Kehlani headlined Carleton’s 2016 spring concert. Expectations were for sexy dance moves and baby making R&B and she did not disappoint. In the conversations that followed, my peers generally agreed on her attractiveness. My straight-identified friends would call her their “girl-crush” (because no homo). But overall, everyone wanted to be her, be with her or both. I fall very hard in the 3rd category. At the time, I attributed her universal appeal to her dancing as well as the “cool” and androgynous presentation of short hair, a crop top, and cargo pants. As a white person I wasn’t forced to think about race.
In her music videos, her expression varies a lot. There are scenes where she sports loose camouflage pants and a hoodie with her short hair slicked down, whereas in other videos she might be seen in a white robe, full makeup, nails, and a wig. While gender expression may be the most obvious transformation, her presentation of self is also racialized and classed. Sometimes she sports large hoop earrings and grillz. Her hairstyles vary from pinned down natural short hair to wigs of varying length. She reminds us of her blackness through content of her music (“street talk” and use of the n-word), but in her whitest expression she is almost passing.
A NY Times article published in 2003 addresses the increasing appeal of people who are ethnically diverse or ambiguous in advertising and magazines. This accompanies the narrative where beauty transcends race in the post-racial mixing pot that is America (1). The bio on her website seems to be aware of the exoticized appeal of mixed-race women and it describes her as a “unique blend of ethnicities including African American, Caucasian, Native American, Spanish, and Filipino Native American” (2).
So she obviously nails the “ethnic blend” thing with her ability to fine-tune the way her race is read by society through her aesthetic. But she also gets at an ambiguity of gender that she can manipulate in a similar way. Social psychology studies about the appeal of androgyny date back decades. It has been shown that even for cishet folks, androgynous characteristics are more attractive in people of the gender they are attracted to (3).
On top of this, Kehlni’s voice balances a soft gentle tone with sharp confidence. She is also very open about dating all genders, which makes her sexuality consumable to almost all non-ace people. Kehlani is well-aware of the appeal of her identity-based ambiguities and carefully manipulates her presentation to perform the idea that she can essentially do everything. She’s extremely successful at this. I, for one, 100% buy in.