Kenna understands that there is so much more to this world than silver and gold. A model of meaning guides his career moving forward from two remarkable albums with a series of three EPs, the Land 2 Air Chronicles. The first release, Chaos and the Darkness, is a gripping example of music with a distinct purpose. I had a chance to listen to Kenna talk about the record and play a few other songs on the piano and the spur of the moment in front of perhaps twenty people at the studio he’s been using in Manhattan. Then, when I called him up to do the interview, he made life easy by saying a lot of really cool stuff. Kenna is super-talented, motivated, and is carrying the spirit of something greater with him. Here’s what he had to say.
Tell me a little bit about yourself, growing up, what got you interested in making music, some of the earlier projects you worked on before your first two albums—that kind of stuff.
Well, I mean, to start with music, I’ll just tell you… top of my life. I was born in Ethiopia, raised in Cincinati, Ohio… I don’t, I guess, call it the ‘inner city’, I don’t know… I grew up in Virginia after that, went to junior high and high school in Virgina, met up with a band at the time called The Neptunes.
We all, in our early teens kind of congregated at Teddy Riley’s studio, so I was lucky to be immersed in Blackstreet, Wreckxs N Effects, Michael Jackson, Patti Labelle, and everything from Tom Jones to, you could name it, was coming in and out of the studio. I was writing music back then, just because, I didn’t really know why I wanted to be a part of it, I just I wanted to do it, it made me feel like I could be epic. It was just a powerful time for all of us. So that was early days in music.
My first deal was a while ago, I made the album New Sacred Cow with Chad from The Neptunes, and the idea was to make an album that I thought Michael Jackson would be jealous of. I wanted Michael to listen to my album, and call me and ask me for some tracks [laughing]. That’s the most arrogant possible thing you can think, but it was a goal, you know? And I think that’s what it takes to be a really brilliant artist in this life, to want to be better than your favorites, to fight for that, even if you never reach it, to want to be as compelling and as powerful as the greatest artists in the history of our lives. And funny enough after I finished New Sacred Cow and it was circulating pre-release, Michael’s team called me, took a meeting with me, said that he was a big fan, and he was wondering if I had any tracks. That was the first time I realized that I can do anything if I put my heart and my spirit, and my mind to it, I can do anything.
It was kind of in the middle of me promoting my record, I was just getting in that space, and Michael loved to do that thing where he would lock people up for like six months at a time and have them work on his album only. So it was a question of whether or not I could turn in music or if I had to be there the whole time which would probably kill my album.
In retrospect, I should have just gone in the studio.
I chose to fight for my album, be on the road and see if my record had a chance to blow up. But the album was ten years ahead. Chad is a genius sonically; unbelievable. The combination of him and myself, curating that sound, was so ahead that it wasn’t necessarily going to be heard, or understood. So that’s when all the strategizing began, that’s when you realize that you can’t really introduce yourself right now, that you can’t necessarily show your face right now. Once you’ve done that, you’ve come, and you’ve gone. That’s when videos with claymation and videos from the knees down and videos where I’m really distorted like Hunter S. Thompson started to show up. That’s when you make an album and Pharrell tells you, “You gotta make sure they see your face this time,” you still don’t make sure they see your face, you just show them your hands.
But all of that is because, as I’m waiting, music is changing, highways are being built. You have to wait for that moment to come so that you can actually present yourself. Which is where I am now, the first two albums, they both lead up to Land 2 Air Chronicles: Songs For Flight, which is me taking dreams, my dream from when I began, onto the runway, finally, my new ship, and my plans to take off.
*Is a lot of your family still in Ethiopia?
My parents came over here and one by one brought over the majority of their family, which is an insane proposition, because I think that my dad figured out the system and brought over several of his brothers, my mom and dad both brought over several of my mom’s brothers and sisters. I always had a roommate, you know? They were definitely trying to bring people to, what would be the land of opportunity. So when that happens they’re like, “Look, you’re not going to screw this opportunity up, you’re going to college, if you’re not going to college, then you’re not living in this house, because obviously you’re squandering all the stress that we took on as kids to get here and to look after you.” I don’t think it was until my Grammy nomination a couple years back for “Say Goodbye to Love” that my dad realized that maybe, just maybe I didn’t make a mistake [laughs].
I know the feeling really well man, I’m the first generation of my family born here, the generation that came here, it wasn’t easy for them, I don’t think it’s easy for anyone, and as result they take those things really seriously.
It’s kind of one of those things where you realize that you have this, I kind of feel like it’s happening right now in the world a lot more. There are a lot more of us, that first generation, but we’ve been here for a minute and, you know, we’re living life now, a new way, but it’s combined with our history and honestly we’re the reason why our friends who are here in this culture, which is kind of a non-culture, the American culture, the reason why they have diversified is a combination of technology and the relationships with people that are around them that have lived other lives, or have that kind of life where they go home and it’s the middle east, you go home and it’s Ethiopia, when you leave, it’s America. That’s changing now in such a significant way and that’s why music is so diverse now, that’s why things are changing, but I had to wait years for that to happen, like right now is when my music might make sense, if I released New Sacred Cow for the first time this year, it would be understood. If that makes sense, Make Sure They See My Face a year from now would be like “wow.”
Tell me a little bit about your process.
I don’t have a math for that, it just happens. Like the song that I played on the piano the other night happened in my head before I even sat at a piano. Sometimes Chad will come with a beat and I’ll follow along with that beat but usually it’s a scale, a skeleton of what it will be, maybe it’s a bassline, sometimes I’ll come in with a guitar lick that’s super-simple and I’ll translate it into something way more complex, just like me playing the piano on “Sunday After You” and it turned into the beat frenzy that it was. There really is no mathematical equation. There are pages that I have, where I literally wrote maybe 300 words, like all over the place, not in any order, not in a line, just all over the place, and ended up writing lyrics from reading word by word by word off the page at random, and that’s when I know I’m connected to the universe, I just let it happen.
Also, could you talk a bit about Summit on the Summit, and some of the work you guys have done, and are doing as an organization to promote clean water awareness?
Yeah, Summit was a story my dad told me, he had a water borne disease as a kid, and people in the family died from that, my uncles had died, and I had no idea till about four years ago and I had just gotten out of my label situation and I was just getting out of my publishing situation, and there was a question about whether or not I would dive right back in, because I had offers and people wanted to give me money and they’re like, you’re the future of this, the future of that, but it didn’t sit well with me and I’d seen the end of the movie a couple of times, didn’t like the ending. So why would I go sit through that movie again? So I listened to my dad and I started doing some research. When I learned about water, it was such a fucking burden on my heart both for family reasons and for just the clear fact that people deserve to have clean water. The struggle around the world for that, when we have an abundance of water on the planet, but not useable water, and that it literally directly correlates to the development of every major economic issue, as well as climate and otherwise directly correlated, made me feel so helpless in a lot of ways and I just thought, you know, I can climb a mountain, I tried that once, didn’t make it to the top, maybe I’ll do it again.
And on a snowboarding trip that me and [Justin] Timberlake do pretty much every year I said look I’m going to go climb this mountain, and he was like, “Dude I want to go with you if I can make it, if I can figure out my schedule I want to go.” When he said that a light went off in my head and I said, “Okay, wait a minute if you go then I got to get UN security cause you’re a freaking über-star and people will try to attack you and you’ll have a kid on every finger,” and I realized, wait a minute—this is an opportunity bring luminaries together for the chance to do something for us. Which is when my symbol changed from the nothing is greater or less than not symbol for my music, that’s when my attention changed for how I make my music and what I am going to do with that, everything shifted in my mind but I needed to disperse, and Summit was born.
Friends wanted to go, and it became what it became, which was a machine that brought awareness to something that nobody thought was sexy enough, and made it sexy. Not that it needs to be sexy, but apparently in America sex sells. So that’s what it was and it was really more beautiful than that because people that went were really impacted. Some of our friends who found out we did the climb have come to me on a regular basis like, “Look, I wanna know when the next one is.” Lupe went on to do Don’t Download Donate and Pakistan Now—he’s super active. Jess Biel has dug wells in Ethiopia, she’s done it twice, I think once she gave the gift to her management team and another time she did a campaign for it. We have programs that we’ve worked on in Tanzania that was part of our documentary; we’re going and digging a well where my father had waterborne disease. We premiered our documentary at the library of congress and helped keep 100 million dollars in the budget for clean water. It became a huge advocacy project more than an awareness project and it’s moving forward in a lot of ways. There will be some really special announcements close to the end of the year. I’m building, that’s really what this is all about.
I have to say, I think it’s really righteous man, not enough people are bringing attention to this issue, and these kinds of issues in general. Tell me about your experience climbing Mount Killimanjaro specifically. That must have been a really powerful experience.
Yeah, seven days: five days up, two days down. Altitude sickness, lack of oxygen, massive headaches, cold, freezing cold and inclement weather, the worst weather they’d had in 15 years. We had hail, sleet and snow; it went from 90 degrees at the base, to negative 40 degrees at the top, with wind chill. You don’t have any talents on this mountain, the mountain is a great equalizer, you could be the healthiest person and not make it or you could be the unhealthiest person and get to the top. It’s really based on your will and your spirit and weather or not you’ve honed your heart. I picked Killimanjaro in the first place because I knew that it was the roof of Africa, and also because I knew that it was the place where I could have all my trouble below me, and be able to really almost touch the sky, be above the clouds. The most spiritual experience you’ll ever have is also the most difficult. I really believe it was the spirit of why we were there on that mountain that took us to the top. Look, I’m about things that matter, people ask me the question, “What’s the future of music, what’s the model?” I’ll say, “Meaning, the model is meaning”.
If you’re not making music that has meaning it’s going to fall on deaf ears. If you’re not living your life with meaning, it’s going to fall on blind eyes. And if you’re not speaking with meaning, you’re not going to be acknowledged.
—Omar Almufti, 24 June 2011