“If you know me, you know I’ve dreamt about motherhood since i was very young. when asked what my goals are, it’s always the idea of a big healthy happy family & whatever comes along is a plus.”
That’s how R&B sensation Kehlani announced her surprising pregnancy to the world back in October, breaking the news in a since-deleted Instagram post. And while the idea of a child dreaming about motherhood may strike some as odd or perhaps even limiting, when you take a look at all the life that the singer, just two months shy of her 24th birthday, has lived in such a relatively short amount of time, that longing—for family, for happiness, for a chance to do it all right—well, it makes perfect sense.
When she writes on Instagram, as she did on February 3, about trauma skipping generations until it reaches “someone able to heal it. and when they do… they heal 7 generations back & 7 generations forward,” she knows of what she speaks. Because until recently, perhaps right when she found out she was pregnant with the due-any-day-now Adeya Nomi, the life of Kehlani Ashley Parrish has been one peppered with nearly as much trauma as it has seen success.
On April 24, 1995, in a south Berkeley, Calif. apartment, a pregnant woman on the run from the police went into labor as the child’s father guided her through the birth over the phone. They were both addicts. The child, born prematurely and “like, not breathing,” as Kehlani explained to The Fader in 2015, went to the hospital before doing a brief sting in foster care. Her mother returned to jail and her father died when she was “one or two.” Eventually, the mother’s sister adopted her.
“My parents are like Bonnie and Clyde, in the easiest way to say it. My pops passed when I was, like, one, and my mom’s been a drug addict my whole life, so I was really lucky to have somebody to step up ’cause I was born, you know, really premature, really sick, on drugs. I had to go through withdrawals as a baby,” Kehlani told radio host Nessa during an interview back in 2014. “My auntie saved my life. She quit college to raise me. She was going to become a court reporter, she was about to make bread…So she gave up everything and had me in her house forever. She’s awesome.”
And yet, things still weren’t easy. As she helped look after her aunt’s two younger children in north Oakland, “We lived in this little duplex until everything started breaking,” she told The Fader. “It was getting really cold, and the heater broke, and then the sink broke, then the washing machine stopped working.”
And when her mom re-entered her life, though not as her guardian, her ability to always be “a little light”—”Something bad would happen, and I’d be like, ‘Well, this is happening, but we’re lucky in these other ways,'” she explained—was seriously challenged.
“At that point, my mom had two other kids. I just couldn’t understand why I was the only child who couldn’t be around her. She would be doing her s–t, then get clean for two months, but I was never allowed to stay with her, and I couldn’t grasp why,” she told the magazine. “They would be literally dragging me out of my mom’s crib, holding-on-to-the-walls type s–t. Screaming like, ‘Why am I the oldest and I can’t be here? Don’t you think I’m the most mature?'”
Graced with many gifts, Kehlani immersed herself in the world of the performing arts as she grappled with her challenging home life and confusion over her sexuality and body. As a student at the Oakland School for the Arts, she initially studied dance, aspiring to one day train as a dancer at the Julliard School, but a knee injury during her junior high years forced her into a detour: the school’s vocal department. And at 14, one of her peers suggested she audition for his dad, who was managing a local cover band that his son was the piano player for. It just so happened that the kid’s dad was D’wayne Wiggins, one of the founding members of Tony! Toni! Toné!
“I was hella scared,” she told Complex in 2014. “[It was] the first time I really sang out. I sang to him and he was like, ‘Let’s get it cracking.'”
She would spend the next three years of her life performing covers of classic soul songs in PopLyfe. “[We were] intensely doing shows, up until we were like 16, and then we auditioned for America’s Got Talent,” she said. That was in 2011, and the group earned itself a spot competing in the sixth season of the NBC reality series. Coming in fourth place overall, they missed out on any prize money, but Kehlani walked away with some invaluable gifts. The first was the encouragement of then-judge Piers Morgan, who told her during PopLyfe’s final performance, “You’ve got real talent, but I don’t think you need the group.” And the second was a relationship with Nick Cannon, who was hosting the show at the time. More on that in a second.
When the group returned to Oakland, Kehlani’s relationship with PopLyfe slowly disintegrated. “We stuck around together for maybe half a year but the adults in the situation weren’t able to keep things together. There were a lot of contractual things that were going wrong and a lot of mistreatment from management. The fact that we were 16—getting robbed and getting taken advantage of—was not OK,” she explained to Complex in 2015. “We had a meeting and [our managers] didn’t expect me to come as correct as I did. I approached them with everything that was wrong on a list and said, ‘This is not happening, this is not happening, and if this doesn’t happen, I’m out of here.’ They weren’t willing to just be appropriate and professional.”
Out of the group and unable to pursue music for a period of six months to avoid being sued by the group’s management, Kehlani spent a majority of 2012 and 2013 effectively homeless. “I was literally sleeping on whoever’s couch, and I got tattoos real fast,” she told The Fader. “At first it was like, ‘This is changing me into what I really want to be!’ I’d always wanted tattoos, but I think I actually got so many because I hated myself.”
By the time her senior year rolled around, she decided to move down south to Los Angeles in an attempt to get back into the music game. She enrolled at Hollywood High, but because of the fact that she wasn’t yet 18 and had no legal guardian with her in L.A., she was removed from the school in handcuffs after a matter of days and temporarily placed in a group home. So she returned to Oakland with no money and eventually graduated, but it wasn’t easy.
“There were times where I really had to do s–t like wait outside of a train station and snatch iPhones out of peoples’ hands and run and sell them,” she admitted. “I went through people’s houses. I ran through cars—all type of s–t that I feel like made me grow up so fast. I’ve been banned from Walgreens. I’ve been banned from Walmart for stealing f–king clothes and food. Lucky’s caught me with a box of Wheat Thins and some bread. I was like, ‘Can’t you tell I’m stealing because I’m hungry?'”
And then Cannon called.
“Nick Cannon got back in touch with me,” she revealed. “He was just like, ‘Yo, I remember you. What are you doing now?’ I’m telling him, ‘Nothing.'”
So, he brought her back down to L.A. to see if she might be the right fit for a project he was working on, a rap group he was putting together. She wasn’t. “The morals were twisted,” she recalled in 2015. “I was up there rapping s–t that I didn’t write. It wasn’t something I wanted to be involved in.” Back to Oakland it was.
Despite returning to her life of struggle in the East Bay, she began to hustle, releasing “ANTISUMMERLUV,” her first solo track, on SoundCloud months later. Immediately after hearing it, Cannon was on the phone yet again. “He called me and was like, ‘Yo, I get your vision now! I get you, who you want to be as a solo artist. I respect it!'” she told Complex.
So, she returned to L.A. yet again, and this time Cannon set the burgeoning artist up for success. “He’s like, ‘Yo, you can’t be running around here trying to make music and you can’t even think about music when you’re worrying about what you’re going to eat and where you’re going to sleep,'” she told the outlet. “He comes at it from an uncle perspective. Just trying to make sure I’m alive and safe and healthy. So he saved my life, and that’s why I’m here today.”
By August 2014, her first mixtape, Cloud 19, was released. Her second, You Should Be Here, came eight months later. And when it did, Billboard called it the “year’s first great R&B album” as it debuted at No. 5 on the Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart. Complex called her one of the 15 Artists to Watch Out for in 2015, Rolling Stone named her one of the 10 New Artists You Need to Know, and she earned a nomination at the 2016 Grammy Awards for Best Urban Contemporary Album. It was a quick rise.
And then it was almost all over.
As happens too often in this modern era of fame, her personal life became a trending topic and put her in the crosshairs of social media trolls who pushed her to the brink. In early 2016, she’d been romantically linked to Cleveland Cavaliers Kyrie Irving. So, when rapper PARTYNEXTDOOR posted a photo of her hand on Instagram on March, insinuating that the two were in bed together, the wolves came out with their knives sharpened, assuming she’d cheated on Irving. It didn’t matter that the NBA star tweeted that they’d broken up before the incident. The furor aimed at Kehlani kept coming and coming, resulting in the singer making an attempt on her own life.
“It was much bigger than me dealing with heartbreak or dark thoughts on my own,” she told the Los Angeles Times in 2017. “I was a person that genuinely only wanted to be known for my music…[and] the entire world is coming at you and it’s viral.”
She found herself hospitalized, attached to an IV, as she made a tragic admission on social media: “Today, I wanted to leave this earth.”
“When you Googled my name that’s all you saw for months. I was terrified to go outside. I was having panic attacks in restaurants because I thought the waiters were looking at me about it,” she told the newspaper. “The PTSD that I was dealing with — that I just got over, thank God — was insane.”
So, Kehlani retreated to Hawaii to recover, where she chopped off her hair. “I felt like I was carrying [that] past week of trauma…and I needed to restart,” she said, explaining the decision to the L.A. Times. And she got to work on her debut album, landing on the theme that would become the LP’s title: SweetSexySavage.
“I didn’t want to be sad every time I go onstage…and I didn’t want to sink back into depression or relive these things over and over again,” she told the newspaper. “I wanted to make myself happy and when I get on stage everything is so happy. I’m having the time of my life, and that’s what this album is about.”
As the album debuted in January 2017 to critical acclaim, Kehlani propelled herself to greater heights, touring with G-Eazy and Demi Lovato and collaborating with the likes of Eminem, Cardi B and Hayley Kiyoko. And as she was coming out of the darkness from her suicide attempt, she realized that, despite her discomfort with having her mental health put on display, she had a responsibility.
“Who would I be to have gone through things and get to the point where people believe in me and not share [information] about something as imperative as mental health? I know how prevalent it is. It’s been a major part of my life,” she told PAPER Magazine in 2018, telling the publication that she’s experienced depression, ADHD, OCD and PTSD, and that she was medicated for a stretch of her childhood, which she says dulled her personality. “How can I have the nerve to make music about it, but not do things to help? I try to speak about it from a non-condescending place, though, because it’s really hard for people to receive information from someone that they think has a perfect life.”
She also began to be embraced for the queer identity that she’d always been open about—in her 2014 Complex interview, she referred to herself as bisexual and had never made any attempt at walking that back as her profile grew—and in April of 2018, she took to Twitter to clarify her sexuality as it stood at the time. (The newfound curiosity owed to her 2017 track “Honey,” an acoustic ode to an old girlfriend, and the fact that clearly her new fans hadn’t gone back and done their research.)
“cuz i keep geddin asked.. i’m queer,” she tweeted. “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?”
Speaking with PAPER that summer, she admitted that self-identification is something that’s challenging for her across the board. “As soon as you walk through the door,” the mixed-race singer, whose father was African-American and mother is “mostly white, Spanish and Native American, told the publication, “‘It’s, ‘Well, what are you? What’s your race? What’s your sexual orientation? And both are very ambiguous for me.”
She later reiterated that “pansexual” might be the label that’s most accurate for her, adding, “I have a unique attraction to every type of person there is on this earth.”
“I have to check myself with when I do give information,” she said elsewhere in the interview. “I’m a bisexual woman who has been with men, and a lot of queer women are sensitive to that.” Who knew months later she was about o prove just how sensitive.
In October, Kehlani would announce her pregnancy, keeping the identity of her unborn daughter’s father a secret for a week before revealing that Javaughn Young-White, her guitarist, was her partner and the pregnancy was planned. In an interview on Nicki Minaj‘s Queen Radio, she opened up about the relationship. “I started dating women before I ever dated men. Then I was lucky to find a partner who was a bisexual male. And he really understands my queerness and my fluidity, and I really understand his. It’s very awesome to be understood,” she said.
And yet, there were those who weren’t satisfied. Despite the fact that she’d always self-identified as someone whose sexuality is fluid in the truest sense of the word, the accusations came pouring in. “I’ve gotten everything from ‘I thought she was a lesbian’ to ‘she was using queerness to promote her career, then went and betrayed us with a man’ to ‘her baby father is just a sperm donor,'” she told Nylon in November. “One, I never identified as a lesbian. I’ve always been pansexual. My first mixtape included songs about males, and songs about women. My first album had songs about a nonbinary ex, an intersex ex, and male/female exes. I don’t always make it a point to identify pronouns in the music because that isn’t the focal point. I think what steered everyone in the direction of categorizing my sexuality (which is still really narrow-minded) was my song ‘Honey,’ and a couple of the features I’d done after.”
As she saw it, the difficulty with reconciling her pregnancy and her status as a queer musician stemmed from even the LGBTQ’s inability to sometimes see beyond rigid binary structures. “I also saw a lot of discomfort with the use of the word ‘queer,’ hinting that it’s used for folks to run away from identifying with a more ‘solidified’ term like bi/lesbian/gay/pan. My response is: Whatever makes you feel your safest, in your truest identity, you should identify as such without being policed by the same community you are supposed to feel most safe with,” she added. “A lot of queer youth I know feel extremely validated by the term ‘queer.’ You deserve to be believed, taken for what you say you are, and not shamed for it. Always open to learning though.”
As she gets closer and closer to her due date, Kehlani’s been open about the fact that her pregnancy hasn’t been without its difficulties. As she revealed on Instagram in December, she’d been suffering through some prenatal depression, explaining that it was “hitting me like a bag of bricks, to being very isolated and alone internally and externally these days, to just the normal terrible sleep/no appetite/anxiety.”
With just weeks left to go in her third trimester, she’s admitted that she’s ready for the experience of childbirth, telling Apple Music’s Beats 1 host Zane Lowe in January, “I’m really excited to experience that, just because I’ve always been interested in the birth process my whole life. If I had enough free time and I wasn’t wrapped up in music, I’d probably be a doula or something. But just to feel what the surrender feels like — completely surrendering to the entire process of being in extreme pain but also extreme beauty, it’s very ceremonial for me. So I’m really excited for that.”
To keep the intense anticipation over finally meeting her little one at bay, she’s kept herself more than busy. Her third mixtape, appropriately entitled While We Wait, was released on Friday, and she’s also been hard at work on her second studio album, which she told Lowe was “basically a gift to my daughter.”
“It’s my parents’ story articulated into mine, articulated into a gift for my daughter, so she knows where she comes from,” Kehlani explained, adding that it’s been “a really heavy load to process while I’m pregnant.”
She continued, “Due to the story of my parents, actually, and where they’re at in life right now, it’s been a really big energetic purge for me to not only draw out of myself, but attempt to obtain the stories from them. My father isn’t here, and my mom is doing her thing, so we’d have to go find her to get these stories to do that. So, that was becoming just a serious thing.”
While Kehlani’s path has been far from conventional or easy, it’s abundantly clear that she’s finally found herself exactly where she wants to be. “My overall dreams and goals for my life are to love to the highest limits one can experience love. The highest forms of happiness, and graciousness,” she gushed to Nylon. “I believe creating life is one of the highest forms of love! I’m accomplishing one of my biggest goals as we speak.”