With a stirring voice and a strong sense of self, Kiana Ledé wants you to know she’s not just a viral cover artist.
Kiana Ledé has thought a lot about Pop music — and pop music. When talking to her, you’d think about the difference between Pop music and pop music this way: capital “P” pop signifies a sound that has metamorphosed from a mixing of other styles like rock, blues, dance, and soul. Capital “P” pop is a genre, but lowercase “p” pop is a status; popular music. The 21-year-old R&B singer-songwriter is adamant about black music taking its rightful place as the latter.
“People have such a hard time celebrating black people. It’s so crazy to me,” she told Okayplayer. And making music with SZA’s vulnerability, Kehlani’s “sweetsexysavage” attitude, and John Mayer’s acoustic sensibilities, Ledé is striving to be one of pop music’s next mavericks.
Though she was signed to RCA for a two and a half year bid at the age of 15, starred in MTV’s Scream at 19, and holds a recurring role on the Netflix Original All About the Washingtons with Joseph “Rev Run” Simmons now, Ledé is perhaps most famous for stripped down and mashed up YouTube covers of popular hip-hop and R&B songs. Her version of Drake’s pop banger “Hotline Bling” amassed over 40 million views and earned her a deal with the Canadian sensation’s US distributor Republic Records.
Her debut EP with Republic, Selfless, makes for an easy listen with its hypnotic production, steady, sway-inducing tempo, and lyrical exploration of love’s stark peaks and valleys. Ledé penned six of the EP’s seven songs. Unlike the song covers that caught the ears of millions, these words are almost all her own.
If you’re looking for her smash cover of “Hotline Bling” on YouTube, you won’t find it on her official account. In fact, you won’t find many of her old covers there anymore. “I archived my videos because I wanted people to focus on my music and not the covers,” she said. “I do love the covers, it’s not that I don’t like them… but I want people to see me and who I really am, and get to know me.”
You’ve been an entertainer for about a third of your young life. What goals have you developed for yourself over time?
I think the main goal I have is just to be respected. I know that it’s not really a tangible thing or something that you can gauge very easily either, but because I’ve been in this industry since I was l was 15, I’ve been in situations where I haven’t felt respected. I’ve been pushed into a corner and made to be something that I’m not. I just kind of went with the flow of it because I didn’t really know what I was doing. I was super young. Now that I’m an adult, I know what I want, what I respect, what music I love, and what people I love, so I can actually do what I want and speak up for myself. I didn’t used to speak up for myself before.
What were folks trying to make you, and how was that different from what you’re making yourself?
In my first label deal, they were kind of pushing me into the Katy Perry corner. They wanted me to be bubblegum pop and as I did that more, I realized that wasn’t what I wanted to do. I knew the music that I loved and that I respected was soulful — was R&B — but had a Pop edge to it. When I went and showed them what I was working on they did not like it, so they dropped me.
Now, as you think about yourself as an R&B artist, what mold are you trying to break?
I think the biggest mold that I want to break for an R&B artist is only playing on urban radio. I feel like black people rule the industry right now — everybody listens to hip-hop, everybody listens to R&B, everybody listens to rap — but for some reason, you go to the Grammy’s list, and all of the songs that everybody is listening to are only in the urban contemporary and R&B [and rap] categories, while most of the white people are in the “pop” categories. So, I think the main thing for me is just to change the perspective while keeping that Pop edge. The Weeknd is actually doing it really well, but I don’t think we have a lot of brown females [besides Beyoncé and Rihanna] that people are paying attention to as pop singers who are R&B singers as well.
It’s interesting that you illuminate The Weeknd as an example. I feel like one of the things that broke him out as a pop star was “Earned It” on the 50 Shades of Grey soundtrack and you found yourself on one too.
He’s one of my career idols. Him and Bruno [Mars]. I feel like they have perfect careers. That’s exactly what I want to do. They’re still cool and they still stick to their roots and what they love and they’re crazily respected, but they’re also Pop.
What R&B traditions are you trying to uphold?
One of the best things R&B music does is have people relate to some intense emotion. Most R&B songs are based off of real experiences or tell a story and I really want to keep that. I don’t really know how to write any other thing besides the truth and my real story.
I think the biggest mold that I want to break for an R&B artist is only playing on urban radio. I feel like black people rule the industry right now.
On Selfless, A$AP Ferg makes an appearance on the “Fairplay” remix and “Shame” features rapper Blackway. New Orleans lyricist Pell lends his pen to “I Choose You,” and you team up with Daveed Diggs and Moe Green on the soundtrack for Blindspotting. What’s your approach to working with rappers? What do you feel like you get out of it? What do you give?
I don’t really have an approach. I may meet them and I’m like, “hey I could really hear you on this song, I love your work,” and then I’ll play it for them, or if there’s a specific person I have in mind, I tell my people to reach out to their people. I think what I give is good material and inspiration for a verse.
I really love when rappers take my words or my hook, like the hookiest part of the song, and see it from a whole different perspective. That’s my favorite thing that rappers do. On “Shame,” Blackway crushed it. He has this line, it’s the last line of the verse, where he says, “but whenever you ride his dick make sure gimme credit, it’s a fucking shame.” After I heard that I was like “Oh my God!” Because that’s not what I meant, but in his brain, what he was going through, it meant that to him.
So, Selfless is grounded in romantic relationships, but gauging from your social media there’s a lot of other things that you think about. You think about politics, you think about identity, you think about patriarchy, and a host of other social issues. Will any of these ideas make their way into your music?
I definitely have a lot of shit I’m working on right now. I’m working on an album. Because there’s more opportunities to write more tracks in an album, I can write about everything that’s on my brain. I have a song that I’m finishing up right now that’s about anxiety and depression, which a lot of millennials deal with. I deal with it. I have another song called “Youth” that Gary Clark Jr. got on, which I’m really excited about because he’s definitely respected. That one is about a bunch of issues that the youth of America have to deal with that I would like to change, or at least help change.
So you’re writing an album and you just kicked off a domestic tour with Jessie J and Ro James. What kind of experience do you want to give attendees?
I think the biggest thing is hearing my voice live. Because I’m a new artist, it’s really important for people to put a face to the name and get to know me as a person on stage and see that what I sing about is what I live and is who I am. I feel like they could relate to it a lot more. A really great show [is one where] I really sang my ass off. What I pride myself in is singing. Singing is my first love, my instrument.
Can concert goers expect to hear the kinds of covers and mashups that helped earn you your deal with Republic?
No. I’ll probably do “Hotline Bling” on tour, just kind of as an homage to the fans of the videos because that’s how this whole journey got started. People love the covers. I’m going to keep doing them but with my original music into them, like the “Fairplay” x “Be Careful” one.
I get kind of freaked out about the transition from being a cover artist to an artist that writes her own music because I feel like people just get stuck sometimes. I always worked really hard to make the covers special and original enough for people to like, hear them and be like, “oh, she’s doing something different.” But the feeling is a lot more gratifying when people recognize me for my EP and for my acting than for the cover videos, because it’s my story. Those are actually my original ideas, the things that I started out with myself and not took it and twisted it from somebody else’s idea. It’s just a lot more gratifying to see that I am affecting people with my own thoughts.
Mankaprr Conteh is a writer and multimedia journalist exploring music, identity, and social issues. Her work can be found on Elle.com, Essence.com, and other outlets. She tweets @Mankaprr.