A second-generation Ethiopian American, Kelela was born in Washington, D.C., grew up in Gaithersburg, Maryland and graduated from Magruder High School in 2001. She has been based in Los Angeles since 2010. After transferring from Montgomery College to American University, Kelela began singing jazz standards at cafés. In 2008, she joined an indie band called Dizzy Spells and tried to sing progressive metal after meeting Tosin Abasi, whom she later dated.
Having moved to Los Angeles, Kelela connected with Teengirl Fantasy and contributed to the group's 2013 album Tracer on the song "EFX", which led her to meet Prince William from the label Fade to Mind. He introduced her to the sound of the record label and its sister imprint from London, Night Slugs, which Spin has described as "one of the most distinctive sounds in U.K. dance music, a mutable hybrid of grime, house, electro, R&B, techno, hip hop, and dubstep." In May 2013, she appeared on Kingdom's "Bank Head", and five months later released her mixtape Cut 4 Me for free. Harriet Gisbone of The Guardian described the album as "an experiment for the production team, the first time the production crew had used vocals on their club tracks." Her track "Go All Night" was included on Saint Heron, a multi-artist compilation album released by Solange Knowles. In February 4, 2014, Kelela released "The High". In March 2014, Kelela was featured in Bok Bok's song "Melba's Call".
Kelela announced the forthcoming release of her Hallucinogen EP on March 3, 2015, along with the release of the music video of its lead single "A Message", produced by Arca. The second single, "Rewind" was released in September 2. Hallucinogen was released in October 9. The EP covers the beginning, middle, and end of a relationship in reverse chronological order.
In February 2017, Kelela took part in Red Bull Sound Select's 3 Days Miami among artists GoldLink, Angel Olsen, Brika, and many others. Kelela, along with rapper Danny Brown, appeared on the track "Submission" from virtual band Gorillaz' album Humanz. She also provided uncredited guest vocals on the track "Busted and Blue" from the same album.
On July 14, 2017, Kelela announced her debut studio album, Take Me Apart. On August 1, the album was made available for pre-order along with the release of its lead single, "LMK". The album was released on October 6, 2017. ClearartWide ThumbFanart Banner User Comments