Kehlani opens up to Roxy Bourdillon about sexuality, serenity and survival

BY ROXY BOURDILLON, IMAGE BY ARTURO TORRES

Kehlani is a Grammy-nominated R&B powerhouse who scored a dizzying 753 million Spotify streams last year alone. Kehlani is a cutting edge queer icon with a back catalogue including sapphic-drenched smash hit Honey (“I like my women like I like my honey; sweet, a little selfish”). And, when I speak to her one late February evening on a transatlantic Skype call, Kehlani is abundantly, radiantly, in her own words, “ready to pop”.

Of course, I’ve seen her pregnancy all over social media. She’s been lovingly recording every moment of each trimester, sharing resplendent “preggo” selfies like a modern day fertility goddess with added swag. “I’m in the spotlight,” she explains pragmatically. “People are gonna go out of their way to figure my life out anyway. I’d rather I control it. It’s been pretty cool.”

She has a soothing, grounded aura that I suspect isn’t merely a by-product of impending motherhood. Her answers are articulate, philosophical and wise beyond her 23 years. When I bring up the backlash her baby news garnered from some disgruntled gay fans, she is frank but serene. “There’s a lot of internalised homophobia within the queer community,” she begins evenly. “Me and my partner faced a lot of that, a lot of bi-erasure and misunderstanding. I don’t place the blame on anyone. We weren’t super offended. We kind of understood why people could possibly be upset on their own terms, not that we really did anything. All we did was love and create a baby.”

Her willingness to discuss such matters openly and without prickling puts her in prime position to enlighten her 7.3 million Instagram followers on the nuances of sexuality. She conscientiously uses her platform to remind us all of certain irrefutable truths: lesbians aren’t the only women who love women, queer folk have babies too, and no-one else gets to define your identity.

“After Honey, people gave me a label I never gave myself and got mad when I didn’t fit into it. At the end of the day, people are going to take things as they take things. I understand the harsh realities queer people face, especially queer women, especially lesbian women. I can never be mad at somebody for being a little defensive about such a sensitive topic.”

Kehlani, who for the record describes herself as “queer and pansexual”, has the word “fluid” tattooed across her collarbone. “I’m definitely on the non-binary scale,” she muses. “But I still prefer and am totally fine with the pronoun ‘she’. My energy has always been extremely fluid between masculine and feminine so that’s why I use ‘queer’, and also, queer is inclusive to non-binary people.”

So if her desire isn’t restricted by gender, what is it that attracts her to another soul? “Open-mindedness,” she offers. “I like when people are really unapologetically themselves. We’re all hella young so there’s going to be things we get insecure about, because we’re thinking about what other people are thinking about us. I love when people, at least at the core of their being, can say, ‘This is what I am, this is who I like, this is what I believe in’.”

I’m curious: has her fine-tuned understanding of her own identity been tough to attain? “Not internally. More of the process was me getting a lot of education on how to communicate it better, with proper language and terminology. People have embarrassment issues when getting corrected, but people need to be held accountable in order to create progress, especially when they have eyes on them.”

She insists her queerness has never held her back, acknowledging, “I’m very straight passing, I’m in a heterosexual relationship, I’m racially ambiguous and white passing. I have so much privilege in different spaces that I don’t think any of those parts hinder me. I’m not trying to be like the gay superman. I have many queer superheroes and they’re fighting way bigger fights than I am.” Those superqueeroes include intersex activist Pidgeon Pagonis, the inimitable Lena Waithe, and revolutionary pop princess Hayley Kiyoko.

As a sidenote, I tell Kehlani how much I loved her collaboration with Lesbian Jesus on the single, What I Need. Is there any chance of a reunion? “Absolutely. I told her we need to turn that video into a short film. We’re friends. When you have real connections with other artists, you can consistently create with them. It happened so naturally, it will probably happen again.”

It seems likely that Kehlani’s awe-inspiring self-acceptance has something to do with her unusual upbringing. She grew up in San Francisco Bay, which she calls “gay heaven”. “My mom is bisexual. Most of my uncles are queer. I have a lot of queer family. I remember being hella young and celebrating when gay marriage was legalised out here. My family went to Pride every year. I’m super blessed, very grateful.”

Although she’s painting an idyllic picture of her childhood, its tribulations have been well documented in the press. Her parents were drug addicts, frequently in and out of jail. Her father died when she was still a toddler and she was raised by her aunt, who she describes as “incredible, amazing”, adding, “I’m very fortunate I get to call her my daughter’s grandma”. Despite Kehlani’s admirable determination to project positivity and not dwell on the darkness of her past, I can’t get the opening lyrics of her single You Should Be Here out of my head: “I’ve felt more pain than some will in their entire lives, all before the age of even being able to buy a fucking drink in a bar.” 

Her adult life hasn’t been without hardships either. In 2016, she was hospitalised following a reported suicide attempt. At the time she wrote a chilling message on Instagram, which she later deleted: “Today I wanted to leave this earth. Being completely selfish for once. Never thought I’d get to such a low point.”

I ask what she does to take care of her mental health these days, particularly when it comes to dealing with online haters. “Of course sometimes it does get to me. Not every single person in the world is going to understand you, your art, your purpose. I just have to keep in mind there are people who love me who are solely focussed on supporting me and my wellbeing. Those are the people all of us should be focussed on in life. Who’s loving us? Who’s supporting us? Who’s feeding us?”

Right now, her primary concern is her unborn child, the eagerly awaited and exquisitely named Adeya Nomi. But human life isn’t the only thing she’s been creating of late. Ever the artist, even while heavily pregnant Kehlani has been honing her dreamy new mixtape, the aptly titled While We Wait, writing songs, making videos, doing endless promo. I’m unspeakably impressed, but I can’t help wondering… isn’t she, you know, knackered? On the contrary, she assures me her pregnancy only spurs her on to achieve even more. “It gives me motivation. I want her to be proud of me. I want her to have everything she needs in this world. I gotta work for her as hard as I can.” I think it’s this combination of strength and softness, ferocity and fragility, both in her music and her approach to life, that makes Kehlani so appealing.

Before I let her get back to being a musician and mother-to-be, I ask what advice she’ll give her daughter. Her response is typically sage and savvy: “To be unafraid to be herself. I want her to be really comfortable with communicating, practise healthy boundaries and let people know what she needs in the world.” What kind of parent does she plan to be? “A happy one, a good one, a supportive one. I don’t think kids need much more than that.”

This interview first appeared in the April 2019 issue of DIVA – grab your digital copy right here!

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