From collaborations with Zayn Malik, Chance The Rapper, G-Eazy and Little Simz to her appearance on the Suicide Squad soundtrack and a Grammy nomination for 2015’s debut mixtape ‘You Should Be Here’, Kehlani Parrish has got plenty to celebrate. But life – even since embarking on her music career – hasn’t been easy for the 21-year-old.
The rising R&B star’s dad died when she was a baby and her mum spent time in and out of prison. Only five years ago Kehlani was, essentially, homeless, drifting from couch to couch and stealing food in order to eat. Less than a year ago, she attempted suicide after false rumours that she’d cheated on her then boyfriend, NBA player Kyrie Irving, with her rapper ex PartyNextDoor led to horrific abuse on social media.
‘SweetSexySavage’, her debut album, is full of strength and ferocity as a result. “I’m kind of bad at writing sad songs, which is why I don’t have too many,” the Oakland-born singer explains. “Sometimes when I’m writing these ‘I’m not hurting any more, I’m stronger’ songs it’s because I am hurting and I’m not strong yet, but that’s me trying to get to that.”
One of 2017’s first great records, ‘SweetSexySavage’ is full of confessional and irresistible tracks, from ‘Undercover’, a bona fide banger about an illicit hook-up, to the sparkling balladry of ‘Advice’. ‘Too Much’ offers a take on her healing process, insecurities and heartbreak, with a chorus that declares “I’m too much of a woman / Too much of a badass b***h / Too much of a boss / Baby it’s your loss,” with unwavering attitude.
Kehlani, who first found fame reaching the finals of America’s Got Talent with her teenage group PopLyfe in 2011, has always been quick to point out that she’s not a victim, whether that be in a relationship gone sour or the battle with depression that very nearly ended in tragedy last March. When writing songs for her album, she says she realised she’d also been the one “doing the hurting, being the aggressor”.
In case you don’t catch what the songs are all about, some come prefaced by recordings of Kehlani’s friends dishing out explanations. “I feel like sometimes people just listen and jam – they don’t actually take in the purpose of what you’re trying to accomplish with a song,” Kehlani says down the phone from New York, where she now lives. “I feel like having all my girls on there giving personal explanations knocks down that barrier of artist to person. Even with myself, it knocks down the barrier of Kehlani the artist and Kehlani the person and makes everything superhuman.”
This honest, assured outlook is setting the star up as a strong role model for her young fans. It’s a position she finds “a little crazy” but mainly cherishes. “There are role models for every type of person,” she says. “When I was little we had all these options. P!nk wasn’t perfect; she was kickass and she said what was on her mind. She wasn’t this cutesy pop princess. There was a girl for every little girl to look up to, so I’m just glad that I can provide what I can.”
Hearing how her music has helped people means the world to Kehlani. “That’s pretty much all I care about,” she says. Her words to her fans come with the added knowledge that she knows what it’s like to hate yourself, how dark the depths of depression can really get and what it feels like to want to give up. She’s become an inspiration to many thanks to her openness, but also because she’s proof that even life’s hardest moments can be not just overcome, but positively destroyed with greatness.