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Kehlani: future shock

With the dance moves of a diva and the fearless attitude of a punk, Kehlani is the tatted-up face of future pop – here’s why she’s already inspiring Rihanna-level devotion

Taken from the autumn/winter 2015 issue of Dazed:

Flipping her hip-length hair against tattooed arms, Kehlani looks as much like a riot grrrl as she does the face of R&B’s future. It’s soundcheck at New York’s Highline Ballroom, and the 20-year-old, wearing an oversized basketball jersey over adidas track pants, is miming her choreography in complete silence, bouncing to an imaginary beat and hitting every noiseless note. Her backup dancers flank her like a phalanx, straddling cheap fold-out chairs with arms outstretched like angel wings. Kehlani is an athletic dancer, jerking one part of her body – her torso, say – while the others stay in perfect position. She’s stone-faced and focused, practicing by herself even when her dancers take breaks to check their phones, snapping her fingers and hollering at them to get back in line. After a life of pulling herself up by the boot straps, she’ll be damned if she makes one stray move.

During the routine, there’s drama when her team discovers some obsessive messages she’s been receiving from a local fan on social media. Her manager, David, seems panicked, sharing photos of the guy with the venue’s security to make sure he can’t get through. This type of alarm is not new for Kehlani. She’s been criss-crossing the country in a modest Sprinter van on a US tour – her biggest since the release of her two mixtapes of sparkling, empowered R&B-pop – and things have been getting heavy with her adoring public. At a recent stop in Toronto, a fan passed out. In that same city, someone found out where she was staying, showed up at her hotel and had to be escorted from the premises. This might seem odd, when you consider Kehlani has yet to perform on national television or release an album (it’s coming in early 2016). Overzealous fans are typically more of a problem for the Beyoncés and Rihannas of the world, but the rapture Kehlani inspires in her devotees is very real.

At a meet-and-greet shortly after soundcheck, a line of grinning fans, mostly young women, wait patiently in the heat to take a selfie with their idol and bring her gifts of stuffed animals and drawings they’ve made of her. Today, Kehlani looks like a tattooed tomboy Frida Kahlo, with a new hairdo that hangs down her back like a mermaid’s. In front of an illustrated poster of her face, the fans pose, smile, snap and joke with her like she’s their best friend, before shuffling off to upload their photo.

Kehlani’s brand of approachability can cause problems. “All of my DMs on Twitter are filled with suicide notes,” she says. “I don’t know what to do any more. I know it means something to them, for them to freak out the way they do. It’s not a general freak-out, it’s an, ‘Oh my God, I have to tell you how much you saved my life’ freak-out.”

The pandemonium that Kehlani provokes and the position of responsibility she holds is, in large part, down to her ‘realness’. From around the time @badgalriri started posting whatever the hell she wants on her Instagram, being ‘real’ has become a powerful currency once more in the music industry, an important goal for any young star hoping to connect with a public hungry for no filter.

One aspect of her appeal is her uncensored take on sexuality. “I hold it down for the gay girls,” she says. Last year’s Cloud 19 featured a song called “1st Position”, a sexy track that uses the ‘she’ pronoun, and Kehlani openly speaks about the fact she’s dated both men and women. “People call it bisexual but it’s just, if I like you, I like you,” she explains, before recounting a story about a past love that is surprising and powerful to hear from any on-the-rise pop star. “I had a serious relationship with a hermaphrodite” – the more PC term is ‘intersex’ – “who was forced to be a woman when he was young, and then halfway through his life realised he was a man. He got his first period with me – I had to put a grown man through female puberty.” It’s one of many stories Kehlani tells in which the emphasis is not on the drama of the moment, but the fact that she is the one looking after everyone else.

When crystallised into songs – which she writes herself – her bold realness is her greatest strength. Sonically, she flirts with the Y2K R&B hits of her childhood, and she samples and interpolates artists like Ginuwine and Lauryn Hill (she’s got a big tattoo of Lauryn’s face above her left elbow). But her words are urgent, filled with stories from real-life experiences that deal with topics that matter very much to young people: heartbreak, body image, self-respect.

Empowerment is its own kind of industry these days, and stars such as Demi Lovato and Katy Perry have ridden inspirational songs to the top of the charts. But Kehlani's lyrics are much closer in spirit to the kind of heroic, rags-to-riches rap of Drake and Nicki Minaj than any of the pop or R&B singers she gets typically lumped with. She flits breezily between rapping and singing, splitting the difference between those two hip hop superstars by mixing the cool, casual flow of Drake with the playful cockiness of Nicki. On her best tracks, like “Runnin’” and “Unconditional”, she spins her own story of perseverance into powerful self-help spirituals like a self-mythologising mini-Oprah for internet kids. You could take vodka shots to these songs or have an ugly cry to them. With her track “Alive”, a fan favourite from her 2015 mixtape You Should Be Here, it’s easy to imagine a music video in which she clenches her fists, looks to the sky, and smiles through the rain.

Kehlani’s songs and life shimmer with hard-won hope. Her father, who was part black, part Native American, was killed when she was a toddler growing up in Oakland, California. (“He was in a gang, something faulty went down, they set him up. He was fresh out of jail and trying to change.”) Her mother is Spanish, white and Filipino, and has been a drug addict in and out of jail practically all of her life. “When you’re in the real hood, sometimes that shit’s normal,” says Kehlani. “You go to school and other kids are like, ‘My mom’s not there either.’” Her mother abused crystal meth, crack and heroin, she says. They recently tried living together again after her mum was released from a stint in jail, but it didn’t work out, and they became estranged again in April.

“There’s a natural doubt that women can be smart, sexy and have a message. It’s OK to say what the fuck you want and not be afraid to get called a bitch” – Kehlani

Kehlani was raised mostly by her aunt but left the house when she was 14, couch-surfed, and sang on the street for money with a friend. She owes her immense maturity and self-sufficiency to the lessons she learned on her own. “(I was) sleeping in trap houses, having to hide my stuff when random strangers walked in, or getting banned at the grocery stores for stealing,” she says. “I thought I was street-smart, but the streets whupped my ass.” In a weird twist of fate, her hustle brought her to the 2011 finals of America’s Got Talent, as the vocalist for the group Poplyfe. They weren’t very good – kind of like a budget Black Eyed Peas mixed with Bruno Mars and 5 Seconds of Summer – but judge Piers Morgan, of all people, singled her out for her incredible voice on live TV, telling her she had “real talent” but didn’t “need the group”. He was right: Kehlani quit, and she started uploading music online and building a name for herself in the local Oakland scene. On the strength of her two self-released mixtapes, 2014’s Cloud 19 and this April’s You Should Be Here, she announced her signing to Atlantic Records in May of this year.

Where all of her ‘realness’ comes to life most vividly is on stage. Her live show is a stripped-down affair – two dancers, a DJ, producer Jahaan Sweet, and a smoke machine – but she doesn’t need much to hold the room’s attention. Wearing a Dickies jumpsuit and wrapped in purple-lit fog at her Highline show, she is enthralling. She holds the mic to the audience often throughout the night, and her fans seem to know every word, the entire room of young girls erupting in loud singing along to songs about respecting themselves. She’s transformed the venue into a church of girl power, and her fans are as fun to watch as she is. When she performs “1st Position”, her gay love song, she puts her hand to her waist and her finger to her mouth, and she’s doing it for the ladies. A young woman in the front row with glasses and short, curly hair gazes fixedly into Kehlani’s eyes like she wants to grab her, or at least ask for her phone number.

There’s something happening here, not just with Kehlani, but with an entire generation of artists, who are hellbent on enrapturing their audiences by inspiring them as much as entertaining them. Ten years ago, artists like Britney Spears openly bristled at, and then publicly collapsed under, the pressure of being role models, but now there’s a clutch of young stars building careers and armies of followers on the back of having something to say. Think of 16-year-old Hunger Games actress Amandla Stenberg calling out cultural appropriation in YouTube videos like a DIY black studies professor, teenage siblings Willow and Jaden Smith imploring their fans to stay ‘woke’ and spouting self-help philosophies, or 22-year-old Vince Staples speaking on the complex social issues of the hood better than any rapper out there.

Maybe we are finally reaping the fruits of Kanye West and Kendrick Lamar’s years of efforts to make social issues cool to talk about in music, or maybe the reality in the US of cops killing African Americans on what feels like a daily basis, and the increasingly powerful voice of the #blacklivesmatter movement both online and in the streets, makes it impossible to be anything but political. Kehlani, for her part, addressed that subject directly when she released a song written in the wake of Ferguson, 2014’s “Collect Call”, in which she makes a plea for protest and social justice.

Kehlani can’t pinpoint exactly why she and her contemporaries are so woke, but it’s exciting to have a shared sense of purpose beyond racking up platinum records. “There’s this wave of consciousness that you’re either completely on or completely off right now,” she says. “The past five years were ignorant, and now kids 13 and up are talking about politics. God wouldn’t have made me this open, wouldn’t have put me through all these things, wouldn’t have given me a voice, if it wasn’t my purpose.” She is the type of young person that makes the future seem OK.

This summer, she released a new video with Chance the Rapper for their collab “The Way”. It’s Kehlani at her sexiest yet – albeit the cool, TLC kind of sexy that pairs baggy jeans with crop tops. She and Chance grind in black-and-white in a way that evokes the sort of video a more mainstream star would make, but Kehlani is in on the joke of the tease. Sure, she lifts her fingernail seductively to her lips like every pin-up in history, but she’s got to be the first one with the words ‘have hope’ tattooed across her knuckles while doing so. For Kehlani, sex and self-respect go hand in hand.

For now, she’s busy on tour, just trying to enjoy and inspire at once, preserving her essence every step of the way to mainstream pop success. Backstage after her show, Jaden Smith is milling about, and someone pops open a bottle of Veuve Clicquot before he shouts, “Yassssss!” Kehlani is at the centre of it all, wearing heels for the first time on tour – she wanted to be on her “grown-woman shit” in New York City – and circles the room to make sure everyone is cared for, pushing aside her long hair to touch their shoulders and take selfies with them.

The next morning, at breakfast, she’ll be hurting from the show (and the heels), but when she talks about her mission, it’s clear that her dedication has to be on at all hours. “I’m still proving myself every day,” she says. “There’s a natural doubt that women can be smart and sexy and skateboard and hang out with guys and also have a message. I have to tell girls, ‘It’s OK to say what the fuck you want and not be afraid to get called a bitch.’ I’m book-smart, I’m street-smart, I’m both. It’s like, do I have to cover up? Not be tatted? Not be attractive? Not take my brains seriously? Why the hell would I stop now?”

Hair Marki Shkreli at Tim Howard Management; make-up Zenia Jaeger at The Wall Group using Chanel; nails Julie Kandalec at Bryan Bantry Agency; photographic assistants Paolo Stagnaro, Marion Grand, Daren Thomas; fashion assistant Janina Butz; hair assistant Kelly Oliphant

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