If you have never heard of Kehlani, I suggest you stop reading this post and do a Google search immediately. Tatted from head to toe, drop dead gorgeous, and rocking a smoky evocative voice completely betraying her years, Kehlani is on the precipice of becoming one of the biggest names in RnB. She writes all her own lyrics, and sings with a rawness that evokes the idea that she has seen it all, done it all, and frankly doesn’t care what anyone has to think about it.
Earlier this week Kehlani dropped her highly anticipated video for the single “The Way” with collaborator Chance The Rapper (also worth a listen in his own right). The video is fire, and calls forth memories of Aaliyah and 2000ish Ciara. I scrolled the comments as our generation does, sharing and experiencing the world as a group rather than individually. What I found, rather than general awe at her skill and delivery, was a full-fledged debate about Kehlani’s race.
“Lol, this whole time I thought she was black”
“She’s a mixture. Not black.”
“I hate being labeled as one race.”
“It’s not called labeling, it’s called repping.”
I was stunned. But also intrigued. The idea of Kehlani’s race had been bothering me for some time as well. With her fair skin and wavy hair, her race IS rather ambiguous. And after hearing her song “N*ggas” I became a bit obsessed with verifying that she is, in fact, a black woman, as the vast majority of her fans claim her to be. After thoroughly searching Google and watching a couple of her interviews, I verified that Kehlani is black (at least a little bit). Furthermore, she is quick to tell you so, which, ultimately, is what matters most.
So why does Kehlani’s race matter? Why is it important that she herself identifies as black? And why is her “little bit” of black significant?
In 1662, Virginia passed Partus sequitur ventrem, which in Latin literally translates to “that which is brought forth follows the womb.” Essentially, any child born of an enslaved woman was also considered a slave. Because white slave owners viewed black women as property, and thus there’s to do with as they pleased, mixed-race children were a relatively common occurrence in the Antebellum South. Many children were born of white fathers and black mothers, considered fully black, and enslaved.
Fast forward to the 1900s. The Civil War has ended; Reconstruction has utterly failed; and white people are grasping at the last remnants of power available to them. The Jim Crow south is a born: a white supremacist state driven by lawful segregation, restrictive legislation, and the genuine fear that black advancement could only occur at white expense (a belief still perpetuated today, albeit less blatantly). One white statute adopted in many southern states during this time was the “one-drop rule,” which stated that a person only needed to have one ancestor of African descent to be considered fully black–making them ineligible to vote, hold office, or live in equality with whites. The one-drop rule represents a phenomenon known as hypodescent.
Hypodescent: The practice of determining the lineage of a child of mixed-race ancestry by assigning the child the race of his or her more socially subordinate parent.
Ok so we’ve had a history lesson, but what does all of this have to do with Kehlani?
Kehlani is of mixed-race, but in the 1800s, if Kehlani’s mother were black, Kehlani would have been deemed black, guaranteeing her enslavement. And in the early 1900s, Kehlani’s black ancestry would have ensured segregation, limited educational opportunities, and minuscule political freedom.
Today, in the 2000s, black people have learned (as we have a particular knack for doing) to take the injustices of the past and transcend them to become something greater. The one-drop rule certainly still applies, but to insulate and uplift us, not degrade us. If you are a person of black ancestry, and down for the cause, the significance is in acceptance and envelopment by the black community, not exclusion from the white.
This acceptance and validation is extremely beneficial today in particular, when being a black person is culturally advantageous, if not socioeconomically. In a society that thrives on the appropriation and degradation of black life by non-black people, membership in the black community is akin to a cultural golden ticket, ensuring inclusion in a group that is often the paradigm of language, art, music, and style–effectively, culture.
Several prominent artists and public figures are examples of this one-drop acceptance: musicians Drake and J Cole; actors and actresses such as Zendaya and Tracee Ellis Ross; and even president Obama. All of these people are of mixed-race. But they “rep” for us, identifying themselves as black when it is not socioeconomically advantageous for them to do, and are thus loved, respected, and accepted by the black community. If the one drop rule was enough to ensure our enslavement and mistreatment, it is certainly enough to grant us inclusion in the culture borne of that enslavement and mistreatment.
Because America’s racialized society thrives on the degradation of black life, socioeconomic advancement by the black community is typically accompanied by a certain degree of backlash and, if we’re being honest, panic (see: whitelash). In a racially hierarchical society, the solution to preserving the appearance of white dominance in the face of black advancement is hyperdescent.
Hyperdescent: the practice of classifying a child of mixed-race ancestry in the more socially dominant of the parents’ races. Hyperdescent is the opposite of hypodescent.
Hypodescent and hyperdescent subtly guide our perceptions of race in America. When black people of mixed-race are poor or disenfranchised, as is the expectation, they are seen as black–hypodescent. However, when a black mixed-race person does something socioeconomically advantageous, they are often classified as or recognized as being, mixed–hyperdescent. This mixed classification robs gratification for the achievement from the black community, while citing the addition of whiteness as justification for the achievement in the first place.
This is why Kehlani’s situation is so unique. As a black person of mixed-race, black people (myself included) claim Kehlani as a member of the black community, considering her to be a black woman first. But given her talent and acclaim, others (white people particularly) might choose to label her mixed, essentially crediting her white genes for her skills and success. Given her racial ambiguity, how Kehlani chooses to identify her race is entirely up to her. She is fair enough that she could identify as white if she wanted, unlike mixed people with darker complexions, whose racial identities are (like most people’s) determined by society at large. But because she has that “one-drop” she is entitled to identify as black, even if to be black in America is to be a member of an oppressed people, and would not afford her ease of life or socioeconomic mobility.
When asked about her ethnicity, Kehlani always does the full rundown “Black, white, Native American, Spanish.” Which is her prerogative, and an effective compromise to the “What race are you?” question. However, she claims her blackness, always stating ‘black’ first in the ethnic rundown. This (to me) is an assertion of black pride, and a political statement in itself.