Oakland native Kehlani caused an unlikely dent in last year’s soundscape with the lush production and honest, raw songwriting talent on her acclaimed Cloud 19 mixtape. At 19, she’s already a seasoned industry hustler, having previously made waves on America’s Got Talent (fourth place, but not without a performance alongside Stevie Wonder). We caught up with the rising songstress to talk about finding yourself, bisexuality, and the reason for all the ink.
You used to be in a band called PopLyfe that was on America’s Got Talent. Was it tough being the only girl in the group?
My whole life I’ve always been in with the guys. I just now have all close female friends. I think it’s because we’re all on the same wave; we’re all tomboys. The band was my second family.
You looked a lot different back then.
I was 16, still trying to figure out myself, figure out my sexuality. My pops passed when I was little. I didn’t have a dad around to tell me certain things. I didn’t have my biological mother. My aunt [who raised me] and I had a disconnect, because I was so mad that she wasn’t my mom. I was like, “You’re my mom, but you’re not my mom! Fuck everything.”
When did you begin to fully realize your own identity?
By the time I was 17, I was out the house. I discovered who I was. That’s why I’m so tatted—I know myself enough to recognize that I’ve [actually] been the same person my whole life. These ideas and thoughts and beliefs are gonna be there forever. I can still look in the mirror like, “I still think like this.”
Is that why you’re so open about being bisexual?
Regardless of whether or not you accept it, I am not afraid to tell you how it is. I think it’s important that there is a voice for that right now. I wouldn’t even necessarily say I’m bisexual—I like who I like. I’ve dated both men and women. Sex is biological, but gender is mental. I’ve been with people who aren’t what they’re born into. You fall in love with a person’s mind, you fall in love with a person’s soul, not with whatever’s down there.
What happened to the band after America’s Got Talent ended?
We stuck around together for maybe half a year but the adults in the situation weren’t able to keep things together. There were a lot of contractual things that were going wrong and a lot of mistreatment from management. The fact that we were 16—getting robbed and getting taken advantage of—was not OK. We had a meeting and [our managers] didn’t expect me to come as correct as I did. I approached them with everything that was wrong on a list and said, “This is not happening, this is not happening, and if this doesn’t happen, I’m out of here.” They weren’t willing to just be appropriate and professional.
Now that you’re a solo artist, where do you start your songwriting process on a track like “FWU”?
Songs about monogomy aren’t exactly tearing up the charts these days.... I felt like what was missing was a song for a wholesome female. We’ve got all the “I don’t need no nigga” females. We’ve got the “fuck everybody,” or “I’m too good for this,” or the over-sexualized songs. When you go home [after recording those tracks], can you sit down and be like, “This is what I actually believe in.” Do you think your man actually wants to hear this? I feel like no one always feels like that. With “FWU,” I was just like, “This is how I genuinely feel in a relationship.”
Styling by Daniel Buezo