The line to enter the Aragon Ballroom wrapped around the sidewalk and into the middle of a nearby alley where fans were dressed in their Friday night best: wigs laid, braids done, eyeliner winged, dreadlocks retwisted. Guys with handmade signs were stationed across from the dumpsters selling Modelos and edibles, while the crowd waited to join the thousands already inside.
On August 26, the young, visibly queer procession of ticketholders shuffled into the 100-year-old building and were greeted by extravagant balconies, chandeliers, and arches reminiscent of Game of Thrones. After Destin Conrad, Rico Nasty, and DJ Noodles finished an hour and a half of hype opening sets, everyone in the audience held their phone cameras to the empty stage, where a short video appeared of Kehlani, in a camper on a road trip, talking to her daughter Adeya while she writes a song.
The video cut off, and four dancers, dressed in black and moving like water, materialized on stage before the singer. Bright blue lights beamed through the concert fog and revealed Kehlani center stage. She was tatted and wearing a blue knitted outfit, her curly black hair down to her waist. Her band—composed of a guitarist, synth/keyboardist, and drummer—walked to their instruments. The performance began.
Kehlani, who uses she/they pronouns, is a queer, prolific, multitalented muse; it’s no wonder her Chicago audience seemed so specific. Blue Water Road is their third studio album, not counting three additional mixtapes and dozens of singles released, and is considered their most mature, settled, and queer release. When the Oakland singer visited Reckless Records in Chicago for an album signing tour earlier this May, the artist attracted a crowd that had the same soft and edgy energy her music is imbued with.
As the concert ended and fans scurried to the exits, the energy was buzzing—the crowd inebriated from the experience. Two fans, Candid and Ari, were in line for merchandise. Candid called Kehlani her “baby mama” and complimented her “baby mama’s” live singing. “The mike was on. The mike was on! The mike was on.”
“I was expecting it and I got it,” Ari said. “She hit that shit. And as my sister said, the mike was on.”
Outside, a group of friends sat in a circle on the curb.
“It was fucking amazing, Kehlani is fucking beautiful,” one said. “Such a well put together show. I think I ascended into heaven, honestly.”
“She’s completely changed the game,” said another who introduced themself as Ace. “Her own game. She’s evolved. She’s a woman, she’s a mother, she’s amazing. She did the fuck out of this show.”
“She’s a true performer, she’s just so effortless with her art, she’s an honest, true inspiration,” another friend chimed in, who introduced themself as “someone trying to come up in the R&B music industry.” “Being in her presence right now, I shed literal tears.”
A queer couple told me how “Melt,” Kehlani’s favorite love song off their recent album, was also their favorite to hear together. “She’s just a really unique performer,” one of them said. “And I think she really gives her all whenever she goes on tour.”
Bundled up on the Pratt Street Beach under the Sunday moonlight a week before the show, Freddy Maurico, my best friend from college, and I grabbed our sandy red Solo cups filled with Barefoot wine. As we were bitten by sand flies, songs that spanned Kehlani’s discography played from his speaker. The dark bass of “RPG” off her album While We Wait quickly enveloped us both, and Freddy told me about the first time he saw her in concert.
“Oh my god, like, I was so captivated,” he said. It was 2016 and we were freshmen. Our college hosted an undergraduate show and Kehlani was the opening act. They only had two backup dancers and a chair, and he was amazed by her singing, dancing, and rapping. “Like it was all introduced to me like in this one performance. That was like my first interaction with someone that could do all of that.” We both were loyal fans within a year. But Freddy’s obsession peaked much before mine, and it was through him that I fell for the artist myself.
In high school, mid-20s pop artists like Marina and the Diamonds, Demi Lovato, Ellie Gouding, and Ariana Grande were on the marquee for Freddy. He would also soon discover the slow and sexy sound singers like Kali Uchis and Frank Ocean made. “I think that’s how Kehlani started to fit in,” the 24-year-old said.
Kehlani’s music “[has] that R&B pop sound” that’s euphoric, he said. Freddy likes the rap-singing Kehlani incorporates, which he saw first expressed by Beyoncé in Destiny’s Child. “So it’s like, uhhhh I’m lost in the music. But it’s also hard and sexy at the same time.”
Freddy explained that while he adores Ariana Grande, her music comes off as a bit manufactured because she has several co-writers and less creative control. Kehlani co-wrote most of the songs on Blue Water Road. Another Kehlani fan told me they felt Ariana Grande is a “pop princess” who “writes for radio,” and that can be limiting.
“But with Kehlani I was like, oh, like she’s all of it,” Freddy said. “That’s all her life, all her coming from her body, her soul, her passion.”
Kehlani was the first and only openly queer R&B artist he listened too. Their music pushed him to self-discovery. “Kehlani’s music kinda opened my eyes,” he said. “‘Like, I am so sexy but also so vulnerable.” Freddy laughed. “It’s OK to be both.’”
One of Freddy’s favorite tracks is “Everything Is Yours” off of 2017’s SweetSexySavage:
Up at a time when I shouldn’t be / Thinking ‘bout things that I shouldn’t be / Sad about shit I’ve been sad about for the past year / I’ve been low, I’ve been down and out it . . . I would give it all to make it all work (Oh, oh) / I wish I could say that you knew my worth.
“That’s an example, I think, of depending so much on a person and loving a person so fully,” Freddy said. “And like, hyperfixating on what they think of me and just giving my all and expecting it all from like this one person,” with an urgency, outward preoccupation, and abandonment of self that doesn’t make it into the most recent project.
On the beach that night, we could hear the waves of Lake Michigan crashing, but we could hardly see them. I turned on “Get Me Started (feat. Syd),” Freddy’s favorite song off of Blue Water Road.
A smooth upward moving bass grooved repetitively under the singer’s soft vocals and a hard beat: “I guess, choose peace over stress (oh) / Can’t clean up your mess / You wanna leave? Be my guest / Pushin’ my buttons, you gon’ get me started / Call me aggressive, I’m just being honest.”
“You know in the lyrical content, they’re not even engaging with this person’s attitude and pettiness,” Freddy said. “That’s why it’s so much more grounded and mature. All the songs are in this mindset throughout the album. I was like, wow, that is growth. And this throwback R&B just makes me dance.”
On the Wednesday evening two days before the show, I sat with Toni Akunebu at Foster Beach, as dozens slowly reentered the water after the lifeguard on duty went home for the day. The 25-year-old said they preferred music which they could cook to, smoke to, or fuck to. Kehlani provides all three.
As we dug our feet into the sand and caught the last hour of daylight as the sun escaped below Lake Michigan, Toni talked to me about Blue Water Road and how Kehlani puts “love and tenderness” into what they do, from music videos to clothing and choreography. “It always feels like something new, and it always feels like something that just hasn’t been done before,” Toni said. Kehlani’s self-direction shines through what Toni describes as an eclectic discography.
“I feel like there’s a little bit for everyone, like, there’s a lot of R&B, there’s a lot of soul. There’s a lot of mixing . . . freeform poetry; it feels like little love notes just being given to you.” Toni also identifies deep spirituality through the artist’s work, and said embodiment is the best description they can give for the catalog, and that themes like self-awareness and “yearning for connection” appear on albums.
“There’s a lot of the songs where I’m shaking my ass,” Toni said. “There’s other ones where I’m just like, ‘OK, I just have to sit, be here in this moment and just really be present.’ And so I feel like a lot of their music is really about honoring those moments with yourself, those parts of yourselves at different times.”
Toni appreciates how they’re able to witness how life experiences change an artist, and those changes are reflected in the artist’s music. Toni said they learned about the singer’s queerness even earlier in 2018, after Hayley Kiyoko and Kehlani collbaorated as best friends turned lovers in a music video, kissing in what Toni described as “the kiss heard around the world.” Last year, Kehlani went on Instagram Live and responded to a fan’s request for life updates with, “You wanna know what’s new about me? I finally know I’m a lesbian!”
Earlier this year the singer released a music video filmed in a cottage in São Paulo, Brazil, featuring tender, romantic moments with her real-life lover, rapper 070 Shake.
Kehlani had primarily dated cis men in the public eye, so they received a lot of media scrutiny for renouncing men in 2021, even though they were releasing songs like “Honey” years earlier (“I like my girls just like I like my honey, sweet / A little selfish / I like my women like I like my money, green / A little jealous”). Blue Water Road distinguishes itself by exploring the mature, queer relationship that Kehlani yearns for in earlier projects.
“There really just isn’t a lot of queer folks, especially like, gender-fluid, gender-nonconforming folks, just like in mainstream media at the same caliber,” Toni said.
I had a video call with Imani Wilson six hours before the show. She’ll tell me later that “it was one of the best nights I’ve had in a while. I wish I could go see it again.”
The 24-year-old has “24/7” tattooed above her knee, an ode to Kehlani’s 2016 single in which the rapper describes their struggle with depression. “It’s OK to not be OK / To dive in your pain / And it’s alright to not be alright / To search for your light.”
Wilson said that what makes Kehlani unique, especially as a queer artist, is their insistence on being authentic and honest in their music—which mostly concerns romance and love—even when those relationships might end in the public eye.
In 2020, for example, five days after releasing a joint Valentine’s Day single with their former lover YG, the rapper released a song on streaming called “Valentine’s Day (Shameful)” that croons of sudden heartbreak: “Torn between crying for help / And not letting them see me sweat / I took a risk loving loudly / Defended you proudly.”
A few months later on It Was Good Until It Wasn’t, Kehlani dropped “Belong to the Streets Skit,” where young voice actors are discussing the singer’s romantic life callously, saying, “Always got a different nigga though, bruh, like, we get it (yeah).” Kehlani seemingly explains herself and her tenacity to love out loud in the starting bars of “Everybody Business”: “I ain’t never been a half-ass lover / Rather lay out on the train tracks for ya / Hit the pavement for ya / Make a statement.”
Wilson said she admires how Kehlani can address past ways of being and say, “Yeah, this was who I was at one point,” but also acknowledge that people change. And as an artist, they leave a record of who they’ve been. Kehlani walks through those past iterations of themself with a lot of peace. “People are fluid,” Wilson said. “That’s one of her favorite words to use, ‘fluid.’ And seeing her navigate herself and figuring out who she is, helps [me].”
A few songs into Kehlani’s set, the concoction of blinking red and yellow stage lights and theater smoke created an atmosphere reminiscent of a sex dungeon or planet Mars. “Fuck that, sing it to me!” the rapper demanded, beckoning the audience to join in the transition from verse to chorus in their song “Can I.” The audience complied, and sang half the chorus (“Can I / Stop by / To see you / Tonight?”) while Kehlani and her four dancers—none of them men—reenacted partner intimacy for our enjoyment.
The star dropped to their knees behind one of their dancers, who was already on all fours in front, and grinded on the dancer from the back, while balancing their own weight on their knees. By the second time through that chorus, Kehlani was the one on the ground, ass up while one of the masculine-presenting dancers grabbed the artist from the back and playfully grinded on them.
As the band crescendoed into the second verse, Kehlani continued singing the second verse balanced on the ground. The choreography of queer play and chase continued throughout the night, with dancers pulsing toward and away from the singer in flowing, sensual motion. “Don’t worry about if the strap is thicker thank you!” the rapper yelled, replacing the original line for the gay rendition. The audience screamed.
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