When I told singer-songwriter Kehlani they were a perfect choice for The Reflection Issue, they finished my train of thought on cue: "Because all I do is fucking reflect." Though it was meant to be cheeky, I had no doubt Kehlani was giving an earnest declaration.
It's a nod to their reputation as an artist. Kehlani—who dropped their recent single, "Altar," in September—is known for making soul-stirring music. Described as "pulsing and yearnful, it's the kind that urges you to text a new fling, cry, burn your ex's things, or hope a former love is okay... all at once.
"I make relationship music. Good, bad, either way, I’m probably talking about the person I'm with. It's just the truth," they admit as we sat over a cozy Zoom call. These melodic musings on their past relationships is what has drawn so many to Kehlani over the years. To the untrained eye, Kehlani’s soft, creamy voice and vulnerable lyrics are at odds with the tattooed, androgynous, sometimes-femme, sometimes-not look they’ve become known for.
I’ll learn over the course of our conversation this evolving aesthetic, just like their discography, is a direct result of constant reflection. What the world sees in Kehlani is the outward expression of a deeply personal journey around gender, sexuality, spirituality, and politics. When the 26-year-old artist reaches another turn, bump, or stop, onlookers scramble to define it. This cat-and-mouse game of reflection versus perception is what makes Kehlani who they are now, and what they’ll do next all the more exciting.
Kehlani made headlines this year when they came out as lesbian on Instagram Live. According to Kehlani, those closest to them had known for a long time and were just waiting for them to realize it themselves. "I wish it was more of a journey discovering how I love and what I need versus putting the emphasis on having to 'come out' with my sexual identity," they say. Kehlani has publicly identified as queer, bisexual, and pansexual in the past.
Since then, the singer has embraced their place on the non-binary spectrum, changing their pronouns to she/they on Twitter. They told me, "I don't mind when people say 'she' at all, but something feels really affirming when people say 'they." For Kehlani, using non-binary pronouns feels like an earned respect. "It feels like... you really see me."
To many, Kehlani’s personal revelations only exist within the context of their 10-year-long career, and the headlines that come along with it. Their first taste of fame came when they were just 16 years-old, leading a teen pop band called Poplyfe on America’s Got Talent. "I was very blessed to know what I wanted to do in my life at a young age. I was blessed to have a talent I could follow," they said of finding their passion.
Kehlani left the band shortly after and had another go at music a few years later. The solo singer we all recognize today—the one known for relatable heartbreak and silver linings—began to emerge in 2014 with their first mixtape Cloud 19, and shortly after, the critically acclaimed, Grammy-nominated, You Should Be Here. Their debut studio album, SweetSexySavage, followed in 2017, which was released on the heels of a breakup.
In 2018, Kehlani surprised fans by announcing their pregnancy, a daughter (now two), shared with Javie Young-White. Soon after, they were in a short-lived but highly publicized relationship addressed in their sophomore album, It Was Good Until It Wasn’t, which dropped in 2020. Reflecting on their love life in revealing music continues to fuel the authenticity Kehlani is known and loved for. The more they love, the better the music. In fact, their new music—an upcoming third album called Blue Water Road—"talks about love and coming into gayness."
Many on Twitter have suggested Kehlani is dating SZA after they were seen together at the Met. While those rumors aren't true (sorry SZelani stans), they were gracious enough to describe SZA's scent (I asked... for a friend): "Really warm, like good oils and a hint of weed."
They walked me through their Met Gala night. The highlights included making it up the stairs without falling, chit-chatting with Billie Eilish and her brother Finneas, and finally meeting one of their favorite artists: Frank Ocean. They found themselves nervous to speak; practically crying with emotion. They also hilariously set the record straight on the SZA gossip: "They said I'm collecting R&B girls like Infinity Stones and I haven't fucked with any of them." It's a perfect example of what can happen when reality and public perception meet on a red carpet.
Imagine this: You write about love and it opens up the floodgates for anyone and everyone to speculate who those songs may be about. It's a cycle we've seen time and time again. But art isn't about gossip, especially for Kehlani. Their songs reflect who they are at any given moment and their behavior on and off the red carpet does the exact same thing. Kehlani's humanity is served up to us on a silver platter each time they offer a glimpse into their reality. Celebrity is bizarre in that way—it exists at the cross section of vulnerability and publicity as a meeting point for two polar opposite experiences.
The truth is, coming out was just a single moment in what Kehlani describes as the most transformative year of their life. Behind the scenes and off the social media grid, their entire life was shifting. "I went through a rebirth,” they stated with forceful clarity. Kehlani spent a full year, from September 2020 to September 2021, immersed in a ritual meant to spiritually cleanse them.
While they prefer not to get into specifics, they describe it as deeply impactful. Some aspects of this process included sobriety, covering their hair, and focusing on a new set of rules to live and speak by. Reflecting on the experience they told me, "It's a 180 from who I was before." Just like most of their post-fame life, what the rest of the world saw was only the tip of the iceberg.
"I was sober for a year. I didn't go out unless it was work-related. I did a lot of very intense spiritual connecting. I came out. So much transformation," Kehlani describes. I mention given their age, they're about to go through their "Saturn return," which in astrology occurs when you've reached adulthood. It's generally a two-year period of transformation and challenges. This rings true for Kehlani given the year they've had, both publicly and privately.
It’s safe to say Kehlani has changed in ways indiscernible to the eye, far beyond their relationship status or pronoun labels in their bio. But there were tangible shifts too. During this time Kehlani moved into a new, safer space, recorded a new album, and removed the breast implants they felt pressure to get.
"I got breast implants about four years ago because I was very much struggling with what beauty meant to me," they explained. While Kehlani has always benefited from being light-skinned and small framed, rigid beauty standards are unrelenting. And the singer was subject to them from the moment they stepped into the spotlight. Once they broke into the industry, fully tattooed in baggy sweats and sports bras, Kehlani was often accused of not looking "put together" enough. At one point, the pressure became overwhelming. "I remember this video of me performing went viral. People were like 'she's horribly built.' So I went and got breast implants."
What followed were years of uncomfortable symptoms and medical complications that, at first, Kehlani didn’t understand. Chronic fatigue, brain fog, severe joint pain, restless leg syndrome, and new allergies were a few they rattled off.
"My doctor said, 'I think you have breast implant illness.'" While not an official medical diagnosis, breast implant illness (BII) is an autoimmune condition experienced by some who have had breast augmentations with silicone implants. It can cause a cluster of symptoms, many of which Kehlani experienced. Along with their physical symptoms, Kehlani acknowledged their new boobs created a mental sense of unease. "I was already feeling dysphoric about my breast implants because I'm such a 'tomboy.' Like, how do I even put these in outfits?"
Having dealt with the side effects for a long while, they made the decision to have them removed as quietly as they’d decided to put them in years before. Kehlani continues, "I actually feel way more beautiful than I ever felt because I feel healthy." The singer supports people doing whatever they want to their bodies, but after all is said and done, they revel in being closer to a natural state. "I really don't take my natural body for granted anymore," they lament. "I got things done that went away because my body type was not meant to be changed in the way I thought I could change it."
More than anything, Kehlani regrets being made to feel bad about themselves. Looking back, the measures they took feel drastic. "I let the world bully me into feeling like I needed this." This is the dark side of reflection, when your every limb is up for debate. It can be hard to separate your own honest thoughts from how the rest of the world sees you.
"I really went and made an appointment after the jokes went viral," they said of their decision to get surgery. I can't help but think of the symbolism of it all; that Kehlani had their implants removed during such an intense period of isolation and introspection. "It’s been such a journey to figure out how I feel about the way that I look," they said of the ordeal.
"I always felt like I was looking for 'beauty,' never that I was sitting in it," Kehlani says. "I feel the most sexy and beautiful when I'm the most stripped down and comfortable. To me, sexiness is clean hair, good candles, and applying oil after a shower. It's all about taking care of myself, more so than the sexiest outfit. That's when I feel good," they share.
"To [understand] yourself... you need room to try shit. To throw [everything] at the wall and see what sticks. And when you're in the public eye, you don't really have room to figure it out for yourself," they explain. While Kehlani has inspired so many people to express themselves in more self-fulfilling ways, they have had to learn to claim that for themselves too. "I'm not ashamed to be like, this is where I’m at with it currently. And if I'm somewhere else in a year, cool... Who knows where I'll be at when I'm 35." This isn’t a sad story, just an honest one.
Kehlani admits their journey included realizations through media interaction with their music. They spoke of the "funniest tweet ever" that perfectly aligns with their journey:
"Kehlani singing about women: my angel, beautiful goddess. Let me love and adore you.
Kehlani singing about men: what a fucking loser."
They had to realize the lyrics didn't lie and those feelings illuminated a lot of how they interacted with men and women in relationships. Though they've always dated women, Kehlani took time to ruminate on what they want from love, what they need, and what makes them feel safe. "That's what makes me feel whole," they say of the process.
That brings us back to Blue Water Road. The album, which is set to arrive early 2022, reflects this momentous turning point for Kehlani. "I am fucking great and that's what the music sounds like," they declared. It’s different from any their other body of work Kehlani has done—as it explores themes beyond intimate relationships, including spirituality and fame.
"I'm so glad to be settled into my fan base and in my little world. I can experiment and have fun. I don't feel like I have to deliver a radio single right now." This time, they're looking straight ahead instead of back at past heartbreaks. And they’re not stifled by the demands of fans who are expecting the latter. "I have room to become the artist people want me to be, that I think I can become," they insisted. "I have hella room to become the person I want to become."
That’s the real beauty to be found in someone like Kehlani, who is willing to take time and make room, no matter what. "Once I let shit go, everything in life became softer," they say. When I asked what it meant to be truly well, they offered something else profound. "Being well is when I'm not faking or forcing positivity. I'm not forcing gratitude." We all do it. It was the same choice Kehlani made when they thought they needed a different body to be a better entertainer. It’s the mistake we make when we zoom in on how we’re being perceived instead of reflecting on how we feel about ourselves. We’re forcing something onto ourselves that isn’t meant for us in the first place.
Kehlani is hell-bent on raising her daughter the same way; with as much room as possible. "There's always emphasis on the gender of those we love versus who that person is. I just want to worry about if my kid loves a good person. Worry about the heart of the person you're with. If my daughter doesn't have to go through a journey to discover she's straight, then she doesn't have to go through a journey to discover if she's gay," Kehlani says.
They continue, "We raised her [to believe] there's no difference. She sees her mommy with her girlfriend. She's going to see her father with whoever he's with. She's going to see all her gay aunties and uncles and her trans aunties and uncles. Everything is normal. They're going to have their own world. Don't make them hateful little shits. Teach them to love and not judge and it's really that simple. I don't know how it gets so overcomplicated."
Kehlani is different than they were a year ago. They're different than they were at 19 making music that even they admit screamed: "pick me." The hurdles from their past aren’t so pivotal to them now. They just… happened. In the next decade, their 30s—which they are "super looking forward to"—Kehlani knows will bring about some other version of themselves. This is true for anyone reading this. Which is why if there was any lesson I took away from our conversation, it’s that Kehlani’s reflections have led them to who they will become.
Kehlani has been "trying to figure this shit out in front [us] since they were 16 years-old." Have we matched their energy? Have we been willing to sit still with ourselves to make it all mean something? Honestly, what else is there to do except fucking reflect?
Photographer: Ally Green
Creative Direction: Hillary Comstock
Beauty Direction: Hallie Gould
Makeup Artist: Troye Antonio
Hairstylist: Kahh Spence
Stylist: Oliver Vaughn
Producer: Caroline Santee Hughes
Booking: Talent Connect Group
Maijers MC, de Blok CJM, Niessen FB, et al. Women with silicone breast implants and unexplained systemic symptoms: a descriptive cohort study. Neth J Med. 2013;71(10):534-540.