Kehlani, In Full Bloom
NYLON's November 2018 cover profiles musician, activist, and innovator Kelani about her career and her recently announced pregnancy.
Gasping loudly and clutching my armrest wasn't exactly what I expected to be doing while 35,000 feet in the air, hurtling back toward New York from Los Angeles after shooting the cover story for this issue, but I couldn't help it—Kehlani elicits that kind of reaction. This time, the 23-year-old musician, activist, and app innovator had shocked me—along with her more than six million Instagram followers—with the announcement of her pregnancy. Now, you can add mother to be to the ever-expanding definition of what it means to be Kehlani.
As surprised as her followers must have been by the news, I was even more so. I had spent the day before with Kehlani and her team at an auto body shop in Santa Clarita, where she had modeled five different Western inspired looks. But then, as soon as the shock wore off, I found myself thinking, Of course, she was pregnant. How had we not realized? While her pregnancy wasn't visible to us, and she was mostly swathed in sweaters and jackets, anyway, Kehlani—from the moment she walked on set to the second she left—carried herself with such a calm power and confidence that, in hindsight, it's easy to attribute her energy to that of a woman about to announce that she's having a daughter.
Kehlani is deeply aware of how her pregnancy fits not just into her own life but into the larger cultural landscape—a culture that she herself is shaping through her music and the way she uses her large platform to address issues she's passionate about. And as a queer woman of color in the spotlight, she knows firsthand how identity impacts everything from what strangers project on you to the kind of medical care you receive. With a sophisticated understanding of institutionalized systems of power and inequality, Kehlani is prepared to discuss those issues with the same bravery that she's approached her entire life.
As her fans anxiously await her forthcoming album—Kehlani says it will be “the realest piece of art I've ever created"—she is also focusing on the myriad other things she prioritizes in her life: the sustainability app, Flora, she's just launched; utilizing her considerable platform to promote the work of activists; and, of course, preparing for the arrival of her daughter. Kehlani isn't just working on a career, she's working toward a dream: To live on a farm surrounded by “land, plants, animals, and babies." And we have no doubt that it will all flower into being, beautifully.
Below, read Kehlani's thoughts on her fans' expectations of her, the ways in which social media can still be used for good, and the advice she will one day give her daughter.
On whether or not the career she has now is the one she imagined for herself
I imagined a lot less attention. Playing shows around the world, going home and being with family. Running a farm, tending to a bunch of animals, and always surrounded by babies and elders with crazy stories. My reality is far crazier than that at the moment. I'm pretty much under a microscope with a lot less freedom than I want personally, but I am super blessed in ways I didn't imagine either. I'm on my way to being surrounded by land, plants, animals, and babies. One day I'll be able to afford my dream farm.
On her development as an artist
I think my music has grown tremendously. Any storyteller's tales become more colorful as they explore new parts of themselves personally. I'm always having new experiences that inspire new stories. I will constantly evolve, and so will my music.
"Misunderstanding, judgment, smear campaigns, and binding expectations are really an inescapable part of the common human experience."
On the launch of her new wellness app, Flora
Flora is a shortcut for people who have trouble accessing the information needed to contribute to environmental and individual wellness. In this rapidly moving digital age, information often gets warped and diluted to its least effective form. Flora's main focus is curating and grouping the most helpful and convenient tips, advice, and routines to make our contributions to sustainability more enjoyable and easy on the mind and heart. I think the most important aspect of the app is that we offer a lively, completely inclusive community that's geared toward forming positive life patterns and habits, totally free of judgment. The three of us [Reid Williams and Alaxic Smith] are “save the world" freaks, and the idea for Flora surfaced in the blink of an eye. We faced a lot of challenges as a small team with a larger-than-life concept that needed a lot of revisions, detailing, and consistent updates. We've found a nice rhythm, though, and we're still perfecting it as we go.
On the power of social media to make the world a better place
I focus on doing what I can. Whether it's sharing resources, information, small businesses, or people with smaller audiences and engagements, it's imperative to amplify not only their services but their voices as well. I'm moved on a daily basis by far too many people to compartmentalize my admiration into a list. I'm inspired by virtually any marginalized person pushing the envelope back in the face of a status quo that gives them every reason not to. There's an ever-present darkness in our physical and digital world today; it comes with a lot of doubt and even perpetual fear and anxiety for a lot of people. So I commend and stand with anyone who can wake up every day and say yes to being better than the oppressive people and circumstances that attempt to box them in.
On what activism means to her
My understanding of activism changed from thinking only physical activism—marching, boycotting, striking—was valid. There are so many people working hour to hour within publications, local committees, or their respective professional fields to shift the paradigm. Countless movements and staples of activist culture have been sparked, revised, and preserved by powerful voices on social media. It's becoming fairly clear that resistance has no definite shape.
On managing the public's perception of her versus the reality
Misunderstanding, judgment, smear campaigns, and binding expectations are really an inescapable part of the common human experience. Being in the spotlight just makes you frequently available for people to project their cognitive dissonance, or feelings of angst and resentment, onto you without having to face the guilt that comes with being insensitive, because they have no personal connection to you. The fact is, whatever constricting standard I'm held to by one groupthink, the opposing groupthink is holding me to one just as strong and unfair. The only way to win, ever, is to align solely with yourself, your heart, and your mind, and walk in that. I protect my space by honoring my own belief system, but also never allowing myself to be intolerant.
On protecting her sense of self
As far as what people think they know about me versus what they don't, no matter how deep I pull from myself to share through music, social media, interviews, and heartfelt rants, I do believe I will always have deeper pockets of myself that I am proud to keep guarded and exclusive to the people in my life with whom I share a level of trust and love. Being open and shouting to the mountaintops about all that I am and all that I feel is a big part of me being me, but the growing in Godspeed and the process of welcoming my baby girl into this world supplied me with the initiative to make protecting my family and my spirit the forefront of my heart.
"Being open and shouting to the mountaintops about all that I am and all that I feel is a big part of me being me."
On the public's response to her pregnancy as a queer woman
I've gotten everything from “I thought she was a lesbian" to “she was using queerness to promote her career, then went and betrayed us with a man" to “her baby father is just a sperm donor." One, I never identified as a lesbian. I've always been pansexual. My first mixtape included songs about males, and songs about women. My first album had songs about a nonbinary ex, an intersex ex, and male/female exes. I don't always make it a point to identify pronouns in the music because that isn't the focal point. I think what steered everyone in the direction of categorizing my sexuality (which is still really narrow-minded) was my song “Honey," and a couple of the features I'd done after.
I don't make music with an agenda. I make songs directly from the time in my life I am inspired, meaning it follows the actual real timeline of my life. I wrote “Honey" about the woman I was in love with. I wanted her to feel special—she was a painter and expressed her feelings toward me a lot in her art, and I did the same. I'm just glad people enjoyed it.
I never woke up and decided to be the “queer icon" of the century. Having so much attention on me outside my art already gives me enough anxiety. I have always said, and will always say, there are people out there in this community fighting for equality in realer ways than making songs about it and performing at events like I am, and those are the “queeroes." Those are the ones who deserve to be awarded and constantly highlighted. I do appreciate the love I've received for just being myself, but, believe me, I'm 80 percent just as uncomfortable with being the front page of any movement or the face/poster child of anything as a lot of people are with me being it. I'm here to make music, take care of my family, do whatever for those I can help, and love.
I also saw a lot of discomfort with the use of the word “queer," hinting that it's used for folks to run away from identifying with a more “solidified" term like bi/lesbian/gay/pan. My response is: Whatever makes you feel your safest, in your truest identity, you should identify as such without being policed by the same community you are supposed to feel most safe with. A lot of queer youth I know feel extremely validated by the term “queer." You deserve to be believed, taken for what you say you are, and not shamed for it. Always open to learning though.
"You deserve to be believed, taken for what you say you are, and not shamed for it."
On how she feels about having a daughter now, at this point in her life
My overall dreams and goals for my life are to love to the highest limits one can experience love. The highest forms of happiness, and graciousness. I believe creating life is one of the highest forms of love! I'm accomplishing one of my biggest goals as we speak.
On the advice she'll give her daughter
Listen to her heart. Be gentle with herself because she is going to make mistakes. Be fearless, but even if she does get completely engulfed in fear at times, it does not in any way make her weak. She will grow up knowing compassion is a gift. I will remind her that she is whatever she wants to be, and that sometimes that changes. I have a feeling she will be giving me a lot of advice when she is 23. She will be better than me in any and every aspect. I can't wait to learn from her.
On the advice she'd give young fans considering parenthood
Make sure this is what you want for unselfish reasons. It's unfair to bring a child in the world with the burden and unspoken task of mending you, a relationship, or improving your happiness. Although a child will usually naturally bring a deeper meaning of happiness into your life, that isn't the sole reason for that child's existence. This is about them. Second, NATURAL BIRTH! People, especially black womxn, are dying at very high rates from hospital complications and medical malpractice (or just fucking blatant racism). People have been giving birth naturally for ages, obviously, way before hospitals existed. Way before machinery, way before all these procedures. Your uterus, and vagina, are built and designed for birth. You deserve to be in charge of your birth, to be comfortable and listened to, not rushed or prodded at. You deserve to feel 100 percent at peace with full support, in the driver's seat and not the backseat. This is your body, your baby, your ceremony. There is a whole community of midwives and doulas all over the world ready to give you the greatest, safest birth experience for you. Don't hesitate to ask questions and explore this option. I highly recommend it.
- PHOTOGRAPHER: LINDSEY BYRNES
- VIDEOGRAPHER: DANI OKON
- LINE PRODUCER: ALEXANDRA HSIE
- PHOTOGRAPHER ASSISTANT: JOSHUA COBOS
- PRODUCTION ASSISTANT: ALISON YARDLEY
- VEHICLE MANAGER ANDREW ELMALEH
- STYLIST: DANASIA SUTTON
- STYLIST ASSISTANT: OLIVIA GABAREE
- HAIR STYLIST: CÉSAR RAMIRÊZ USING WILDFORM
- MAKEUP ARTIST: TROYE BAPTISTE
- NAILS GLAM SQUAD: SKY HARRIS