As much of an overstated phrase as “keeping it real” is, it makes perfect sense when it comes to Kehlani Parrish, a 20-year-old musical talent who, for all intents and purposes, does herself above all else. We all like to think we’re truly being ourselves, and while some have managed to achieve that level of confidence, it’s actually rarer of a character trait than one would realize – especially when you’re in the limelight.
For Kehlani, being herself involves sticking to her musical roots and influences while representing who she is in the public view – as she would on her own turf. She has dreams and admirations just like anyone else, but what makes her different is the fact that she goes for them with her feet planted firmly into the ground. Excusing all of these seemingly cookie-cutter terms to describe Kehlani, she is a fun and wild-minded young adult entrenched in R&B and neo-soul culture, and perhaps most importantly, an independent spirit.
You learn this much within the first few minutes of meeting Kehlani, which I had the fortune of doing for this photoshoot. Surrounded by her friends, who subsequently make up her professional team, the whole experience felt more like a labor-of-love excursion, all thanks to the whimsical and open nature of the people involved. The photoshoot ensued with us shooting the shit, having some real-talk moments with some dancing interspersed along the way – all in all, you don’t suspect an ounce of an act or an “artist’s persona.” After leaving the shoot, I could only imagine the successful singer bringing along that sense of candidness and ease to wherever she goes next.
Now that you have some idea of the kind of firecracker personality Parrish emanates, the following interview illustrates the mind behind who she is, as we talk to her about music and how she views the world.
Let’s start off on a personal note. If you asked your closest friends and family what they think about you, what would they would say?
They’d probably say I’m lion-hearted and very appreciative. I go out of my way to make sure everyone around me is good. I think they’d also say that I make them laugh until they cry tears [laughs].
How do you view yourself in general?
I view myself as a growing 20-year-old woman who’s very far from reaching her full potential, but is enjoying every step of the way.
This may come as a hard question to answer, but can you describe for us what makes you happy?
The little things make me happy. Making people happy makes me happy. Laughter makes me happy. Good food, good weed and good music. My family makes me happy. My team makes me happy. I’m a pretty happy person by choice. Everything is about perspective.
Can you tell us about your family and describe what each person means to you?
My family is dysfunctional, but whose isn’t? My mother and father aren’t in the picture but my auntie stepped up and she is my guardian angel. My grandmother is the rock that holds everything together. My siblings are all younger than me, and that’s my cheerleading squad right there – they hold me down. The rest of my family is incredibly dope as well. Honestly, they are probably the funniest group of people I’ve got.
To get a better understanding of how you self-reflect musically, what kind of person do you want to be as an artist?
I want to be inspirational, I want be a martyr, and I want to be the well-rounded definition of happy.
A lot of people ask artists how their hometown plays an influence on them. We'd like to try to understand how Oakland and the Bay Area have affected your music. Do these areas play a direct part in your music making, or has your upbringing had an impact as well?
I think it is my upbringing that makes my music what it is. Coming from the Bay Area shapes you in ways that no other place can, from slang to experience to giving you thick skin. Oakland is also its own little world with its own set of rules for life, so it also makes me everything that I am.
What would you normally get up to when you're back home in San Francisco?
When I’m home, I’m still working. I can’t remember the last time I did something that wasn’t work-related and I am in no way complaining. I love it. When I go back home it’s for a show or recording and I make time to see my loved ones. They understand how much I work, and what I do and do not have time for.
We’ve read about your introduction into the music industry from other interviews, but can you share with us the gritty, real process of what that was like for you?
Breaking into the industry was very tough; even tougher than I expected. There were many times where I was told “no.” Many times, things were supposed to happen but they didn’t. When you really care about something and want something, you never stop. There were times when I was told that I could never do the things I’m doing now, and there were times when I believed that. But through hard work and dedication, everything is possible, and I took the necessary steps to get here today.
What’s the industry really like when it comes to helping a budding artist?
It’s just like normal life. Some people support you and some people don’t. Some people offer their help to benefit you, while others do it to benefit themselves. Either way it’s help, but you must be wise. You’ve got to have a strong heart to enter the industry, and understand what you’re signing yourself up for. You’ve got to approach everything with your mind prepared for the best and the worst.
To an extent, music largely stems from other musical influences. Do you think that defines who an artist is?
I think creative expression and art is from the beginning of time; it’s something that’s developed from repetition. So of course, I started to sing because I heard music. I made R&B and soul music because I was listening to R&B and soul music. I think as artists, we are shaped by what surrounds us, whether it’s music, love, sports or art. Our output is solely based on our intake.
So when you’re listening to music that you like, what exactly goes through your head?
It depends on what I’m playing the music for. Sometimes I just want to enjoy it, sometimes I’m trying to heal, others I’m trying to learn, sometimes I’m looking for inspiration, and sometimes I just want to dance around my house with my pants off.
What is it about ‘90s music that you like so much?
It’s what I grew up listening to. It’s my favorite era of music.
Do you get pigeonholed into other genres that you don’t agree with? Why do you think that happens?
Of course, those things come with the territory, and those are things that I’m aware I signed up for. But don’t feel limited because there’s room for me to explore all types of music. It’s a good thing that I’m not scared of a challenge.
You seem incredibly confident and self-assured. Where do you think that comes from?
From not always being confident and self-assured, and then growing up and realizing I’m more than enough. And through that came the more important realization that I have the power to get others to do the same thing.
You also seem very grounded and open. Where did you learn to be expressive, or is that something you do yourself anyway?
I am incredibly expressive just because I learned when you do things from your heart to their fullest potential, that’s when the best results come. So I don’t hold anything back in regards to expression, because I know all I have are positive things to give.
You've sung about how female artists are perceived within the music industry. What’s the best way to abolish the current skewed perception of professional women and the fear of strong-minded females?
There are so many misconceptions about professional women. We’re bitches if we’re too serious, or incapable if we slack off a bit. Many people assume every girl has to fuck to get somewhere. I know many women who have never so much as batted an eyelash to advance in the professional world. The best way to abolish these misconceptions is to outwork anyone with something to say. It works for me. You can say what you want about my music but you can never downplay my work ethic.
How do we start today in changing things to accomplish full equality between the sexes?
We start by eliminating those sexist first-impression thoughts people get when they see someone. When you see a woman, don’t immediately think “she’s a damsel in distress, she needs assistance, she’s incapable”; when you see a man don’t immediately think, “He needs no help, a man needs no assistance, he can do everything.” Chances are it might just be the opposite with those cases and you pre-judged and messed up. People just need to open their minds and recognize human capability isn’t defined by gender.
You’ve got a good team around you that wholeheartedly supports you and what you do. How much do they play a part in who “Kehlani” is?
They play a major role because they keep me sane and grounded. As a musician, a major problem with success is having to deal with the wrong people. So it’s very important when you find people who are not only 100% down for you, but who are honest and loving in everything they do.
What would your dream scenario be as an artist?
I’m in my dream scenario. Whether it’s one important person in the audience, or it’s a crowd of 10,000 important people. My level of happiness and gratitude remains the same. I feel blessed to do what I do every day and I’m grateful for every opportunity, whether it’s big or small.
Lastly, you’re blowing up as an artist and creating tracks with the likes of Justin Bieber, so what’s a regular day like for you?
I don’t have regular days anymore. For instance, I’ll be in Portland tomorrow performing at an adidas event. My day usually consists of meetings and studio rehearsals. But don’t get me wrong, every moment of it is wonderful, and I cherish it all. As an artist, you find enjoyment in the hard work.
Words by Alexander Lendrum
Photography by Marat Shaya/The Neue School
For the full story, pick-up a copy of the HYPETRAK Magazine: Volume 2 for $12 USD over at HBX.