How Kehlani got her start in 'America's Got Talent' and went on to become a global R&B superstar

Kehlani recently got a special mention in the 15th-anniversary episode of 'America's Got Talent' as the talent competition looked back on some treasured and viral moments in the show's history

                            How Kehlani got her start in 'America's Got Talent' and went on to become a global R&B superstar
Kehlani (Getty Images)

'America's Got Talent' recently celebrated its 15th anniversary on NBC on Tuesday night and to commemorate the special event, the talent competition took a trip down the memory lane as it looked back on some unforgettable and viral moments from its storied history. As the show's ever-smiling host Terry Crews revealed, the memorable franchise had seen quite a few highlights over its 15 years, and given a platform to some of the world's biggest entertainers, exceeding over two billion views in total for its 200,000-plus range of contestants.

Casting a nostalgic eye as far as 2006, the show looked back on its humble beginnings, when the popular TV personality, the late great Regis Philbin was the inaugural host, alongside judges such as Piers Morgan, Brandy Norwood and David Hasselhoff. A lot has changed in those 15 years since the show brought in hosts like Jerry Springer, Nick Cannon, Tyra Banks and Terry Crews since then. The judges were in heavy rotation too as the inaugural trio on the jury panel eventually gave way to stars like Sharon Osbourne, Howard Stern, Mel B, Gabrielle Union, Julianne Hough and now the current lineup, Heidi Klum, Howie Mandel, Sofia Vergara and Simon Cowell, the latter had served as the executive producer on the show since Day 1. 

(L-R) Howie Mandel, Heidi Klum, Sophia Vergara, and Simon Cowell on AGT (Photo by: NBC)

As the show looked back on some stellar viral moments from its 15-year history, which included dance crews like V Unbeatable and Light Balance, magical performers like Shin Lim and Aaron Crow and singers like Angelica Hale and Kodi Lee (the latest champion of Season 14), one name caught our eye: Kehlani. Most people now know her as the R&B, rap, and soul singing sensation who has sold millions of albums worldwide, but few people realize she actually first emerged into the limelight during her early years with the band, Poplyfe, in 'America's Got Talent'.

Kehlani Parrish actually had a tough upbringing, since her African-American father died while she was still a baby, while her mixed heritage mother (white, Spanish and Native American) had to serve time in prison while Kehlani was growing up. Both her parents had struggled with drug addictions, rendering them unfit parents, so Kehlani's aunt adopted her and raised her. Kehlani attended the Oakland School for the Arts, where she studied ballet and modern dance and dreamt of going to Julliard. However, a knee injury meant that Kehlani had to fall back on her other love, which had been fostered from an early age: Music. 

The band Poplyfe, with Kehlani at the extreme left (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons / Erik10101)

Thanks to her aunt, Kehlani was exposed to R&B and neo-soul icons such as Lauryn Hill, Erykah Badu and Jill Scott, and soon discovered her singing potential. She was recruited by the pop cover band, Poplyfe, as a vocalist when she was just 14, with the group's music produced by the former Tony! Toni! Toné! member, D'Wayne Wiggins. The group included members such as Kehlani Parrish, Dylan Wiggins, Denzel Merrit, Renzel Merrit, Jaden Wiggins, Nadji Jeter, Ali-Kahn Lochin and Dillon Ingram. Poplyfe soon began touring regionally, performing in the San Francisco Bay Area and other cities as they looked to make a name for themselves.

Then came the moment that transformed Kehlani's career, as Poplyfe appeared on Season 6 of 'America's Got Talent' in 2011, eventually earning the fourth place overall. Even in the early audition tapes that are available online, Kehlani's vocal talent is instantly recognizable, leading Piers Morgan to declare: "You've got real talent, but I don't think you need the group." You can also click here to see what a prodigious talent Kehlani was as she belts out a performance of Queen's 'We Will Rock You' during the AGT final. Kehlani eventually parted ways with Poplyfe due to contractual disputes after their stint on 'America's Got Talent' and didn't perform music for the next six months. She endured a torrid time over 2012 and 2013 as she finished high school, and was often reduced to sleeping on other people's couches.


Soon after that, the 'AGT' host Nick Cannon helped Kehlani to secure some studio time and an apartment in LA, after he heard her debut single as a solo artiste, 'ANTISUMMERLUV'. This came after Kehlani faced a period of homelessness and stealing groceries in order to survive, so Cannon's help proved to be divine providence. Her debut mixtape, 'Cloud 19', which released in 2014 earned her rave reviews from all quarters, and she has since gone on to light the music world alight with her electric mix of R&B, soul, and rap. Her debut album, 'SweetSexySavage', (2017) landed her on the Top 3 of the US Billboard 200 chart, and her second album, 'It Was Good Until It Wasn't', which released in May 2020, debuted at No. 2 on the US Billboard 200, earning nearly 75 million streams in the process.

It's incredible to see the journey Kehlani has taken since her early rough and tumble years, and who knew 'America's Got Talent' would have had such a key role to play in her development. This is a bonafide rags to riches story for the ages, and we hope to see many more great things from Kehlani in the future. She's currently working on the deluxe edition of her 'It Was Good Until It Wasn't' album, so stay tuned for that.