Kehlani was born in Oakland, California. Her father was killed by cause of gun violence shortly after she was born. Her mother was a drug addict and criminal who was wanted by the police, and had been sent to jail soon after Kehlani's birth. They recently tried living together again after her mom was released from a stint in jail, but it didn’t work out, and they became estranged again in April. Kehlani created a song depicting her and her mothers relationship titled The Letter, found in her You Should Be Here mixtape. Because of her father's passing and her mother's incarceration, Kehlani was raised by her aunt, who took her in when she was 3 months old. She moved out of her aunt's house at 16 years old but became homeless shortly thereafter.She resorted to stealing from places like Walgreens, Walmart, and Lucky's to get food and clothing and would spend nights in "trap houses", having to hide her belongings when strangers walked in. Kehlani and her childhood best friend would also often sing on the streets for money to provide meals for themselves. Her music is heavily influenced by her life experiences as well as the area she grew up in.
Kehlani was a dancer in junior high until an injury forced her to focus her artistic talents on singing.
Before the injury she studied dance at the Oakland School for the Arts. Kehlani says that school and music always clashed together since she was always absent because she was focused on music. Kehlani was 12 years old when she performed as a singer for the first time. It was at a showcase in her hometown of Oakland, California.
In 2011, she was on America's Got Talent with her group Poplyfe, which was produced by D'Wayne Wiggins. They sang "Billionaire" by Travie McCoy and Bruno Mars for their audition. They also performed for guest judge Stevie Wonder while on the show. Poplyfe came in fourth place in the final round. Judges at the time told Kehlani that they believed she didn't need the group and she would be better off on her own because they felt the group was holding her back. The group broke up soon after the show ended because of contractual issues and disagreements with their management. Kehlani gave up singing for 6 months after their break up out of fear that she would be sued by the group's previous management for making music on her own. During this time she supported herself by working part-time jobs at her local mall.
Kehlani has a close relationship Nick Cannon, who helped her after she became homeless as well as helped start her career.Two years after being eliminated on America's Got Talent and host of the show Nick Cannon formally reaches out to Kehlani explaining that he would help her create a sound.
Kehlani is influenced by various artists such as Lauryn Hill, India Arie, Stevie Wonder, and Musiq Soulchild. In addition to these artists, Kehlani has stated that she is influenced by girl groups that were popular in the 90's. She is also influenced by non musical leaders such as Frida Kahlo, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King Jr. Kehlani wants her music to uplift young people and encourage them to be confident in themselves.
In August 2014, Kehlani began pursuing her solo career, when she released her debut mixtape Cloud 19. This mixtape ranked at number 28 on the Complex 's "50 Best Albums of 2014" list, while Pitchfork Media listed it as one of the "Overlooked Mixtapes 2014". Her song, "Till the Morning", was chosen by Billboard as one of the "Emerging Picks of the Weeks" on November 7, 2014. Jaahan Sweet is a producer who helped Kehlani stayed grounded to her 90's R&B sound. He helped Kehlani create some of her most popular songs: "Lock it up," "Till the Morning," "Get Away," "How we do us."
In April 2015, she released her second mixtape,You Should Be Here. In the category of Top R&B/ Hip Hop albums Billboard selected Kehlani's You Should Be Here as #5. The mixtape features guest appearances from Chance the Rapper and BJ the Chicago Kid.To promote the mixtape, she went on a tour visiting North America and Europe in 2015. Before the release of her mixtape she had been on tour with G-Eazy on his "From the Bay to the Universe" tour. At the moment she is also working on her debut album which is said to be finished in early 2016.
Kehlani has collaborated with Trey Songz, who remixed her song "The Way featuring Chance The Rapper. She has also worked with Justin Bieber and Khalil on a song called "Future."
The first time Kehlani performed as a solo artist on TV was on Revolt Live.
Kehlani was named one of the "15 Artists to Watch in 2015" by Complex and Hypetrack. She was also named one of the "10 Artists You Need to Know" by Rolling Stone.You Should Be Here the first great R&B album of 2015. It was also #1 on the R&B/Soul iTunes charts and reached the top 5 on the overall album chart.
Billboard named You Should Be Here the "year's first great R&B album." You Should Be Here garnered Kehlani her first Grammy Award nomination for Best Urban Contemporary Album at the 58th Annual Grammy Awards to be held in February 2016.