We get candid with Kelello, the African musician of the world

Kelello

On paper, it’s easy to see how I thought Kelello was too mainstream for my little platform. She has an established voice and been on ‘big deal media’ numerous times before.

But in person, I instantly found that she was as regular as the queens I write about on this platform. That realisation took things on an alternate planet than the one I had previously imagined, and I was thankful for it.

At the time of the chatterview, we were under load shedding siege. But we decided to get the show going at The Village Bistro. Little did we know, we’d be digging into her life and into a three-course meal, fully sponsored by the restaurant’s chef.

I discovered right there, that Kelello is unapologetically self-assured, witty, passionate, animated, funny, loving and caring person who loves food just as much as I do.

And that her love for music began at a very young age. This sounds very cliché, here’s the thing though, when she went to kindergarten, she refused to speak for two months and only communicated through singing. If that’s not real love, I don’t know what is.

“My parents even thought I couldn’t speak, for a while. So, I knew then that music was my way of expressing myself.” Kelello tells me as I pry into her life before hitting the music scene. She cites influences from an insane mix of genres, from Folk, Motown, Jazz, Afro Jazz, Afro-Pop, Pop, Hip Hop, Electronic Dance Music (EDM), Heavy Metal, R&B, and all the way to Soul.   

This is precisely the reason Kelello’s unique sound is genre-less. And it’s going to continue like this for as long as she keeps making music. And I am here for it. Throw away the box and flourish, I say.

The German-born daughter of the Ambassador of Lesotho has lived in Germany, the UK, and South Africa. Kelello exploded into the professional music scene in 2015 with her EP release, Brazen Soul, under the moniker, ‘MsKelle’.

From that EP, singles such as ‘Mr. Mean’ became fan favourites and this song in particular, charted on Kaya FM Top 40, catapulting her into the mainstream superstardom. She gained gigs both locally and internationally, opening up for artists such as the Tortured Soul, Monique Bingham, Tsepo Tshola as well as Grammy nominated artist, Nneenna Freelon. All without signing to a label.

She explains to me that being an independent artist is exactly like being an entrepreneur. That everything rests on your shoulder; songwriting, finding producers, doing the distribution, doing the bookings and so forth.

“This is why I really wish that people would look at it as a business. Because then I really think they we would be able to get business loans. Returns can be quantified, so we should be able to go with a business plan and get a loan as musicians because it is a business.”

As you can already tell, the biggest hurdle for independent artists is the money. “Getting the single from inception to radio stations is an expensive endeavour. Between having to hire people, money towards distribution, towards branding etc, all out of pocket.”

“I have been lucky to get some investors who believed in my music.” She explains that she is also lucky to have found musicians who have made it, who are willing to help her, like Ntate Tsepo Tshola, who always offer her advice and guidance.

This is where her African parents started to understand music as a career. See, the thing about being born of African parents, anything further from an academic career is a hobby. Kelello tells me her parents told her there’s no money in music and she will suffer. “And they were right, I suffered.”

She explains that she is stubborn and that she gets incredibly motivated when she has a point to prove. In retrospect, she does get why her parents were so worried. “What our parents have been through, especially in this country, in this context, the fear is that we won’t have better than they had. So, my parents wanted to ensure that I was stable. And I get that. At the time I was mad, but now I am grateful.”

She negotiated with her parents, that she will have a formal degree and thereafter she will get her way. A move that saw her collect not only one but three degrees. First with a Psychology & Sociology Degree from the University of Cape Town, then a Sociology Honours Degree from the University of Pretoria, and lastly, a Master’s Degree in Socio-Economic Development Studies from the University of London. 

The inspiration for her choice of degrees is drawn from her experiences from her move to South Africa, after having lived in Germany for 10 years.

“When I first got here it was really difficult, because while I was in Germany, I was a Mosotho and that was that. When I got here, I was told I wasn’t black enough. Too white to be black but too black to be white. I fit no where and I wanted to go back to Germany,” she explains.

And so, she went to UCT to study Psychology & Sociology. “I wanted to understand why people do what they do and how people think the way they think. I ended up loving the idea of identity. What makes you, YOU and what makes you black. And, how that is different based on where you are in the world.”

“Because, when I got here, my blackness was suddenly taken away from me, and I’ve been black my whole life. It took me a while to be confident in my own skin and to find myself in South Africa as a black woman.”

Through school, she learnt that identity is fluid and is a social construct. She then learnt that it’s okay to embrace who she is and how she is. Because reality is, “everyone is struggling and is figuring themselves out.”

She also admits that although she was busy with her studies, music never left her, that she was in fact, still making music. Even throughout high school, when the too-white-to-be-black but too-black-to-be-white experiences were intense for her, she started writing poetry to express herself. Something which later led to songwriting.  

“Music has kept me above water.”

Majority of the songs in Brazen Soul, were written in high school.“I wrote ‘Mr Mean’ when I was 18. And, if I am honest, the songs [in Brazen Soul] no longer speak to me the day I released them.”

I asked if this was the reason behind her break from music and I got a resounding ‘yes’. Further explaining that she realised that she needed to get better producers, better quality, and that she needed to learn to write better. “So, I took a step back and just honed the craft.”

In 2019, she returned in the music scene as Kelello. “I decided I was done hiding behind a nickname. I felt like I was hiding. I had to take away any amour I had from the cruel world. As a creative, if you put yourself out there, people will be critical of your work and that sticks with you.”

She’s since dropped two hot singles, ‘What You Do To Me’ and ‘Ice Cold’ which form part of an upcoming Urban Contemporary album.

Her first single, ‘What You Do To Me’ is co-composed by renowned producer and afro-jazz guitarist Kunle Ayo. It’s a love song that speaks to the feeling of being loved right. “I am a hopeless romantic. I am so cynical when it comes to love. So, I always find that when I do meet someone who I am interested in, in the real sense, it always surprises me. Like I say on the song, “You took your time with me”. I need someone to be patient with me and allow me to be comfortably vulnerable with them. That song is about finding someone like that.”

She chose to work with Kunle Ayo because she wanted that old school R&B sound, with a bit of eclectic mix of Jazz.

On the other hand, ‘Ice Cold’ is the total opposite, it speaks of heart break and betrayal caused by infidelity. She wrote and co-produced this single with renowned producer, JWalker (in association with A Nathi Sound).

While she won’t lock herself in on a release date, she does tell me that the album is almost ready and should be out during the first months of the year.

Kelello’s parting words are specifically for aspiring woman musicians, who may be feeling discouraged. “Be steadfast, be stubborn, know your rights, and understand the business of music as much as you can so that when you are in meetings with people who tell you stuff, or give you contracts to sign, you’re aware of what is happening. There’s always a way to do things without compromising yourself.”

Looking forward to the album!

Follow the link for What You Do To Me single and here for Ice Cold.