Kehlani opens up about success and her privilege as a queer artist

by Trinity Bland, Opinion Editor

Ever since bursting onto the scene in 2014, R&B superstar Kehlani has proudly worn her queerness on her sleeve.

In the seven years since the artist released her debut mixtape, “Cloud 19,” she has accumulated a plethora of accolades — including two Grammy nominations and multiple appearances on the Billboard 200 album chart — that so many young, hungry and up-and-coming queer artists can only dream of when they begin releasing their music to the world.

Kehlani, who uses both she and they pronouns, is as prolific as she is passionate about her work. She has released three commercial mixtapes and two full-length studio albums since 2014 (the most recent being 2020’s critically acclaimed “It Was Good Until It Wasn’t”) with hardly any breaks in between. 

When it comes to working with and uplifting others, Kehlani’s list of musical collaborators features the industry’s brightest names, including Ty Dolla $ign, Justin Bieber, Cardi B, Dom Kennedy, Chance The Rapper, Musiq Soulchild and Zayn Malik. 

With all of her success, Kehlani is one of only a few queer artists who has been able to break through into “mainstream cultural consciousness” as The Advocate puts it – and the 26-year-old doesn’t take that for granted.

“I have a lot of privilege,” Kehlani told The Advocate this month. “I think a lot of artists who we talk about and say, ‘Oh, they had to come out or they had to do this,’ a lot of them can’t hide it. A lot of it is very [much] in how they present. It’s tougher for them. It’s tougher for trans artists. It’s tougher for Black gay men. It’s tougher for Black masculine gay women.”

Kehlani’s love and personal life have been a topic of discussion throughout the years as she has had relationships with rappers YG, PARTYNEXTDOOR and NBA star Kyrie Irving. The Oakland-born star had a child with her guitarist, Javaughn Young-White, and gave birth to their daughter, Adeya Nomi, in 2019. 

The artist has opened up about her sexuality on social media years ago before knowing that she was a lesbian. Identifying as queer and bisexual, during a 2018 Instagram live, the singer stated that she has dated multiple women but “never identified as a lesbian” at the time. 

 “Cuz I keep geddin asked.. I’m queer,” She wrote in a series of tweets from 2018. “Not bi, not straight. I’m attracted to women, men, REALLY attracted to queer men, non-binary people, intersex people, trans people. Lil poly pansexual papi hello good morning. Does that answer your questions?”

The artist continued in a separate tweet, adding that bisexual men are “little gifts from God.”

“And since we on that … I’m the LEAST attracted to straight men, y’all really adorable sometimes tho,” 

She also explained why, at the time, she preferred to be labeled “queer” over “gay.” 

“I felt gay always insisted there was still a line drawn as to which ‘label’ of human I was attracted when I really jus be walking around thinking ERRYBODY FINE,” She added in another tweet.

Prior to those tweets that have since been deleted, Kehlani opened up to MTV in 2017 about the importance of being authentic in both her music and in her day-to-day life. “I am very openly queer,” She said. “I thought that my music lacked representation of how my actual life is. I thought it was important to be myself fluidly in my music and not just in my life … it’s only right that that’s what I make music about and that I’m able to put that out confidently.”

As of lately, the two-time Grammy-nominated artist has officially come out as a lesbian, and apparently, she was the last member of her family to find out. In a TikTok shared on April 22, the R&B star finally set the record straight after previously hinting at being gay during a recent Instagram Live. “I’m just gonna fucking say it because everybody keeps bringing it up to me,” she said before asking if fans remembered her saying that she “finally” knew she was a lesbian. 

“Well, it’s f–ing true,” She confirmed. “I am gay-ga-gay-gay-gay.”

The 26-year-old musician then went more in-depth about her own personal coming-out story, saying, “I’m like, ‘Guys, I finally know that I’m gay. Like, I’m gay gay,’” The singer-songwriter recalled. “They’re like, ‘We know. Duh, stupid.’” Kehlani, however, was expecting (and was actually sort of looking forward to) a more dramatic reaction than the one she got. “I just feel like no. I want you to fall on the floor and be like, “Congratulations, we had no idea! Shit,’” she said.

Despite not receiving the shocked reaction, Kehlani appears content to be on the same page as everyone who has apparently known her sexuality for years. 

“Damn, everyone’s just like, ‘Duh, you’re the only one who didn’t fucking know,’” She continued, adding that “the fucking closet was glass.”

“I guess I just wanted y’all to know that everyone knew but me,” she added.

Kehlani regards her generation as one that is “able to talk about the gender spectrum and just how fluid and how limitless and how many options there are to truly figure out what it is exactly you identify with.”

“When I make a misstep or when I say something wrong or when I truly don’t understand, people have had teachable moments with me,” She says. “I’m really appreciative for the people who take time to do that.”

The women in her family, her fans who are so eager and willing to engage with her (even when she make a mistake), and her transgender friends who inspire her to live in her truth every day are among those Kehlani says she has learned the most from.

Kehlani acknowledges “all the beautiful Black trans women that I have in my life that I’m able to just witness – not only living their true f––ing power – but [to] be courageous and be fearless and then fiercely educate everybody around them and just be a force in this world!” 

According to the Bay Area native, those women have influenced her journey as a woman of color.

“They do it so effortlessly that it comes off almost easy to people who don’t know them,” She says. “I have so many super badass, bad bitch, trans women friends that I’m just like, ‘I bet people think this shit is a walk in the f––ing park because of how you get up and get out the house every day and be this badass bitch.’ But I know it’s fucking hard.”

It’s those lessons of inclusion, authenticity, and openness that Kehlani wants to impart to a whole new generation, especially to young women. That is something close to the singer’s heart, particularly when it comes to raising her daughter. Kehlani seeks to avoid society’s constraints and expectations by raising her daughter in a progressive, loving environment surrounded by family.

“All my friends, all her aunties, uncles, her godparents, everybody is just loudly queer,” Kehlani said about raising her daughter.

“Our generation already kind of broke the mold of getting to that point, so I don’t even think our kids are going to think about it as something that they have to identify and differentiate. I feel it should be normal. We’ll be reading queer stories, queer books where the baby has two dads, two moms, two parents who don’t identify as either. Movies that have that. She sees healthy queer couples. So, I don’t think that she’s going to even think about it as ‘This is different from normal.’”

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