Built To Last
Authenticity is part of the fabric of RnB.
From Lauryn Hill and Aaliyah through to elusive luminaries like Frank Ocean and Janet Jackson, realness has long qualified as a unit of measurement. Maybe that’s because it’s the hardest thing to get right.
Realness involves juggling any number of musical and personal characteristics – it’s about not compromising your integrity as an entertainer, learning from your experiences but not turning your back on your past; never forgetting where you come from. Kehlani Parrish understands this. “Anything that happened to me when I was younger only made me a smarter, wiser young adult,” she tells me. She talks directly, her words falling with conviction.
Last year, the 20-year-old artist’s profile grew significantly with the release of her second mixtape You Should Be Here. Through tender autobiographical musings and crystalline pop ballads, the songs outlined Kehlani’s defiant nature, striking a balance between vulnerability and robust determination. It’s this identity – a down-to-earth dominance – that makes her fearless RnB even more captivating. “I was fortunate in life to go through the things that I’ve been through,” she argues. “I have enough life experience to make music and the right to tell other people about it.”
If cutting edge RnB has recently been defined by a certain mistiness – swampy production and delicately ethereal vocals – then in terms of vocal melody, Kehlani is the closest thing you’ll find to a 90s classicist. “Without Aaliyah I wouldn’t know how to be a young woman,” she says, reflecting on the records she grew up on. “The song I’m Pretty by TLC taught me a lot too – big songs that had a story that people could listen to for generations.” Just like the guiding voices she looked up to, Kehlani has a message for her listeners (“I know every man has a fear of a strong-minded woman / But I say she’s a keeper if she got it on her own and keeps it runnin’,” she sang on You Should Be Here track Runnin’). She credits this – in part – to the town that raised her. “I come from a very authentic city and a very real situation. It’s the way I was raised.”
“I come from a very authentic city and a very real situation. That’s the way I was raised.”
Born in Berkeley, California in April 1995, Kehlani later moved along the West Coast and grew up in an apartment complex in Oakland in the Bay area of San Francisco.
The journey of Kehlani’s music career started when she was 14, after she was selected to front a local teen pop group called Poplyf. Despite touring extensively and coming fourth in 2011‘s America’s Got Talent, the group soon disbanded. But even after winning the support of Got Talent host Nick Cannon, who’d put her on in LA and New York with early recording sessions, Kehlani’s true hustle had just begun. When Cannon reached out to Kehlani some years after the show in an effort to kickstart her career, she was back in Oakland, where she was couch-surfing and shoplifting to make ends meet. “He gave me a foundation when I didn’t have one,” she tells me. “A lot of people talk about guardian angels but I truly believe that he was mine. He provided me with everything I needed to get where I am right now – he’ll always be that father figure… He just got a Tsunami tattoo which is really cool. He literally just texted me a picture of it.”
The tattoo is a reference to Kehlani’s loyal army of followers, the Tsunami Mob. Their name is adapted from ‘Lani Tsunami’ – a nickname the singer earned in recognition of her laid-back and ‘wavy’ character, and according to Kehlani, there’s a sense of community among the Mob that unites them. “Even when fans see me out, they come and hug me rather than just stare at me from far away,” she says, “It’s just great that my music is bringing people together like that.”
This relationship is built, in part, on a shared journey. Collectively, the Tsunami Mob have watched Lani grow into the artist she is today. “My fans got to go through all kinds of ups and downs with me,” she explains. “Whether that was relationships, family problems, me getting older, or graduating high school — they’ve seen everything so we have a very personal relationship.” Throughout our conversation it’s the Tsunami Mob that has Kehlani enthusing the most. Despite everything she’s achieved in the last 12 months – sold out shows, Billboard charting mixtapes, the Grammys and global critical acclaim – she sounds proudest when talking about the supportive nature of the following she’s built.
Kehlani has also constructed a strong team around her, a small circle of friends who share in every win. “It gives me a real aspect of being able to feel myself, you know what I’m saying? I feel like a lot of people can’t get to a certain level because the people around them didn’t know them from the beginning or didn’t care enough… My best friend from seventh grade is my assistant, so I’m consistently reminded of how life used to be.”
"Without Aaliyah I wouldn't know how to be a young woman"
As she looks forward to her debut retail album, which will see a joint release between her own label and Atlantic – Kehlani’s mission is simple: “It’s really possible to make big records that are still personal, big records that still tell a story and connect to you.” By staying so grounded, the messages conveyed in her songs contain a weight of legitimacy that simply couldn’t be faked. On Bright – a flickering, blues-inspired ballad from You Should Be Here – she reels off stories of misinformed young men and women uncomfortable in their own skin because of images that have been fed to them by the media. With her multi-ethnicities (African American, Caucasian, Native American, Spanish, and Filipino to be precise), two full sleeves of tattoos and a septum piercing, Kehlani has learnt that judgements are made based on appearance. “It’s already rough being a girl, it’s rough enough, but being a girl in this industry is next level,” she says. “I feel like the expectation of what a woman is supposed to look like is so high. It’s so unnatural and I feel like the women in these pictures know. They understand it took six hours in the makeup chair. I love that look sometimes but I feel for the girls.”
Kehlani has also spoken openly about her fluid sexuality – the gender pronouns she uses to address the objects of her affection alternate from track to track. Her definition of love is one that transcends categorisation, and her call for liberation is inspiring. Earlier this year she posted an Instagram photo to her 1.5 million followers with the caption, “Ladies you have every right to be as sexually expressive as you want, or don’t want to. Neither is wrong. Neither is unacceptable”. While her viewpoint fits right into a broader conversation about female sexuality within the paradigms of pop music, it’s essentially a comment on self-confidence – an attitude she tidily summarises on Bright’s timeless chorus – “Can’t nobody love somebody that do not love themselves”.
Back in December, I attended the first of Kehlani’s two sold out London shows. It looked like any other Kehlani gig – queues round the block, ticket touts reeling off figures you wouldn’t believe and hordes of fans in Tsunami Mob sweatshirts. Except this night was a little different. “Today was probably the most ridiculous day of my life,” she told the crowd, “I got nominated for a Grammy. My mixtape got nominated for a Grammy.” She’d only discovered herself a few hours prior.
“I was just really shocked. I couldn’t stop crying,” she tells me a few weeks later over the phone. “I guess I was just grateful. It means that I’m on the right path – it’s the verification that what I’m doing is working.” The Grammy nomination, you could argue, reflects a wider shift in the industry, proving that the age of the ‘mindie’ star (a major label signee with all the credentials of an independent artist) is upon us. Arrangements like this are relatively new – setups where labels are prepared to bankroll an artist without any intrusion purely based on the promise they’ve shown on their own. At 20, Kehlani’s a Grammy nominated artist heralding a new age for popstars. She’s an RnB singer breathing new life into the pantheon of open-book sincerity. It’s a story of resilience that’s still in its early chapters. “I don’t think I’ll ever feel like my mission’s complete. I don’t think any true artist does. Every day is a step towards what I want to accomplish.” The obstacles Kehlani’s faced might have fuelled her musical pursuit, but she’s not about to let them define it. “Every year’s gonna be Tsunami Season,” she declares with unwavering confidence. “Forget it.”
Words: Duncan Harrison
Photography: Alex de Mora
Styling: Luci Ellis
Makeup: Theresa Davies using Bobbi Brown
Kehlani’s debut album will be released later this year via TSNMI / Atlantic