Meet Asmara: Kelela's Righthand Collaborator

Meet Asmara: Kelela's Righthand Collaborator

For our new digital cover series Takeover, we chose five of our favorite women who're making a significant impact on the music industry right now. Kelela, the experimental R&B musician, is influencing queer culture and beyond with a futuristic aesthetic and collaborative spirit as heard on her new remix album, Take Me A_Part. Today, she'll be taking over PAPER with guest edited pieces and appearing on our Instagram.

Related | Kelela Is Risen

Asma Maroof has performed, produced, and DJ'd music as Asmara for over a decade. Together, she and Kelela selected the album's diverse range of talent (from Serpentwithfeet to Badsista to LSDXOXO and others), and edited the remixes based on Kelela's original source material, her official debut album, last year's Take Me Apart.

PAPER caught up with the artist integral to bringing Take Me A_Part to life to chat about the communal aspect of making the project, the role of compromise in her career, and other mediums she is producing forthcoming projects within.

What did you take from the experience of working on Take Me A_Part?

The experience was incredible. Me and Kelela have collaborated before, but surely it wasn't in this sort of way, or this setting. The whole thing felt quite powerful. Both of us, as two women of color, leading a musical project and making the executive decisions on the whole thing, it felt like a moment. And we had this one day in the studio — I just want to give an example because it's pretty cool — while working on the project during crunch time... there were different moments that we were working on the project pretty hardcore, but this is when we were trying to wrap it up. We were in the studio, we had two engineers, and Kelela was [editing] at the console with one, and I was working in headphones with the other engineer on the couch behind on a different track. So we're both simultaneously editing, and then there was also a song that Kelela added vocals to last minute in that same time, as well as [our creative director], who was on FaceTime with us showing us the artwork. It was so much happening at once — definitely a stressful moment, but it was also pretty cool.

It sounds like you both had a really special synergy, and it was all about the spirit of collaboration and allowing people into the process. I talked to Kelela about that, too, how it can be really easy and understandable for an artist to want to hold everything close to the chest. But that's not what this project was about at all, which I think makes it exciting and also feel very special for people.

It wasn't about, "What we say is the end-all, be-all." It was more of an open conversation where people can feel authentic and feel like they're still a part of the process. A lot of times, people can be a little shut off when it comes to creativity, which feels almost ironic in some ways, to be closed off. But I get it, because some people just feel like they're getting stolen from. And I'm not saying that doesn't happen, it definitely happens, but we wanted to create that space where that was not happening, and that people can totally feel comfortable. We wanted that creativity to thrive more than anything else.

What is the role of compromise and collaboration in your career?

Compromise is more about what you have your integrity in. Of course, you're going to hold onto it dearly, but it's also realizing that sometimes you don't have all the answers, Sway! You can definitely rabbit hole, and I personally do it all the time with music. Kelela and I always talk about getting in a rabbit hole, and sometimes you need someone to pull you out of that rabbit hole. I don't know if that's exactly "compromise," but it's more like hearing what other people have to say as far as criticism or constructive criticism and being able to work with that. Some people don't know how to deal with that, and that's when it becomes a problem in collaboration. Because even if you don't necessarily agree, you need to be open to people's ideas and willing to try it out — that kind of compromise.

Right, and you can take that and apply it to anything else. So you made this album together with the spirit of community in mind. Can you talk about the role of community in your work as an artist?

I've definitely always felt this sense of community, especially being in the underground music scene. I really love the spirit of community, but I never want to feel too exclusive. But mostly, community helped uplift me when I first started doing what I was doing, because I didn't have many peers doing the same thing — I didn't have many mentors. So I think really what did uplift me was finding like-minded people, and within the queer community there was so much uplifting and it felt very powerful. And I don't even want to limit it to queer, it is queer, but it's everything... "other."

How do you think the club scene has changed since you DJ'd your first set over a decade ago? Do you believe it has become more inclusive and welcoming? What is your relationship with feminist movements in DJ-ing and production?

Without sounding too dated, it's become way more saturated. And I think that primarily due to the technology, it's becoming more welcoming to people. It's way easier. When I started, you burned CD's and you bought vinyl. I definitely saw a shift when USB's became the thing to use. I'd say that it's pretty cool. Nowadays, it's way easier to set up your own night, where you invite your friends and do your own thing. At the same time, I feel like you get more microcosms than the more hodgepodge black rave, like big rave that's maybe filled with more randoms in a sense. I feel like you can get more distinct, smaller parties now.

It's cool, but at the same time, it changes the scene in a way. And sometimes, it can feel over-saturated, and sometimes it feels very plentiful. So I go back and forth with it. And I like those microcosms, because then I find you can really get deep sometimes, or you can find communities that you didn't even know were around. Now, because more people can access DJ-ing, you hear people from all over the world that are like, "Yeah, I'm a dad, but I like to make weird Egyptian club music, and I'm going to put it out on Soundcloud, and I'm going to DJ this random night," or whatever. So I think cool stuff can come out of it.

I think you're getting at the idea that it can be inclusive because there is room for everyone on some level to do whatever it is that they want to do. So to get a little bit more specific in terms of feminist movements, do you have a relationship with that within that world, within DJ-ing and production?

Well, I wouldn't say I do on a forefront, necessarily, but because I've been doing this for so long, and it's such a small community of DJ-producers within the community, regardless I'm a part of that movement.

And one of the few women.

Yeah, exactly. And I love that, it's not like I don't want to associate, but I don't necessarily market myself in that way. A couple years back, I spoke at the Women's Audio Mission at NAM, which is the music gear conference in Orange County. Terri Winston, who runs the Women's Audio Mission, asked me to come out. She's been going to that conference since the late '80s, and she was telling me that the only women who were there back in the day were the ones that they just hired to wear bikinis to get people to come and look at it. And that was the only presence of females at that conference. Which is crazy. As far as tech, women are so pushed away from being tech-y. That was not a thing.

Now it's happening a little more, but it's not enough. People are trying to push the visibility of women in music. They're like, "We need to get a woman on this," which I love. And of course it can get kind of gross, because sometimes people don't even care, they're just like, "We just need a woman." At the same time that I see people making strides in visibility, but I want our voices to be heard more as far as positions of power. Label executives making decisions for accolades or brands are actually running the ship. That's kind of what we displayed on this project, but I just want to see it more across class platforms, honestly. I think the more that people say something and make those decisions, even these people that are just like, "Yeah, we'll just throw a woman on it, on the roster, and make it make sense," even if sometimes it feels gross, they're still doing something. I think there just needs to be more of that within the industry.

"At the same time that I see people making strides in visibility, but I want our voices to be heard more as far as positions of power."

So this was a combination of something Kelela and I came up with, but the question is: So much of our expression is rooted in how we identify. How do you identify? Is it different from how people identify or place you? How do you deal with those disparities? How does your identity intersect with your life as an artist?

Well, there's my ascribed identity, which is that I am a straight, East Indian woman, 100%. I don't even want to say 100%. But I guess my culture, yeah, 100% Indian. And then there's my prescribed identity, which 90% of the time, nobody thinks I'm Indian, I'm always read as something else. And that kind of does something to my identity, because I feel very much not a part of something that I am. I wasn't born in India, I'm a first generation American, so there's also that relation to my culture. It's a bit entangled. And then I am a straight woman that also dresses very — I dress like a boy. So that's also how people prescribe my identity, at the same time, just through my visibility. In that way, it feels a little tricky talking about identity, but I feel very comfortable in whatever I have ascribed and what is prescribed to me. I deal with both, and I'm into it. I really just claim what it is and that's what you've got to do.

In that answer, you actually answered all of those question. It can be said that as an artist, you're "yourself" all the time, you're putting yourself out there. So if you are all of these things that are prescribed to you and things that you ascribe to, then that inevitably is going to come through in your art.

Exactly. And what I love about it too is that, when you don't push back on who you really are and you really just accept all the things, even if they don't necessarily make sense together, different people can relate to you on several different planes, and you can really grow within those feelings that you're feeling.

Last question: What's next for you? How do you see yourself and your career expanding in music? Do you have ambitions to produce or collaborate with artists in other art forms? How do you see yourself integrating those things?

I'd like to keep the future open, as always, but I definitely have ambitions to keep working on my solo stuff as well as various collaborative projects, of course. I want to keep working with Kelela, and I have a project that I'm working on with Fatima Al Qadiri, called Sadeeqa, it's just me and her on it. But I also work with the artist Wu Tsang, and have been working with her a lot more. We actually just did a performance in a space in New York that was beautiful, and it was kind of my intro to theater. I've been doing film scores with her more, and this was my first kind of live performance. That was a new world for me, but I really enjoyed it. I will be doing more work like that. It's always been an ambition of mine to do film scores, and also fashion show scores. I really like building sonic worlds for visuals. That's another avenue that I'd like to continue to explore and focus on. So — a lot of stuff. All the small things.

Photography: Atiba Jefferson