But like most artists with troubled pasts, it was music that saved her — raised her. In her Oakland neighborhood, she was the girl with the soulful voice who loved to write music, so at 14 she was recruited to join a local rock-soul band, PopLyfe. Two years later, the group was the third runner-up of the Nick Cannon-helmed America’s Got Talent
. But by the end of 2011, a lack of dedicated leadership and management caused the members of PopLyfe to go their separate ways — a dismantling that Kehlani looked at more with relief than defeat.
“Bigger than just being on a stage in front of a camera, in front of a celebrity panel of judges and things like that, PopLyfe and AGT
really taught me how the industry works,” Kehlani says. “It made me realize I was capable of doing that as a day job: Showing up to a set, working with people, working with professionals, sitting in front of cameras comfortably. It was all a really dope experience and it trained me more than anything on how to deal with a solo career.”
She also picked up a thing or two from her AGT
“Nick Cannon taught me that whatever you love to do, no matter how people feel about it, do it, and do it full force.”
Though PopLyfe fizzled, that moment was just the beginning of Kehlani’s ascent; after a buzz-y EP Cloud19
in 2014, her raw, introspective mixtape You Should Be Here
earned her a Grammy nomination for Best Urban Contemporary Album the following year. She was a rising star, on the cusp of something bigger than herself — the captivating, edgy musician on the tips of everyone’s tongues.
And then, just over a month after the Grammy’s, she attempted suicide
. It was a moment that shocked fans and music lovers alike. Though she’s never confirmed exactly what happened, a since-deleted, cryptic Instagram from the hospital led most followers to believe she’d tried to take her life after cyber trolls relentlessly attacked her for allegedly cheating on then-boyfriend, NBA player Kyrie Irving, with her ex, R&B singer PartyNextDoor.
And just like that, as close as she was to becoming a household name, Kehlani suddenly disappeared from the public eye. A four-month mental break began on the beaches of Hawaii, where the first seeds for SweetSexySavage
were planted. Then it was on to Vancouver and Philly to record; the album, she says, became her rehabilitation, a period in time when she learned that ultimately, every person is in control of their own happiness.