Inspiring Dream Chasers: Kehlani

Photo by Anna Victoria Best

We naturally hold the actions of artists higher than we do the people that we know in “real life”. As a music journalist I must speak to kids of around 20 years old, several times a week, but because I listen to their music and see them hopping around the world on Instagram, it never really crosses my mind that they’re as young as my girlfriend’s little brother. If anything I expect them to be more switched on, worldly and together than myself — after all they’re famous right?

Talking to Kehlani it’s very easy to forget her age. At only 21, the Oakland songstress has an unimaginable load on her shoulders. Until last year the furthest she’d ventured outside of her hometown had been Toronto, and one mixtape, You Should Be Here, suddenly had her Grammy-nominated and in the spotlight as she travelled the world, a positive role model for young people across the globe.

While I chatted to her back in January, for our Clash 100 feature, Kehlani talked about her close relationship with her fans, who she has genuine conversations with via social media, and who look up to her despite being a similar age. She also touched on the pressures of being held accountable for her actions while she navigates being a young woman with her own insecurities. She wears her vulnerability, as in her music, on her sleeve, unashamed to be real and remind us that we’re all human, and it’s okay not to be okay sometimes.

Of course, this was reinforced when in March I happened to notice that she was a trending topic on Twitter. Scrolling through the feed was harrowing, with photos of her in a hospital bed having attempted suicide, plus an abundance of comments, blog posts and articles from people forming scathing opinions about a rumoured personal situation that they weren’t qualified to speak on. In a since deleted Instagram post, she explained to her fans that she “wanted to leave this Earth.”

Since then, it seems that she’s been taking the time to recover. Instagram updates — less regular than before, but still keeping her fans up to date — have shown her taking some time out for herself in Hawaii and Jamaica, and she released a statement in the way she knows best, through song, with ‘24/7’ a couple of months ago. For the first time, we’re publishing our full interview with Kehlani from January, which captures just how inspiring she is, as she speaks on her love of UK music, relationship with her fans, social media, travelling, success and more.

We wish Kehlani all the best with her ongoing recovery.

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You were out in London at the end of last year, how was that for you?
 It was super tight, I really liked it. I thought it was going to be a lot colder. It was cold, but I thought it would be way colder. I don’t want to say that I didn’t expect to love it as much as I did, but I loved it a lot more than I thought I was going to. I enjoyed it a lot.

I saw somewhere that it was your second biggest territory. Why do you think people over here are connecting to your music so much?
 I actually have no idea about that question, because I really don’t know what makes anyone connect to my music other than personal experience and things like that. It must be a lot of little girls with the same story as me in London.

At the show you brought out a bunch of UK acts and then recently you remixed WSTRN’s single ‘In2’. How did you first hear of those acts?
 Well, WSTRN signed to the same label as me, so they were really excited to meet me. And when I went to visit the label they were like ‘Yo, we’ve been dying to meet you, we want to play you our song.’ And I became super obsessed with it. As far as everyone else I found naturally, just through fans, Internet things and the songs just being played on the radio while I was out there and stuff.

Why did you think it was important to bring them out at the show?
 Whenever I go to a city and there’s an artist that are really hot out there and I’m a fan of, either I recently became a fan or just discovered, I like to give them an opportunity to have fun and come and do a fun show, and spread their vibes to an audience they wouldn’t normally get. Of course my fans they knew all the Stormzy words and all the Krept & Konan words and things like that, but how often do you see a bunch of young girls at a Krept & Konan concert, or a Stormzy concert — because they’re not really exposed to grime music or super dark rap. So it was cool for them to be able to get to showcase that to my audience, just like if I was to go perform at one of their concerts, you wouldn’t expect to necessarily see “Kehlani” fans at their concerts. But now we’re sharing fans and switching things, and integrating them and what not.

What have you learned about yourself from travelling?
 I’ve learned that I am really strong minded and I have a lot of self-discipline. I know when I’m getting sick and losing my voice and I need to go to sleep. Or if I have a show the next day, I’m not going to party and I’m not going to drink or anything like that. We wanted to perform at our best every night so I wasn’t going to put myself in jeopardy of that, making sure that we were healthy and staying positive, staying able the whole time.

Did you have the opportunity to travel much before this mixtape?
 Not really. I went on tour with G-Eazy, that was just a national tour, but it was kind of all the smaller cities in America. This tour, I’d never been out the country before, except for Canada, so this was my first really big international trip, so it was really cool. And it was cool that I got to do it as touring, not just going on vacation.

Has seeing your music connect in other territories affected the way you’ll approach making music in future?
 Definitely. You go to all of these different places and you’re made aware of what’s being heard around the world. Because when you’re just in your country you just get used to what’s being played in your country. But I didn’t know that Europe and London especially, was this big on R&B music. I didn’t know that. You go out there and they’re still playing like Erykah Badu and Lauryn Hill on the radio. It’s like a whole ‘nother thing. I definitely think it will keep me influenced to make more worldly music since I know it’s reaching that far.

I saw an Instagram where a fan had brought an exam paper to you, they’d scored 98% on it and said they’d been inspired by you. How does it feel to have such a positive effect on people?
 It’s beautiful to know that that’s what they’re choosing to show me. It could be something crazy like a mug shot! I’m glad that I can do that for people. She said she wanted to be a doctor and go to medical school because of it. I called her out on stage and said “If you’re not a doctor by the time I come back to London, we’re going to have problems!”

What do you think it is in your music that inspires that positivity?
 It’s positive music. I’m not too crazy and if it is kind of a flexy song it always ends up being motivational. My song ‘Did I’ is a very flexed-out, kind of arrogant song on the low key. But it’s more of like “Did I hurt your feelings when I hustled like that”, it’s not like “Did I hurt your feelings when I pulled up in my shiny car, or when I made this amount of money.” It’s like did I hurt your feelings when I hustled to greatness. So I think even when it’s a little on the crazy side, it’s still influencing in a positive way.

You have such a strong relationship with your fans, where does that come from and how do you maintain it?
 I talk to them, I have regular conversations. My DM’s are filled with conversations with regular conversations with my fans. Just girl-to-girl, girl-to-guy, regular human-to-human connections. And I think it’s because I’m very open as well, they’ve known when I’m sad, when I’m happy, when I’ve gone through a break up, when I’ve made a cool accomplishment. They know every little thing, just because I’m still 20 and they’re so young — they’re around my age group or slightly younger or slightly older — so I think they just feel connected to me because they know I’m not like an adult telling them something they don’t want to hear. It’s like, they know I’m going through the same things they’re going through, so it’s relatable, it’s believable.

Photo by Anna Victoria Best

Does that power you have over people add pressure to what you record?
 It definitely adds pressure because I have to be extremely aware of things that I say. A lot of 20-year-olds aren’t as conscious, they’re like “Ok you’re twenty, you can still have fun. You can still talk about it, you can still say nobody’s holding your twenty-year-old actions accountable.” But, the way I’ve set everything up, they’re holding everything accountable for me. They’re not excusing anything from me because I’m twenty, because I’ve made it that way.

Given that you’ve deleted your account a few times now how would you describe your relationship with Twitter?
 I’m lucky that I have really really active and great fans who run all these crazy Twitters for me. There’s a bunch of cool Kehlani based Twitter pages that are updating even more than I used to update. It’s crazy. Every little thing they catch. I think I have fans who not only care about my music, but they care about me as a person. When I’m sick, they freak out, when I hurt myself, they freak out. I fell down the stairs and they lost their minds. For a lot of artists the fans just care about the music, they don’t care what’s going on in their personal lives. I’m very grateful and very blessed to have fans who actually care about me 100% all the way around.

Do you find social media difficult sometimes though?
 I mean it is. I’m a 20-year-old growing girl who’s still dealing and learning with insecurities, growing up and going through puberty still. Just things like that. And social media definitely can have … for it. Especially when you’re still in the ages of learning. I’m still a student of life, I’m still very much a learner. And it’s hard when you’re trying to learn things and there’s so many opinions around, because you want to learn, you want to grow, you want to get better — but a lot of people don’t understand those things so it’s kind of hard, it’s very combative. But you just learn to block certain things out, you learn to care about certain things and care about what matters and learn what doesn’t matter.

I saw somewhere that you said ‘Hard work beats talent’, and I wondered what made you come to that realisation?
 Well the quote is actually ‘Hard work beats talent, when talent fails to work hard.’ So what that means is there’s a thousand singing, dancing, pretty girls all over the world. But very few of them make it far enough because they don’t get up everyday and work on it and try to perfect it and get better, making sure they’re actually making music and not only work on the music side, but work on themselves. So there’s always going to be someone getting up earlier than you, and going to sleep later than you, searching for opportunities. And this is an industry where opportunities are never handed to you, doors will be opened but if you don’t step up and meet that, they’ll close real fast. And I’ve learned that because I’ve been in this industry since I was sixteen.

You’ve inspired a bunch of producers on Soundcloud to remix your tracks. How does it feel to be inspiring a new wave of musicians as well?
 I mean it’s super dope, because coming from an artist who does remixes and covers and things like that. I’m often inspired by other artists, I’m genuinely a fan, I’m a fan of music. It’s not just something that I do, I’m obsessed with it, I stay up all night looking for new artists, falling in love with new albums and stuff like that. So it’s cool to be a fan of people, and watch them become a fan of me, and then we’re fanning out over each other and it’s beautiful.

What’s a recent discovery that you’ve fanned out over?
 I mean, you know the Rihanna album came out yesterday so we’re all listening and loving that. I’m obsessed, I love her.

Photo by Anna Victoria Best

‘You Should Be Here’ is classed as a mixtape, but it’s easily good enough to have been an album. I was wondering — in your eyes — what the difference is?
 I think it’s the artist’s choice, its what they want it to be. I wasn’t in the space to be making an album, I didn’t treat it as an album, I didn’t make it as an album. I really just created some songs, made some cool artwork and we did that. I feel like making an album is like an accomplishment, it’s a privilege to make. I want to be able to say “I worked on my debut album and I did this for it, and I did this for it.” And I didn’t do that with ‘You Should Be Here’, so I feel like now I’ve got to this point and now I can call it that because I’ve done those things that I wanted to do before a “debut album”.

How is that album shaping up?
 It’s coming along really good. I’m pretty sure I’m wrapping it up.

How would you describe your recording process? Well I had a lot more thinking involved, and I had a lot more sitting down and dissecting. Really evaluating my emotions and evaluating the situations I’ve been through, and things like that.

What generally comes first for you, is it melodies, lyrics, instrumentals? How does it work?
 I usually listen to beats and then freestyle around until I find a concept. And then I’m usually really quiet and I write the whole thing and then go into the booth.

Where did you develop that technique from?
 I don’t know. I think everybody just has their knack that comes with them naturally, and I just stuck with it. I always used to play an instrument or I’d hum around, doing a lot of dumb freestyles with my friends definitely helped.

Which song that you’ve written are you proudest of so far?
 I think ‘Tore Up’ the one I did recently, I freestyled like 95% of that song and I’d never really freestyled a song before. But literally freestyled everything and then redid it, it was very vulnerable and very emotional. I’m used to being vulnerable, but not when it’s genuinely sad. It usually comes when it’s ‘Ok well I’m sad but you know I’m going to get better, I’m going to be happier.’ It was like ‘No, I’m sad and I’m going to be sad and this is how sad I am.’ So it was definitely a different type of emotional level for me.

How did it feel putting a song like that out, is there a level of fear there?
 It definitely was, just because I knew that my fans know that everything I put out is consistent with my life. I knew people would know what I was feeling once it dropped, so it was definitely a risk of ‘Now I have to deal with everybody asking if I’m okay.’ So yeah…

Obviously you have this beautiful and consistent artwork across both of the projects so far. What was the concept behind those?
 They were based on the names, Cloud 19 was me turning 19 and being on cloud 9 in my own kind of world. So he basically put me in my own planet system in the artwork. And then You Should Be Here there’s the plane from Cloud 19 in the back of the artwork. It’s me getting to another level and that ship is sailing. And me just being in a new place, but still being in my own world.

You’ve gone from busking to being a Grammy-nominated artist — what would your advice be for others trying to do the same?
 I would say that there’s going to be lots of no’s, lots of closed doors and people telling you that you can’t do it. And a lot of obstacles. That’s pretty much the way it is. There’s going to be so many obstacles, there’s going to be so many times that you want to give up. But anything is possible and you never know what could happen tomorrow. I didn’t know I was going to get certain phonecalls that changed my life, I didn’t know I was going to get the Grammy call. Or that my music has reached so far that I can go overseas. If I had given up and stopped right there I would have never even been able to pick up the phone.

What does success look like to you?
 Me and my family, and my future family, happy. Doing what I love to do everyday and being able to feed my family and my future family from it. That’s success to me. I’m not basing it off this amount of albums or X amount of money or X amount of accomplishments. I want to be extremely happy and proud of myself and able to support everyone around me.

Words: Grant Brydon
 Photography: Anna Victoria Best
 Fashion: KK Obi

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