piercingly erotic “Sorbet,” or the emotionally expansive “Enough for Love.” Her fusion of R&B, house, and electronica is like no one else. Unlike a lot of contemporary albums, I tend to listen to Raven from start to finish. It asks you to immerse yourself.
The album comes six years after Kelela’s debut Take Me Apart (another favorite), which in hindsight doesn’t seem like such a long time. (It takes about five years for many of my favorite poets to complete a book.) But to say that Kelela’s debut inspired the love of a devoted fan base would be an understatement. Her work has been acclaimed by critics, tastemakers, and fellow musicians, but, more importantly, her music has been passionately embraced by Black women and Black queer people for the searching vulnerability of her lyrics and her surprising soundscapes that can be celestial one moment and club-ready the next.
The increase in racism, misogyny, homophobia, and transphobia, I think, made Kelela’s admirers (myself included) hungrier for this album. Her music is balm. She spoke to our tenderest selves, our bawdiest selves, our wounded selves, our ecstatic selves. Last fall, when she released the first single “Washed Away,” I was particularly primed to receive it. The song is an invocation, luscious, less like something for a party and more for meditation. The lyrics are spare, but her voice is haunting and capacious as the sea. The track ends with a splash; I imagine someone diving into the sea. The shore and the dance floor. These are the places where the album lives. Fitting landscapes for songs about, among other things, relationships. Yes, we retreat to both places to cut loose and find some loving, but how many of us, among the crush of the club or the beach, surrounded by so many people, have never felt more alone?
Many of the songs invoke water:
“And now it’s raining” (“Let It Go”)
“Oh it’s a sauna
Here if you wanna” (“Contact”)
“Far away from
Submerged sound” (“Fooley”)
“Under the surface, I’m lying
Fighting the time, now I’m drowning” (“Divorce”)
“The mist, the light
The rain that pours and the floody nights
Far away and I’m still away, oh
So waiting on, so wait” (“Far Away”).
In Kelela’s aural seascape, I hear a yearning for intimacy, a call to the self to be braver and freer, to demand more of the self, to demand more of beloveds and lovers because, damn it, we deserve to be loved fiercely and deeply.
It’s an album whose questing spirit comes to me during a time of reevaluation. I’m traveling and living abroad this year after two years alone, more or less, due to the pandemic. Though even before 2020, my mental health was in shambles. So many things that brought me joy, like reading, had fallen away. Now, after many years, I have space to seriously consider what’s good for me, what brings me joy.
I remember listening to the title track for the first time, a mythic narrative of rebirth, which begins plaintively before transitioning into something pulsing and propulsive. After the beat drops, she sings “I separate / Closer to what I need tonight / No other way / Starting to feel my body now.” When the album dropped in February, I was working on a long poem whose subject matter had just revealed itself to me. It being a poem, in part, about renegotiating my relationship with alcohol and feeling like I’ve come back to my body. I’m thankful for Raven, its lushness, openness, ambition, and sexiness. Kelela may not come when you want her to but she’s always on time.
Lastly, I want to end this by shouting out two phenomenal debut poetry collections by Black women that have not escaped my mind: Bluest Nude by Ama Codjoe and All the Blood Involved in Love by Maya Marshall. Two books to be savored. Immerse yourself in the worlds they conjure.
Derrick Austin is the author of Tenderness (BOA Editions, 2021), winner of the 2020 Isabella Gardner Poetry Award, and Trouble the Water (BOA Editions, 2016). His first chapbook, Black Sand, was recently published by Foundlings Press. He is a 2022-2023 Amy Lowell Poetry Traveling Scholar. He's @ParadiseLaust on social media.
Read Derrick Austin's poetry in Issue 296 (Summer Poetry 2023)