Women In Music

Billboard Women in Music 'Rule Breaker' Kehlani On Emerging From Personal Crisis

"The chicken and waffles is so fire,” says Kehlani. The 22-year-old singer, who’s wearing a leather beret and a sweatshirt reading “Honey” that covers the tattoos snaking around her arms, is sitting at Crossroads Kitchen, a vegan restaurant in West Hollywood where the chicken is, of course, in ­quotation marks. This is one of her favorite haunts in her Los Angeles ­neighborhood; she has been vegan for five months, following a “chicken wing phase” on the tour for her widely praised January debut album, SweetSexySavage. “I couldn’t stop eating hot wings,” she confesses, but watching a health ­documentary immediately cured her of the habit. “I knew it was time for me to step it up in that area,” she says matter-of-factly. “And once I did, it made sense. All my energy shot back up.” Now, she is inclined to call kale salad “fire” too.

Whether talking about fake meat, last night’s Halloween festivities at a WeHo gay club (“my favorite place in the world”) or her “beautiful” ­girlfriend, a tattoo artist/painter named Shaina, Kehlani is warm, unguarded and effusive. And in her music, too, raw honesty is her default setting. She’s learning as she goes and makes no attempt to hide it, which has endeared her to a young fan base who see their own vulnerabilities reflected in her. It has also made her an unconventional star: a dancer-turned-singer who co-writes her own music, lives as an out bisexual woman, exposes even her darkest moments to the public -- and achieves real ­mainstream success. SweetSexySavage, an ­inventive R&B album with hints of TLC’s CrazySexyCool, ­pristine production from Pop & Oak and Kehlani’s own captivating vocals -- a buttery coo with the slightest hint of a rasp -- went to No. 3 on the Billboard 200 and No. 1 on Top R&B Albums.

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“It’s hard to be vulnerable [online], but you can genuinely make a difference in people’s lives,” says Kehlani. She wears a Michael Ngo jacket and Gianvito Rossi boots.

After coming up in a prefab pop group and ­competing on America’s Got Talent as a teen, Kehlani, who grew up in Oakland, Calif., could have easily entered the traditional pop machine. Nick Cannon, the AGT host she still calls ­“family,” took an interest in her career, ­offering to help her get started in the industry and setting her up with an L.A. apartment, studio space and producers at his own Studio City complex post-graduation.

At the time, Kehlani was still a fledgling artist -- a trained dancer who had spent five years in a cover band and “didn’t have that confidence to be able to write my own stuff.” But inspired by artists like India.Arie -- “I felt like she was writing letters to herself, or to her little sisters” -- Kehlani began to find her voice. She self-released the free mixtape Cloud 19 in 2014 and booked a slot opening for fellow Oakland native G-Eazy on tour the next year. (In March, the two ­collaborated on “Good Life” for the soundtrack to The Fate of the Furious.) She dropped her first ­commercial mixtape, You Should Be Here, in 2015, and it shot to No. 5 on Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums.

“I love proving things to myself, because I’m the biggest scaredy-cat at first,” says Kehlani today. “And afterward, I’m like, ‘Holy shit, I did it!’” With You Should Be Here, she really had done it -- the ­mixtape was nominated for best urban ­contemporary album at the 2016 Grammy Awards -- and she moved into working on SweetSexySavage. Then, her life was thrown into unexpected turmoil.

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Kehlani photographed on Nov. 7, 2017 at The Hollywood Castle in Los Angeles. 

In the midst of prepping the album, “I was in a very odd place with myself,” recalls Kehlani. “There was a lot of pressure from the Grammy ­nomination. I wasn’t in the healthiest situation.” The ­“situation,” she explains, was a “miscommunication and misunderstanding that the Internet took to”: an Instagram post by her ex, PartyNextDoor, with a photo of himself and Kehlani, implying she had cheated on her then-boyfriend, basketball star Kyrie Irving, with him. In a post she later deleted, Kehlani ­clarified that she and Irving were broken up by the time the PND photo was taken, but on social media and, sometimes, in person, Irving’s fans attacked.

“I was tormented for ages,” she recalls. “Like, onstage for months having things thrown at me. People yelled at me in the airport. People ­bullied my sister in school.” She fell into “a series of long depressions.” Then, on March 29, 2016, she posted a photo of her tattooed arm with an IV tube inserted. She had survived a suicide attempt.

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Kehlani photographed on Nov. 7, 2017 at The Hollywood Castle in Los Angeles. 

Kehlani has always shared her life with her fans -- “If I’m in love, you’ll see it everywhere, no ­matter who it’s with. If I’m a fan of you, I’ll be under all your pictures in all capitals ­screaming my head off,” she says -- and her attitude was no ­different in the wake of her attempt. “Today I wanted to leave this earth. Being completely selfish for once. Never thought I’d hit such a low point,” her Instagram caption read. “But God saved me for a reason, and for that...I must be grateful...Cuz I’m not in heaven right now for a reason.”

“I still have PTSD from it,” says Kehlani today. And at the time she was in the midst of making an album -- one with a prevailing attitude very ­different from how she felt. “I was very boasty in my music,” she says. “And I went through a ­situation that required me to go through a rebirth, to start all over as a human.” Pushing through was easier than ­starting over, but by the time the album was released, her relationship with it had become fraught, which made the promotion cycle tricky. “That tour almost ended so many times,” she says with a weary laugh. “But I chose to get through it. The last show on tour, I remember everybody just being like, ‘Yo, you did it. Thank you.’”

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Kehlani photographed on Nov. 7, 2017 at The Hollywood Castle in Los Angeles. 

Kehlani says that now, failure no longer scares her. “I’m completely rolling off my gut and ­intuition,” she says. “I was moving at such a crazy-ass pace in the industry, getting so much props and shit. You can get lost in it a little bit. I’ve eliminated the ‘beat yourself up’ ­factor.” She has found strength in friendships with young female ­artists who, like her, reject the usual pop star template.

SZA and I always check in on each other: ‘Yo, you good? You eating? You ­sleeping?’” she says. She and Princess Nokia, a young, queer and feminist rapper, “have the ultimate girl talks.”

She’s encouraged by the solidarity she sees among her contemporaries. “Everybody’s ­rooting for each other,” she says, ­adding that she’d like to see an all-women tour in the style of Vans Warped. “We see each other at these events, and we all dap and hug each other.”

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Kehlani photographed on Nov. 7, 2017 at The Hollywood Castle in Los Angeles. 

Now, she’s facing forward. Having recently played New Orleans’ Voodoo Fest and L.A.’s Tyler, The Creator-curated Camp Flog Gnaw Carnival, Kehlani admits it’s Afropunk, “the ­illest ­festival,” she still dreams of playing. She was recently announced as an opener on Demi Lovato’s 2018 arena tour, and she has just secured $50,000 in funding for Flora, a health and wellness app she’s launching. “Tech is my new frontier in life,” she says, adding that she’ll soon attend Afrotech, a summit for people of color in technology.

She’s also getting back to making music. Early in October, Kehlani released her first new song since SweetSexySavage, a gentle acoustic tune called “Honey.” “I like my girls just like I like my honey -- sweet, a little ­selfish,” she sings softly against the ­strumming of a ­guitar. The chorus ­continues with a classic Kehlani ­confession: “I’m a beautiful wreck, a colorful mess... but I’m funny.”

Messiness and all, she’s still trying to live as fearlessly and openly as she hopes her fans would. “At the end of every day, you’re just going to have more anxiety if you don’t do what the fuck you want to, even if it’s in the most minor way,” she says with a laugh. “That’s just why I’m so extra.” 

2017 Billboard Women in Music

This article originally appeared in the Dec. 9 issue of Billboard.