Meet Rae Khalil, the Rising R&B Star Who Is Staying True to Her Art [Q&A]


One of the newest talents on Def Jam/Anderson .Paak's label APESHIT, Rae Khalil is one of R&B’s most promising rising stars.

A native Californian, Khalil exudes an ease that could only stem from someone objectively talented and absolutely sure about who they are, with no worry about being validated by the world. She makes music that she likes and the world just so happens to be grooving too. 

While we were first introduced to the talented act through Netflix’s music competition program Rhythm + Flow, she’s grown far larger than the confinement of reality television. Her affinity for homecooked neo-soul met with poetry and grace and her timeless contributions to music only promise to outlive the industry fluff.

It’s almost karmic that .Paak ended up as Khalil’s mentor, seeing as how they read like souls cut from the same cloth. Colorful and unconfined, there’s a light that shines from within both artists, recognizing each other like best friends on the playground. 

Tending to her roots while reaching unbelievable heights, Rae Khalil is just getting started. With a massive debut set for the summer, we got a chance to pulse-check with the artist and learn more about what makes her the effortlessly flyest in the game. 


OnesToWatch: Your music feels timeless, which is a testament to the years' worth of love you have for the art. Who were you listening to in the backseat of your parent's car that ignited your love for music?

Rae Khalil: Man, a lot of Motown. Everything R&B. Luther Vandross, Anita Baker, Lauryn Hill, Floetry. The over-encompassing umbrella of Black music.

Especially as R&B lovers, we can get so addicted to the nostalgia of it and the “Golden Age.” What’s your relationship with R&B? Are you constantly consuming new artists or do you find yourself replaying old work?

Definitely a mixture of both, but when I’m creating projects or working on my own music, I naturally find myself not listening to as much music. But when people say “There’s no good new music!” it’s so lame to me. Either it’s a hobby of yours or you’re a passive listener. There are always new artists to find and discover, whether from the current day and age or back then.

So what’s your response to the “R&B is dead argument?”

Exactly that sentiment, people are just being passive listeners. They’re not digging, they’re not going through their discovery playlists. There are so many people putting out quality music.

You shared that there may be a country-esque song on the upcoming project, can you speak to embracing fluidity with genre?

It took a village. My mom, aunt, uncle, brothers, and grandma all lived in one big house so I would listen to my grandma’s favorites like Ella Fitzgerald and Nina Simone, and then my mom who loved Parliament and Anita Baker. My aunt is super awesome and into The Cure, Radiohead, Alanis Morissette, all the good '90s rock. I was exposed to everything, other than bluegrass and opera. I have a pretty good understanding of the history of American music. That’s an actual hobby of mine.

Is there any anxiety around putting out a sound so different from what people have already heard? 

I hadn’t thought about it until recently. I’ve seen comments of people saying “You should do a whole album of this style of music,” but I’m just making what feels good. I think it’s cool to challenge yourself and try new things, you know? Be open.

Beyoncé’s definitely platforming that rhetoric right now. Your music is eclectic because it’s an extension of you; is that something you want to redefine upon your entrance into the industry?

Yes, definitely. In fact, Beyoncé said it perfectly, how she can’t wait for years further down the line when we’re no longer thinking about the ethnicity aspect of groundbreaking music. For it to be about the art in front of you. I like that, I like that we’re being pushed to be genre-less. I think empowering young people to have that same outlook is what I want to inspire, like how Beyonce inspired me.

Totally, you embody contradiction in a very seamless way. Being that yours is many people’s favorite, what’s your favorite Tiny Desk Concert of all time?

Aw man! I probably have to go with Durand Bernarr. That’s my favorite one. It’s a masterclass in singing, he’s an incredible artist. I was just talking to someone today about that.

What was that experience like for you, creating one of your own?

It was so cool. I’ve been a fan of NPR for a long time. To be able to do it for Black History Month in the historic Leimert Park area as well was so humbling. I was so grateful they asked me.

And it’s going to live forever! You’re very clearly in a major chapter career-wise, getting signed by Def Jam and having Anderson .Paak hold your hand so loudly. As a mentor, is there a piece of advice he’s given you that you’ve applied to life outside of music?

That’s a great question. I’d probably say “Stay ready so you don’t have to get ready,” you know what I mean? Always being on, always being willing to shoot your shot, I think that definitely bled into other aspects of my life outside of music. I feel more fearless and I have more of a fire to go for things and ask for help. I’m confident in my pursuit. 

We can tell! It’s clear you’re fully unapologetic about taking up space. What would you attest this confidence to?

Finishing an album honestly. Having the concept, having songs I feel so strongly about. Having a team that supports me. Every piece of the puzzle is in the right spot, so why wouldn’t I give it 110%? No holding back.

“Is It Worth It” is your debut single and music video with Def Jam, talk to me about this moment you’re in.

It’s been awesome. My mom asks me every day “How are you feeling?!” And I’m like “I’m feeling good, I’m feeling great” This is new territory for me so I’m walking in with open arms and gratitude. It’s so cool watching the numbers and comments and people being so engaged and digging the song. I enjoy the song and that’s how I like to go about making music. Just being a music nerd. If I freaking love it, let’s put it out. Even if everyone else doesn’t like it, if I rock with it, then I’ve done my job.

Being in such an open-hearted state, what’s your day-to-day routine to stay grounded amidst all the change?

Smoking weed every day. Hahaha. That’s the funny answer, but truthfully, just trying to stay present. Practice being in the now. Being intentional about every step, whether it’s what I’m eating or wearing, who I’m spending my time with. Having that mindset overall with shine through in whatever you’re doing. Luckily my career is artistic, so me being integral in my other facets allows me to be integral in my music.

Living in a city that’s so centered on career advancement and growth, is it ever difficult for you to maintain that zen?

That’s funny, that’s exactly what “Is It Worth It?” is about. My whole MO is very Southern California. Chillin’ by the beach. “I’d rather not.” You know I grew up here so I’ve never really struggled with all of that, that energy that people talk about is usually brought by people who aren’t from here. Most people that are from here are just trying to get by and have a good time doing it.

And lastly, speaking to the album set to come, what can you tell us about what to expect?

It’s a summer album and I think there’s a lot of summer jams on there. There are some fun people that are on the project. I was able to collaborate with my family and Jared Rubin, who I’ve done two albums with. Stay tuned because this summer is going to be jam-packed. I’d describe the album as a strong purple.

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