A sea of smart phones rose above heads to capture singer-songwriter Kehlani Parrish’s dark, waist-length, wind-machine-blown hair flutter on stage during her July 26 show at Slim’s, the first of two sold-out engagements at the San Francisco club.
The mostly standing audience of young Blacks, whites, Latinos and Asians in many ways reflected the 20-year-old Oakland-born vocalist’s own mixed ethnicity.
“Something about all these mixtapes. Man, they charting like albums. Underground’s one thing. Stadium music is how our s— sounding,” Kehlani sang on a tune titled “Preach,” backed instrumentally by DJ Noodles and keyboardist Jahaan Sweet. Many in the adoring crowd joined in without prompting, as they did on the show’s other 21 songs.
Kehlani, who goes by her first name only professionally, is presently one of the hottest artists on the national R&B underground. When her largely sold-out two-month cross-country tour ends August 23 in Las Vegas, she will resume working on her debut album for Atlantic Records, due out early next year.
It will be her first physical CD. Although dozens of songs from Kehlani’s two self-released mixtapes and other sources can be downloaded from Amazon.com or on YouTube and Soundcloud. Her latest mixtape, “You Should Be Here,” generated a million plays on Soundcloud within 24 hours of its May release.
The singer’s career has been greatly assisted by entertainer Nick Cannon. They first met four years ago when he was hosting NBC-TV’s “America’s Got Talent” and she competed as a member of PopLyfe. The teenage Oakland R&B sextet placed in the top five for the show’s 2011 season but broke up not long after.
“We weren’t really allowed to associate,” Kehlani said of initially meeting Cannon, in a phone interview from Southern California. “He was super nice. He was nice to all the acts. He’s a very good person. A couple of years later, he hit me up.
“He saved my life,” she said. “When I was living in the Bay, I was couch-hopping. He got me down to L.A. and set me up with being able to record in his studio when I wanted to and being able to work with him when I wanted to and allowed me to stay somewhere.”
After briefly coming back to the Bay Area to get her high school diploma from Berkeley Technology Academy, she returned to Southern California where, she said, Cannon “got me my first apartment.”
“We’ve built a very good, like, mentor, uncle/niece relationship,” she added.
With heavy promotion from Atlantic Records and sold-out shows across the country, Kehlani seems on the verge of major stardom.
“I don’t even think about those things,” she said. “I just wanna play bigger shows and touch more people and make more songs. Stardom is a crazy thought. If that’s what my path is, then that’s where I’m excited to be headed.”