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‘The first time she ever kicked was to Frank Ocean’: in conversation with Kehlani

17 Mar 2019

Kehlani image by Arturo Torres

Kehlani is pregnant for the first time. While many might deem heavy pregnancy time for rest, the 23-year-old artist decided to channel her new outlook into a nine-track project, creating her latest mixtape, While We Wait, in just one month.  As the name of the mixtape suggests, we can only brace ourselves for what’s coming after nine.  “I’m very used to like moving around. I tour a lot. I do a lot of festivals, but I had to stay in one place and be good to my body,” she tells gal-dem over the phone. She’s had an unconventional hibernation – at seven months she found herself filming the video for ‘Nunya’, a soulful takedown of jealous exes, in the snow. “I was just feeling so much more creative and wanted to make something fun.”

The title itself is a double entendre – on Kehlani’s part she’s waiting on a new chapter in her life, but it’s also a knowing nod to her fans that are eagerly awaiting her second studio album. Calling on the help of an impressive roster of collaborators, which includes Ty Dolla $ign and 6LACK, the album is a return to her R&B roots after taking a pop detour for her last project. “It’s what my 19-year-old self would have loved to make,” she explains. Even if there is a melancholic message in the lyrics of songs like ‘Nights Like This’ or ‘Footsteps’, which chronicle souring relationships, While We Wait is undoubtedly an optimistic body of work as the singer appears more self-assured, and exhibits impressive songwriting prowess.

By the time we catch up to speak, she’s taking it a little easier.  She’s just returned from a prenatal class and is officially on maternity leave, resting in California. “I’m definitely excited now,” she says. “I’ve just kind of like surrendered to the entire process of birth, and when she wants to be here she’ll be here so I’m going with the flow.”

We caught up to talk about how waiting for her whole life to change impacted her outlook on what truly matters, how she creates art, and what life she wants for her daughter.

gal-dem: Why did you feel like your first pregnancy was the best time to embark on a new mixtape?

Kehlani: I was in the middle of making a very intense piece of music and it’s just energetically draining. So we just took a split from that and decided to make a really fun project. I just wanted to get a little looser and keep myself busy because I usually do a lot of shows.

How did you choose your collaborators?

The cool part was that I was either a fan of the person that I collaborated with or they’re my friend. Ty I’m really close to, we’ve always just had genuine love for each other and he comes to my shows. He gives me like big brotherly advice about the industry. 6LACK brings his daughter to my house all the time. We just go for car rides and talk shit and listen to music. I’m a huge fan of Musiq Soulchild. I mentioned him in my first mixtape, I sampled him and then was really lucky to obtain a feature from him on my second. Dom [Kennedy] was one of my favourite rappers growing up – he was the soundtrack to my California high school experience.

It feels a lot like you’re going back down the R&B route with this project.

Sonically I was just trying to get back into that world. I think that I did a lot of experimenting with the project before, after touring it and just like living with it, I just didn’t necessarily connect to it in the same way I do with R&B.

“The more danceable records could have videos that are fun and performance-based – but we’ll have to wait until I’m not a giant pregnant whale” – Kehlani

How were you shooting videos while you were so far along, especially in the snow?

Well, props to pregnant women who have to be cold every day. I wasn’t trying to flex on them. I shot two more while I was pregnant and then I definitely want to shoot some more. I had to do the more sombre songs on the record first because obviously, the more danceable records could have videos that are fun and performance-based – but we’ll have to wait until I’m not a giant pregnant whale.

You actually make pregnancy look very glamorous, you’re not even close to being a whale.

I mean you guys only see what goes on Instagram. You know, you guys don’t see all the crusty days.

Make a new Instagram for all the crusty day outtakes.

You know what, I would probably be down for that.

How has this period of time changed you?

If anything it’s pushed me further into the place that I already was in. Real life really matters to me. Things that are surface level and really frivolous like industry-related competitiveness just doesn’t matter. Now I’m even more like, ‘What’s my next family vacation? What countries can I visit? What projects can I get involved within my community?’

You tweeted recently that you had a dream that all your dreams came true but you were an art teacher – would you consider a career outside of music?

Definitely. I’ve always considered music to be the conduit to what I really love doing, which is connecting, teaching, supporting people and communities and spaces that don’t have access to things that I’ve had access to in my life with my musical career. How can I be some type of conduit for some type of message? How can I continue to be a vessel? I definitely want to be an art teacher still. That’s still my dream.

What music have you been trying to train your baby to become a fan of while you’ve been pregnant?

The first time she ever kicked was to Frank Ocean, which I was just thoroughly impressed by. Her tastes levels, wow. She really reacts to Stevie wonder, which is awesome because he’s my favourite. We have a record player and have a lot of older records and I tend to listen to really old stuff in general. So she reacts pretty well to all the old stuff. I wonder how it will be because I feel like she’s going to be so different from people her age because I don’t really listen to anything current. She’ll probably be one of those kids who surprises adults when she sings along and they’re like, ‘What you know about this?’

Especially since old R&B is also so suggestive!

Oh yeah. They had them real disguised freaky lyrics.

Have you told Frank that your baby is already a fan?

I don’t know Frank. We’ve never had a conversation. I’m totally comfortable just being a stan. If I ever met him, I think that would definitely be the thing that I do say if I get the guts to speak up. I’d be like, ‘my baby kicked to your music’, and then I’d probably run away and cry.

Now you know that you’re having a girl, named Adeya, has that changed how you will raise your child?

Truly, to be honest, we don’t know if she’s a she. It’s easiest to refer to her as her because that’s what she is currently and if she ever decides to tell us otherwise then we’ve already kind of agreed to follow her lead. Both of us [Kehlani and the baby’s father] are pretty fluid in ourselves so that it wouldn’t be an issue. At the same time, who are we to tell her that she has to be fluid if she’s not? It’s her life – we are just here to be the facilitators of whatever she wants to do.

What do you want your baby to take away from your mixtape?

She’s the reason that I was able to kind of have the most pleasant, focused, energy-driven, hardworking period of creating a project and I’m grateful. Every time we play our tunes she moves a bunch, and it’s been so fun. She really got me there.

What are some things you’ve learned along your own journey that you want to instil in your child?

I just want her to take away that everything is possible when you know who you are. Never let people define you.

While We Wait is out now on Atlantic / WEA. You can listen here on Spotify.