How Kelis helped me find (and embrace) my identity

Welcome to Formative Jukebox, a column exploring the personal relationships people have with music. Every week, a writer will tackle a song, album, show, or musical artist and their influence on our lives. Tune in every week for a brand new essay.

It was 9:30 pm on a school night, and I’d locked myself in the bathroom. A faint beat glided into the room under the small gap of the door. Kelis’s sultry, raspy voice hugged the staccato, moody rhythm: “Now I’m forced to roam this planet. Sadly, lonely like some used briget.” It traveled along with the harsh scent of hair dye creeping up in every nook, softly caressing my nostrils. Sounds from another world slowly traveled higher and higher until they touched the ceiling.

I closed my eyes and focused on breathing exercises to get my emotions in check. The midnight blue hair dye didn’t hold onto my afro hair, and I was still me. The reinvention of my persona seemed unpaintable, and the new version of me that I wanted to show the world had simply vanished and remained an illusion in my head. There was no miraculous transformation that would lift me up from under the darkness.

Being black in Europe — well, and growing up in an predominantly white environment — you’ll look for images to cling to. Search for any small reflection of yourself in your surroundings. When no such thing is there, you’ll look for it in popular media. In that period, I relied heavily on music to transport myself to other places where I could just be. The disappointment that I saw on my face in the bathroom mirror is a vivid memory that’s ingrained in every fiber of my being.

The first time that I truly saw myself reflected on TV, it must have been around four o’clock in the afternoon. As usual, I had thrown my backpack in a corner , made myself a cheese sandwich, and lazily flicked through the channels to find a nice cartoon or a daytime soap to watch. I couldn’t find anything to my liking, so I looked up one of my favorite music channels. That’s when the intro hit me:

“Yo, yo
Yo, this song, yo
This song is for all the women out there
That been lied to by their men . . .”

While I had definitely never been lied to (at that point) by a man, the song hit home. Here was a woman who looked like me and who was fully, unapologetically herself. A woman from Harlem who sang her heart out and had the most fabulous mane I’d ever seen. I was enthralled, mesmerized and couldn’t tear my eyes from the screen.

“Caught Out There” was produced by the Neptunes — when Pharrell still was young — and became the breakout song on Kelis’s debut album Kaleidoscope. I was too young to truly understand her lyrics, but I was sucked in by her energy.

It’s easy to get lost in the illusion of authenticity with artists. Yet, Kelis always made it seem that she was her true authentic self in every video and interview I could get my hands on. Kelis has a creative ethos with which she experiments, invents and transforms herself — and that was certainly infectious.

Trying to copy her aesthetic and persona functioned as my mask. It made it possible to assume a different role. No longer the shy, sensitive black girl, instead I became the loudest person in the room, just to ensure that I was noticed and no longer visible yet invisible.

“I hate you so much right now
I hate you so much right now
Ahhhhh . . .”

I must have rewound this part over and over again in order to shrink the ball of frustration and anger that was building up inside me and making me hard and insensitive. I wished that I could be as free as Kelis, but I had caged myself in and I couldn’t find the key. Her music was the only way out.

I felt a strong need to belong and it clashed with my place in society. As a child of black immigrants, older and divorced parents, I was constantly othered and I struggled to accept my situation. I considered the fact that how we present ourselves is still subject to the scrutiny of others, and wondered can we really show what we want to show? The inevitable tendency as a young person to conform made me sometimes feel that no such thing possible were possible. As a result, I made some chaotic and seemingly erratic choices in order to get to my core.

“It’s not all about cash (Hell, no)
Not about how much you flash
How I dress is a reflection of me. . .”

I tried to squeeze my persona into various molds but they would never fit or would eventually break down. The only constant during that time was music. At my school’s annual theater night, an older student heard me sing and introduced me to her voice teacher, and his lessons became the highlight of my week. Like Kelis, I used fashion as a form of expression; it became a tool with which I was able to reveal my ambivalent feelings and tensions.

Yet, whether I tried to fit in with the white majority by scraping my hair back in a large bun and wearing an Oilily scarf and Palladium sneakers (the basic preppy wardrobe items in the early 2000s), or became the alternative black chick with the dark blue Dr. Martens, or tried to wear the short skirts with the knee high boots and act worldly, my true self always seeped through the cracks of my carefully crafted exterior.

Mirroring oneself to the aesthetic of an American artist was a radical act of survival in my transformative years. Kelis’s boldness, creativity and originality was everything. Added with the fact that she was unapologetically black and American gave her that extra layer of coolness. She showed me individual freedom which I never thought I could achieve, and I no longer yearned to denounce my Blackness.

I now see it as an advantage of our postmodern culture that we are no longer defined by a stable identity, but that we can have different identities. We can transform, reinvent, and keep reinventing ourselves. After all, transformation is possible by self-reflexivity: Because we are aware of the instability of our identity, we therefore know that transformation is possible. Meaning, I succumbed to the magnetism of Kelis and started my journey.

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(Image courtesy of Virgin Records.)