Wish You Were Here
Breakout songstress Kehlani is repping the Bay all the way to the top.
Photos by Amanda Lopez
Kehlani Parish is drinking tea at Blast Off Studios, 10 minutes away from the epicenter of New York City. It’s late. Inside the blue-lit studio B, the Oakland native is finishing a track from her latest project, You Should Be Here, with the help of her go-to producer Jahann Sweet. Her hair is pulled back and still has hints of purple in its wavy strands. Her multi-colored BAPE hoodie unzips to reveal a loose T-shirt as she opens her mouth and sings. As she lays down her vocals, her sheer talent takes every soul by surprise. Kehlani is a singer. As simple as that sounds, there aren’t many who can wear that title without the various technicalities, asterisks, and parentheses that accompany those who lack some component of the total package. Without the benefit of any studio magic, Kehlani is a songstress at her core with a gift for manipulating confessional lyrics into heartmelting vibrations.
Kehlani isn’t a household name—not yet at least. Her image is far from typical: arms and body are covered with tattoos, including one on the side of her face that she says people hardly notice. What people do notice is her energy, wit, cohesive musical presence, and fearlessness. Her openness about her bisexuality is striking to many and has resulted in a few threats while on tour—largely due to the girl-on-girl subject matter in her song “First Position,” from her mixtape Cloud 19.
Cowardice was never an option. Her father was tragically murdered when she was a child, and for a large portion of her life, her mother was involved in drugs. She captured the heart of America’s Got Talent host Nick Cannon as the lead singer of teen band Poplyfe. Bolting through Season 6 with Kehlani singing covers of songs by Cee Lo Green and Queen, the band made it all the way to fourth place during the finals, but Kehlani’s dreams of stardom would be put on hold. Just a year after appearing on the show, she was homeless. Cannon intervened, getting her into a recording studio and soon signed her to his label. She’s miles away from Poplyfe now, and worlds ahead of most 19-year-olds in terms of maturity. Resting on the floor, Kehlani is feverishly debating with her manager David about an interpolation in a track she’s just recorded. The small studio becomes a courtroom of debate. She’s steadfast in her opinion and threatens to leak the tape if she’s not able to keep the track on You Should Be Here. It’s clear that nothing matters more to Kehlani than her music. Her life’s journey has shaped her into a generational
spokesperson and she wears her scars as proudly as her tattooed portrait of Lauryn Hill. Before embarking on the next leg of the journey, Kehlani took time out to share a few thoughts on the road ahead. Both a lover and a fighter, this singer might just wind up being called a leader. It’s a title she could get used to.
Mass Appeal: You’re about to drop your second project, You Should Be Here. Who is the “You” in the title?
Kehlani: It’s from many different angles. I’m hitting this beginning of what I consider to be my rise, I’m losing people—and it’s only the beginning. I’m losing friends who are fucked up. I’ve lost family members. My relationship status has changed. It’s also a reference to myself. Making sure whenever I go, or get where I’m tryna get, or reach any of my goals, that I’ll always remain who I am right now and always have my present self with me at all times.
So the title means “You,” whoever that person is, should be here for my come-up?
Yeah. Some is positive and some is negative. In terms of my family members—who either passed or aren’t in my life anymore—they
should be here. Some of it is real spiteful like, you know, exes or friends that I’ve lost. Like,
“You coulda been here.” I felt I took it on a journey. I start out with kinda talking about my current situations, with me dealing [with being on] the road, me dealing with people acting different. I get personal. I take it to where I’m from and things that I’ve been through as a child. I go to the present and even the future on some like, “What am I doing now? What do I look forward to? Where am I with my heart and my mind?” It’s just very personal, where my last project was very broad.
You said you talk about your family. Do you talk about your mom on YSBH?
I have a very personal song dedicated to my mom on this project. She actually just got outta jail a couple of days ago, so she hasn’t seen me in a while.
What was it like growing up in Oakland? How does Oakland, as a city, influence the sounds coming out of it?
I mean, it’s the hood. It makes you who you are. Anybody from the hood gon’ tell you
the same thing. Everything has a story, and Oakland definitely has a very unique story. It’s not just hood, but there’s a soul to it. There’s artistic presence. There’s revolutionary presence. We’ve had so many influential revolutionary things happen there. The Black Panthers started in Oakland. We had Occupy Oakland, which was very influential. The movement when Oscar Grant got shot and we all protested. Oakland has a really [big] heart.
Is that present in the music?
I feel like it’s not present directly in a sense where we’re writing lyrics that directly talk about these things, but it’s shaped us. It’s given us this bulletproof vest, so we’re fearless when we make music. It’s given us a heart that can touch people. It gives us a sense of integrity when making music. People aren’t just making tracks. They’re making stuff from people who obviously have a good sense of self.
How do you have a good sense of self at 19?
I feel like I’ve always had a good sense of self. I think it’s how I’ve been able to get tattoos since I was 16, and now I’m 19 and I have the same beliefs, and I agree with what my tattoos say, ‘cause it means I know who I am. I’ve always known who I was. I feel like some people are blessed to have it and some people don’t—it’s just like common sense.
Can you tell me what happens when you perform “Tell Your Mama?” I understand that fans have booed you?
Yeah they do, it’s crazy. Pretty much, before I do that song…it’s funny because the reason I do that song is even crazy because I usually don’t play that on tour. We were going into these cities where I was really getting warnings from fans. We were in the South and I was getting warnings from fans like, “Don’t play ‘First Position’ here because we don’t respect it, blah, blah, blah.” I was like, “Okay, word. Let me switch it out for another song just to be safe.” I have other people’s lives in my hands while I’m on tour…about eight of us…let me not risk anybody’s safety. So I played “Tell Your Mama,” and I told everybody to pull out their phones. Mind you, everyone in the audience already has their phone out, so it’s really not that big of a task that I’m asking anyone to do. I’m not specific, just text anybody that you love in your contact list that you love them. All of a sudden I get all these boos. I’m just like, “Why is it so hard to do that? Why is it the hardest task in the world—when your
phone is already in your hand and texting takes two seconds, and you guys know you’re on your phone all day anyway.” It just seemed like it was so hard for people. You never know what someone’s going through, and a simple “I love you” could change their entire day, you know? People have been stopped from committing suicide. People have been stopped from seriously hurting themselves. I feel like all we need is love, and the world really revolves around this shit and people are really sucking it dry.
Do you want to change that?
Yeah. I wanna change a lot of things. I think that it all comes from treating each other in better ways. It all comes from accepting people, and the root of that is all love. I feel like everyone makes it this big deal, like you have to be a hard ass, and it’s so rare when I tell somebody I love them. It takes two seconds.
In your Billboard interview with BJ The Chicago Kid, you talk about Cloud 19 not having “done its job” yet. Do you still feel that way now?
I don’t think it’s ever going to officially do its job. It’s doing its job every day, but I feel like people are going to be discovering it every day. People send somebody a link every day. People put somebody on every day. People hit me up like, “Wow, I just discovered your mixtape.” Little do they know, it was out six months ago. That’s just how music works. That’s how life works. People broaden their musical horizons daily. I find a new artist that’s [been] poppin’ right now for two years every day. There’s kids right now that are going to be hearing the Lauryn Hill album for the first time, and it’s because it’s not their generation.
Speaking of Lauryn Hill, what women do you support?
Man, Beyoncé. And it took me so long to really come full circle with my opinions about Beyoncé.
Word. Everyone has so many opinions about Beyoncé. She’s either too sexualized or—
I think what it was is I was raised listening to the music of women who were very apparent with their beliefs and apparent with who they are personally, like India Arie and Jill Scott. All those women were like…you could tell their personality. You could feel their soul in their music—it just reeked through. And Beyoncé, I feel like she was always just this bomb-ass artist. To me, it was never like I personally felt any pain she was going through, or I understood what she was dealing with, or I grew with her in a sense of, “Wow, I can remember when Beyoncé was heartbroken and I heard this song. I can remember when Beyoncé healed up and got a new dude. I can remember when she was happy with Jay Z and dropped this song.” Stuff like that. But on the flip side, she’s the hardest working woman in music and the most influential. As far as live performances and entertainment, she’s the one…She’s it, and I feel like [she’s] the role-model-perfectprototype for an entertainer. She’s the greatest to do it since Michael Jackson.
What are you trying to do as an artist to have a similar impact?
My goal with that is I’m tryna show kids that when they’re interested in multiple things, get good and explore all that shit. Just ‘cause you can sing doesn’t mean you just have to sing.
That’s difficult. When you’re multitalented you think, “Where do I devote all of my time?”
Yeah. I mean the thing is…I think people have this weird cockiness about them right now where they’re afraid to be great at multiple things. I think it’s talked about to be a good performer. Everybody wants to be this weird stand-at-themicrophone and do this weird hipstery type shit. But yeah, I don’t know. They’re just not being genuine right now. It’s so cool to be different and weird and spacey and awkward, but I don’t know. It’s whatever the vibe is. I just think I’m tryna show people it’s fine to be an entertainer. You can live your full potential in every aspect of yourself.
I was watching a clip of Rosenberg’s interview with HBK’s Iamsu! and he was asking about you. Did you reach out to him?
Yeah. I actually made a clip and put it on Instagram. I met Rosenberg at that show that he was talking about, when he came to my show and he saw the booking agents there. He came to my New York show and he was just like, “Yo. You see all these people in this room? They’re here for you. All these labels all these agents they’re here.” I was like, “Woah, thanks. You’re Peter Rosenberg.”
You’ve been singing all your life. Now that you’re in a position where you have so much control, is the responsibility overwhelming?
I feel like if it’s what you wanna do and it’s what you love to do, nothing is overwhelming because it’s going to motivate you. It just makes me wanna go harder and bring in more. It just lets me know I’m on the right track.