Kehlani: the Softer Side of Savage

Kehlani: the Softer Side of Savage

Words by Claire Valentine / Photography by Thom Kerr

Kehlani wasn't feeling her pride cover, at first. The initial concept for her PAPER cover shoot had the Bay Area raised, pop R&B songstress in lots of black and red latex and leather, straddling a motorbike with a high fashion mood. Photoshoots take a lot of planning — a flurry of emails, texts and phone calls between producers, editors, stylists, photographers, publicists, fashion houses and, depending on the person, the subject themselves. But when Kehlani got to set and fully absorbed the image she would be presenting to the world, she gracefully and graciously got the whole team on board to change course for an entirely different vibe, one marked by ultra-romantic, feminine beauty capturing the bright, colorful, airy aura Kehlani seems to carry everywhere she goes.

"I like feel people judge me a lot when they see me, because of what I look like," the 23-year-old singer says a few days later in her hotel room on New York's Upper West Side. She's feeling under the weather and headed on tour in Asia the very next day, so we're chatting on her bed, Starbucks in-hand. Indeed, one of the first things you might notice about Kehlani are her tattoos — she has them on her arms, legs, torso, neck and most notably, her face, including a tiny paper airplane poised to take a nosedive off the upper ridge of her left cheekbone. "I get a lot of, 'Why do you get your nails done? Why some days are you more masculine then you are feminine? People either expect me to be a quote-unquote dyke or femme, and it's weird to me. Especially when queer people do it to each other, because I think when you truly understand the humanness of queerness, there are no rules to this shit."

Kehlani's lyrics are mainly about love, including the ecstasy of love ("Distraction") to the difficulties of committing ("Keep On.") From her first mixtape, Cloud 19, to last year's studio debut SweetSexySavage, she's never shied away from a raw vulnerability that make her songs both addictive and soul-nourishing. Her fresh perspective is an inextricable element of her appeal, yet the pressure to define herself by outdated binary systems has plagued Kehlani her whole life.

"When you truly understand the humanness of queerness, there are no rules to this shit."

"I feel like I had to define it: I had to be gay or straight," she says. "That was a big thing I went through for a long time. I was really butchy in 11th and 12th grade because I just felt, if you like girls, this is what you're supposed to look and dress like. I wasn't comfortable with my feminine side. I was definitely like, 'If I'm touching a girl, she's not touching me back because I'm the boy.'" She cites the mohawk she's sporting in old pictures as evidence. "I only wore snapbacks, and it was really intense," she says, laughing.

For years, she let the gender of whomever she was dating at the moment dictate her place on the spectrum — more masculine when dating a girl, and more feminine when dating a guy. But that setup quickly gave way to something more flexible. "Once I really understood that if someone likes me, they like me for all of me," she says "I started being myself depending on how I felt that day, not based on who I was dating at the time."

She also adds that even in a queer relationship that begins as a binary reflection, with "a more masculine presenting woman and a more feminine presenting woman, after y'all get past that first hump and y'all start fucking, it's going to get very fluid."

Dress: MSGM, Necklace: House of Emmanuele, Earrings: Tawapa

The concept of fluidity may be the one thing that does define Kehlani. She even has it tattooed on her chest, complementing the airplane and tiny black ink dots sprinkling her face. Face tats, once limited to only those living on the margins of society, have become the du jour statement look in hip-hop the past few years, but it's still mostly men rocking ink on their actual faces. "I get, 'Oh, you must be a gangster rapper,'" Kehlani says of her look. In fact, when she was first starting out under the mentorship of Nick Cannon following a stint with her high school cover band on America's Got Talent, Kehlani tried out — and promptly rejected — the rap game.

With a voice like hers, raspy and warm with enough depth to carry heavy moments but a lightness and range perfect for pop radio, it's hard to picture Kehlani doing anything else. That voice (and it's clear from the trajectory of her career, a dedicated work ethic) has carried her far — from being raised in Oakland, California by her aunt following the death of her father as a toddler and while her mother got her life straight, to headlining her own tours.

"My family's supportive because there's no one in my family that's ever really done anything spectacular," she says. "I'm sorry but it's just real. I think that they were just excited that I wasn't my parents, which was also a huge pressure."

As a young woman navigating her way through the labyrinthian music industry, Kehlani has mostly had to rely on her own instincts to guide her. "I never was the kid who had a parent present in meetings," she said. "My family didn't come to when I got signed or anything. It was just like, 'Oh, we'll come to your shows, we understand this part."

That doesn't mean Kehlani is completely without guidance. Not only does she have an almost preternaturally grounded presence—an hour in her company is a bit like being surrounded by healing crystals—and the self-assuredness of someone who's had to teach herself most things, she also credits the close circle she keeps around her with helping her suss out good motives from bad. "Sorry to get astrological, but it's my Pisces moon that I just refuse to see the bad in people," she says (obviously, she's a Taurus sun). "Sometimes, if someone talks a good game, I initially will feel like, 'Oh my god, I love this, I want to work with them and we just met and it's great and now we're a thing! Let's build an empire together!" She says it's her manager, David Ali (an even-headed Capricorn, she notes) who will "sit me down and be like, "Listen, don't get all googly-eyed with it. This isn't real, this is the business."

Cardigan, Earrings and Shoes: Marc Jacobs, Skirt: David Ferreira, Necklaces: Vintage Dior from Depuis 1924, Fallon Jewelry

But her instincts are sharpening, and she can identify with increasing speed the signs of a person with unsavory motives. "People give themselves away in language all the time," she says. "Certain harmful words, certain sayings, certain body language that you just recognize in people who don't have good intentions — you learn to apply it."

Kehlani doesn't speak like a young media trained celebrity. She shares her rapid-fire thoughts in real time and is quick to offer what she's learned as a highly visible figure participating in conversations around topics like race, sexuality and mental health. Her fan base is highly engaged, and like anyone her age, she's active on social media. On Twitter in particular, Kehlani's had her fair share of exchanges that have made her reconsider her place in the world as a queer, multiracial woman.

"I have to check myself with when I do give information," she says. "I'm a bisexual woman who has been with men, and a lot of queer women are sensitive to that. I'm a mixed woman who is white presenting at times, and a lot of black people are very sensitive to that so I'm sensitive to that. And I'm a person who has mental health issues, but I live a 'stable life' in the eyes of a lot of people, so I have to be careful when I'm speaking on that."

Dress: MSGM, Necklace: House of Emmanuele, Earrings: Tawapa, Sneakers: Adidas, Rings: Stefere Jewelry, Jennifer Fisher

It's that last topic that landed Kehlani in headlines back in 2016, after a publicly misperceived dating situation between her, NBA player Kyrie Irving and rapper PARTYNEXTDOOR drove a ton of fan hate her way. She was hospitalized for a suicide attempt, and the commentary surrounding the event was retrograde enough to warrant examination of the sexist gap in acceptance of Kehlani versus Kid Cudi, who also was openly struggling with his mental health at the time. Having her "mental health put on display" was uncomfortable, but speaking about it now, Kehlani is more focused on how what she learned from the experience will impact others.

Is it the undue burden we put on female celebrities to be role models, the early maturity brought on by trauma or Kehlani's self-described compassionate nature that makes her so well-suited to being a relatable, inspirational public figure? Or a combination of the above, mixed with the special, secret ingredients that simply make a person who they are?

"Who would I be to have gone through things and get to the point where people believe in me and not share [information] about something as imperative as mental health?" she asks. "I know how prevalent it is. It's been a major part of my life," she adds, explaining that she's experienced depression, ADHD, OCD and PTSD, and that she was medicated for a stretch of her childhood, which dulled her personality. "How can I have the nerve to make music about it, but not do things to help? I try to speak about it from a non-condescending place, though, because it's really hard for people to receive information from someone that they think has a perfect life."

Blouse: MSGM, Necklaces: Vintage Dior from Depuis 1924, Fallon Jewelry, Earrings: Tawapa

Though she says she has a "hot mouth" herself, Kehlani doesn't believe in the practice of canceling someone unless they've displayed a pattern of consistently hateful views. "Our sole job here is to make sure we can empathize with each other," she says. "And we can't expect empathy or someone to learn if we're not teaching them in a positive way." Which is not to say she thinks "it's every gay person's responsibility to teach straight people." But she also acknowledges that given the unfathomable multitude of perspectives the world contains, conversation is the only way to bridge the painful gaps between us.

"When people tend to have issues with me [or] when they don't know me, it tends to be about my race," she says. (Kehlani is black, white, Native American and Hispanic). "And I've listened and I've learned, and I've made changes when it comes to my verbiage and how I speak. And with the queer thing, I've definitely had some sensitive people come at me saying that I just recently accepted my queerness. Like, 'She got a girlfriend and then she made Honey, but I'm just really true to my life. If I'm dating a woman, my songs will be about her. If I'm dating a man, my songs will be about him. If I'm dating a nonbinary person, my songs will say them or they. It's natural to my timeline."

"If I'm dating a woman, my songs will be about her. If I'm dating a man, my songs will be about him. If I'm dating a nonbinary person, my songs will say them or they."

Kehlani's face lights up when she talks about her music. That contagious energy is palpable on the countless high profile collaborations she's done, including tracks with a who's who of 2018 pop including Cardi B, Post Malone, Chance the Rapper, G-Eazy, Charlie Puth and her good friend Hayley Kiyoko, with whom she recently starred in a music video about two lovers escaping a homophobic mother on a raucous road trip.

Blazer: Kenneth Barlis, Dress: Marmar Halim, Belt: Vintage Chanel from Depuis 1924, Necklaces: Vintage Chanel from Depuis 1924, Fallon Jewelry, Earrings: Tawapa, Rings: Stefere Jewelry, Jennifer Fisher

"Hayley inspired me a lot to be more outward and creative with expressing my sexuality," Kehlani says. While she emphasizes that both she and Kiyoko share a deep respect for the barrier-breaking queer artists that came before them, she feels in many ways Kiyoko was one of the first mainstream female pop stars to share her unapologetic queerness with the world.

"You would get hints at queerness from a lot of women," Kehlani says, "but Hayley is someone that inspires me because she's completely unafraid visually, and musically. From the jump, she's used female pronouns, she's had girls in her videos. And she didn't do it because queer is in right now and it's hot. She did it like, 'This is me. I'm a lesbian and I love women, so when I make love songs, you're gonna know who it's about."

Kehlani's thoughts on pronouns have evolved; where once she thought using them at all in her songs distracted from the music, now she appreciates the need for queer visibility in art. "I didn't want to be like, 'Well, this is the gay artist,'" she says. "Now I'm like, 'I'll be the gay artist! I love it!' I stopped being scared of letting it define me, because it does define me. It is who I am. If you look up my name in a dictionary, it'll probably say Gay Ass next to it. I'm all for it."

Dress: MSGM, Necklace: House of Emmanuele, Earrings: Tawapa, Rings: Stefere Jewelry, Jennifer Fisher

If self-definition and the search for identity is important for anyone in their twenties, it's tenfold for a highly visible figure with multiple intersecting identities. "As soon as you walk through the door," she says, "'It's, 'Well, what are you? What's your race? What's your sexual orientation? And both are very ambiguous for me." (She tells me "Pansexual" is the label that comes closest to fitting her, adding, "I have a unique attraction to every type of person there is on this earth.")

She's been out for "most of her life," but that doesn't mean Kehlani's queer identity or self-presentation have stayed the same. Which brings us back to the shoot. When I heard Kehlani wanted to do a softer, pastel-colored shoot rather than the badass, high-fashion motorcycle concept originally planned, I immediately thought about Dykes on Bikes, the annual San Francisco event where hundreds of female riders, many topless, rumble through the city on motorcycles as a celebration of pride. She confirms to me that this image, so seared into the mind of Bay Area kids like us, was "the first thing [her] mind went to," as well.

"As much as I appreciated it, I felt like it was this cornered idea of queerness that isn't me," she said. "What do straight people say? 'Oh, you must be the boy.' People just don't understand fluidity. To me, queerness is soft." Kehlani says she rejected perpetuating the "harder" image people associate with things like face tattoos in an effort to make a bigger statement about fluidity, and possibly the changing mainstream images of queerness.

"Why wouldn't I take such a great opportunity, which is an article to express my queerness and my fluidity, and allow the images to put me in that box?," she said. "It's not going to help anyone reading this understand fluidity. It's not going to educate anyone on me, it's going to further put me in a box that I don't want to be in."

"When you first start to understand and love a woman, you really almost get intimidated with how epic a woman is."

Focusing on the more feminine aspects of her image has caused Kehlani to reflect on her love of women in general. "I was blown away with my first encounter with a woman," she says. "It's one thing to really know yourself and know how you react to things, but when you first start to understand and love a woman, you really almost get intimidated with how epic a woman is."

The depth of emotion that women feel — and are generally allowed to feel and express, in Western society, as opposed to their male counterparts — is something she feels men are missing out on. "I feel like guys don't get it," she says. "It's probably something that stumps them. Like how are you this compassionate? How do you have this much empathy? How do you hold this much space for so many people? How do you hold this much space for me? How do you love me this much and are willing to nurture me while nurturing and loving yourself? And I think that's the complexity that I thank God that we have. Because I see men everyday who aren't able to deal with life and aren't able to empathize or be compassionate."

More than anything, smashing oppressive binary structures is what Kehlani is all about, right now. "People do this whole man and woman thing," she said. "When they take the man out and put in another woman, there still has to be this balance of hard and soft, dominant and submissive. Not realizing that first of all, every human is versatile, I don't care who it is. I've experienced enough sexual relations with men to know that they can be soft, too. But there's always this need to fill that binary outline out. That's what stops a lot of people from stepping out and exploring their queerness — especially women, because they get nervous about what role they'll be 'taking on.' Once they get through that, the world just opens up."

Photographer : Thom Kerr
Stylist : Danasia Sutton
Hair : Kahree Spence
Makeup : Troye Antonio
Florist: Chelsey Northern
Lighting: Cris-Ian Garcia