Outdoor World

Unmasked singer: Kelis on music, men and her missing money

Twenty years after her debut album, the singer talks about refusing to be pigeonholed, her fallout with Pharrell, and why she has moved to a remote farm


To find Kelis these days, you dont just have to leave Los Angeles, the city where, until last summer, she had lived and worked for almost all her adult life. You have to go to the opposite of Los Angeles. LA attracts people who believe they exist only if other people are watching them. Kelis wanted to go where no one could see her.

Over in that front corral is where the vegetable garden is, and then Ive got my seedlings here. Im waiting for my greenhouse to be built. We have chickens coming and also baby goats, she says as we sit on her front porch on a cool, cloudy day. She is, she adds, considering a cow situation.

We are about two and a half hours out of LA, deep in wine country. She has given me a quick tour of her beautiful 10-hectare (24-acre) farm. There are no passing cars and the nearest shop is half an hour away. Her farm is bordered by high rocky hills, in case the near isolation did not provide sufficient privacy.

I hate LA. I was only ever there for work. Because its not like New York or London, theres nowhere to go after 10 at night, so suddenly youre getting up early in the mornings and youre juicing and youre hiking and figuring out how much wheatgrass can you actually intake. I hate it, says the New York singer, unconcernedly reviving the music industrys old east coast-west coast rivalry. So I thought, if Im going to be in California, I should be where I can appreciate how beautiful it really is, not stuck in LA and pretending its a city thats fun.

Kelis, in around 2000. Photograph: Patrick Ford/Redferns

In front of the main house, a handsome man is raking leaves, accompanied by an adorable four-year-old boy. They are her husband, Mike, a photographer, and their son, Shepherd. Kelis also has a 10-year-old son, Knight, with her first husband, the hip-hop artist Nas, and Shepherd proudly shows me the bedroom he shares with his really big brother.

Its pretty much my husband and me looking after the farm. You get up in the morning and do what you gotta do, and then you look around and youre like: Why does it still look like this? Oh my God! she laughs, barefoot in paint-stained jeans and a loose jumper, her crimson braids swept back into a ponytail. At 40, she looks barely five years older than the precociously dignified, occasionally goofy teenager who broke through in the late 90s screaming I hate you so much right now! on Caught Out There, from her debut album, Kaleidoscope. This was followed, a few years later, by the world-conquering Milkshake, on her third album, Tasty. Since then, there have been more albums, marriages, divorce, children and a recent, somewhat surprising, appearance on The Masked Singer. She has also made an enthusiastic divergence into cookery, after training as a Cordon Bleu chef, and is now making plans to open a restaurant nearby, using produce from her farm.

As a musician, Kelis was often called hard to place, which is another way of saying that record companies and radio stations did not know how to sell her. Refusing to be restricted to the R&B and hip-hop boxes into which young black artists are often shoved, Keliss versatile, distinctive voice meant producers as varied as David Guetta, will.i.am and Dave Sitek were keen to work with her. She has made dance music, soul music and even on my favourite of her songs, Like You, from her fourth album, 2006s Kelis Was Here sampled Mozart. But that variety may also have worked against her, because it means she does not have an easy, ready-fit brand. On top of that, she had a run of bewilderingly bad luck with record companies.

The issue of race has been such a big part of my entire career. It was never something that I struggled with personally. But it was other peoples confusions. Macy Gray and I were the first [black women] to be considered alternative. But people were like: But youre black and alternative? What is that? Which already is a stupid-ass question, but it was put in our faces all the time, she says.

The reason Kelis is taking a break from farming today is to talk about the record where all this the career, the confusions and, ultimately, the farm began. It is the 20th anniversary of Kaleidoscope, her enduringly beautiful debut album, and she is about to embark on a world tour to mark it. But looking back does not sit comfortably with an artist who has always prided herself on moving forward, and, truth be told, she would not have even noticed it was the anniversary if her manager hadnt mentioned it.

Yeah, Im struggling a little bit, if Im honest. Its a lot harder than I thought it would be. I feel everyone is expecting me to have these deep thoughts about [the anniversary], and I just dont, she says.

Having established that, she then spends 15 minutes sharing her deep thoughts about the albums anniversary, which take in everything from President Trump to modern parenting.

I grew up hanging out in jazz clubs, falling asleep there with people stepping over me, because thats where my parents were, so they just took me. But you look at parents today and theyre like: Oh my God, its nap time, I cant talk to you! And its all: We cant go there because we have kids! Im like, did we die when we had kids?

And then theres a disconnect: Im hypersensitive to the stuff my parents fought for because they werent sheltering me from the realities. Now its like parents stop everything and shield their kids from everything! Then they become these adults who have no taste and no concept of what was being fought for before because they werent privy to it, she says, exasperated.

She means, I think, among other issues, that it is good to rerelease quality music, because that is often the only way kids come across it these days, as their parents just played Peppa Pig and Frozen albums for them. But even if it is not always entirely clear how her arguments relate to Kaleidoscope, I enjoy the ride.

Kelis was born Kelis Rogers, the daughter of a jazz musician and fashion designer. She has always been interested in music and she is, she says, especially proud of her first album: proud of the femaleness of the album, of the freaking outspokenness of it, the blackness of it, the alternativeness of it. But returning to Kaleidoscope has brought back as many bitter memories as sweet ones. Kelis made it with her then close friend Pharrell and Chad Hugo, AKA the Neptunes, after meeting them through a mutual friend at performing arts school. She was 19 at the time. I thought it was a beautiful and pure, creative safe space, she says. But it ended up not being that at all.

The story of the music industry is one of young artists getting ripped off, again and again, because they are too young to understand the contracts they have signed until it is too late. What is different in Keliss case, she says, is that it was her friends who ripped her off.

I was told we were going to split the whole thing 33/33/33, which we didnt do, she says. Instead, she says, she was blatantly lied to and tricked, pointing specifically to the Neptunes and their management and their lawyers and all that stuff. As a result, she says she made nothing from sales of her first two albums, which were produced by the Neptunes. But she did not notice for a few years, because she was making money from touring, and just the fact that I wasnt poor felt like enough, she says. She sighs: Their argument is: Well, you signed it. Im like: Yeah, I signed what I was told, and I was too young and too stupid to double-check it. (Pharrell and Hugo did not respond to repeated requests for comment.)

And they were your friends so you trusted them, I say.

Yeah, its amazing, she shrugs.

She doesnt sound angry. No, Im just stating the facts, she says. I ask why she isnt angry.

To be honest with you, I think if it were not for my faith, I feel like that would probably be the case. Its very clear to me, especially being on a farm, that whatever you put in the ground, that is whats going to come back to you, she says.

Things eventually came crashing down, she says, when she made her third album, Tasty, and decided to work with a variety of producers, not just the Neptunes, and I could tell they were really offended.

But she has seen Pharrell. A few years back, he was performing at an industry event and she was in the audience. And he did that thing to me that hes notorious for, which is making a nod from the stage [to someone in the audience], so it seems like theres mutual respect, when in reality She throws her head back and laughs. Im like, OK, Im not going to yell back: You stole all my publishing! So you end up nodding back and everyone thinks everythings great. Like, whatever.

Would she work with him again? She looks at me as if I have asked if she would jump into a shark tank: Ummm, at that point theres having faith and there is also just stupidity.

Kelis did not talk about any of this publicly for years. Another secret that she kept until recently is that, according to her, Nas, her first husband, physically abused her. She first mentioned this in an interview in 2018, nine years after she left him while seven months pregnant with their child. (He has strongly denied that he abused her.)

Performing earlier this month in West Hollywood. Photograph: Araya Diaz/Getty Images for Morrison Hotel Gallery + Equinox

Well, Im a very private person, and whether its the stuff with the Neptunes and being assaulted from a business perspective, to then being assaulted in the home, I fought so hard to have my own voice, even with the umbrella of these men looming over what I was trying to do. Im not broken. But I dont feel like protecting the sanctity of the black man any more, she says.

She and Nas met when she was barely out of her teens. The red flags were there. I was really young and didnt know that love isnt enough. It was crazy from the start, but I think as girls were taught that thats what love is, like you cant breathe without them. What kind of shit is that? I want to breathe! she says.

The two married in 2005 and, second only to Beyonc and Jay-Z, they were seen as musics coolest couple. But fame, she says, made the abuse worse, and it continued to worsen, until two things finally made her leave. The first was seeing the photos of Rihanna after Chris Brown assaulted her in 2009. It just woke me up, she says. The second was getting pregnant. I thought, you know, I can endure a lot, but Im not prepared to bring someone else into this. So Im done.

Since Kelis first spoke publicly about this, Nas has issued repeated denials that he hit her and insists that she stops him from seeing their son.

Kelis rolls her eyes: Any rational person would look at this situation and say [to Nas]: Well, if you want to see [your child], you have to actually show up! My kid is a really happy child, because I dont tell him when [his father] says hes going to come and doesnt show up. She talks at length about the problems of co-parenting, and its a conversation Ive heard often from friends who are very much not international pop stars. Death may be the great leveller, but so is divorce.

From a distance, Keliss story looks like a textbook warning to young artists, young female artists in particular: dont let record companies sell you short, dont let producers make you sign anything, dont let a wolf into your home.

Kelis sees it differently. She sees it as a fight against people (men, really) who continually tried to keep her down but she always stayed true to herself. Both things can be true with her talent, she should have enjoyed more success than she has. But really, who cares about the bread and circuses? She has her farm, her goats and maybe even a cow situation. As she walks me back down towards the driveway, her little boy is walking hand-in-hand with his father towards the vegetable garden. She hugs me goodbye and I say I hope she is OK. Im absolutely fine, she smiles. And she is.

The Kaleidoscope tour starts on 3 March in Europe. It will be at the Albert Hall, Manchester on 16 March and at the Roundhouse, London on 17 March. The reissue of the Kaleidoscope album is out on 21 February.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/music/2020/jan/30/unmasked-singer-kelis-on-music-men-and-her-missing-money

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