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R&B Artist Kehlani Is on the Verge of Blowing Up

The former "America's Got Talent" finalist is selling out shows across the country and dealing with the pressures of fame for the first time.
February 26, 2015, 5:00am

Photos by Brianna Alysse

There are very few 19-year-olds who are touring the country performing at sold-out shows, but I guess that's further proof that Kehlani is special. She's come a long way since she was a top four finalist on season six of America's Got Talent, where, during her audition with her band, Poplyfe, Piers Morgan told her, "You are a very good singer… I think you've got real talent, but I don't think you need the group." In true mythology-making fashion, 16-year-old Kehlani defiantly responded: "We thought we'd show our talent by giving it an acoustic setting, but when we get into an electric set, you won't say what you just said," to the approving roar of the audience. Sharon Osbourne, another one of the judges, told her, "I think you're a star."

Five years later, Kehlani is making good on that prediction. Off the strength of a single mixtape ( Cloud 19, which Complex named one of the best albums of 2014) she's gotten co-signs from G-Eazy, PartyNextDoor, and Chance the Rapper. She just finished her first national tour. Her Soundcloud recently surpassed 10 million plays. She's a regular fixture in the top ten of Billboard's Emerging Artists chart. And her movement—the "Tsunami Mob," which has its own apparel and aesthetic—is growing by the day.

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Her appeal is refreshingly old-school: a voice that doesn't need Autotune; lyrics about happiness, love, and anti-materialism, and an unmanaged image—she has Star Wars tattoos, loves Backwoods-brand blunt wraps, and flaunts no-makeup looks on social media.

Her story is uniquely American. Her ancestry is black, white, Native American, Hispanic, and Filipino. (She's also openly bisexual.) She was born to a drug-addicted mother, and ultimately taken in by her aunt, who had to sacrifice being the first person in her family to graduate from college to raise her.

I met up with in Kehlani during her four-day tour stint in New York City and we talked about her tour, how she's dealing with success at such a young age, and her next project.

VICE: How's tour going?
Kehlani: Tour's super crazy. I've never experienced anything like this. Getting to do what I love to do, every day, back to back to back. It's crazy what can happen every day from just being in a van with the same eight people 24/7. It's cool too, because I'm becoming a businesswoman.I'm learning how to work out budgets. And I enjoy paying people. I enjoy saying, "You worked hard, let me give you this envelope today." I'm being forced to have self-discipline. I don't go to the afterparties, because I don't want to lose my voice. After the show, I don't want to watch the set and yell because I'll lose my voice. And I try to just maintain a better diet in general for my career.

My schedule is ridiculous though. I feel like the down time I have now, I just sleep. Today, I just had a chance to just walk outside. We got food and walked around the city. It was really refreshing. It was beautiful. It makes you really appreciate a simple day of vibing and smoking.

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Have you been working on your next project? What can people expect?
My next project is dropping in spring. It's called, You Should Be Here (YSBH). This is my first time saying any of this [to the media], but the whole inspiration behind it is that a lot of people are coming into my life and a lot of people are leaving my life. I'm at a point where I'm on this consistent upwards path. There's a lot of times where I'm just like, Damn, this person should be here to see this. Whether that's family, people I just met, people relationship-wise, whatever. It's like, You should be here right now. You should've been here, you could be here.

Production wise, I got a little bit more cinematic. It's a little bigger. Less samples. And I think as a woman, I'm just in a different state of mind. When I made Cloud 19, I was getting to be in a situation where I was attempting to love somebody when I didn't love myself. It was me desperately trying to get you to understand my feelings, 'cause I can only say it in song.

With this new project, I'm learning myself and loving myself. I'm making songs that have more insight to me, rather than just being dedicated to someone else. And it's about moving on. Making sure I'm fully present with who I am now, as I'm going up. 'Cause a lot of people just get crazy and lose themselves. I just want to remain grounded.

How are you navigating your success?
I stay around solid people and I talk to solid people and I pray every day.

Are you religious?
Yeah, I am. I definitely believe in God. I'm very spiritual too, so I wear a lot of healing crystals at all times. In general, I think it's just about keeping yourself in check. You can have the right people around you, and they can check you all you want, but you have to be mature enough to be receptive. Like if someone's telling you that you are being crazy, you are being cocky, you have to be mature enough to be like, "Are you serious? What did I do? Let me chill."

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I'm getting really good at that. Like someone will be getting attitude, and I'll be like, "Hey, you know this is a blessing? This tour is a beautiful thing. Yes, it's going to get stressful, but we're doing things that 19- to 20-year-olds won't ever get to do at some point." I know niggas who never left Oakland. They never left the Bay. So to be traveling across the country in a van and then going to Canada? Like, that's just crazy.

How was Canada?
Beautiful as fuck. Everyone's incredibly nice. Everyone's super beautiful. The architecture is inspiring. Artists out there, in Toronto, they have a tastefulness about them. They're like the tastemakers right now. And also, I'm legal there. So we went to the club, I got my first table, I bought my first bottle. It was tight, even though I'm not a big club person.

How are your relationships with people changing as you're experiencing success?
I think people weed themselves out. This is what [my mentor] Nick Cannon told me when he first linked up with me. He said, "You're going to get in this position where all your shit is right here in front of you. And you can literally watch what's going on. Because you're in a position of controlling it." I have my own brand now, I have my own shit now. People work for me now. So it's like, fuck. I literally have to run everything in my brain. I can't freak out about it. I have to remain completely under control at all times.

I can just peep people. They start being extra friendly. They start wanting to bring up memories on Twitter all the time. They will tweet you things they could be texting you. It's like, don't tweet me that, you have my number!

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I've had dudes who told me I was ugly and all type of shit in high school, and now they're like, "Damn you so fine, I wish I knew." I'm like, "You are so crazy!" I think with things like that you just have to think, I'm so glad this happened. This is God just shedding light, just opening my eyes. Because what if those people did come along with me, and then they'd do all type of crazy, thirsty, weird shit when things got popping.

Because this is nothing right now… Don't get me wrong, all this means the world to me. But I don't have plaques or major credits yet. I got on the Kevin Gates project, I wrote one of those records. But I need a movie placement, or something that's bigger, that's hitting the charts, that's selling X amount of copies when I drop my album. Just stuff that's factual and written down in the music world.

Have you been getting recognized on the street at all?
Yeah, it's been happening since America's Got Talent, so it's been past the weird factor. But now it's just on heavy. Lately people have been crying when they meet me. It feels good, but it makes me cry every time. It makes me cry because they're whispering in my ear some crazy story about how I saved their life. Like, last night: This girl walks up to me, she hugs me, she starts crying on my shoulder. And then she's like, "I just want to let you know that I'm struggling with my sexuality. I thought about committing suicide. And then you came along as a singer who's making bisexual music…" And she was like, "Your mixtape gave me hope and taught me what I deserve, taught me my self-worth… I can't thank you enough cause it really saved my life…"

I was in tears. I gave her my email when I signed her poster and said, "You can email me if you want to talk. Coming out is a hard process, but I'll walk you through it." I was fortunate that my auntie was very accepting.

How does your aunt feel about what's been going on?
She's so excited, because my auntie is the reason I'm anything. She's the reason I'm alive. Like, I'd be in some foster care wilding out if it wasn't for her. She put me in all the art classes. She told me I could do whatever I wanted to do in life. She's not extremely financially stable and she's not able to provide a bunch to all her kids, and sometimes she's like, Damn what's my purpose? And I'm like, "You realize you gave birth to me and you raised me and you trained me to go to against the world?"

Without her, I probably wouldn't even be writing these songs. I wouldn't be able to see the world how I see it if she didn't give me the glasses. The effect I have on other kids, the fact that they can look at me like that, is how I looked at her when she was teaching me these lessons that I'm using directly in my songs. Everything comes from her.

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