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Posted under: Opinion

Why We Owe More To Kelis Than We Realize

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As we finally make it past the halfway point in this decade and the ¾ mark of this generation, the retrospective period is about to kick in; where we recycle and re-imagine music, style and more from the early 2000s. Kelis, a mainstay of that era, never get her due props for the innovation she brought us. She has always been unafraid to experiment with new sounds and toy with futuristic, out of this world beauty and style trends. Years would often pass before the clothing, hair and beauty choices she carefully made long ago started trending for a new generation. Granted, there are a number of creative and carefree black women who have shaped sonic and aesthetic revolutions, from Tina Turner and Diana Ross to Janet Jackson and Grace Jones. Kelis, however, never gets her due. Let me explain. 2015 marked my first time attending New York’s Afropunk Festival. With a beautiful smorgasbord of music and fashion surrounding me, I took note of how many young black women who I saw that fell into a particular aesthetic. Equal parts Afrofuturism, fearlessness and decadent maximalism, the bright colours reminded me so much of Kelis, who was set to take the stage that same weekend. Like Grace Jones before her, Kelis regularly pushed the boundaries of black femininity, fashion and art; rejecting genres and norms at a time when this type of eclecticism was met with eye-rolls. But unlike Jones, who has long been praised as an icon in many respects, Kelis flies under the radar as a contemporary innovator and patron saint of the Carefree Black Girl. She’s played muse to artists like Pharrell Williams, who credited her with his love of fashion and played an important part in the progression of the “Neptunes Sound.” As first lady of the now defunct Star Trak Entertainment, Kelis took breaks from her solo bid to add her unique vocal touch to seminal albums such as Clipse’s Lord Willin & N.E.R.D.’s In Search Of… before helping P. Diddy make his first forays into EDM with 2003’s “Let’s Get Ill.” With her recent move into the culinary world, we remember that Kelis has always had her hand in more than just the music. So what makes her so criminally underrated?

Technicolor Natural Locks

I’m not suggesting Kelis was the first to rock pink, blue, green or purple hair, but it was the combination of colour and texture that was visually jarring. After sporting a larger-than-life blonde afro in the video for ODB's “Got Your Money,” she turned heads with a unique style choice in her own visuals for “Caught Out There.” The neon pink ends and matching brows were our first glimpse of the candy-colored locks that would be a mainstay of Kaleidoscope-era Kelis. Swapping hot pink for blues, greens, purples and oranges (usually also with matching brows) would become a staple look for the singer.

The “Rihanna” haircut before Rihanna

Tapered styles with full bouncy bangs were commonplace in the early ‘90s, but by the mid-2000s, long, layered and honey-toned styles were the move. Kelis’ short haircut might have harkened back to an earlier time, but it provided the framework for the Bajan superstar-in-waiting who became tied to the style in the same way Jennifer Aniston was associated with the lengthy, layered bob of 1990s whitegirldom. Experimenting with EDM In 2010, urban and electronic music had crossed paths minimally, if at all, on mainstream radio. Fans of deep house have always been used to this exchange of musical energy, but at this point on most pop stations the two just didn’t mix. Kelis’ sound has always played to eclectic sensibilities, veering into several genres with an R&B base. With the album Flesh Tone, however, Kelis dove headfirst into an area that was largely uncharted territory for black artists in North America. Her core fans ate it up, and though urban radio was largely unmoved, the ripple effects in black music were huge. Everyone from Usher to Ne-Yo to Beyoncé began infusing their music with EDM sounds and working with club heavyweights such as David Guetta and Benny Benassi, both of whom produced songs on Flesh Tone.

Speaking Of Flesh Tone...

A solid album in terms of music, the accompanying visuals were artistically on par. The first single “Acapella” would introduce looks that, though met with a slightly furrowed brow in 2010, were more than commonplace in 2015. Kelis was the first person I had ever seen dye their hair grey on purpose, while most people scrambled to cover theirs up. The horseshoe septum piercing has always been a mainstay in fringe and goth subcultures, but seeing it on a woman of color struck a brand new chord for many. As with eyebrow and lip rings before it, black people’s receptiveness to facial piercings beyond the ears has been slow; but in 2015 it’s rare to go anywhere without seeing a variety of piercings on girls of all hues. That’s the interesting thing about timing. Sometimes, you can be too early. It’s important to be the first, but sometimes being so ahead of the curve puts you much too at odds with culture at large. Luckily for true lovers of artistic evolution, they’re okay with looking crazy for a while. The moral of the story? Whatever Kelis is doing now, we’ll catch up in 2020.
Sajae is a Toronto-based writer and digital producer who enjoys long walks to wherever the snacks are. Her thoughts can be found on Twitter at @JaeFiasco.
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