Home Live Review Live Review: Kelela @ 9:30 Club — 3/23/23

Live Review: Kelela @ 9:30 Club — 3/23/23

Live Review: Kelela @ 9:30 Club — 3/23/23

Kelela performs at 9:30 Club on March 23, 2023. (Photo by Will Colbert)

There’s music for dancing and songs that immerse you in thought. Alternative R&B singer, songwriter, and experimentalist Kelela inhabits a space where the two overlap. The DMV native recently performed for a sold-out audience at the 9:30 Club, where she displayed her unique artistry and why this may be her breakout year.

The venue was filled with fans eager to watch Kelela perform songs from her critically-acclaimed sophomore release, Raven. The performance was her first time showcasing the February release for a DC crowd. The songs delved into vulnerability, radical surrender, and love.

There were no opening bands for Kelela’s show on March 23, which in retrospect, makes sense for an artist with a minimalist aesthetic. Fans were treated to a mix of house, dance music, and hip-hop by Bobby Beethoven. The DJ warmed up the crowd with bass-heavy beats and his reconstruction of familiar hits that made them feel new. Raucous applause thanked him as he exited the stage.

As the lights dimmed, the audience again erupted into cheers. Kelela emerged, bathed in a magenta spotlight. The second-generation Ethiopian-American singer wore a scarlet wig, red mesh elbow-reaching gloves, and a sleek black dress. She stood alone on the empty stage, singing the atmospheric opening song, “Washed Away.” The ambient mood-setter has been likened to a baptismal cleansing. At the end of the song, Kelela sighed with relief. “My home, my home, my home,” she said.


Kelela’s musical homecoming has been five years in the making. That’s the time since her successful debut studio album, Take Me Apart, was released. Kelela wasn’t basking in the praises from critics and fans during her hiatus but preparing for the next stage of her career. The erudite musician was studying Kandis Williams’ Reader on Misogynoir, The Will to Change by Bell Hooks, and Algorithms of Oppression by Safiya Umoja Noble. She gathered articles, podcasts, and videos that shed light on various forms of oppression — racism, sexism, patriarchy, and homophobia. Kelela, who openly identifies as queer, would double down on using her platform to create liberating experiences for black femmes and non-binary people.

The 9:30 Club show was a testament to the power of music to create safe spaces. Fans from all walks of life, marginalized and privileged, sang in unison during Kelela’s performance of “On the Run.” With production from KAYTRANADA, Yo van Lenz, Kelela, Bambii, and Asmara, the song is a pulsating synth-driven dance number that complements Kelela’s smooth and sultry vocals.

If a song embodied the evening’s ethos, it was “Contact.” The song is an anthem for the nights that we never want to end.

Watch the official music video for “Contact” by Kelela on YouTube:

At one point, Kelela took a moment to thank fans for their undying support. She shared her views on her music. How it’s not just output but a connection between her and everyone in the audience. The exchange was authentic and vulnerable. A display of emotional depth that, along with her vocal range and experimental production, solidified her as a truly unique artist challenging what is considered mainstream.

Other highlights from the show include performances of:

  • “Bluff,” Kelela (2017)
  • “Happy Ending,” Raven (2023)
  • “Missed Call,” Raven (2023)
  • “Go All Night,” Cut 4 Me (2013 mix tape)
  • “Let It Go,” Raven (2023)
  • “Waitin,” Kelela (2017)
  • “Raven,” Raven (2023)
  • “Bruises,” Raven (2023)
  • “Enough for Love,” Raven (2023)

Here are a few photos from Kelela’s performance at 9:30 Club on March 23, 2023. All photos copyright and courtesy of Will Colbert.


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