Forget about fitting in—Kelis has. She’s bossy, fierce, and it’s been years since she’s cared what anyone else thinks. But is she softening? No. Miss Kelis speaks candidly with VIXEN about her music, womanhood, and what it’s like being Mrs. Nasir Jones.
By Kierna Mayo
Photography by Andrew Matusik
Let Kelis tell it. You singer chicks know who you are. You know exactly which of you “borrowed” her style and ran with it. But Kelis is far too forward for you to get her down pat. She is the outlier, the titillating alternative. What you fed off of was her way, how she absolutely trusts her inner thing, how she does what she damn well pleases, and says whatever, however, she damn well pleases. Hers is the kind of self-actualizing freedom that not only leads a woman to cut off her gorgeous, healthy head of hair in the spur of the moment, it also makes you occasionally grab your own johnson. Or in Kelis’ case, her own Jones.
Her fourth album, Kelis Was Here, finds the 27-year-old star once again sidestepping the R&B barrage. On her in-your-face, throwback single, “Bossy,” Kelis Rogers Jones, ever the Uptown girl, states up front to all who need to hear it, “You don’t have to love me/You don’t even have to like me/But you will respect me.”
Like there was ever a choice. She literally screamed the chorus of her first single, 1999’s “Caught Out There”—“I HATE YOU SO MUCH RIGHT NOW!” She was live and direct, with wild, curly, rainbow-colored hair. Four years later (after the release of 2001’s import-only Wanderland), Kelis emerged in 2003 with Tasty and the sexy, playful first single “Milkshake.” In the video, her then boyfriend, rap veteran Nasir bin Olu Dara Jones, aka Nas, played a sweaty line cook. They married two years later, on January 8, 2005, in a small ceremony in Atlanta, where they have one of several homes.
This past September, after months of planning, Kelis pulled off a star-studded surprise party for her husband’s 33rd birthday—an old-school hip-hop concert in his honor, with performances by legends like Just Ice, Monie Love, Melle Mel, Slick Rick, and Doug E. Fresh. And to make sure guests came correct, they received party favors at the door—Kangols, bamboo earrings, tubes of red lipstick. A graffiti HAPPY BIRTHDAY banner spanned the bar, and there was a gold-rope-chain cake with a Nas pendant drawn in icing on top. Most noteworthy though, was Mrs. Jones, beaming in a black-and-gold, ultra-mini, braided-strap lamé number as she lovingly watched her man from afar. In that private moment of party-planner glory, it was as if Kelis said from across the room, I love you so much, baby. I’m going to keep surprising you. If you were really watching, you could read her mind.
“I know my husband so well,” she says a few days later over a glass of Riesling at one of their favorite spots, N.Y.C.’s BLT Prime restaurant. She must; the party was a feel-good success. Nas was damn near in tears half the night, chain-smoking blunts, mouthing lyrics, and, at times, literally collapsing into his friends as the greats showered him with due praise. Kelis revels in loving Nas, and their connection feels mature and grounded. The energy between the two performers is palpable—so hot, in fact, that MTV is reportedly documenting the couple for a reality series.
“This girl here, ain’t nothing in her way,” Nas told BET on the set of Kelis’ fetish-y video for “Blindfold Me” (his long-awaited album, Where Y’all At?, is due out in December). And then, with braggadocio he usually reserves for tales about New York City’s notorious Queensbridge projects, Nas told the camera what his wife has always believed about herself: “She’s the hottest one out here, point-blank—period.”
VIXEN: You’re such a “different” kind of artist. Did that originate at home, when you were a child?
I grew up in Harlem, in a brownstone. My dad was a minister. He passed away, and my mom had a catering business. Food was the center of our lives—and God. God first. We were deeply loved; we were nourished. We were encouraged, challenged, and disciplined. My two older sisters are adopted. I’m the oldest birth child; I have a younger sister. I grew up going to prisons with the church, working in soup kitchens. I used to play violin and saxophone. I was in the Girl’s Choir of Harlem. I was never the little girl with posters on the wall; I was always in my own head, reading a book, or writing something. I was always trying to create a world of my own. I used to make tents in my room and try to design clothes. I’d steal my mom’s jewelry.
Sounds like Fashion Week! How does your family handle your success?
They don’t really. My family is like, “Good for you, girl.” My mom’s like, “Why didn’t you tell me you’re going to be on BET?” My little sister, she’s 24 and my biggest supporter. The chick is genius, in school studying to be a veterinarian. I’m like, You want to come do my video? She’s like, “Honey, no, that would be nice, but I’ve got a paper to do.”
Growing up when you did in Harlem, did you feel like an anomaly?
I went to private school, the Manhattan Country School on the Upper East Side. That was a big deal. My parents weren’t rich, but they worked really hard to make sure that we didn’t know it. Every day after school, I’d come back uptown and go straight to the Girl’s Choir of Harlem and train operatically for two hours. I did this from the time I was 7 to 14. It was like crossing the tracks. I came from school every day, a world with the most disgustingly overprivileged kids, back to the ’hood.
Were you friends with the girls who weren’t in your situation?
No one was in my situation. I didn’t fit in private school and I didn’t fit in uptown. When I went to school my mom used to tell me, “Work harder and don’t ever think you’re not better than them because you are. You’re beautiful, you’re black. Walk proud.” And when I came uptown she used to tell me, “Walk with your head up. If they mess with you, fight to kill and answer questions later.” [Laughs]
And high school?
I went to LaGuardia, the Fame school. I was a theater major. I really wanted to act. It was where I said, Okay, I can do this. It was where I found out I was good at something other than music. I fit in there.
What’s your ethnic background?
My mom is Chinese and Puerto Rican, and my dad is black. We were real close to half of my mom’s family—they’re brown Puerto Ricans. The Chinese side didn’t want anything to do with my mom after she married a black man.
Your image always pushes boundaries, yet somehow it never feels like you’re trying.
I know the day it happened. I was about 12. I had a perm just like we all did. My hair started to break off. It was a disaster. I was like, Mom! She said, “We’ll take you back to the salon and get it fixed.” I said, Forget it. I looked in the mirror and stopped crying. I said, You know what? No matter what, I do not fit in—not with the white girls at school, and not with Chauncey and Rashida from Uptown. I could do my hair like them, I could wear their clothes, but it still didn’t work. At 12, the last thing you want to be is different. My stepdaughter is 12; I see it. It’s so funny. But back then, I stopped and said, I am failing miserably. This is a waste of my energy and time. Instead of trying so hard, I should just give up and be whatever it is I’m going to be. So I shaved my hair off and got teased mercilessly. But I felt better. I was like, I can deal with this.
You’ve said you didn’t care for fashion magazines as a young girl. Are you into them now?
I don’t give a damn what these white chicks are wearing in the magazines. They’re not setting trends. I’ve always been a trendsetter, and my mom is a bad chick to this day, so I don’t need to see “what’s happening.” I know what I like, and I’m going to put it together how I like it. I love to shop. I can go from H&M to Bergdorf’s—like that.
How are you feeling about your album? What was the creative process like?
I feel proud. I got it out. It’s honest, and it’s done [laughs]. I can’t promise you genius, but I can promise you I’ll be as creative as I am at this time. I have droughts, but then I have moments when I am accosted by ideas. I got married. I took my time; I was in no rush.
The title Kelis Was Here is such a throwback to the high school girls’ bathroom stall—a classic declaration. Is that like your artist statement?
My job is to bring you things you don’t know you like yet. There’s a difference between performers and artists. I’m not the greatest singer in the world. I already know that. But I know I’m an innovator. I always say the greatest artists in the world are not the most talented people, they’re the people compelled to bring you something because they don’t know what else to do. They’re the painters who paint not because they can make money but because they cannot stop. It’s cliché, and I don’t ever want to take myself to seriously, but at the end of the day, if I’m not moving you in some way, what’s my point? Kelis Was Here? It’s the end of an era. I’ve influenced people enough with what I’m doing now.
Who are the ones who have been influenced by you? Can you say?
Well, I don’t want it to be misconstrued as hate—it’s not. But I see them, from white chicks to black chicks. It makes me feel like I’ve done a good job. My goal in life is betterment. I always want to improve myself; this is not discontent. My life is great. I have a wonderful mother, sisters. I’m a born-again Christian. I know the Lord and I am blessed. I am madly in love. I am 27. I’m a size 4. I make great money. I have five homes. I’m thrilled.
How’s married life different than what you thought it would be?
My biggest thing is to ignore what I think things should be and just let them be. On the flip side, I like things to go my way and it’s hard not to put everybody in that plan. My biggest goal with my husband is just to love him. At 15, I thought I should have the perfect man and the perfect marriage. At 20, I thought I should have the perfect man. At 25, I thought, Okay, he’s not perfect, but he’s perfect for me. At 27, I realize perfection is a really big word [laughs].
Sharing your life with someone is such a self-check, isn’t it?
I moved out at 16. I didn’t want to answer to my mama, I didn’t want to answer to no man. I have a hard time answering to God. But you know what? I trust that man [Nas] with my life.
What’s a weeknight really like for you guys?
We’ll be here [at BLT Prime], have some dinner, wine, and then go home and watch a movie. But yesterday [September 14] was his actual birthday. I cooked for him and two of his best friends. I made Mongolian black rice pilaf—the texture is amazing, it’s imported from China—with shallots, dried cranberries, and pine nuts. I made fried red snapper with cayenne pepper sauce. Sweet corn and broccoli. Coconut custard pie and root beer floats.
Um, I don’t believe you almost.
Ask him right now! We went grocery shopping about 7 and ate by about 10. They were chilling, smoking their cigars.
You two seem quite different from each other—but maybe not.
It’s weird because we are so different. But at the same time we’re both known for standing out on a ledge and saying what we believe—and not fitting in.
I guess that makes for a real connection.
It’s crazy. Out of everything, it’s that man who’s high-fiving me all the time. Honestly, he may even be like, “Babe, I don’t get it, I don’t know what your plan is, but go girl. If you feel it, go.” And a lot of times, he don’t get it.
Do you always “get” his stuff?
No! But I’m always like, Nasir, go! You know better than I, so do it. On another note, we’re so critical of each other. We’re painfully honest, but I need that.
What does your mom say about him? What advice does she give?
My mom would always say about the guys that I was dating, “When he’s the right one, I’ll love him too.” And so, he’s not who she would have picked for me, but she loves this boy. They have their own thing. If I’m on tour, he’ll go over her house and even sleep over. She cooks for him. She’ll curse him out. And even when we fight, I’ll be like, Ma, this fool … and she’ll go, “Well, you were wrong.” She says, “In your marriage, pick your battles and don’t sweat the small stuff.” She is right. I go off on him sometimes, but by the end of the night, I’ll be like, Truce. I don’t want to go to sleep like this. I want a new day tomorrow. Life is short.
Does your mother pressure you for kids?
A little [laughs]. She’s like, “I want a grandbaby,” and I say, Well, you should have one. Right now I’m really just enjoying my husband.
You say “my husband” a lot. Doesn’t it feel weird saying that?
We’ve been married two years now, but when I first got married, yes. It feels good though. I love it. He’s my partner in life. If all else fails, if everybody if against me, he’s there.
When you first got with him, were you turned on or off by the fact that he was “Nas”?
Both. On one level I was like, Wow, this man is amazing. Just brilliant, and black, and proud, and beautiful. On another level, I was like, The nigga has been famous since he was 16—don’t trip. Don’t think I’m one of them hos, ’cause I’ll show you something you ain’t never seen before.
The back of my head walking away. But we both got over that real fast.
So, Nas’ child’s mother, Carmen Bryan, has written an as-yet-unreleased tell-all, It’s No Secret. What do you think about it?
If she can make some money from it, thank God. That would be great [chuckles].
Do you feel like you’re at a point in the relationship where no one can tell you anything about your man?
Yeah, ’cause I’ve seen Nas in so many different situations. I will leave my husband with you-name-it.
So there’s no trust thing?
Oh, I have no issues. Nas is so not moved by a lot of things. Me and Nas, we live in a bubble. We don’t care. We laugh, we watch movies, we go to Central park.
Does his “history” bother you?
I have a history too. We’re people; it happens. And you know what? There’s a little girl involved. She’s 12. The child is beautiful. I want her to see the other side of womanhood—not the skanky book. Nas is the kind of man that if he wanted anybody else other than me, he’d be with [her]. I’m the kind of woman that if I wanted anybody else, I would be with [him]. If it gets ugly, I’m out—period. End of discussion. Nas is the same way. We’re together because we want to be, because we work at it, because we pray about it, you know what I’m saying? So that other stuff, I’m like, Okay.