Finding strength in accepting your struggles – In conversation with Aka Kelzz
Berlin-based musician Aka Kelzz has a presence, unlike many others. Their soft, soulful voice paired with meaningful lyrics resembles a warm blanket and a hot cup of tea on a winter’s night. With thought-provoking personal lyrics, Kelly wants to share their experiences and allow the listener to feel that life doesn’t always have to be positive and perfect. Their music has seemingly appeared out of nowhere last year with Kelly having taught themselves how to produce and distribute music. We can consider ourselves incredibly lucky, as Kelly’s music is something that’s desperately needed in our day and age: They’re different, daring and are challenging our views on mental health in a way that’s both genuine and supportive.
KALTBLUT caught up with Kelly to discuss their musical background, their role as an educator and the stigma of the “strong black woman” narrative they want to break.
KALTBLUT: You moved to Berlin four years ago, why did you leave Birmingham?
Kelly: I came here for a holiday in 2016 on my own. I made a bunch of friends. When I went back to the UK, I called my friend, and I told her I’m in bed at home, and she said that if you’re going to work a shitty job in Birmingham, you can also work a shitty job in Berlin. So, I moved two months later. I didn’t have much going on in the UK, I was just working, hanging out with my friends, I wanted more, something different. I came here with no real plan, just to work and see what happens. I haven’t lived in another country long-term before, so Berlin just made sense. It’s so different from the rest of Germany, which I didn’t know at the time.
KALTBLUT: Were you already pursuing music in England, or is that something you started in Berlin?
Kelly: I’ve been singing since I was a kid. My whole family is really musical, my dad used to be a DJ and singer, my mum could sing, my dad and my sister could sing, and there was also me. From a young age, I was really into music. I tried to be in a band in the UK, but it didn’t work out, so I gave up. In school, my teachers said to me that I wasn’t a good singer, which put my confidence down. I didn’t listen, but it’s still in the back of my mind even now, and I’m questioning if I’m doing the right thing.
Then I moved to Berlin, I settled and from 2018 to 2019, I kept trying loads of bands, but it didn’t work out. We had a couple of shows or rehearsals, but we never clicked. Then during the pandemic, at the beginning of March last year, I said to myself that I’m going to try and learn to produce my own music.
I always thought about making music, but because I don’t play any instruments, I always had to rely on other people to make something for me. Then I tried it myself and started using this music production website called BandLab. It’s really easy, and I just started playing around with it and created some tracks. It pretty much started there, I’m still not an amazing producer, but I’m a much better singer-songwriter now.
From that, I started playing with Bandlab, which then created my first two singles “Take Me Back” and “Fucks Us Up!”. I’ve been doing that for most of the year, and then in October 2020, I found a producer. His name’s Rafael Prado, and he is a student at SAE. He told me that they were looking for people to record, and then they’d give them two mixed and mastered songs. So, I did that. When I was in the studio, they said that I have to release this music. I was a bit unsure, but Rafael and Vitor both said that I needed to put this music out there. So I said, why not? From that, I got a huge boost, and I thought, maybe I should do it. Rafael and I became really good friends, and now he’s my producer. We’ve released four songs together now, and we’ve got plenty more to come.
KALTBLUT: That’s really cool! I have two questions now. Berlin is all about electronic music. Did you find it harder to pursue a non-electronic genre, such as R&B, here? And the second question is about your songs, when Rafael told you to release your music, did you self-release them?
Kelly: I wouldn’t say it’s harder, but I didn’t know many artists that were doing Pop, R&B, Soul. I didn’t know that many at the time when I first started. I wouldn’t say it’s difficult, but obviously, Berlin is known for Techno, so you have to find the right events, the right people to follow on social media and connect and the people who are making different music to Techno. From my experience, it took some time to find all the artists making music somewhat similar to mine, or different to Techno. If I wanted to, I could easily try and produce Techno music, but then it’s the same as everybody else.
And to answer your second question; everything I released was self-released. I use distrokid, and everything that I’ve done in the last year I just learned as I went along. I didn’t know how to release music, I didn’t know how you’d get onto Spotify, and when I was researching all about distribution, and I thought shit, there’s so much stuff I need to know about! Then figuring out how to get people to listen to my music, and it’s all just so complicated. I just wanted to put my music out there and have people listen to it. There are so many layers to it because, for one, I am a fat dark skin femme. There’s already that barrier.
Kelly: 100%! That’s what I’m trying to say. The way that I look and the way that I sound is very different in Berlin. I don’t know many people that look like me that are doing music. There’s that part which is really cool, it’s a slight niche almost. Releasing music or gathering the information to learn how to release music is something you have to try to figure out as you go along. I’m still doing it. I’m hoping that people listen to my music, and it gets shared. Let’s see how it goes because not many people know me now. This is the perfect time to figure out how to do all this music stuff.
I don’t want to change for anyone. I’ve worked too hard to battle with my demons to get where I am now in such a short space of time.
KALTBLUT: Exactly. I think it’s always a learning procedure. For so many artists, labels make life a lot easier because they’ll take care of the admin stuff, but I think when you’re self-releasing music, you have so many more opportunities to do what you want to do and have no one above you. It sounds as if self-releasing makes hard work a bit more paid off.
Kelly: For sure. The one thing I really love about self-releasing is the fact that it’s my music and I’m working with other people that understand and respect my vision and ideas. A huge part of my music is sharing my experiences in a very honest way. My first release “Take Me Back” is about summer and being in love, it’s a happy song.
Then “Fucks Us Up!”, which is like an anthem to me. It was a turning point for me because when I wrote it, it was about the pandemic at first, but when I went to the studio, it turned into some sort of anthem for me where I’m not taking any shit anymore, I’m doing what’s best for me. Every time I sing this song, it gives me so much energy.
Then “purple” is about my love for my friends. I want to maintain this transparency, this honesty that people are drawn to when they see me perform and when they see things that I post on social media. I like the fact that I can have lots of freedom at the moment. It’s also about finding the people to work with that wouldn’t try to change me. That’s something I would not be doing. I don’t want to change for anyone. I’ve worked too hard to battle with my demons to get where I am now in such a short space of time. It’s been a year since I started recording and releasing. It all happened pretty quickly.
Quote: “After shows, people come up to me and tell me that this was so good and they felt every word that I was saying. It makes my heart so full, to know that they listen to and enjoy my music and that they can understand what I’m saying.
KALTBLUT: Your lyrics are very personal, with some being about your mental health struggles. Did you always want to use your music as a medium to give advice about such personal things, or do you feel that you have a duty to give people listen to something that they identify with and understand?
Kelly: Yeah, it’s a bit of both. When I write, I write about what I’m feeling. I write down my thoughts, I’ll come back to the words, and then I’ll pick out how I’m feeling that day and then write a song that way. It’s a combination of both. I can’t sit down and write a whole song in one go, I need time to slowly reflect and come back to it.
I want to be a person that looks different, and sounds not how you think I’m going to sound when you first see me. I have this feeling when people see me they think I’m going to have this really loud powerful voice, which I do somewhat, but not really. My voice is really soulful, but I feel it’s different when you hear the words, something clicks. It’s something you’re not expecting when you hear the words.
When I’m performing, I talk about the songs. I enjoy the fact that I’m sharing about my mental health because for so long, I never did with anybody. With music, I can just sing the words and hear people say “Oh, I feel very similar”, or “I’ve had these feelings as well”. It makes me feel that this is something I should be sharing, especially with black and brown queer people.
This is my experience and I want to be relatable. People feel the words I’m saying and that’s the most important thing to me, to be honest. After shows, people come up to me and tell me that this was so good and they felt every word that I was saying. It makes my heart so full, to know that they listen to and enjoy my music and that they can understand what I’m saying.
KALTBLUT: It’s almost a little bit like a personal therapy session that everyone has while listening to your music. Another thing that you’ve already briefly touched on, I’ve read that you want to kind of break the strong black woman narrative, can you tell me a little bit about that?
Kelly: I identify as non-binary. I’m a non-binary person, which has been a recent “thing”. For so long in my life, when people read me, they read me as a CIS black woman. I never had the opportunity to think of myself outside of that, because of everything that goes on in the world, especially when it comes to black women.
I want to be vulnerable. I want people to see that I’m not strong. I don’t want that word attached to me. I want people to see me as something else, rather than a strong black person that can take on the shit. No, I cry a lot. I get depressed a lot. This is something that I want people to see. That’s something I put across very well, my struggles, different ways of learning. If I was in love and friendships, relationships, relationship with myself, which is important because I didn’t know a lot about myself really. I didn’t question a lot of things. Also, politically, I didn’t question a lot of things and I’m undoing the work now.
KALTBLUT: Do you sometimes get sick of having to be an educator in that sense?
Kelly: It’s tiring, for sure. Because me being in a space is already enough. Only when I’m in spaces with black and brown people do I feel more relaxed. I don’t have to do the work. When I’m in a space with white people, I have to talk a lot more. Normally, my music says everything and other black and brown people will understand it. They’ve been through similar things. I think when it comes to education, it’s mainly for white people. That’s when the conversation normally where I have to talk about and explain how you deal with depression comes up.
I like to share, but also I want other people to see me and understand that I’m an open book and letting you into this vulnerable side. I want to take people on a journey whenever I perform. I want them to see the bad side and that it’s okay to have fun.
KALTBLUT: It’s very unreflective because mental health struggles affect everyone no matter what skin colour or background you have.
Kelly: It’s a constant thing for me because I started therapy again, which has been a great thing, and I’m a huge advocate for doing things that make you feel good. Find your support system and if you have access to therapy, go! In Germany, it’s very difficult to access certain things, specifically therapy. I love to talk about black and brown people because these are people that can understand the things I’ve been through.
I like to share, but also I want other people to see me and understand that I’m an open book and letting you into this vulnerable side. I want to take people on a journey whenever I perform. I want them to see the bad side and that it’s okay to have fun. It’s not just this positive music, it is a real journey I want to take people on to show them that being on this stage took a lot of work. Writing this song took a lot of work for people to enjoy.
KALTBLUT: I really like that! Do you have any music coming up soon?
Kelly: I have a bunch of releases that are coming out. We’re still deciding on the order in which they are going to come out. But, I have two songs coming out this year. One is called “Blank Space”, which is about mental health and the other one is “Timestamp”. “Timestamp” is me talking about my experience of people trying to make me feel small and put me in a box. My EP will be coming out next year and that is something I am super excited about!