A first-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 has described the album as "an experiment for the production team, the first time the production crew had used vocals on their club tracks." In March 2014, Kelela was featured in Bok Bok's song "Melba's Call" for his new EP.