Kenna is an Ethiopian guy whose new album ought to rile people who expect black artists to stay black. New Sacred Cow, his debut, sifts through such '80s influences as Talking Heads and U2, through hip-hop and electronic beats. Sound like a radio formatting nightmare? Maybe, but Kenna begs to differ.
"I believe the record is an alternative record. It's not 'urban,'" says Kenna—né Kenna Zemedkun—who moved to the U.S. with his family when he was three.
There's truth in labeling here. Race doesn't seem to register on what's essentially a new wave album. It's a little funny, because new wave was (or is, if you've hopped the genre's burgeoning revival train) one of the whitest styles this side of Nashville. In our eternally race-divided world, that could be a creative no-entry zone for Kenna, a black man, and Filipino-American producer Chad Hugo, half of hitmaking production duo the Neptunes.
Then again, the album could be another sign that racial barriers—in music, at least—are falling again. If Eminem and white gals Northern State can do hip-hop, then why can't Kenna do music that sounds like Thomas Dolby and Depeche Mode at their most soulful? For Kenna, there's no such self-questioning: new wave is simply the sound he grew up with.
His vocal inspirations are Bono, Sting, David Byrne and the Beatles. His voice carries none of the grit or vocal pyrotechnics of modern R&B. His lyrics steer clear of urban radio obsessions like partying and thug life. Instead, they're all about overcoming personal insecurities—fitting terrain for a guy who calls his street team Nervous People. And lately, his music has been finding its way onto MTV2, where the videos for "Hell Bent" and "Freetime" have been popping up in rotation, though you may not notice him right away—the "Freetime" clip just shows a pair of feet dancing or walking down the street.
"I always make the video that has the best treatment. So far, the best treatments have been without me in them," he says. A masterful dodge, Kenna, but Flaunt magazine found him more forthcoming in an interview last year: "I don't want anybody to look at me and say, 'He's this style' because of what I look like or because I sing a certain way."
This tricky topic will catch up with him, or so says James Spooner, a New York documentary filmmaker who directed Afro-Punk: The Rock & Roll Nigger Experience, which chronicles the lives of black punkers.
"Of course race matters in music," says Spooner. "Race matters in everything in this country. I will bet my bottom dollar that Kenna, no matter what he sounds like, will be labeled R&B, or at the very least find himself compared to Tracy Chapman, Fishbone or some other black artist he probably sounds nothing like."
However, many critics take Kenna's album for what it is—a good new wave record. "Cow resembles Violator-era Depeche Mode. It's a bold style for both Kenna and the Neptunes," wrote Joseph Patel in Vibe.
Then again, Kenna's '80s jones may be an act of penance. Around 1987, he knew nothing about U2—he just saw them as a source of income, scalping their concert tickets in the parking lot during the Virginia Beach, Virginia, stop of their Joshua Tree tour. A short time later, he started listening to Joshua Tree, got obsessed, and started writing music.
Over a decade went by, and Hugo, his good friend from high school, had taken over radio station playlists with co-Neptune Pharrell Williams, producing hits for Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake, Jay-Z and No Doubt. Kenna hung out at the Neptunes studio, where Hugo carved out some free time to produce and co-write some of the songs on New Sacred Cow. They finished it in 2001 and were quickly signed to Fred Durst's Flawless imprint. But Kenna thought Interscope, Flawless' parent label, didn't support his work; he and Hugo retooled it and shopped it to Columbia, where he was signed last August.
If Kenna doesn't dwell on race, he says he won't forget where he's from. Later this year, he and his father, a finance professor and agriculture official in the waning days of Haile Selassie's regime, plan to launch Project Eden, an organization to help modernize Ethiopia's economy. "We want to help governments realize there is one world, not three."
Kenna performs with The Exies and Fiction Plane at the House of Blues, 1530 S. Disneyland Dr., Anaheim, (714) 778-2583. Friday, 8 p.m. $10. All ages.
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