SLANT: Genre-Bending Artist Kenna Is Making The World A Better Place One Album At A Time

by Steph Watts

In fourth grade, my social studies teacher assigned the class a quiltmaking project. 

These quilts however, were not your grandmother's crochet. We had to bring in old fabric and adorn it with Adinkra symbols. One of my favorites, that is now permanently inked on my body, is Fawohodie, which means "with freedom, comes responsibility." Fawohodie is a daily meditation that I not only charge myself with, but those around me and the community at large. 

There are few celebrities that have taken this challenge on quite like musician Kenna. 

He redefined the idea of 'above and beyond' when he climbed to the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro in the name of access to clean water, but Kenna had more up his sleeve. Through his upcoming album "Songs For Flight", Kenna will become the first one for one artist. Launching in August, he tasked his fans, friends, and global citizens to pick a charity to inherit half of the proceeds from the album, due in 2016. Partnering with Apple Music and Delta, he'll be taking the show on the road to cities around the globe, with some fancy friends in tow, to film the video for the single "Sleep When We Die". Kenna has been one of my favorite artists since his debut in 2003, so I was excited to sit with him to talk artist responsibility, the impact of Virginia on music, and what to expect from the new album.

Stephanye: It's been eight years since your last studio album. "New Sacred Cow" and "Make Sure They See My Face" have very distinct sounds. What has been your process in building an album, how do you create the sound, and what are you looking to say this go round?

Kenna: When I went in to make my first album, I had a definitive idea of what I wanted to make and it was a mixture of genres. The second time, was less about a mixture of genres. It was more about defining myself and my inability to do so, which was the theme of the album. 

This new record is really about travel. The travel I've taken to get to this point. It's about the present and the decision you make in life to continue. And then its about making real strides for a future that is impactful, that's real, and that can't be swayed. When you have that kind of clarity, it makes a sound. It's not necessarily something that can be recognized in a kick or a snare. It's the frequency that lives inside of those things. That's implanted in those sounds by your intention. That intention will guide the melody. That melody will guide the the thought. The thoughts will be led by the bigger picture that you set for yourself, the theme for your art. That's how I'm making music now.   

Stephanye: What sparked this one-for-one idea? 

Kenna: It begins with what turned me off, more than what turned me on. I got beat up in the whole music process. I always wanted my music to be heard, but I was having trouble with the gatekeepers that managed to decide who will or will not be heard. So that turned me off and I decided that I might not make another album. I figured that I would go and do something else. 

Right before I left my label deal, my dad had told me about my family in Ethiopia and how they don’t have clean water to this day. It turned something on inside of me and made me realize that as much as I love my music, I love my family more. So that triggered this focus on clean water, which became the purpose of my life. After doing a couple big projects around water,  I did them as if I was making an album. Summit on the Summit was my third album. And that turned me back on to making music because I realized that I didn’t need a system to help me make anything. I could build things on my own and it just comes down to fortitude.  

Stephanye: Since you brought up Ethiopia and how it was its an important place for you, was there something special about the cities you picked to shoot the video for “Sleep When We Die”? 

Kenna: Everybody goes to the developing nations and shows the kids struggling. I want the album to inspire people in these big metropolis cities and some of these smaller places who are doing things to help others in other parts of the world that we know exist. 

So it’s the person with the 9-5 job in Paris who puts aside X amount of dollars aside to help kids through school in a developing nation. That person is a hero. They know for themselves that’s true, but the world doesn’t know that they’re doing that. We all have the power to create change for others with what little we have. That’s what I really want to show. It’s the everyman that changes the world. It’s not the superstar with the big bank account, who in most cases doesn’t even spend their own money.  

Stephanye: Personally, I don’t feel comfortable supporting artists that don’t do philanthropic work. For you as an artist, how important is giving back? 

Kenna: First off, you’re the exact person I’m doing this project for. You’re the exact person I want to recruit into the army that will be my artistic future. Like I said, I’m just a conduit. The reality is that there is a silent majority that are not being represented in music at all that want to see a better world and wants to know that the artist is apart of it. It can’t be a subsequent thing where you’ve chosen to be a part of change because black lives matter this week or because its an opportunistic moment. 

My parents have always raised me to be a global citizen. My parents have been supporting people in developing nations, along with their own family, since I’ve been born. Since I was a kid, I was always in church, running an after-school program. I did at risk programs, sports camps, music camps. 

Bono, as an artist, has always been someone with a career to aspire to where you use your power for good. What I found though, in the new world we live in, it’s less and less possible for an individual to reap the kind of benefits that Bono was able to in the 80s and 90s. Music is completely different now. How people get music, when they get music and who they get it from. All of that stuff matters and we’re all curating in this individualistic way. There’s a million ways to acquire and there’s no clear way to understand who’s real and who’s not. To me, being a one-for-one artist is actually defining yourself 100 percent as. So then I know when I see you, that’s who you are. You can’t check out of that. You are it and you don’t step out of being it. I’m not saying other people should do what I’m doing, because I’m the extreme at half and half. I’m just saying that if it’s real to you, then you have an example, in the furthest extreme. Any version in between, as long, as its your constant, then maybe I can trust that’s who you are as a person. 

That’s what I think it important right now; being able to differentiate yourself as an artist and being known for something greater than yourself. Which I think, inevitably, creates the perfect giving cycle. So I just think that my responsibility is to give and that’s what an artist is truly here for. It’s give your art, give yourself. I’ve been doing this since the beginning. Now I’m just throwing down the gauntlet. 

Stephanye: On Twitter, Nicki Minaj and Lady Gaga truly engage their fans, even knowing some by name. How important are those relationships and in what ways does it benefit you? 

You have to know as an artist that your fanbase is the reason why you are allowed or capable to do anything. If you don’t have fans, you’re playing for yourself. If you have multiples of fans, they’re your constituency. You’re responsible for them just as they are responsible to you and in support of you. So the moment when they decide that you are no longer someone important to them, it affects your life. The same way it goes for you as a person towards them. In life, if you pursue things that are not within the mantra you put out, they will leave and vice versa. It’s a mutual destruction. If you fail them, they fail you. 

Stephanye: What brought you to engage so deeply? There are different levels. Some celebs just post personal pictures online. Nicki Minaj tweets her fans all day. You invite your fans to come hang out at a bar. Why that level? 

Kenna: I agree with Nicki. I agree with Gaga. Interestingly enough, I even agree with Taylor Swift. She spends time with them. The reason why she spends time with them is because she knows that they’re the reason why she will be here for a long time, with or without anyone else. To the point where she can pivot an entire tech firm to do other things, because they know that her audience is that vehemently in support. 

The reason why I do it is because I’ve had a long-standing relationship with most of these fans. So when I had to dip out to go find myself or when I had to deal with an industry of people that don’t care about the intimate things I have to go through, my fans have cared. They’ve always cared and consistently been there for me even when I think no one is paying attention or wanting to support me. So, to me, they are the only ones that matter. Everyone else is a part of a puzzle that may or may not lead to great heights. But at the end of the day, I know who is going to be there until the end of forever because they’ve been there when there was nothing to be there for. My fans are the kindest and smartest fuckers there are. They are very very smart and I respect them. You can’t be floating at 60,000 feet when people like that are day to day with you and want to know the truth. 

Stephanye: Speaking of Taylor Swift, as an artist and a tech person, what are your thoughts on all of the streaming services popping up?  

Obviously, my music is on all of them. So to a great extent, you know that there is an audience on each. Your responsibility as an artist is to put your music where it will be heard. I think the ones with the strongest foothold are obviously Apple and Spotify. Apple, because it’s Apple and Spotify because they built theirs. The other streaming services are kind of arbitrary. They exist, they have an audience, but at the end of the day, know that the majority of the people you’re trying to reach as an artist are on those two platforms. 

All of them have a challenge and that’s human condition. What the people want is what they all battle to figure out on a day to day basis. I think that Apple and Spotify have come in early enough to have that foothold. Apple also chose to build it off of the energy of creativity and artists. I went to a meeting at Apple and one of the artists from Gang of Four was in my meeting and he was the artist relations person. So I’m saying okay to what they tell me because he’s going to protect me as an artist. I thought that was really rad. Spotify also hired a new marketing person that I think is a great guy. He cares about sustainability and the world at large. He also knows the value of music.  

Stephanye: In my grouptext ‘Music Scholars’, we always talk about how Virginia is not be a state that people think of as cosmopolitan, yet it’s created a very important sound consistently in music since the early 90s. What was it like growing up with all of these sounds and why do you think Virginia is so innovative? 

Kenna: First of all, it was like the Twilight Zone growing up in Virginia as a teenager. You walk into a studio and the first person you see is Pharrell and he’s writing “Rump Shaker”. Usher is like 12,13 in the back sleeping on the floor trying to get his record on. You wake up in the morning, because you came there straight from school and working until 6am sometimes, and Patti LaBelle is making you breakfast. How does this even exist? And these are the people you listened to for your whole life. Everyone from Tom Jones to Michael Jackson to kids from Shai, you name it, when through Teddy’s camp. Everyone. They would come in and out of the studio and you’re a witness to all of this. You’re hearing the first Blackstreet album being produced and mixed. It was really Teddy Riley that was the big fish in a small pond. He was an opportunity maker. A lot of those people came into that camp that had something, but we came from nothing. 

I mean Virginia Beach is a Navy town, super transient town. It’s a lot of human beings coming from all over the world. With all of the culture there being mixed up because of the Navy, along with the fact that there’s nothing to do, you had people that were doing some pretty illegal shit. At the same time, you had a lot of time on your hands, so music was the only thing that you could be a part of creating or supporting. And this was pre-internet, pre-cell phones. It was like all you had was your music. So he brought opportunity to a group of people that were hopeful and only had their music to get them through it. 

Stephanye: But that’s what makes Virginia so cool. No crew sounds the same. Everyone had a different sound and normally, in a city or state, it’s concentrated on one style.  

Kenna: It’s a lot of space between us too. I think you’re concentrated in Atlanta and people know each other. You don’t really know who is making music in Virginia. You’re like “Oh you make music? Where do you live? Suffolk? Where’s Suffolk?” It’s different because we weren’t all hanging out with each other to copy.  

Stephanye: So what are you listening to right now and what’s the last book you’ve read? 

Kenna: The last book I read probably was “Outliers” by Malcolm Gladwell. It was such a powerful book because it spoke to the 10,000 hours that’s necessary and that’s what the song “Sleep When We Die” is about. The lyric that says “I look for scenes in my life, it should all be cinematic, I put my pride to the side, only a fool thinks it’s automatic.” That statement was an “Outliers” statement. I’m putting my 10,000 hours in. I take my time. If I don’t have anything to say, I won’t say it. If I have something to say, I’m going to come as correct as possible, with something that’s a paradigm shift. 

When it comes to music, I’ve been listening to everything on the app Undrtone. Half of the stuff, I didn’t even know existed. I love this kid Theo Martin. I listened to him on Undrtone and thought that this was something I wish I made.

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