From an early age, Neko Kelly knew that he wanted to be a creative, working in fashion or entertainment.
He recalls introducing himself to his first-form class at Clarendon College at age 11 and being laughed at when he stated his career goal.
“I stood and said ‘My name is Neko Kelly. I am coming from Old Harbour Bay Primary School and in the future, I would love to be a model. Everyone laughed. The teacher asked if I was sure that’s what I want to do. I said yes. And they just laughed,” he relates to JIS News.
“My mind had been made up from then. I knew a nine-to-five was not for me. When they laughed, I was like ‘yeah, whatever’. I always had an ‘I don’t care’ attitude because I was very determined,” he shares with JIS News.
Ten years later, people are no longer laughing.
Neko has become a much-sought-after fashion stylist and creative director.
International clients such as Rita Ora and KeKe Palmer, and reggae and dancehall acts, including Nadine Sutherland, Beenie Man and Tanya Stephens, have all been ‘Styled to Roc’ under Neko’s brand.
On February 6, Neko was among 15 Jamaicans under age 30 who were presented with the Prime Minister’s Youth Award for Excellence for outstanding accomplishment in various fields.
He was recognised for achievement in Arts and Culture.
Neko recalls that it was while he was on the way to style the 2022 Magnum Calendar Shoot, that he learned of his nomination for the Prime Minister’s Youth Award.
“I was in a cab when I got the call from the Ministry of Education and Youth. I immediately froze and grabbed on to the driver’s hand. The driver did not know what was going on, so she pulled over and was looking at the shock on my face. I was there tearing up and I finally told her I was nominated. She got out of the car and jumped up and down – a complete stranger. That made the experience so, so good,” he laughs.
“To be awarded and recognised by the Prime Minister and by my country is just amazing,” he shares.
Neko’s creative awakening came as a child growing up in the fishing village of Old Harbour Bay.
“I used to watch my Aunt Sharon get dressed and do her make-up. She had scandal bags full of clip-on earrings, jackets and dresses with shoulder pads, plus she was obsessed with Iman make-up. That was my first realisation of beauty – a black woman, a family member and it felt close, honest and beautiful to me,” he tells JIS News. Neko credits his late father, Mark “Biggy” Kelly, as a major influence.
“I grew up with a very elaborate father who used to have a gold ring on every finger and 10 gold chains around his neck. Same for my mom who used to do her hair every three days. I grew up with a very stylish family. We weren’t shy when it came to fashion and self-expression, so that was the beginning,” he says. Neko dedicates the youth award to his father, who he says, was his biggest cheerleader and a critical cultural influence in his life.
“He was always very proud of me. I am pretty sure when he was alive he knew days and moments like these were coming and that I would be somebody. I know he would be proud of me, not just as a son but as a successful son, that achieved success with integrity. I know he is seeing this in spirit,” he shares.
“I do not have tattoos; I don’t drink I don’t party that much… . All my idols are rock stars – Grace Jones, Lenny Kravitz, Olivier Rousteing, Rihanna and Johnny Depp. They are my inspiration and I aspire to have the same amount of cultural and fashion impact as they do,” he says.
Neko remains busy and has several upcoming projects with local and international acts.
“I have a project that I’ll be working on with [English singer] Dua Lipa, and I recently did something mind-blowing with [Jamaican artiste] Stalk Ashley as well; we did 12 music videos in two days… . My life is a movie, I’m never off set!” Neko exclaims.