Before emo, carefree Black songstresses like H.E.R. and Sza were a thing; there was Kelis.
The 41-year-old Harlem-born chef, farmer, singer and songwriter stepped on the Black music scene in 1999 with her groundbreaking debut album “Kaleidoscope.”Although she was slept on, Kelis’ grit, “fuck ‘em” attitude (she left home in her teens) and in-depth understanding of music and music theory (she’s a classically-trained violinist and plays the saxophone) put her in a league of their own. Besides, record labels didn’t exactly know how to define her as an artist. She wasn’t pop or R&B, according to the industry.
“Macy Gray and I were the first [black women] to be considered alternative. But people were like: ‘But you’re black and alternative? What is that?’ Which already is a stupid-ass question, but it was put in our faces all the time,” she told The Guardian in 2020.
But true music fans loved her – without definition.
“I don’t deal well with authority, and I don’t like being predictable,” Kelis told Entertainment Weekly in 2003.
Kelis Rogers-Mora, her given and married name, brought heat with ragey jams of heartbreak and anger– “Get Along With You” and “Caught Out There,” but she has never really gotten the props she deserves. With her bold, curly blonde fuchsia-tinged tips, she gave voice to quirky Black girls who normally would’ve blended into the background with their feelings. She made “weird” cool.
The talented alto teamed up with her friends– The Neptunes, consisting of Chad Hugo and super-producer Pharrell Williams, and made magic. Her eccentric sound was never appreciated by the masses, but her discography boasts nine albums and 59 singles and EPs. And though it’s widely known that Kelis is an outstanding songwriter, who wrote most of the songs on her albums, she was essentially robbed of any ability to bear the fruits of her labor by a bogus contract with then-homie Pharrell.
In an extensive interview with The Guardian, Kelis revealed that her and the homies were supposed to split everything three ways, but her naivety and trust allegedly had her sign a contract essentially killing any royalties she should have received. The Neptunes produced her first two albums– Kaleidoscope and Wanderland.
Her third album, Tasty gave us the unforgettable 2003 bop “Milkshake.”
The track brought boys and girls, from yards far and wide, to shake their asses in the club to #3-ranked Billboard hit.
But Kelis didn’t just make blazing tracks like “Bossy,” featuring legendary Oakland rapper Too $hort; Muva reinvented herself. Foregoing her signature curls and boho chic digs for couture and a bad-ass razor cut, she gave Black folks the diva they asked for. She also reminded them that she was the “first girl to scream on a track.”
Despite her comeback, Kelis tired of the industry’s bullsh*t and an alleged abusive relationship with now ex-husband Nas. She reinvented herself– again in 2014. The artist traded in the mic for an apron, becoming a Le Cordon Bleu-trained chef. She appeared on the Cooking Channel and even created a line of gourmet sauces called Feast.
Even through immense adversity (she lost her husband Mike Mora to cancer earlier this year), Kelis has managed to keep her head in the game and the farm she shared with Mora.
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Kelis continues to define who she is and kick a** and take names. The latest snub involves Pharrell and Queen Bey. The “Diva” singer reportedly got on the singer’s bad side after allegedly not reaching out as a courtesy while using “Milkshake” on her new single.
Kelis has been the true definition of a boss. And it’s about time heads put some respect on her name.