Local Current Blog

Kehlani at First Avenue: “Long live Lexii”

Kehlani performs at the Lexii Alijai tribute on Feb. 19, 2020 at First Avenue. All photos by Darin Kamnetz for MPR.

When I walked up to First Avenue last night, I did the usual. I dug in my wallet and presented my ID. But the doorperson shook their head and just pointed toward my bag, rummaging around and waving me through. As I walked into the building, I realized: All ages. Duh.

Lexii Alijai, an incredibly talented St. Paul rapper, passed away on Jan. 1, 2020 from a fentanyl and ethanol overdose. On what would have been her 22nd birthday, friends and family gathered at First Avenue to celebrate her legacy and raise money for a recording arts scholarship fund.

Kehlani, an R&B star with millions of fans worldwide, headlined the show. She remembered forming a special connection with Lexii in about 2014, when she happened upon Lexii’s music via Twitter. She was instantly impressed and DMed the 16-year-old rapper. They bonded through deep conversations and eventually collaborated on “Jealous,” a vicious song about a douchebag clout chaser, which ended up on Kehlani’s You Should Be Here. “This girl can talk some shit,” Kehlani remembers thinking, as she said on stage last night. “And I kinda got a little song where I need to talk some shit.”

Aside from the circumstances, it was incredible to see Kehlani again. She’s been to the Twin Cities several times in the last four years, but she hasn’t performed live since 2018, having taken time off to carry and raise her daughter Adeya. Her return to the stage contained lots of older music (“The Way,” “CRZY,” “Distraction”) and live debuts of songs from 2019 mixtape While We Wait. She was visibly nervous about performing the newer songs, but sang beautifully and said she was having fun. “That’s why it’s so nice to be in these smaller, more intimate venues,” she said (which admittedly made me laugh a little – headlining First Ave is an endgame for some. But hey, her next Twin Cities show is at the Target Center with Justin Bieber).

Although I’m sure some people were just there to see Kehlani, the vibe never felt opportunistic. The ticket prices were high enough ($35) that everyone there had to invest in the show, and Kehlani was clear about why she’d ended her performing sabbatical early. On my corner of the floor, the mood swayed from somber to turnt and back.

Before Kehlani, a squad of Lexii’s loved ones took the stage to honor her. Reeves Junya, Kaycyy Pluto, and Kane the Hooligan shared songs and stories. DJs Sophia Eris and K. Reeves spun Lexii songs and modern hip-hop hits, including tracks by the late Nipsey Hussle and Pop Smoke. Maria Isa, who described herself as the “big homie” to Lexii’s “lil homie,” put her heart into hosting. From behind sunglasses, she mourned the recent rash of deaths, crying, “Shit hurts. Too many!”

One thing about Lexii: She was so damn prolific. For each of the 70 songs she released, another seemed to be hiding in somebody’s drafts. Reeves Junya shared an unreleased song and said, “When she told me I could have this for my project, I felt like I got a Drake verse.” Kehlani’s started her set with “Footsteps” from While We Wait, but instead of Musiq Soulchild (the feature on the mixtape), this unreleased version featured Lexii. Kehlani knew every word.

Based on what I know about Lexii Alijai, any tribute show dedicated to her had to include fans of all ages. Before her death, she became a hero to young people – especially girls – who connected with her honest lyrics. Some older people recognized her talent and tried to open doors for her. But really, Lexii belonged to her generation. Now, she’s a legend.

The Lexii Alijai recording arts scholarship fund is accepting donations via GoFundMe. Southside Harm Reduction Services is a Minneapolis organization that works within a harm reduction framework to promote the human rights to health, safety, autonomy, and agency among people who use substances.

Kehlani set list

Footsteps (feat. unreleased Lexii Alijai verse)
The Way
So Into You (Tamia cover)
Morning Glory
Nights Like This
All Me
Jealous (feat. Lexii Alijai)
Happy Birthday

Photos by Darin Kamnetz for MPR

DJ K. Reeves

Reeves Junya

Kaycyy Pluto

Maria Isa

Sophia Eris

New Black City