Kehlani didn’t know any more than we did this spring, when she named her album, It Was Good Until It Wasn’t. Or when she shot the album art, which shows her on her tip-toes peeking over her backyard fence at home to the outside world and, on the back side, looking wide-eyed before a backdrop of ruin. But by the time the COVID-19 lockdown spilled over into nationwide protest, it looked like prophecy.
“Maybe I'm secretly a fortuneteller. I don't fucking know,” Kehlani says, throwing one hand up in the air and shaking her head at the accuracy of it all. The other hand is holding her phone, which she’s using for our Zoom video call. She has just pulled into her driveway in Los Angeles and is rushing through rooms, trying to find a private place to talk in a house full of family.
In addition to capturing the collective mood of 2020, It Was Good Until It Wasn’t foreshadowed, for Kehlani personally, the months since its release. She’s celebrated big wins – the album went No.1 on the R&B Billboard charts and became her bestselling project to date – and mourned major losses, like the deaths of rappers Lexii Alijai and Chynna Rogers from accidental overdoses, and Ryan Bowers, who died by suicide less than a week before our interview.
“I just lost my third friend this year and it's only been half the year,” Kehlani says, putting the delicate topic out there in her open book way. “So, that's been strange, just processing that, but also just trying not to feel guilty, has been the hardest thing.”
Reaching new heights of success while the world falls apart can breed a level of remorse. Couple it with losing friends too young — after having survived one’s own suicide attempt, as Kehlani did in 2016 — and you have a recipe for a strong batch of survivor’s guilt. But Kehlani is a fighter, and she’s been working hard to make sure that her grief doesn’t become counterproductive.
“I've had to almost develop this relationship with death that I kind of always had... of really being conscious about what I do while I’m here,” she says. She’s settled on top of her bed, where she can keep her phone charging during our conversation. Leaning back in a baggy T-shirt, fresh-faced with minimal makeup and her black curls pulled back into a low bun, she goes on to explain that her deepest fear is being on her deathbed with a bunch of regrets about life. As a result, she’s been leaning into what brings her joy.
“I've been able to identify the difference between what is feeding my ego and what is feeding my soul,” she says. “Understanding that I feel fuller longer after things like seeing my family on holiday versus how I feel after I buy myself something.”
Lately, what makes her feel full is recreating the moments from her childhood she loved most – watching the adults enjoy good food, wine, and conversations full of belly laughs while the kids would sneak back and forth between the adult table and their own mischief. Only now she’s the adult hosting, in her own backyard, and it’s her daughter playing on the trampoline with the other kids. “That's what keeps me going," she says.
Kehlani’s philosophy of loving out loud also explains why the details of her romantic life so often wind up in the press. At 25, she’s already gone through a few very public breakups, most recently with rapper YG in February, because she loves deeply and doesn’t believe in editing her life for the comfort of others. It’s something she addresses on IWGUIW, which covers the highs, lows, and contradictions of “it’s complicated” love with remarkably vulnerable lyrics and seductively produced tracks. “I ain’t ever been a half-ass lover,” she states plainly on “Everybody Business.”
“There's been some people that are always like, ‘You're always in a relationship and we just see you do this and this and this.’ And I'm just like, ‘Why aren't you going out and experiencing things?’” she says. “I'm not hurting anyone. I'm not hurting myself. I'm bringing myself joy. I'm not holding back because I really understand time. I try to go spend as much time thoughtfully creating those moments as I can.”
Kehlani throws herself into everything — love, music, family, activism — with the same intensity. It’s what makes her a compelling artist and an irresistible social media follow. But it also makes you worry about her a little. How does a young, Black, queer mother and artist cope with losing friends too soon, with a way of life stolen by COVID, with Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, and the innumerable other Black lives lost to racism, in front of a live audience of 11 million followers and critics?
“When I do feel it, which I do, acknowledging that I have a way to assist others is the biggest balance for me,” she says. “There's literally nothing that feels better than being of some type of service. So when I hit the point of ‘I’m feeling all of this’ I find it helpful to acknowledge that I can do shit about it in other ways.”
While she admits to craving the occasional quiet bubble bath or silent drive to clear her mind, acts of service is clearly her love language. “I just dropped off some bath salt and CBD to a bunch of the homies the other day who were out protesting and got arrested, and their bodies were all sore,” she says. “So even being able to know that I can't show up for this protest because there's a lot of exposure to people and I don't want to bring a virus home to my baby, but what I can do is go take care of the people who've been protesting, is helpful.” She keeps close ties to her hometown of Oakland, donating her time and money to the organizations stepping up to feed the homeless following the cutback of shelter services amid the pandemic. Her manager even had to put a cap on her Cash App and Venmo out of fear that her generosity would get in the way of her financial responsibilities at home, like paying her mom’s rent and taking care of the host of people on her team that depend on her.
Talking about her activism, Kehlani never comes off as performative. You can tell she feels other people’s pain as if it were her own. “Toyin [Salau] I think hit me the hardest,” she says of the 19-year-old Black activist who was found dead in Florida after she tweeted about being sexually assaulted. “‘Cause she was out there fighting for the very life of the person that took her off this planet.” Aaron Glee later confessed to kidnapping, raping, and killing Salau after she went missing June 6.
The death of a young BLM activist at the hands of a Black man hit on a wound within the community, around the role the violence against Black women plays in the overall movement. It’s not lost on Kehlani that, as Black and queer woman, she is part of two of the most unprotected groups in America.
“There has to be some type of real step of accountability from inside the community,” she says. “If we're really asking for [police and prison] abolition, we’re asking for the eradication of the people that are supposed to protect us, which means ... we're going to have to have our own systems developed within our community. That has to start now. That protection, that sharing, that let me reach out, let me help with this. How can I be a service? That has to start now. And that has to come with some sense of protecting our most vulnerable, protecting our children and our women and our trans women and our queer Black people.”
She’s frustrated that some of the people who support and benefit from the Black Lives Matter movement still actively showcase misogyny, homophobia, and transphobia. “How do you, in the same breath, say, 'Black Lives Matter,' then get in the fucking Shade Room and your first instinct is like, ‘Fuck Dwyane Wade's kid?’”
Earlier in the week, Kehlani’s collaborator Megan Thee Stallion revealed she had been shot in the foot during a night out with celebrities Tory Lanez and Kylie Jenner. Suddenly, the same people who were posting “protect Black women” messages were posting jokes about a Black woman who had survived a violent act. But unlike too many of her peers in the music industry, Kehlani responded with integrity and compassion. She not only made her support for Megan clear online, she also announced that Lanez, who has a verse on her album, would not be featured in the video for “Can I” or the upcoming deluxe version of IWGUIW.
How do you, in the same breath, say, 'Black Lives Matter,' then get in the fucking Shade Room and your first instinct is like, ‘Fuck Dwyane Wade's kid'?
She sees what happened to Megan as a reflection of society’s indifference toward violence against Black women, and also as a reflection of Black women’s impulse to be generous at the expense of their own safety. An impulse that Kehlani says is enhanced when you’ve recently skyrocketed into stardom. “Every new artist at some point has some type of major experience that brings you to this moment,” she says in reference to what Meg was going through. “Especially if you're coming into this with a heart of someone who has survivor’s guilt for coming from nothing, to having hella shit. All of a sudden you feel the responsibility to share it with everyone. You're like, ‘I got an open room in my house, come stay with me. I got a seat in the car, come ride with me.’ That's just how you get.” Her advice to newer artists like Megan would be to be hyper aware of the people you surround yourself with, to make sure you keep people around who see you and hold you to that.
Kehlani thinks we have to be willing to hold each other accountable and push each other forward and see the progress the next generation deserves. Her daughter, Adeya Nomi, motivates her to learn from the activists on the front line. “I want her to be able to walk around here knowledgeable, to be able to feel confident that when she opens her mouth to teach somebody else that it's accurate," she says. "So I always have to come from an accurate standpoint in order to do that for her.”
She talks openly, like someone who has grown from her rookie mistakes. She “wasn’t in love” with her first studio album, which she says came out during a traumatic time in her personal life, and she struggled to promote it. With IWGUIW, “I was ready. I was so geeked up to have gotten to this finish line of making this album that I was so proud of and had made so many plans for.” It had taken years that included battling depression and recovering from giving birth to her daughter. “I had done the [mental] work to be like, "OK, I'm ready to be outside."
Then “outside” essentially closed, and she found a new way of putting her all into the album release. She told her label she would shoot the promotional materials and music videos herself, launching Honey Shot Productions from her garage.
“I finally got to force myself into learning all these skills that I always wanted to learn,” Kehlani says. “I’d co-directed all my videos but the ‘Toxic’ video was my first time ever doing anything on my own like that.” Revisiting the five videos she’s put out since, she can “physically see the growth.”
She attributes the surge of creative courage to shifting her focus away from commercial success. “I let go of the idea that success looks one way,” she says. “There's so much abundance in this industry for us all to exist and thrive at the same time. And I'm here taking care of my family. I'm very blessed. Why am I tripping off of how far this is going to go, when I'm really just proud of the art that I made?”
Shortly before our interview, Kehlani added a string of blossoms to the collection of ink around her neck, as if giving her precious instrument the flowers we so often wait to receive from others. She says the new florals are part of her journey to clean up some of her old, regrettable tattoos and tie them all together in a way that reflects her growth and reflects how she feels inside. She’s not striving for perfection but is rather determined to find beauty in the mess.
“I wanted art on my body, versus all these really harsh, intense, randomly placed things,” she explains, caressing her new ink. “Putting it together in this way makes it flow. It feels more like me.”
Photographer: Micaiah Carter
Stylist: Yashua Simmons
Art Director: Erin Hover
Set Designer: Bette Adams
Hair: Kahh Spence
Makeup: Pircilla Pae using Pat McGrath Labs and Josh Rosebrook Skincare
Manicure: Johana Castillo
Fashion Director: Tiffany Reid
VP of Creative: Karen Hibbert
Fashion Assistant: Mark-Paul Barro