Interviews

How Kehlani Was Reborn Through Doing ‘Real Person Shit’

We spoke to the rising R&B star about tarot cards, her DMs and what it's like to embrace both the good and bad of social media fame.

by Daisy Jones
27 January 2017, 12:48pm

It's 2PM on a Wednesday afternoon and Kehlani can barely keep her eyes open. She's curled up on a sofa in an oversized yellow sweatshirt, her head propped between an array of squishy cushions, her short hair standing up in different directions like she's been prematurely awoken from a nap. "I'm so jetlagged," she tells me, stifling a yawn as she stands up and gives me a casual introductory hug. "What time is it?"

We're in a small office space at Atlantic Records, tucked down a quiet street in west London. The room is decorated in framed gold discs (Led Zeppelin, Missy Elliott, Ed Sheeran), and most of the walls are made from glass, which gives you the disconcerting ability to see what everyone in the building is doing at any given moment. Scattered on the furry rug next to Kehlani are unopened shoe boxes and plastic-wrapped designer tracksuits. "It's crazy that free shit gets given to the people that need it least," she says, gesturing to the parcels when she clocks me staring. "I get it though," she adds, flopping back down on the sofa. "They want me to be seen wearing it. I'm not complaining."

Jetlag aside, I can understand why Kehlani might be feeling a little worn out. Although her album SWEETSEXYSAVAGE – out today – is technically her debut, she hasn't stopped releasing music since 2014's breakout mixtape Cloud 19 put her on the map as one of R&B's most interesting new voices. This past year in particular has seen her rise from underground sensation with a core group of fans, to an artist who occupies the mainstream. These days, she skims the Billboard 100 and makes tracks with Zayn Malik and Justin Bieber. It's a position she welcomes, but one that's caused quite a few issues as well. 

Last March, for instance, Kehlani found herself targeted by a wave of trolls online. They accused her of cheating on an ex-boyfriend following a mix-up on Instagram, and the abuse eventually got so bad it unsurprisingly took a serious toll on her mental health. It was around this time she shared an Instagram post that shocked her fans. 

"As of today, I had no single wish to see tomorrow," she wrote, captioning a photo of an IV drip in her arm. "But God saved me for a reason, and for that… I must be grateful.. Cuz I'm not in heaven right now for a reason." The upsetting incident, which was covered extensively online, raised questions about privacy and accountability. Why should Kehlani have to deal with cyberbullying just because she makes music in the public sphere? At what point are the boundaries of social media pushed too far? What can we do to better protect the mental health of those in the music industry?

For the most part, though, Kehlani speaks about social media in a positive way. As we're talking, I notice her idly flip her iPhone around her fingers, occasionally glancing at its screen. One thing she is renowned for – other than her divine, 00s-style R&B voice and enviable dance moves – is her prolific online fan base. Unlike artists like Beyonce, Harry Styles or Frank Ocean, she doesn't shy away from sharing her every thought and movement online, and through this, she has fostered an open and honest relationship with her fans. "There have been times when I give people advice, like I helped this girl tell her parents she's transgender. And this girl's girlfriend was thinking about doing some crazy shit to herself, so I intervened with that. Anything I can help with, it's like, why not? I've got five minutes sitting on my phone, so why not use them?"

However, she admits the intensity of it all can sometimes weigh her down, so she has to set herself emotional boundaries. "I have a person who DMs me every single day and says 'Day 1; Day 2; Day 3,' like a diary and I don't respond – I don't want to get into it," she says, sighing. "I don't always check my DMs because I'm really sensitive to energy, and there's some crazy shit in there that I don't want to think about all the time. If it's ongoing, my feelings get involved, and I'm thinking about it outside of my phone. I've got to be carrying that around the whole time, because I carry everything."

The hardest battle Kehlani faces is one that's common among people in her position: balancing being a pop star in the public sphere, with finding time to focus on self care and staying grounded. "I knew that after I moved away from LA, I needed to go somewhere I could do 'real person shit', you know what I mean?" she tells me. "Moving to New York was about that. I like to walk around, ride bikes, I get on the train every day, I have a local coffee shop that I fuck with, I go to the bookstore; shit like that. It helps me feel like a person. So that's my route outside of music: self care." 

I ask whether doing "real person shit" has made her feel more positive, in the long run. "I feel like I'm a whole new person," she nods, reflecting on the past few months. "I was so anxious last year. I thought I wanted to be the biggest rock star in the whole world and pull up in stretch limos and have mansions and pet tigers and shit. But this year I'm like 'damn' – I want a farm and a family and I'm cool with my two-bedroom apartment. I pay my mum's rent and that makes me happy. At the end of the day, everything that happened shaped my perspective, and I think it also made my creative process easier."

If you thought a challenging year would have resulted in a downbeat album, you'd be wrong; the tracks she's released so far have been uplifting – celebratory, even. "You showed up to see me lose / but I overcome so you overcame," she sings on single "CRZY" (below), her voice gliding over a sparkling, luminous melody and laidback beat. The video shows her and her mates dancing joyfully beneath a blue sky, the sun setting behind the palm trees as they sink their teeth into birthday cake and drink from red cups. It's a dreamy visual that has the rose-tinted aesthetic of a cherished memory in action.

I wonder whether the rest of her album follows the same tract. "This one has some serious, Kehlani-like stuff, but it's a lot more fun than any of my other projects," she says. "I write everything parallel to my life – so there's half an album from before I went through a big change, and then half an album from after. But what I realised when I put it together is that it all sounds like after shit went down." 

On another track "Table" – a fun link up between Kehlani and north London rapper Little Simz –her lyrics reveal an artist with an unswerving belief in herself. "I know I'm not no messiah, and I am far from a prophet / but if the earth set on fire, I think I know how to stop it," she sings over the smooth drum pattern and twinkling samples, while Little Simz interjects with some straight-talking affirmations of her own. At one point, in the video, Kehlani pops her collar and stares straight at the camera; "I know what I bring to the table," she sings, her eyes catching yours for a second. It's a powerful statement from a person who understands what it means to overcome struggle. "I write as therapy for myself," she tells me, sinking her head further into the cushions that surround us on the sofa. "So half the time I write as I'm getting over something. I don't know how to write sad songs because they all [act as] affirmations to me."

Like myself and pretty much every other young person right now, Kehlani is big on astrology. When I get onto the subject of horoscopes, for instance, she immediately sits up and becomes more animated. "I'm a Taurus sun, Pisces moon and Cancer rising," she tells me, her eyes gleaming. I ask her what that means exactly. "I'm just a hot mess," she snorts. "All my signs are super emotional, super sensitive and extra. It's like I have normal emotions times 1,000; so yeah, I'm just a ball of feelings."

Our discussion about horoscopes quickly turns into expressing a mutual love of tarot cards. As it turns out, Kehlani had her tarot cards read just a few days before our conversation. "She was on point!" she tells me, clapping her hands together. Did it go well? "I didn't want to tell her shit about myself because I thought, 'if this is legit I'm not telling you shit', but she was like: 'you're a mass healer of some kind. I can tell that most of your energy is given to other people so you need to work on saving that for yourself'. She also said my biggest problem was that I don't decompress anything. I end up carrying the stress of life until it affects everything; from how I eat, to my health and shit like that. And she'd be right, to be honest." 

Most importantly, though, what did the tarot card reader see in her future? "She said that throughout my life I didn't follow my path because my path followed me. She said I have great intuition," she says, adding: "She [also] said that whatever I'm doing right now is what I'm meant to be doing and it's just divine. I was like, 'that's the greatest shit I ever heard!' She basically just told me that I'm doing what the fuck I'm supposed to be doing and to keep doing it so it was cool to get confirmation." 

In some ways, it can be easy to forget that Kehlani is just 21 – the same age most Americans are when they first start drinking legally. She's already travelled around the world, been nominated for a Grammy and released more singles than years she's been alive. She's also experienced more highs and lows than a lot of people her age; her story is one of overcoming obstacles, owning her success, and finding immense power in both her creativity and vulnerabilities. But Kehlani is no victim: to her, there is no struggle that wasn't worth it in the end. "Every single situation that has even been absolutely horrible has taught me things that I needed to know and made me the way I needed to be. If I hadn't gone through the most terrible relationships of my life, for instance, I'd probably be in bad relationships forever instead of recognising signs from the beginning that people can be trash." 

"Sometimes, I think I should handle things better," she adds. "But I don't really care anymore... you mess up, and then people just care about something else the next day, it doesn't really matter. People overthink all sorts of shit, don't they? Just be yourself."

You can talk to Daisy about your tarot card readings on Twitter.