Kelis on Finding Freedom Through Farming

When the pandemic hit, the “Milkshake” singer did what many only fantasize about doing: She sought refuge on a farm in the country, and found liberation in unruly livestock and homegrown arugula

(Courtesy of Harper’s Bazaar)

Early one morning in February, Kelis’s 11-year-old son, Knight, walked into the main house on the farm where they live two hours southeast of Los Angeles, and said, “I see a foot hanging out of a sheep’s butt.” Until that moment, Kelis hadn’t even known that the sheep was pregnant. Like so many of us, whenever Kelis doesn’t know how to do something, she consults YouTube, whether it’s for guidance on canning the fruits and vegetables she grows on her farm or helping a sheep deliver a lamb, when she realized that the sheep was, in fact, pregnant and in labor. Kelis called her sister, who is a veterinarian. Kelis’s sister asked if she had gloves. She didn’t—not the kind she’d need for the task at hand. But necessity is, indeed, the mother of invention. Kelis had her son get a garbage bag, which she used to craft a makeshift glove, and then gently put her hand where it needed to go as she helped the sheep give birth to a ram. Not long after, another sheep went into labor with twins. This time Kelis was ready. She’s a fast learner. “You become farm people quickly,” Kelis told me. “None of my friends would’ve pegged me as a farm person, but I’m as farm as it gets at this point.”

Lots of people, when they want to change their lives, talk about how they’re going to move to the country and live more simply, off the land. But Kelis—a pop star with six studio albums and a song for the ages in her 2003 hit “Milkshake,” who has performed all over the world and collaborated with some of hip-hop’s and R&B’s biggest artists—actually followed through on her dream.

It was a bright, sunny day. Kelis was on her farm, a sprawling property in Temecula, California, surrounded by vineyards. She was sitting outside barefoot, hair pulled back in a tight ponytail, wearing a loose white T-shirt and camouflage pants. It all seemed very bucolic, enchanting even, and throughout our conversation she was brimming with joy and enthusiasm. By the end she had nearly convinced me to return to my Nebraska roots and take up farming. When the pandemic hit in March of last year, Kelis was in Europe, with Knight and her younger son, five-year-old Shepherd, in tow, touring in celebration of the 20th anniversary of her debut album, Kaleidoscope. But in an instant everything changed, and she was back home in California. She and her husband, photographer Mike Mora, had sold their L.A. home and bought the farm the previous summer.

“None of my friends would’ve pegged me as a farm person, but I’m as farm as it gets at this point”

It was jarring at first, to go from life on the road to the stillness of the country. But, Kelis said, “It ended up being a blessing; I was able to be home and learn this land.” The experience has become, she said, a second coming-of-age. She turned 41 during the pandemic. She had another baby last fall, a daughter who is now eight months old. She has been learning to live differently, and has started to rediscover herself in the process. “After I had the baby—I’m 41. It wasn’t the easiest,” she said. “It wasn’t like when I gave birth to my older son when I was 29. Looking at how I was going to build myself back up, the first thing I started doing was the food, and I was able to get myself back to a place where I felt physically strong again.”

The move also got Kelis thinking about Black bodies and how we nourish ourselves, how all too often we don’t have access to the foods that would best serve us, and how since the beginning of the slavery era we have been pushed further and further away from who and what we once were. In 1920, roughly 14 percent of the country’s farms were run by Black people. Today that number has dwindled to less than 2 percent, or around 45,000 Black farmers, and the majority of those farmers do not own their own land. In cities, Black people often live in food deserts, areas where there are high rates of poverty and few or no grocery stores selling fresh food. The project of the food justice movement, and making fresh, healthy food accessible to Black and brown people everywhere, has become critically important.

“We were proud agriculturists,” Kelis said. “The idea of farm-to-table is not a new, trendy thing. That’s an African concept. We were thriving because we were able to work the land in such a way that it was feeding our people and for generations.” She sometimes encounters resistance among her family and friends. They will say things like, “‘Black folks don’t eat that.’ But we do,” Kelis said. “Because if it’s soul food, that’s not really soul food. That’s American food, and there’s nothing wrong with it. I love it. But when was the last time you saw cheese in any of the diaspora? When there is assimilation you lose something. Something has to be lost in order to properly assimilate. Part of being here is wanting to get some of that back and wanting to be able to have my children understand the balance of that. It’s not to say we never have a burger. That’s ridiculous. But how do we gain some control back? How do I control the quality of what we’re intaking?”

Kelis wasn’t always so meditative about her new home. There was, as one might expect, a learning curve. “The first month out here, I had a full-on panic,” she said. “What have I done?” she asked herself, to which her husband responded: “Yo. You did this.”

“I came out here with a completely different idea of what was going to happen. I really thought I was going to have cute farm things, and I was going to be cute.”

Moving to the country wasn’t spontaneous. She and Mora discussed the idea for years, but it took some time to find the right place. “I don’t think he really believed we were going to do it,” she said. Early on, she thought she’d be able to make life on the farm conform to who she was. “That doesn’t happen,” she said. “You change. I came out here with a completely different idea of what was going to happen. I thought I was going to be cute. I really thought I was going to have cute farm things, and I was going to be cute. That is not the case.” Kelis has been busy cultivating the property, building an outdoor kitchen, and caring for the livestock (more than 30 animals, with names like Marvin Gaye, Whitney Houston, and Huey P. Newton) along with their Great Pyrenees, Grits, Biscuit, and Gravy. Finding her way has taken a combination of research and intuition. The ducks have been difficult to manage. The garden quickly became an overwhelming project as they expanded it too quickly. Rabbits are constantly attacking the produce. There are gophers burrowing around and birds swooping in. Kelis has had a really hard time with corn, and we bonded over this. My wife and I planted a few stalks in our garden last year, but, alas, they refused to thrive; by the end of the summer they had withered into dried stalks of nothing. “Corn is hard,” I lamented. She nodded vigorously.

Kelis is no stranger to food. Her mother was a chef and had a catering business. Kelis worked in her kitchen to stay out of trouble. But her mother, she said, was not a teacher. It was up to Kelis to watch, learn, and apply whatever knowledge she gleaned. Kelis often worried that her own cooking didn’t measure up. But in 2008, she went to culinary school, at Le Cordon Bleu. It was there that she found her own voice. She has since released a cookbook, My Life on a Plate, and under the banner of her company, Bounty & Full, she now produces oils, salts, and her own line of signature sauces. “Culinary school was such a defining moment,” she said. “I went in there cooking like my mom, and I left there with my own set of skills and tools.

Slowly but steadily, Kelis and her family have gotten a handle on things on the farm. They are growing kale, broccoli, herbs, carrots, tomatoes, strawberries, blueberries, eggplant, lettuce, arugula, different kinds of peppers. There is a citrus grove. There are olive trees from which she presses her own olive oil. Food, she said, just hits you differently when it’s from your own garden. “I was like: ‘Oh, my God, this arugula is, like, pow. It is so funky.’ It had so much flavor,” she marveled. “It’s because we grew it here—literally with sunshine and water and lots of prayer and positive thoughts.” 

Kelis is still working on new music. But there is something poetic about her latest turn. She is giving her children a legacy—of land ownership, of what it means to be in control of the food you put into your body. Her boys play outside, get dirty, climb trees, learn how to grow and nurture things and be free. More than anything Kelis loves that she is giving them the experience of true power. No one dictates how they live on their small piece of earth. They are safe. They are as much in control of their lives as people can be. I asked Kelis what she hoped for her kids with this transition. She paused, then smiled. “To be able to say: ‘I belong here. I own this. It’s mine,’” she said. “I want them to have the proper understanding of what wealth is.”

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