It is said that the toughest battles go to the strongest soldiers — and, in this case, the youngest. Facing hardships since birth, from losing her father as an infant to the absence of her mother due to drug addiction, Oakland singer Kehlani has channeled her experiences into a significant gift, using her struggles to craft music. Working as a source of strength for listeners dealing with their own problems, the open artist’s latest mixtape, You Should Be Here, has opened many new doors for the rising songstress, from sold-out shows to earning a Grammy nomination. Revealing a candidness and genuineness that shine through an industry filled with artists chasing trends in the name of playing it safe, the soulful singer-songwriter stays true to her own vibe, continuing to release work that connects with a set of niche supporters seeking the perfect combination of youthful recklessness and deep, spiritual messages that only she can supply. It takes an underestimated strength to swim against the current when the waves are deathly high, and Kehlani has it.
Having gotten her start on America’s Got Talent with her previous band Poplyfe, the 21-year-old HBK Gang member has been working in the business since an early age. Now standing alone with no band members to fall back on, all the criticism this sensitive yet strong-willed Taurus receives about topics ranging from her music to her personal life lands directly on her. And while the powerful and secure are unfairly expected to take on the weight of the world with ease, the reality is that all humans are capable of cracking. In Kehlani’s case, the accumulated stresses of her current position in life and the tremendous range of experiences she’s lived within a short span of time on this planet seemingly proved to be more than enough in March 2016. After enduring an extreme case of misogynistic cyberbullying, the artist, via a since-deleted Instagram post, allegedly tried to hurt herself in an attempt to relieve the pressure.
While it may be hard to fathom how an individual with such inner power could even come remotely close to breaking, it is important to acknowledge the beauty in the fractures. What many overlook is that the strong do not become so by doing everything perfectly and by knowing exactly how to avoid strong winds before they arrive. In fact, it’s quite the opposite: Those with resilience gain their fortitude by weathering out the storms and coming out alive on the other end. Getting back up after falling is one of the truest examples of strength. While she may have gained some battle wounds along the way, this phoenix’s journey is a testament to the might of riding out the waves. After all, she’s not called Lani Tsunami for nothing.
In the past, you’ve been really open about your upbringing. Which life lessons did you learn early on that may have contributed to your success or given you a head start?
I just think I learned to be honest, in general, and how to be honest with myself before I be honest with the world. I’ve learned to give myself time to grow and not judge myself and be so hard on myself. I go through things, but in turn, I’m still learning how to properly share with the world which part of that I’m going through.
What role did music play in your childhood?
I kind of did everything when I was little. I was mostly a dancer, though. I mean, music and dancing go hand-in-hand; theater and music goes hand-in-hand. I did all of that. I was kind of just—I guess every musician will pretty much do the same thing… It’s kind of one thing they always go back to.
Which artists spoke to you growing up?
I think India Arie was probably the most influential person in music for me growing up. Probably India and Musiq Soulchild. They were so about love… It was loving more than just the opposite sex. It was about self-love, love for others around you, [and] love and respect for your mother and grandmother… It was a lot.
Do you feel that you struggle with self-love or that maybe you went towards that type of music because you struggled with it?
I mean, I’m a twenty-year-old girl [right now], you know what I mean? I don’t know any twenty-year-old girl who think she’s the shit right now. I don’t know any twenty-year-old girls who are 100% in love with themselves. Yeah, that’s definitely something that I work on everyday and that’s definitely something that I share with my fans, that I work on that, and I think that’s why they fuck with me because I’m not trying to force this thing of, “I’ve already got it handled.” I’m growing with them.
What made you want to go into music at such a young age versus all the paths you could have taken?
I’m not good at nothing else. I’m not good at nothing else but art. I was not the best in school except for English class, which made me realize I could write. I sucked at school. I suck at sports. I suck at basically everything except for art so that was kind of what made sense.
Being that you touched on English class, you’ve said that you are a good storyteller. Considering everything that you’ve been through, do you feel that you’re ever going to write a book? I know that you’re open in interviews and you’re open in your music, but do you think you would actually ever write a book as a testament to your perseverance?
I would like to do that one day, but for now, I’m just trying to focus on my music. I’m not trying to overexpose myself. They can find out all the details later.
I’m a firm believer that experience is the best teacher. With everything you’ve experienced, what advice do you have for young Kehlani that she may have needed to hear back then?
Just know that everything happens for a reason and just trust yourself when you feel strongly about something. Also, don’t judge yourself when you feel strongly about something. Just allow yourself to feel more and not think so hard about things. I’m a very calculated individual. I’m trying to be less calculated.
Yeah, I know you’ve said that your emotions are on your face sometimes.
Yeah, all the time… I think it’s because when I feel things, I feel them very intensely. I’m just trying to feel them and not try to break them down.
And not block them?
What’s been the hardest obstacle that you’ve dealt with in your career?
Just the fact that I came into the game so open. Taking this kind of very mother-like position naturally, because I feel like I have so many things to say that people should hear, but being a young adult and realizing that a lot of myself deserves to stay to myself.
How is that? There are so many fake personalities and jaded people that I know you must come across. How do you protect your energy and how do you protect — I don’t want to say remain “you,” but how do you maneuver that when you’re so open?
I mean, you have to decide when you’re ready to take a step. That’s what I had to do. I had to be like, as much as fans will miss me Snapchatting every second of my life or fans will miss me tweeting my fingers away, posting every five seconds on Instagram, I have to make the decision to keep myself sane and to reserve a part of my sanity and take a step back. Either way, they’re going to get all of me in the music; they don’t necessarily have to get all of me in every other way…. Yeah, I have a tendency to fucking say way too much all the time on social media. Yeah, I’ll fucking lash out when I want to because I’m young, but I’m getting older and I’m just trying to get a handle on things.
I feel like you’ve been getting flack, simultaneously, for not not fulfilling this generic idea of what beauty is in the industry, but then also, for embracing your own. What do you want to see shift in the general perception of what mainstream beauty is?
I don’t even think I’m focused on changing the perception of mainstream beauty because I don’t think that’s something that’s going to change necessarily for a long time. I’m trying to get people to understand that it’s literally just a perception. I’m not trying to change a perception, I’m trying to get people to realize that’s just sometimes people see you in fame, but that’s not the reality because nobody — not everybody — looks like that; not everybody thinks like that, not everybody acts like that, not everybody is rich, not everybody can afford a weave down to their ass or get their rib removed, you know what I’m saying? It’s just wild shit! People just think people wake up naturally and just look [like that]. I don’t know a single female that even does look perfect on Instagram that wakes up in the morning looking like that. Everybody goes through the process; everybody does things. We all put a little makeup on sometimes. I’m just trying to get girls to realize that they have to fuck with themselves first and then whatever decision they make to modify themselves, as long as it’s because they fuck with themselves and [they’re] not just doing it to try to make themselves happy, then by all means, go for it. If it’s because you don’t like yourself, change that first.
It’s just so crazy because mainstream beauty… you don’t realize how much that affects everyday life. How people look at normal people and then be like, “Oh, you look busted,” or whatever — but they look normal!
Yo! I be really seeing little girls talk about some, “I’m going to kill myself because I don’t look like you,” on people’s profiles… Like, it’s fifteen-year-olds on Instagram commenting on grown women’s profiles like, “Oh my God, I’m going to kill myself because I don’t look like you!” Like, what? You’re not even old enough to look like that! Your body hasn’t even went through those changes. Your face is still of a fifteen-year-old. Why are you doing this? There’s girls that have dreams of [being] a model that will never go pursue their dream because someone called them ugly when they were fifteen and they took it to fucking heart.
For any artist, getting a Grammy nomination is a huge milestone in their career because it’s like the ultimate affirmation that all the hard work that you put in wasn’t for naught. What was going through your mind when you were actually there?
I still felt like I was a new kid at school. I felt like there was all the Grammy people who go to the Grammys every year and they’re expected to be there. You’re waiting to see what their outfit looks like and you’re waiting to hear their name called. I just felt like the new kid at school like, “Hey! I don’t know where to sit. I don’t know who to talk to.” [Laughs] I was just very honored; I still couldn’t believe that it even happened. I can’t say anything,but the fact that I’m just very thankful.
It was really dope to see you there because, to be quite honest, I don’t always pay attention to details when it comes to Grammy noms and what not, but when I saw you, I was rooting for you. It was like a proud moment even though I don’t know you! Because of the energy you bring, it’s like a breath of fresh air to see you in that arena.
Awww, thank you!
It seems like you’ve lived a really full life and you’re only now 21.
I do, yeah! [Laughs]
What are you excited to see happen in your life in the coming years? What do you want to accomplish even more of?
I’m trying to keep doing what I’m doing. I’ve been grown since I was young. Me turning 21 ain’t doing shit, but letting me legally do the shit I already do. To me it’s just like, fuck it. I think it will apply more pressure for me, personally, because people will be forced to take me more seriously because I’ll be all up in their face in the adult world. But I don’t think it changes much for me; I’m just going to keep doing what I’m doing… I’ve got hella goals. I think everyone has a bunch of goals. I just want to do everything I ever said I wanted to do. I have too many specifics, almost. I just want to do everything on my list of, “This is shit Kehlani’s been wanting to do since she was little.” I want to keep selling out shows, I want to see the world, I want to always be gone, I want to always be on the road, I want to make amazing albums, I want to touch people, I want to meet people. I want to do all that.