From The New York Times Magazine Fashions of the Times, Fall 2001
In the glory days of the Harlem renaissance, folks used to say, "I'd rather be a lamppost in Harlem than governor of Georgia." Kelis, hip-hop's new It Girl, would like to second emotion. "I was born here and would like to die here," the 22-year-old singer says. A brownstone baby, she's now got her own uptown digs. "It's a neighborhood where children play and people go to work," she says. "You get to know people. There's not much of a feeling of that in New York. When you find it, you feel it. It's special."
She may have missed the thrill of hearing Lady Day at the Cotton Club, but Kelis grew up steeped in the music of Harlem's finest: Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald and Dinah Washington. Her own music takes the blues of Bessie Smith and the airy poetry of Kate Bush and amps it up, Jimi Hendrix style.
On her hit single, 'Caught Out There,' she skips the typical singsong chorus and gets right to the point. "I hate you so much right now!" she hollers at a lover who's done her wrong. "I hate you so much right now!" And just in case you don't get the agony, she punctuates it with a scream--"Aaaaaaaargh!"
Harlem, like Havana, is a land where women and men love according to their own rules. Kelis may be young, but she's well schooled in the intricacies of heartache. She's made giants of men, and she's cut them down. In the words of Bessie Smith, ain't nobody's business if she do.
Her father was a jazz musician and minister, which accounts for the holy swing in Kelis's dynamic vocals. Her mother encouraged her musical tendencies, putting her in the church choir at a tender age, then moving her into the Girls Choir of Harlem--the sister group to the legendary boys. "It was good musical training," she says. "I played sax for a while, and I studied the violin for 14 years." Rebelling against her strict parents, she moved out at 16. She finished high school and started singing, and hasn't stopped since. It's worth mentioning that although she ran away from home, she never ran away from Harlem. "I'm die-hard Harlem," she says simply, meaning that even in a big city like New York, you can find a corner of concrete that not only embraces you, but also defines you. Langston Hughes found that in Harlem; so did Zora Neale Hurston, Duke Ellington, Lena Horne and Billie Holiday.
The Harlem Kelis lives in isn't the Harlem of her youth. There's a Starbucks now and a Body Shop. Former President Clinton works down the street, and downtown types party at the corners of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and a street named after Malcolm X. Kelis finds it interesting, but she wouldn't call it a revitalization. "Whenever there are large groups of other races moving in, people consider the neighborhood 'coming up,'" she says. "The people who live there might not take the same point of view."
It's been a busy summer, and Kelis hardly has time to kick back at the new Harlem hot spots, like Jimmy's Uptown and the Lenox Lounge. These days, she's living in Samsonite and Tumi. She stopped in Harlem one afternoon in July, then jetted to Atlanta to begin her American tour. By August, she'll be in Scotland, rocking the crowds in Glasgow on a 'jukebox done broke' bill that includes Marilyn Manson and the former Lemonheads frontman, Evan Dando. Don't worry; she can hold her own with self-proclaimed devil worshipers and MTV pretty boys. The rapper Ol' Dirty Bastard doesn't call her 'Thunder Bitch' for nothing.
While she is traveling, you can be certain she'll be shopping. "I won't leave a country without buying clothes," she says with a passion. Her credit card got a workout during a recent trip to Europe, especially in Paris. "You have to go to Louis Vuitton and Christian Dior--that's what they're there for," she explains. Her famous pink-tipped Afro is gone, and these days her hair is a curly concoction of blacks and browns. It doesn't escape notice that it goes very well with her new Vuitton purchases. Yet she's just as happy with a slinky skirt bought at a 125th Street discount shop as she is with a Galliano tulle confection. "I just go for whatever makes me feel good that day, that week," she says. "I go through stages in fashion, like I go through stages in life."
If Harlem was once known for a generation of jazz singers who mixed the sassiness of blues poetry with elements of ragtime and swing, then Kelis's generation will be known as that of the sisters who brought elements of rock and futuristic Sly Stone licks into contemporary R&B. What started With Missy Elliott and Macy Gray has now paved the way for a crop of new independent-minded songstresses, including Kelis, Angie Stone, Una and India Arie.
You only have to take a peek at what's in rotation on Kelis's CD player (Stevie Wonder, Muse, Marvin Gave, Nancy Wilson, Broadcast) to see that hers is a singular vision. "What makes me hip-hop is that I'm black," she says. "I've been compared to a lot of artists. I don't necessarily agree with the comparisons, but I respect them." She's just finished recording her latest album, 'Wanderland,' which offers up more of the raw emotion and sophisticated musicianship that made her debut, 'Kaleidoscope,' such a hit. "It's me, older and hopefully a little wiser, " she says.
On a summer day, on the streets she loves, she takes it all in--the men who gather to tell tall tales on a brownstone stoop; the children riding scooters and jumping double Dutch, the hard-working men and women making their way up Sugar Hill. They all influence her music because, as she says, "everything we come into contact with affects us." Harlem has been muse to a century of great artists who couldn't resist its hot-buttered soul. As one anonymous Harlemite once wrote, they all "chant another song of Harlem / Not about the wrong of Harlem / But the worthy throng of Harlem... / The devil, too, is tamed in Harlem."