In a performance at the 9:30 Club that was equal parts intimate and transcendent, Kelela returned to her hometown of Washington, D.C., on March 1 to share the fears, heartaches and celebrations that come with rising to stardom as a black woman in America.
Kelela and opening act Tiffany Gouché opted for a bare stage that drew focus to their music and the dazzling lights accompanying the performers’ sets.
Singing old favorites and new singles, Gouché used sensuality in a refreshing way that helped create a new image for romantic love. Her performance combined confidence and sultriness to set the mood for Kelela’s deeply personal set.
Kelela, hair adorned with translucent beads and wearing a skintight white dress, let the lights bounce off her body as though she was a canvas. For each song, the colors reflecting off her outfit helped define the mood of the piece.
The singer opened with “LMK,” the lead single from her 2017 debut studio album, “Take Me Apart.” During the song, warm red and icy blue lights melting together on her dress helped envelop the audience into the push and pull of emotions between lovers. The song’s rush of deep, bass-filled beats quickly pulled everyone into her grasp.
Slowing things down after an enlivening opener, Kelela transitioned to “Send Me Out,” a dreamy and longing slow burn from her 2013 mixtape, “Cut 4 Me.” The stage, now darkened to only reveal Kelela herself, transformed into a space that felt both intimate and closed off.
This paradox of distance mirrored the emotional turmoil Kelela struggles with in her songs: She used the stage to show how she can feel extremely close to a lover while remaining unable to cross the ever-present divide between them.
What defines Kelela’s work, though, is not her subject matter — rather, it is her genre-smashing production and ability to make these subjects her own. She offers a new vision of rhythm and blues and womanhood that puts her ahead of her contemporaries.
In person, Kelela presented this redefined vision in her 2017 single “Blue Light,” a ferocious and almost chaotic song that culminates in her fully embracing the love of another. She shed all hesitation and let her voice reach for its limits, the warped backing track and vocals similarly reflecting her newfound relinquishing of personal restraint.
As she began the sleek “Waitin,” a bright white light enshrouded her from behind, hiding her face from view. From this angle, Kelela took on the futuristic persona her work’s production suggests, which made her confidence as a performer look effortless.
The combination of sound and color as a means of transporting the audience outside of themselves into her artistic universe reached its peak with “Bank Head.” The constant percussion combined with Kelela’s falsetto and the strobing lights raised the energy in the venue to a frenzy.
This passion overtook her during the performance and spread an electric, visceral sense of excitement through the club and the audience. At times, it seemed nothing could stop Kelela’s momentum as an artist.
Yet, she would be the first to tell you otherwise. During an interlude between songs, Kelela encouraged aspiring artists in the audience to keep striving for their dreams. For her, though, success has been an uphill battle.
“I came to 9:30 Club all the time [growing up in D.C.]. I could not have imagined performing here in a million years,” she said during the show.
Throughout the night, Kelela repeatedly came back to her connection with the District. She made clear how much it meant to her to return to her home and perform her art. The audience loved sharing in her special moment, cheering and encouraging Kelela whenever she paused to collect herself.
She closed with “Altadena,” a soothing choice to end a night full of ecstatic energy and excitement. The track serves to inspire the performers and creatives who currently occupy the same space she did before she became successful.
The lyrics speak for themselves: “It’s not just me, it’s everyone / Let me remind you.” Kelela ended the night with an affirmation to all as a repayment to the community that helped her achieve her own dreams of sharing her art.
Despite Kelela’s icy, futuristic aesthetic, she opened her heart to members of the audience and let them into her life with her performance. Her set at the 9:30 Club reinforced her commitment to her listeners in a way that goes beyond a checklist of her most popular songs and cements Kelela as a performer who cares about her art and her fans above all else.