by Tom Barnes
R&B veteran Kenna has never felt content following music's status quo. Since the early 2000s, he's been releasing some of the most incredibly unpredictable pop and R&B. Beyond the music, with every release, Kenna has attempted to make his art feel like more than beats on a record.
Like many socially conscious musicians, he wants to his music to make a social impact the world. What makes Kenna different? Simply put, the Ethiopian-born songwriter has come up with one of the boldest strategies to make it happen.
Last Tuesday, Kenna launched an innovative crowdfunding campaign positioning himself as the first "one-for-one artist." For every dollar he makes off the album, he'll give half to one of 23 suggested charity organizations that the fans and partners choose. It's a bold experiment, and one that may offer an entirely new way to re-inject a sense of value into music.
This is the latest chapter in the anomalous saga that is Kenna. Listeners haven't been able to figure how to approach Kenna and his music throughout his career. His music has enjoyed some serious critical acclaim, with his "Say Goodbye to Love" receiving a Grammy nomination in 2009. However, he's struggled to get radio play and access a wide audience.
Author Malcolm Gladwell dealt with Kenna's conundrum in his book Blink. Gladwell argued Kenna's mixture of off-kilter dance beats and unexpectedly catchy hooks didn't gain the widespread acclaim it deserved in the United States, because it couldn't fit easily into any convenient category or genre.
However, his new campaign may be the key to helping audiences transcend these questions surrounding his music.
"I think this is a great differentiator," Kenna told Mic. "My hope is that it establishes that this artist has purpose. And that the silent masses will be interested in an artist who's making art and trying to make a difference."
The way the campaign works: Kenna's one-to-one campaign essentially aims to turn the entire process of conceiving, creating, distributing and celebrating an album into an opportunity to create change in the world. It seeks to answer one fundamental question, as he phrased it to Mic: "Is there an economics to altruism in art?"
"Is there a way to create a perfect giving cycle," he said, "where the fans are supporting the artist, and the artist is supporting the world, then the artist becomes an accelerator for the dollars that fans put in?"
The money raised from the crowdsourcing campaign will support the creation of Kenna's next record, Songs For Flight. Kenna plans to write and record the album over the course of a global journey, where he'll meet artists and thought leaders in Tokyo, Hong Kong, Mumbai, Moscow, Tel Aviv, Paris, Mexico City and more.
"I pick up these tidbits of information from really powerful people, whether they be artists or change makers. I bring these mantras and put them into the album. I make them lyric and introduce them [to] my fans," Kenna toldMic. "All the people involved with the album get to know the album, know the story and then we write the songs."
He hopes to come out of the trip with these lyrical concepts and another first: a music video shot across the world for the album's lead single "Sleep When We Die."
The journey, and the media that comes out of it, is already being paid for by brand partners, which include Apple and Delta. "They're the Medicis in this conversation," Kenna said. The money he crowdsources will go toward the album's production costs and the charity the donor decides to support.
However, the campaign is only the first verse of the larger song that will be the one-to-one that Kenna launches. "Hopefully, you reach the chorus and get a great response," Kenna told Mic. "That's me going on the trip, making the video. When I get back I got to write a second verse. That's making the album. Hopefully we get to the double chorus, which is the album coming out and the launch of a one-to-one career, and we can get to the bridge where we're all feeling good about it. And we can vamp to some Paul McCartney harmonies na-na-na-nanana [singing the ending melody to "Hey Jude"] all the way out."
Several major charities — such as Charity: Water and Americans for the Arts — have already joined the cause and shared their excitement, along with celebrities such as Aaron Paul, JoJo and Justin Timberlake.
This is one way to break through the noise. Technology has made it easier than ever for new artists to share their music with the world. This new mass, however, has made it harder than ever for audiences to know who's actually worth supporting and breaking new ground.
Even if his campaign is unsuccessful, Kenna hopes this will start new conversations about the ways we can revolutionize how artists distribute their music. "I'm comfortable with failing, as long as everybody knows that my intent is to get it right," Kenna told Mic. "I'm looking forward to scrutiny, because it will help us refine it — because this is an ongoing process."