Kehlani was seven when she witnessed her first demonstration. It happened by accident: She and her grandmother were out together in San Francisco and passed a group of women lying in the middle of the street. They were all soaked in fake blood. It could have been a traumatic sight for a small child, but she only remembers the curiosity that swirled in her mind afterward.
“I couldn't stop asking questions. I even left the new art thing my grandmother got me—those little airbrush pens all the kids wanted. I left them on the bus because I was asking so many questions,” she says with a laugh. “It’s funny, growing up in the Bay I was so little seeing so many uprisings. It was so normal.”
It’s a Thursday afternoon in July, and Kehlani and I are on Zoom diving into the Icebreaker Deck, a card game that takes intimate interrogations on dating, sex, love, and life and spreads them across several categories: "Random," "Deep," "Would You Rather," "If You Could." It’s the type of game you can really only play with someone who's an open book, and Kehlani is as transparent as they come.
Anyone who's listened to a Kehlani record or followed the 25-year-old online knows her earnest, unguarded presence. With her clear-eyed musings of romantic yearning, sexual freedom, heartbreak, self-love, and mental wellness, she’s become the patron saint of introspection for a generation of R&B fans. And her social media favors blunt honesty over spin. Naturally, during our virtual hang, Kehlani prefers the cards that go deep into her mind.
It’s fitting that the first card I pull — What’s your most powerful and vivid memory? — sparks a recollection of protest. For the last few months, Kehlani has been promoting her second studio album, It Was Good Until It Wasn’t, while the country feels like it’s on fire.
A pandemic is ravaging our lives and crippling the economy; we’re enervated by an election that's as critical as it is bizarre; an impeached president is aggressively fanning the flames of racial division as Black and brown men and women are policed by their neighbors and killed by police without consequence. Across the globe, people are putting their lives on the line to demand justice and equity in the fight for Black lives, and the air is thick with tension, anxiety, and fear. We’re all just ready to get to the other side of this, whatever that looks like.
Kehlani captures that duality on the album art she shot in her backyard while under lockdown earlier this spring. On the front, she’s standing on tiptoes, trying to catch a glimpse of life on the other side of her concrete wall. Flip over the cover and you see her face, frozen in horror that the other side is just as wrecked as what’s behind her.
That feeling of uncertainty was prevalent when I first met Kehlani three and a half years ago. It was the eve of her major-label debut, 2017's SweetSexySavage, and I was spending a few days with her for a profile. On the morning President Trump was inaugurated, we sat together for an interview that veered into a therapy session, sharing our fears and anxieties as two young, queer people of color watching the country shift before our eyes. In the years since, those fears have been realized by Trump’s ongoing war on queer, trans, indigenous, Black, Hispanic, and Latino communities. And here she is, again, releasing an album at a time when things feel so far from good.
The idea of getting to the other side — and the healing and joy that comes with it — is the core of It Was Good Until It Wasn’t, which came out in May to critical acclaim and hit No. 1 on the Billboard R&B charts.
Dropping new music during a global pandemic is risky for any artist—especially one orbiting mainstream pop—but it was an intentional move for Kehlani. She sees herself in service to her community, and getting these songs to her fans was more important than the promo circuit — so instead of waiting, as her label would have preferred, Kehlani took on the challenge of rolling out the album while isolated at home.
“If I was [following] the plan I had before the quarantine, I'd probably look back and be like, ‘We shot some sick-ass visuals and spent way too much fucking money for videos that people watched two [or] three times,’” she says on our call. “I want to be able to look back and be like ‘Damn, I did some shit that I think is so tight’…and I'm a 25-year-old mom doing this shit out the crib while taking care of my daughter, my siblings, my mother, and my friends. That shit is so tight to me."
Kehlani is seated at a desk inside the garage of her Northridge home, nursing a homemade iced coffee her assistant brought her before leaving us alone. She’s dressed in a blue and white Kani shirt, and a silk head wrap is keeping her edges laid down for the music video she’s shooting later in the evening. I sip rosé as she takes me on a virtual tour of the garage that’s become headquarters for her Honey Shot Productions. There’s some recording equipment in one corner. Another section is reserved for photoshoots, and the laptop she’s broadcasting from is the one she’s used to edit all the videos she’s shot around her house.
She’s actually in the middle of packing everything up and graciously apologizes for the boxes as if I was there having to maneuver them. Kehlani has always dreamed of owning land for her and her family, and after spending much of quarantine thinking about life on the other side of the pandemic, she decided it was finally time to get closer to that dream. A few weeks ago, she bought a small farm in Simi Valley. There’s enough acreage to fit four or five homes, and she’s tackling the acquisition the way she’s approached her album rollout: by rolling up her sleeves and putting in the work herself, learning along the way.
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“I'm at that point where I was able to make a decision on if it was time to follow my goals that are bigger than music, which is service to the community,” she says. “I want to create land-owning opportunities and land-working opportunities for young people of color. So I'm going to invite all my homies who are interested to come learn with me. We'll build this up together, and it'll be ours and we will slowly start to invite people to come work with us and build with us. And then we can all start purchasing, hopefully, to give to other people and communities in need.”
I pull the next card and hold it up to the screen. What was the hardest decision you've ever had to make?
“A hard decision has been not to go and rush and have another baby,” she answers with a laugh. “That is a hard decision because I want to have so many kids, but now I'm at the point where I have to be so logical. Like, look where the road is headed. Look at how the government is thinking about us and considering us. Look at the resources we've been having to use. My main source of income has now become non-existent. Touring is where artists make all their money, and we don't know when that's ever coming back. And being someone that skipped all of touring from my last project, because I was pregnant — this was supposed to be my get-back year.”
If we weren’t on lockdown, you’d be between on the road with Justin Bieber. How would you be spending your off days?
“A couple days to myself? I would split my time and hit a museum of some sort,” she says. “What was going to be so dope about that tour was I really enjoy being the opening act because you get so much space and room. You do your show and then you're done, and you get to watch another show to be inspired by or take notes from. You get to watch something that feeds you every night. So I was excited to watch someone that was such a great performer and then have my off days where, because it wasn't my tour, I could be more relaxed.”
Where’s your head at about touring next year? Are you thinking about it?
“Everybody is on the ‘I'll cross the bridge when it comes’ conversation. I don't think anybody truly knows,” she says. “At first, it was, ‘Touring's coming back in the winter.’ Then it was, ‘There's going to be a second wave of the virus that's going to hit when it's colder when people are more susceptible to getting sick.’ And then it’s, ‘Okay, we're thinking next spring…next winter.’ I have no concept of when that aspect of my career will be rolling back around. And I don't know if this is bad of me to say, but I would rather us focus on how to make school a more accessible, safe thing for the kids. That should be our first priority. Even though touring is such a great source of joy, I feel like there's so many more essential things that need to be brought back and fully figured out before we throw thousands of people in a room to get sweaty and stand inches away from each other.”
[caption id="attachment_id_357974"] Noah Schutz[/caption]
Kehlani Ashley Parrish was born in Oakland, and her childhood was marked by trauma. Both parents struggled with addiction — her father was caught up in the streets, and her mom was in and out of jail. She’s a year older now than her dad was when he died, shortly after she was born. Kehlani bounced around foster care before her aunt dropped out of school to raise her. Dancing and music became an outlet: She enrolled at Oakland’s School for the Arts, and at 14 she had landed a spot in cover band PopLyfe. The group made it to America’s Got Talent and placed fourth, but the thrill was short-lived when she got a taste of the shadier side of the industry.
“I was seeing the effects of what music can do — how it can be healing and beautiful and bring people joy…but on the flip side, there was this ugliness. I saw the greed and the He-Mans that were willing to fuck over children,” she recalls. “I was 16 years old and brought my contract to this table full of grown-ass people like, 'What the fuck is going on?' Like, 'We're supposed to be family.'"
The experience threw her off, but reconnecting with Nick Cannon got her music career back on track. Cannon, who hosted America’s Got Talent the season Kehlani competed, became a mentor. He put her up in an apartment and funded the studio time that helped her make 2014’s Cloud 19, the first of two mixtapes she dropped that featured her reverent updates of early 2000s neo-soul and TRL-era pop. Her songs were about the rush of a first crush, kisses that lingered like warm honey, falling in and out and love—and all the feels in-between. Kehlani was making straightforward R&B for those who grew up loving Brandy and Britney Spears. Her music was bright, bubbly, danceable, and super infectious. She signed with Atlantic Records, and her second mixtape, 2015’s You Should Be Here, raced up Billboard’s R&B chart and landed her a Grammy nomination.
Kehlani’s star was on the rise, and with it came a great deal of interest in her personal life. She grew up in the age of social media, so she knew whatever she did or who she dated would be up for scrutiny. But as one of the few queer women of color in R&B/pop, she wasn’t actually prepared for the intensity of the coverage she'd face. Blogs that never bothered to write about her music wrote about her love life with aplomb after she was accused of cheating. Suddenly, strangers were on her Gram attacking her, even accusing her of queer-baiting.
The constant bullying overshadowed her music, pulling Kehlani into a darkness that resulted in an attempt on her own life in 2016. She made the effervescent SweetSexySavage while still clawing her way out of the shadows. She wasn’t fully ready yet, nor was the album—but this is still the music business, and deadlines are deadlines.
It was all a critical turning point for Kehlani that helped her reprioritize what she wanted out of her life and career.
“Everything hit me. Life can just change in a moment. You know what I'm saying? Life can be over in a moment,” she says. “If you are blessed enough to come out of that, you have to take life by the reins and do this shit how you can design it.”
A warmth radiates from Kehlani, even when she’s talking about the people and things that have hurt her. It’s why so many have taken to her confessional records or gotten her lyrics or her visage inked into their flesh. In a time of strategic oversharing, she’s the rare pop star unapologetically wearing her feelings because it's who she is—not who she’s building a persona around.
She’s ready for the next card and tells me to pull a deep one. What’s one thing you did that you wish you could go back and undo?
“Oversharing,” she says with a sigh. “I let people know I was vulnerable so much that I left myself open for a lot of attacks in different forms: spiritual attack, mental attack, even physical. I had to relocate and get security and all types of things. On the flip side, that has allowed me to have a relationship with the people that support me in a very unique way where I know they really care about me. I’m growing in front of millions of people. Openly. And it's left for a lot of really fucking confusing moments where I’ve questioned if I was doing something because it was how I felt or if it was what the public wanted me to do. I have a hard time separating those things. But I'm here now, and I can't take any of it back, and there are more blessings than there are hardships.”
It Was Good Until It Wasn’t is foremost an album about growth. Kehlani sees the world so much differently now that she’s a mother. Before she gave birth to her daughter Adeya Nomi last year, she dropped While We Wait, a stopgap project featuring a bunch of her friends that dug deep into the vulnerable, resilient R&B that defined her early mixtapes. The project held her fans over after she paused work on what would eventually become her latest album. By the time It Was Good Until It Wasn’t arrived, she had lost three of her closest friends to addiction and went through yet another painful public breakup that splashed her all over the blogs and Twitter.
“Kehlani’s growth from SweetSexySavage to It Was Good Until It Wasn’t is her journey of going from womanhood to motherhood,” her longtime manager David Ali says. “This is definitely one of her most grown and honest pieces of work.”
In the past, she would have channeled that pain into inspirational anthems of triumph. Instead, here, she chooses to wade through the emotional detritus and unpack her shit. Bright optimism takes a backseat to the clear-eyed understanding on It Was Good Until It Wasn’t. She languishes over the thought of running into an ex on the simmering “Hate the Club,” interrogates the loneliness of uncoupling with James Blake on “Grieving,” addresses the gossip of her love life directly on “Everybody Business,” sings about the carnal needs that spawn late-night texts to exes (the ones we love because of their toxicity), and explores how those needs often undo us. It’s the grown-est R&B album of the year and Kehlani’s most personal work yet — and it sounds particularly urgent amid the heightened intensity of months inside the house.