These days, every cafe seems to be playing a ’90s soul playlist and Forever 21 offers a variety of Aaliyah T-shirts. But when recording artist Kehlani emerged almost a decade ago, music rooted in traditional R&B wasn’t exactly in vogue, and it certainly wasn’t the go-to sound for young pop stars. Yet, when Kehlani released their first mixtape, Cloud 19, in 2014, their revealing lyrics, earnest vocals, and exploration of love and sex reflected the influence of artists like Brandy (their “original favorite”), Jill Scott, and Lauryn Hill—whose face is one of Kehlani’s many tattoos.
It wasn’t just their embrace of old-school R&B that immediately set the artist apart from their peers, though. Wearing baggy clothes and sporting tats on their body, arms, neck, and even face, Kehlani appeared on the scene with a look that was less polished than those molded and manufactured by the pop-star machine. Cloud 19 made it onto Complex magazine’s list of Top 50 Albums of 2014, but Kehlani really broke out the following year with their first commercial release, the Grammy-nominated mixtape You Should Be Here. Soon, the singer was collaborating with everyone from Justin Bieber to Cardi B.
Today, the insanely popular singer, who is multi-racial, queer, and identifies most closely with the non-binary pronoun “they,” boasts nearly 14 million Instagram followers, and some of their biggest hits—including “Gangsta” from the soundtrack for Suicide Squad and “Good Life” from The Fate of the Furious soundtrack—have over 350 million listens on YouTube each. Critical reception for their work has been equally overwhelming; 2017’s SweetSexySavage landed on Rolling Stone’s top 20 R&B albums list that year, and both 2019’s mixtape While We Wait and 2020’s It Was Good Until It Wasn’t debuted at No. 1 on the R&B albums chart.
At age 27, Kehlani is a mother, in love, deeply entrenched in a spiritual practice that they say saved their life, and feeling settled into themself and their career for the first time ever. This state of peace and security is reflected on the singer/songwriter’s third album, Blue Water Road, a collection of love songs by an artist with nothing to prove that was released at the end of April. Via Zoom from their sunlit L.A.-area home, just before heading to the beach with their three-year-old daughter, Adeya, Kehlani spoke to me about this new phase, saying, “I feel like I’m just now starting to really know myself.”
It’s easy for the current version of who Kehlani is, however, to be overshadowed by their backstory—the legend of Kehlani Ashley Parrish. Born to parents who were both struggling with addiction, the Oakland native was adopted by an aunt who raised them in a liberal environment to a soundtrack of neo-soul. Kehlani began singing as a child, even appearing on America’s Got Talent while still in high school. But they struggled financially and couch-surfed as a young artist before releasing those two hit mixtapes. At 20, they were hospitalized after reportedly self-harming, and they later admitted they’d “wanted to leave this Earth.” Yes, Kehlani is a survivor, but they’re also so much more than what they’ve been through.
“There’s been this narrative that, because I was always outspoken, I wanted attention for things other than my music, and that always frustrated me,” says Kehlani. It’s their rawness and relatability that solidified a devoted fan base, but it’s also what’s gotten them exactly the type of attention they don’t want—particularly in terms of the people they’ve been involved with romantically. The star was linked with NBA player Kyrie Irving in 2016, but when the musician PartyNextDoor suggested he was sleeping with Kehlani, it unleashed a storm of Twitter haters who accused the singer of cheating on Irving. To say the negative media attention was hurtful is an understatement—Kehlani has admitted that it was this experience that led to a suicide attempt. The star even swore off doing interviews for a while after they felt their personal life had been misrepresented one too many times. “I never believed that just because I was under a microscope, I had to live my life differently than anybody else—hiding my relationships, or, not saying something back when somebody disrespects me, not speaking up for things that I believe in,” Kehlani explains. “I’m actually just trying to live my life and grow up. I hate the idea of going viral for anything other than my music—it gives me a fuckload of anxiety.”
Kehlani has sung about women and men since the beginning of their career, having identified as bisexual in the ninth grade, when they had their first girlfriend. Their previous two albums span the ups and downs of love from infatuation to heartbreak, but one of their more explicit examples of art reflecting life was 2020’s standalone track “Valentine’s Day (Shameful),” which contains what they’ve said is a “very literal” account of finding text messages that exposed an ex-boyfriend’s infidelity. Last year, they came out as lesbian, an announcement they say came as no shock to those close to them.
“I was dating a man, and then literally mid-relationship, I was like, ‘Wait, I gotta have a conversation with you, bro! I think we’re…friends.’”
In Blue Water Road’s mellow ballads, like “Little Story” and “Melt,” Kehlani seems to have finally found what they’ve been looking for. “I’ve done a lot of work in the area of my romantic relationships,” says Kehlani of their personal growth between this project and their last. “I’m very in love. I’m with someone I was friends with for six years. Then I finally let her take me on a date and it was a great one. Now we are in probably the best relationship I’ve ever been in. It is a beautiful, very beautiful situation,” they say. “These songs are genuinely romantic in a healthy way. When I listen to my [older] love songs…they come from this place of trying to prove how much I care, or desperation, or, there’s some type of weird power dynamic going on. The songs [on this album] were inspired by me actually discovering what healthy love looks like, when you also are starting to have a healthy relationship with yourself and the world.”
Showing themself grace and getting to a healthy place wasn’t just metaphysical. Kehlani also has had to make peace with their body. Last year, Kehlani opened up about feeling more beautiful after removing breast implants they’d gotten years prior. Kehlani also admits to struggling with one of their most recognizable characteristics. “I had this really wild, long stage of being regretful about my tattoos because I get a lot of shit for them,” says Kehlani, who got their first tattoo, the East Bay 510 area code on their knuckles, done at a park across the street from their school. “For a while, I was one of the only heavily tatted girl artists out [there], and I was always getting shit for my face tattoo, getting shit for having my neck tatted. But if you go look at my city, there are a lot of girls tatted up just like this.”
“I don’t really care anymore, because I don’t put as much emphasis on my outer appearance as I used to. I understand that this shit is just a show. If I’m covered in art, like, who cares?” Kehlani adds, admitting they haven’t had much consistency with the style or quality of their body art. “If I could start all the way over. I would. I would probably still be heavily tattooed, but I would just have better tattoos.”
In 2019, Kehlani welcomed daughter Adeya, who they co-parent with friend and former partner, musician Javie Young-White (yup—he’s previous BUST “Boy du Jour” Jaboukie Young-White’s brother). Kehlani credits Adeya’s arrival with moving them towards being more forgiving of themself.
“Motherhood plays the biggest role because I have to walk with grace every day for her. How can I practice showing anyone else grace if I don’t show myself that?”
There are moments when I’m talking to her, but I’m really talking to little me. We kind of interchange being the mother and the daughter all the time. She teaches me, and in turn, it really helps me navigate dealing with other human adults.”
Kehlani, whose multi-racial and cultural background includes Black, white, Mexican, and Filipino, credits her progressive Northern California upbringing with setting the tone for their own parenting. They’ve talked about raising Adeya in their “loudly queer” community, a life, they explain, that is more inherent than intentional. “I grew up going to Pride. All my uncles are gay,” says Kehlani. “I grew up in the Bay Area where every coffee shop I went into with my family had a gay flag flying. So, it’s less of intentionally placing [queer] people around her—that’s just been who I’ve been blessed to be surrounded by. These just happen to be my friends, and all my friends are just hella queer! It’s tight that she gets to see all of these things as normal, because I didn’t realize how fortunate I was growing up until I started traveling. I was playing festivals in the middle of the Bible Belt and people are like, ‘Yo, you gotta be careful performing your gay song here.’”
Asked if they tire of having to label themselves after a lifetime answering questions about their race and sexuality, Kehlani rejected the idea that it’s a burden. “I can’t even think about it like that,” they say, noting they’ve turned down opportunities intended to highlight Black women because they didn’t feel comfortable taking up that space. “Although I am Black, I don’t think anybody in my entire life has ever really categorized me as a Black woman, which is why I’ve had to also do so much inner work regarding my use of language and understanding my privilege.” Similarly, Kehlani says their femme appearance has shielded them from much of the discrimination more masculine-presenting lesbians face. “Truthfully, I just pay attention to if I’m saying something incorrectly, and letting people come in and help me out, or just sometimes not saying shit at all, and just like, you know, getting behind the right people—paying attention to whose voices should be amplified.”
Critical to this period of growth has been Kehlani’s faith. Raised Christian, they began exploring other religions after the grandmother who took them to church died. Two years ago, they were introduced to their current faith. “I’m in a religion called La Regla de Ocha. The more recognized term for it is Santeria. The African term is Lucumí. It’s a really gorgeous religion that I didn’t seek out, but it sought me. I was told upon arrival that I was headed towards a really young death in a couple of different ways—whether it be that I called it upon myself, or as a result of the environment I was in, or just things that have been chasing me my whole life. My life was saved by some really incredible elders.”
The freedom of living what they call a “spirit-led” life has helped Kehlani focus more on different forms of creativity, which in turn feed back into their music. “I’m in a really cool phase in my life right now. There’s something called artistic erosion. We just go through all these things that dull us out and make us jaded. And we’re very lucky if we’re able to get a spark again,” Kehlani says. “I feel like I’m hitting this crazy spark that isn’t necessarily even coming from music, but it’s coming from diving into all my other passions, like photography, and film, and painting, and all these other joys that end up bringing the spark back to the music.”
Kehlani has found a kinship with fellow R&B singer, Syd, front woman of the Internet, and Kehlani’s collaborator on Blue Water Road. When first introduced as peers, Kehlani explained to Syd they’d actually met before, when 11th-grade Kehlani waited outside an Odd Future show and told Syd they thought she was a great DJ. Though, really, they said, “I just had a big fat lesbian crush on Syd.” Now they have a friendship, not based on music, but on real life. “I’ll kick it with some peers, and it becomes either complaining about the industry or talking about who got nominated for some award and who didn’t,” says Kehlani.
“There’s something called artistic erosion. We just go through all these things that dull us out and make us jaded. And we’re very lucky if we’re able to get a spark again.”
“With Syd, we’re just in this phase where we’re all about our girlfriends who we love, our pets [Kehlani has a pit bull, Xoloitzcuintli; a Mexican hairless dog; and a bird], our families. I’m trying to talk about old cars and the new NatGeo fucking whale documentary and like, ‘When’s the last time you went to a farmer’s market because the new one over there has an exotic fruit section!’”
If their other passions ignite a spark, Kehlani’s recent travels may have set off a blaze. After performing at three Lollapalooza dates across South America, Kehlani returned to the States inspired. Not only did they meet incredible artists like samba star and actor Seu Jorge (“we geeked out over each other”), but they also say the levels of poverty they witnessed caused them to make some changes. “I came home and I got rid of the majority of my stuff. I kept what I needed and gave the rest away. My business managers probably think I’m hilarious,” they say with a laugh. “It’s not like I was ever a huge jewelry wearer or anything like that. But I’ve just gotten super mindful of how I’m moving through the world and what I’m actually here to do.”
Kehlani talks a lot about forging their own path and coloring outside the lines of the music industry, so it’s no surprise that they’ve begun imagining a life outside of the Los Angeles and New York scenes. “I fell in love with Brazilian culture and the love that I was shown—the love within the people,” says Kehlani. “Everybody I met who I ended up hanging out with was from Rio—I’ve always had a fixation on Rio my whole life. I’m actively planning on moving at some point. I already wrote it down and said, ‘This is what’s going to happen when God allows it.’ Who knows what I’ll go do—maybe I’ll own a restaurant or maybe open a fucking art gallery, but whatever it is, I’m gonna do it for sure.”
For now, Kehlani is already looking forward to their next project, “I finished the album last fall, maybe even the end of summer. It’s been done for a long time. I’ve already had new ideas and new songs and new feelings and new things going on in my head since last summer. So, you know, I’m ready for the next one. honestly.”
“I feel like I’m not necessarily here to do some mind-boggling culture-shifting thing,” they say, regarding their approach to songwriting and artistry. “For the rest of my life, I’ll just be lucky to be documenting things I go through and how I see the world, and hopefully that does something for someone else.” -Sabrina Ford
This article originally appeared in BUST's Summer 2022 print edition. Subscribe today!
PHOTOGRAPHED BY Erik Carter
styling by Oliver Vaughn
makeup by Troye Batiste
hair by Cesar Ramireztwitter.com/sabrinaford