Kehlani’s Homecoming: Inside Her Touring Wins, and Why Live R&B is ‘Obviously Thriving’
Kehlani’s latest tour, Blue Water Road Trip, marks multiple major milestones for the R&B singer. Seven years after dropping her Grammy-nominated debut mixtape, 2015’s You Should Be Here, Kehlani is packing venues and selling out shows across the country.
The 36-city trek across the United States has included two sold-out nights at New York City’s Radio City Music Hall — which sold over 11,000 tickets and grossed $813,000, according to Billboard Boxscore — and two more at Inglewood’s YouTube Theater. After a five-year touring hiatus for Kehlani, the venues, which includes their hometown show on Friday (Sept. 30) at Oakland’s Oracle Arena, have nearly quadrupled in size since she last hit the road.
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“It’s kind of unbelievable,” Kehlani told Billboard over Zoom earlier this week. “Not in a ‘I didn’t ever think it was possible’ kind of way, but me and [my manager] David [Ali] work in such a good way. He’s the motivator behind everything because he’s always analyzing what’s possible and where I could be headed … It’s proof that we put in the work that we’re supposed to be putting in.”
The Blue Water Road Trip — which supports Kehlani’s third album, Blue Water Road — is a true labor of love. During the pandemic, Kehlani took a DIY approach to her art, filming and editing their own videos and putting on a virtual tour to support her second studio release, 2019’s It Was Good Until It Wasn’t, which shot to No. 2 on the Billboard 200 chart. With their earlier shows, Kehlani always focused on “singing my ass off,” but she chose to go a different route for the Road Trip and hire a creative team for the first time.
While piecing together different mood boards, the singer was meticulous about creating an experience for their fans. She made intentional choices, like employing an all-woman ensemble on-stage from the musicians to the dancers, incorporating a visual narrative infused with spiritual and religious references, and sticking to a stripped-down aesthetic. The openers were also Kehlani’s personal picks: rising R&B star Destin Conrad, and riotous rapper Rico Nasty.
“Originally, the show was broken down into four elements and there were all these costume changes, but I quickly realized that my connection with my audience [comes from] just me being there with them,” says Kehlani. “The last time I toured, I was wearing different colored wigs. I was a different person all the time, and that’s fun, but with this [tour], I really wanted to make sure people knew that this was me.”
While Kehlani orchestrated the vibes, Ali was crunching the numbers, evaluating the venue size from previous treks and ticket prices, and utilizing data from DSPs to help formulate a strategy. Ali targeted five to ten percent of Kehlani’s fan base for the tour with tickets priced at $59.50 to $125.
“I think the biggest challenge is hoping you’re making the right calls,” he tells Billboard. “[You’re making] educated guesses because you don’t know for sure, are tickets going to sell?” The result: Many of Kehlani’s performances on the tour were sold out once tickets went live during presale. “With her, the most expensive tickets are the first ones to go,” he says.
According to Ali, the creative approach also goes hand-in-hand with the touring business strategy. “You want to make sure the creative vision is dope, but you want to make sure you’re being conservative in certain areas,” he says, while praising Live Nation tour promoter, Sascha Stone Guttfreund, for expanding his view on touring. Ali adds that personally selecting the venues on the tour, from amphitheaters to ballrooms, also worked to the team’s advantage: “It’s dope to be able to handpick everything that you’re doing, and make it so that this tour is really tailor fit for the artist.”
Offering two tiers of VIP packages with special perks for every ticket purchase — including an invitation to a special pre-show soundcheck at $125 and a meet-and-greet option priced at $300, combined with merchandise sales and after-parties — helped Kehlani, Ali, and the 40-plus crew on the road bring in additional revenue. But the top priority was always to put on a memorable performance for the fans.
“Our secret weapon this whole time has been our live shows, and not cutting corners with that, so we pull out all the stops and try to find every single way to make it work,” says Ali. Kehlani is quick to note that the interaction with her fans supersedes any financial gains. “I want to meet the people that love me,” she says. “It’s so nice to see the impact of what you do, even if it’s just for a quick second.”
For the Blue Water Road Trip set list, which boasts 26 original cuts, Kehlani ditched the covers (a staple in past performances) and spotlights their last three projects, including 2019’s While We Wait mixtape. With input from her musical director Gil Smith and choreographers, Kehlani also took the opportunity to breathe new life into some deep cuts, including a remix of “Distraction” over Nelly Furtado’s “Promiscuous” beat. Kehlani says they kept songs that were “danceable and breathable to sing,” but also supported the narrative she wanted to convey.
“From the day I met her, she knew exactly what she wanted, how she wanted to be represented, and along with her manager, David Ali, we make a great team,” adds Caroline Yim, Kehlani’s longtime agent who is also a partner and the co-head of hip-hop/R&B at esteemed entertainment agency, WME. “She has a clear artistic vision and an insane work ethic, which has propelled her successful live touring business. Kehlani has always built her audience one fan at a time.”
On a personal note, the Road Trip also serves as Kehlani’s first outing as a parent to her first child, Adeya. “Being able to bring my baby off and on tour has been super grounding and helpful because I don’t think there’s anything more jarring as a parent than being away from your baby for that long, especially when you know that you’re doing this for your baby,” Kehlani says.
Additionally, Kehlani has been adamant about maintaining heightened awareness around crowd safety by checking in with their fans throughout the show and making space for her own mental health. Kehlani even draws comparisons between touring and their latest passion, surfing.
“With surfing, you need to pay attention to what’s happening at that moment. [It is] the same with touring,” she explains. “I feel like when you start to think too far [out], you overthink and then you can’t be present on stage. You have to be in that moment, no matter what’s going on.”
When social chatter drifts to the current state of R&B — a common refrain from naysayers has been that the genre is dead — Kehlani and her team’s efforts in building this tour could be considered a contradiction to that theory. “I feel like there aren’t many R&B superstars in this current era. Kehlani’s a perfect case for that,” says Ali. “I don’t think streams dictate how big the artists are and how much people like the music. I just think it’s a smaller pot of people [who listen to R&B] compared to hip-hop and pop.” Kehlani, who is pro-solidarity in R&B, chimes in: “You can’t say something is dead that is obviously thriving in everyone’s faces.”
Kehlani defines success on their own terms. Throwing a rager for her fans and helping them to feel seen is the epitome of success in their eyes. “[My concert’s] really well-rounded. We headbang, we call ancestors, we celebrate love, people get engaged, we sing petty things about exes, we call in new love, [and] we talk about community,” she says. “I think that that’s what makes this tour so unique. People are coming to be everything that they are and meet other people in their ‘everythingness.’ It’s a cool f–king room full of people who don’t even exist in anyone’s binaries, just f–king celebrating.”