Due in part to her tomboyish swag and tight choreography, she’s been compared to Aaliyah—arguably the poster child of that era—but her influences range from D’Angelo and Musiq Soulchild to groups like Destiny’s Child, TLC, and SWV. “I feel like that’s when music was at this golden time, when people were very outspoken but also had a purpose,” she says. “So for my music, I set out with a mission statement that whatever came out of my mouth had some purpose, even if it was a trap song.”
The 15 tracks on You Should Be Here have been streamed more than 60 million times on SoundCloud, and the mixtape earned a nomination for Best Urban Contemporary Album at the Grammys—an exceptional feat for someone who’s yet to release a record on a major label. But the game is changing. “Mindie” artists (major acts with indie cred) are at the forefront of the pack, and, after signing with Atlantic Records last year, Kehlani is preparing to release a new album this spring.
“Everybody told me that I wasn’t going to make it. Tomboys were so cool, then everybody got really sexualized,” the singer-songwriter admits of her preferred ensemble of baggy pants, a cutoff shirt, and sneakers. Her style criteria is simple: “Can I lay [sic] in it? Can I walk in it?” Still, she’s not totally satisfied with what she sees in the mirror. “I started getting tattoos because I didn’t fuck with the way I looked,” she says. “I still don’t think I’m cute. I think I look like a little boy and that I’m just rough.” But Kehlani is, in fact, stunning. Her ethnicity is a combination of “black, white, Native American, and Spanish” and she has an infectious smile, bright eyes, and enviable abs.