Kehlani performs with Cardi B during the 2018 Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival Weekend 1 at the Empire Polo Field on April 15, 2018 in Indio, California.  Kevin Winter/Getty Images for Coachella
Kehlani performs with Cardi B during the 2018 Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival Weekend 1 at the Empire Polo Field on April 15, 2018 in Indio, California.  (Kevin Winter/Getty Images for Coachella)

Kehlani is Queering Mainstream Pop, and the Bay Area is Here for It

Kehlani is Queering Mainstream Pop, and the Bay Area is Here for It

In Charlie Puth's music video for "Done for Me," his dance single featuring Kehlani, the camera cuts to Kehlani dancing on a love interest under dim disco lights. As she cozies up next to the young woman in a hot tub and, later, on a silk comforter, Kehlani's body language conveys an easy, natural affection — and not one contrived for shock value, like Katy Perry's "I Kissed a Girl" and other gay-for-a-day displays in mainstream pop.

Kehlani has long been candid in interviews about her fluid sexuality and history of dating various genders. But with her recent exposure to a broader audience — opening for Demi Lovato's tour, a feature on Cardi B's Invasion of Privacy — some newer fans seemed to have questions about her sexuality.

On Apr. 22, Kehlani took to Twitter to clarify: "cuz i keep geddin asked.. i’m queer. 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 tweet has since been deleted.)

The 23-year-old singer's flexible definition of her sexuality resonates with an increasing number of young people. According to a recent study, less than half of U.S. teenagers identify as straight. And in the Bay Area, it's more common to meet people who call themselves "queer" — as opposed to more traditional orientations like gay, lesbian or bisexual — to signify a greater fluidity and inclusion of trans and non-binary people.

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"I love that Kehlani came out as queer as opposed to coming out as bi or lesbian or straight," says Kelly Lovemonster, the queer-identifying promoter behind the popular Bay Area LGBTQ party Swagger Like Us. "I think the queer identity is a very important one and it’s also one that, for me, is infused with politics."

He continues, "To identify as queer is to say you actively are aware of folks who live on the margins; you try your best to think outside of a [gender] binary."

Historically speaking, young, female pop artists have striven to appeal to the straight, male gaze. Kehlani's declaration that she's "least attracted to straight men" in a follow-up Apr. 22 tweet is a clear break from this tradition, one that gives other young, female artists permission to be themselves.

"I think it's amazing, not only how open she is, but the fact that she is someone who looks relatable," says Rayana Jay, one of the Bay Area's most buzzed-about new R&B artists. "She looks like us. A woman of color, tattooed, from home. I mean, it just makes it so much more real when you can relate to the person it's coming from."

Jay says she's still unsure how she identifies, but she says that Kehlani's recent statements showed her that "we're not alone in this self-discovery, and we discover ourselves through other people."

Siri, an Oakland rapper and singer who recently opened for tUnE-yArDs at the Fox Theater, says Kehlani's new openness with her sexuality in her lyrics has inspired her to write songs about love interests other than men. (Kehlani's 2017 single "Honey" is an earnest love song about a woman: "I like my girls just like I like my honey; sweet / A little selfish.")

"[Kehlani's] work opens up a lane for people to write what they want and be a part of the narrative," says Siri. "We’re telling stories for people who don’t feel like their stories are being told or could be told."

As other LGBTQ artists — especially those who are visibly gender non-conforming, like Big Freedia — continue to be sidelined from the music industry, let's hope Kehlani's trans-inclusive queerness starts necessary, long-overdue dialogues about sexuality and gender in the music industry — and which musicians are allowed to succeed.

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