Kelela’s stage was minimally adorned, but her lighting team is adept at creating James Turrell-like lightscapes that drape her figure in rich reds, purples and blues. At one point, her face and body were illuminated by an electric shade of cyan, while the background remained shaded in dark azure. The effect made Kelela look as ethereal and spectral as the music radiating from the speakers. The handful of times I’d seen her perform in the United States, the audience was rapt for the entire performance — reverent during her atmospheric songs, breaking into exuberant, feverish dance during her fast-paced ones. (Her music can keep the lovesick company in bed just as easily as it can shepherd a party past sunrise.)
Levi describes much of her work as mixtapes. For “Jackie,” she imagined classy melancholy, loads of strings, the occasional flute, clarinet and piano — the kind of music that Jacqueline Kennedy might listen to, a mixtape for private mourning made for a woman in the center of so much public chaos. The day Levi and Coates recorded “Remain Calm,” Levi arrived with two CD turntables and thumb drives full of samples and premade digital files — all of which, in one way or another, had reminded her of Coates. She was thinking of music not in terms of classical or hip-hop or any other genre, but in terms of people. Some music was Oliver Coates music. Some music was Mica Levi music.
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In her early to mid 20s, she would go to a Washington bar called 18th Street Lounge for its Sunday-night house sessions. A D.J. named Sam Burns played eclectic soul and deep house music, and after a few drinks, if she heard a bit of music that reminded her of another song, she would jump on the microphone and blend the two in real-time. “I would run to the microphone and figure out a way to sing it. I would create a flip,” she says. “That is where I live.”