Last Friday night, a mostly Gen Z crowd came out to The Island — one of Uptown Bonifacio’s trendy new bars — in droves. It seems a lot of them got the memo that crop tops, trendy track pants, and floral button downs were to be featured in the night’s lookbook.
They were busy taking selfies and posting Instagram stories while waiting for their style/musical icon and hero, Grammy-nominated R&B singer Kehlani, to take the main stage.
Kehlani was brought here for her first show in the Philippines by MyMusicTaste, a crowdsourcing platform for live events. Her Filipino fans essentially used the site to petition for her to come play a concert — so, to call her a “hero” in this instance is no exaggeration.
When Coconuts Manila asked fans at the show what they liked about Kehlani, many called her an inspiration. The 23-year-old singer is known for her advocacy on social issues and her approachable personality as much as she is for her music.
“It’s more about her personality because I believe in artists who use their talents and their medium to make a difference in people. And she notices…people who aren’t in her orbit,” 20-year-old Cheyenne Soriano said.
Soriano, who’s in the process of finding a job and moving to Manila from the nearby province of Pampanga, went to the concert by herself but did not seem to mind the solitary experience.
Seeing Kehlani, it seemed, was enough for her.
Soriano admired how the singer reaches out to her fans on social media and commended her for her commitment to charity work: “She uses Twitter…to tweet random people, any people (sic) that says ‘you made a difference in my life’ and she will reply,” Soriano said.
18-year-old Angela Quinto had similar thoughts.
“[S]he’s not afraid to speak for what she wants, [she’s outspoken about] her [advocacies],” she said in Filipino and English. “What I like most is that she’s willing to learn from her fans…she’s down to earth.”
Concert-goers, who gathered in front of the stage an hour before the 10pm starting time, were also inspired by Kehlani’s causes and her commitment to representing minority groups.
Case in point — standing in the first row (of mostly young women) was a group holding up a Philippine flag with an illustration of Kehlani stamped on it.
It makes for a warm welcome to the country, but the fan poster is also a nod to the singer’s roots. Kehlani’s website proudly states that she is part “African American, Caucasian, Native American, Spanish, and Filipino Native American.”
#PinayPride was abundant during the event as both the opening act, singer Jess Connelly, and Kehlani’s DJ, Micah Mahinay (aka Noodles), are both Filipinas. At one point in the concert, Kehlani even gave a shout out to Mahinay’s unwavering nationalism.
“It’s also beautiful as f*ck to see Micah play in the Philippines because this is her ship right now. I think there isn’t a day goes by when like she does something and she’s like ‘It’s coz I’m Filipino,’” Kehlani said, followed by a loud cheer from her audience.
About a meter away from the women holding the Kehlanified Philippine flag is another banner the singer likes to hold high.
Resting on the rails that separated the stage from the crowd was a rainbow flag to represent the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community.
Kehlani has always been vocal about her sexual identity and does not turn away from talking about the topic.
In a series of tweets posted in April, she explained that she identifies as queer, “[N]ot 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. [D]oes that answer your questions?” she said.
Kehlani also took time during her Manila concert to educate the already captured audience about the importance of representation.
“So whatever you do, no matter where you go, whatever it is you believe in, you have to rep that sh*t loud and proud, OK? When someone asks you what you stand for, you say that sh*t with your heart, with your chest, OK? You stick up for people who do not stick up for themselves, you be loud for those who do not have a voice. That’s how this shit works, OK?” she said before singing her hit Honey, a song where she describes what she likes in a woman.
Honey is a favorite among fans and was the one song that everyone Coconuts Manila spoke with all wanted to hear. While somewhat an LGBT anthem, its popularity shows how proper representation of a specific group can still transcend audiences.
“I think it’s, for other people, it’s more of [an] LGBT song but for me, I think it’s, it just shows…true love,” Lindsey Erlandsen, 19 years old, said.
That’s how most people in the event felt about Kehlani’s music. The excitement was so “real” that no one seemed to mind that the show started about an hour late.
The singer started the set with her song I Wanna Be and worked her way through hits like the catchy Distraction and Gangsta, which was featured on the Suicide Squad soundtrack.
To those who aren’t familiar with Kehlani’s music, critics and fans alike have compared it to the R&B style popular during the 90s — an inspiration Kehlani leans into. During the concert, she even sang a cover of Tamia’s 1998 hit So Into You.
“[She’s] like a Monica, Aaliyah type and that’s very hard to do these days because everyone’s so loud. It was so hard to achieve that very cool, very laid back R&B, like Monica, like Aaliyah. We still refer back to them…it’s cool girl music,” Olivia Estrada, 27 years old, said.
“She always gives you that old school vibe like retro like Aaliyah, like R&B, you know like mellow, that kind of vibe,” said Don Mercado, a Filipino-American who had just arrived in Manila from California the day before the concert.
He had seen Kehlani twice before the Manila concert but was sure he needed to see his idol again.
While Kehlani’s influences are apparent, many still describe her as unique. Nikki Escario, 18, couldn’t quite explain just how different the singer is and simply called her “another thing.”
“I can’t put it into. She’s so unique in her own way…In her genre, it’s like she’s another thing. She’s like an entire, a whole entire thing for me. So it’s really enjoyable to listen [to her],” she said with excitement.
By the time Kehlani performed her last song CRZY at around 11:30, the audience was hyped. And even though the concert only lasted for an hour and a half, the crowd dispersed with smiles on their faces, seemingly still high from the experience.
“As an avid concert goer, this concert super stood out ’cause she was such a good performer, like, singing, dancing, stage presence — everything was so good and she’s just so talented,” said Carla Salgado, who celebrated her 20th birthday at the concert.
To Kehlani’s dedicated fans here, the singer is an all-around icon.