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Musician. Mother. Chef. Farmer. Since the 1999 release of her first studio album, Kaleidoscope, Kelis has defied definition — and the status quo. And while the Harlem native's unconventional career path, genre-breaking sound and flair for fashion have made her a style muse and creative influence cited by countless celebrities, the "Acapella" singer says the approval of others isn't "a driving force."
"My motivation is never other people," Kelis, 44, tells Yahoo Life. "By the time other people have seen something I've already done all of the processing."
It "feels good" to make a mark on music and fashion trends — her famously colorful hairstyles and bold outfits live on Pinterest boards and have found a new fandom among Gen Z-ers — but the star says that showing up as herself was always the only option.
"It was really just like ... I don't know how to be someone else," she says.
It hasn't always been easy. Kelis admits that, at the start of her career, she was somewhat naive about the ways in which the music industry would try to change her and her image.
"I had no idea that there'd be board meetings about my weight or my hair or how Black or not Black I was. It was just sort of foreign," she says. But in some ways, she thinks her innocence to the realities of the industry allowed her to operate as her most authentic self.
"I was young and rife with ideas and bursting with energy and creativity and like, you couldn't stop me if you tried," she says.
Now, as she looks back on her career, she is able to recognize just how far her gumption and self-assuredness propelled her.
"You don't even have time to really think about it until you're looking back and you're like, 'Oh wow. I guess it was ballsy for me to do that,'" she says. "But [at the time] it was really just like, I don't have anything else. I put all my time and energy into this. And so we really need to make this work."
Success soon followed — most notably in 2003 with the release of the hugely popular, Grammy-nominated hit "Milkshake." Two decades later, Kelis is revisiting the song that made her a household name via a "cheeky" new campaign with Lactaid.
"This song is one of the most licensed records of all time. But like, it's rarely involved me," she says of the ad. "This [partnership] seemed like a really organic way for me to own it and have a little fun. I feel like I've earned it."
The campaign is also fitting given the singer's fascination with food. After taking time out from music to train at Le Cordon Bleu, going on to host her own cooking show and launch a pop-up restaurant in London, her own cookbook and a line of signature sauces. In 2014, her worlds collided with the release of her album Food, featuring singles with mouthwatering titles like "Jerk Ribs" and "Friday Fish Fry."
Those culinary passions also led Kelis to pursue farm life. The mom of three — she shares a 13-year-old son with ex-husband Nas and has two young children with her late husband, Mike Mora, who died in 2022 after a battle with stomach cancer — currently lives on a remote 24-acre farm in the vineyards of Colombo, Calif. She says the move was inspired by her childhood experiences visiting farms in Upstate New York as a part of her school curriculum.
"Part of the requirement to pass to the next year was to go spend time on the farm. And so we learned everything from tapping maple trees for maple syrup [to] making butter and cleaning out cows," she says, describing this time as "some of the best days" of her life.
Farm life also holds a deeper meaning for the Bounty & Full founder. Kelis sees her renewed connection with nature as a form of "rebellion."
"I think as Black people, as brown people, as Indigenous people, we were always connected to the land. It's always about the land. And the most logical thing [for me] was to, like ... get some land," she laughs, explaining her material accomplishments mean nothing if she can't pass it down to her children.
"What does all this work do? What can money buy me?" The answer, she says, is "freedom." That, she says is "all I care about. What can I show my kids that's actually worth something? Everything else is perishing."