Interview: KEM

‘You can be seductive without being overt and without being offensive’
Words: Marsha Gosho Oakes
Detroit-based singer Kem provides mature soul that is as full of jazz as it is untouched by hip hop. One might call it “urban contemporary soul”. His debut album, Kemistry, was self-released, then re-released by Motown Records in 2003; spawning the popular single ‘Love Calls’ and prompting the album to go Gold. His sophomore album (simply titled Album II), produced the successful single ‘I Can’t Stop Loving You’ which, notably, occupied the #1 spot on the Urban AC and R&B Adult Monitor charts for a seven consecutive weeks. I grabbed some time with Kem on his last visit to London, and found him to be a rather intriguing subject to interview. Seated opposite the intensely quiet and reserved vocalist’s still and watchful gaze, I’m faced with an inviting challenge to warm Kem into sharing his experiences of homelessness, Motown Records, spiritualism, and battles against shyness and stage-nerves.
SoulCulture: Have you worked with any other Detroit soul artists?
Kem: Dwele and I have done some work together, we haven’t recorded together but we’ve done a couple of shows. He sang with me and I sang with him on a couple of shows back in Detroit.
SoulCulture: Is it easy to come up in Detroit?
Kem: It just depends on how you go about doing it. I worked the Detroit scene probably for over a decade, since ’95. I had an EP on an independent label with about 4 songs on it and I would sing wherever people would let me sing. We did a lot of the festivals. It’s hard, it’s a grind, because I never sang any cover tunes. It’s definitely a grind, it’s not easy singing your own original songs that no-one’s ever heard before and capturing that audience. But we did it so much and eventually got good at it to where it created a buzz in Detroit and we were able to capitalise on that buzz with the first album.
SoulCulture: What was it like being on an independent label?
Kem: The label back in ’95 dissolved and then I started my own label with the intention of just putting my own CD on my own label, I was not trying to sign any other groups and I was not interested in being an executive. There are more people at the table when you’re making decisions about the order of songs, and the creative process. I didn’t lose any control, but it’s not me making all the decisions now [on Motown]. Everything has to be run by someone else. As long as my records continue to be successful I’ll never bump heads with anyone.
SoulCulture: Is it your ideal situation?
Kem: Yeah, it’s cool. As long as we’re making progress then it’s good for everybody.
SoulCulture: What attracted you to Motown? The legacy or the package they offered?
Kem: It was strictly a business decision! Although I’m grateful to be a part of the legacy of Motown, I think that being from Detroit and being signed to the Motown label… how cool is that? But when people hear Motown they think about… you know, but we got India and Erykah on the label, and Stevie still on the label. It’s a good place to be for now.
SoulCulture: Is there a battle against commercialism with them?
Kem: No, because they know what it is. I came to them with a record that was already done, they know what I do so that’s what it is – I’m past the stage in my life where I can pretend to be something other than what I am. And now there are too many people who love what I’m doing, I wouldn’t compromise my core audience to try and make things more ‘commercial’, if you will. The music is smooth, the music has a lot of jazz overtones to it, it’s warm, it’s intimate, it’s got a groove to it, some of it is funky, and it’s genuine. Lyrics are very important to me. I talk about faith, I talk about relationships, I talk about the pain of living in my music. I talk about things that I believe are most important to people, I talk about the things that are most important to me. It’s good and I like doing it, and that’s one of the things about the work I do that I think resonates with people.
SoulCulture: What subjects wouldn’t you feel comfortable singing about?
Kem: I don’t know. I think there’s a way to sing about anything. You can be seductive without being overt and without being offensive. When people put my record on I want their kids to be able to listen to it, your kids shouldn’t have to leave the room when my record comes on. Being a father’s important to me.
SoulCulture: Do your kids like your music?
Kem: Yeah but they’re biased. She doesn’t count really! My daughter’s 11. She has the aptitude for singing, she can hold her own.
SoulCulture: How do you feel about merging politics and music?
Kem: I’m still working out my politics so I don’t even know where I am on a whole bunch of stuff, but there’s definitely a place for that expression in music, and it’s nothing new. I think there’s a place for that and it’s important music, I haven’t done it and that’s not to say that I won’t. There’s so much going on. What I’ve learned in my life is that it’s not so much about what happens to us or what we experience as opposed to how we react and how we respond and what is coming from inside of us. And I think that my music speaks more to that than ‘we can be mad about this or that…’. There’s a place for all the voices that have something to say about all these other issues but I’m looking at the deeper thing.
SoulCulture: When were you homeless?
Kem: That was in the early 90’s, late 80’s. I was still in love with music and music has always been a part of everything, and a lot of the ideas for my first record were done during that period of my life. Everything I learned to overcome that situation, I use to run my business today. I don’t regret it at all.
SoulCulture: Who are some of your favourite artists to listen to?
Kem: Everything I have is old. Ok that’s not true, I got 3121 by Prince. He’s my cat, I grew up listening to him, he’s a major influence on me. He’s the man. I have Jill Scott, Al Jerome, this old jazz singer called Jimmy Scott.. I like good songs. There are a lot of people who’ve made a lot of incredible songs. Live performers – Michael Jackson, hands down. Hands down. The Thriller record was incredible from a production standpoint. ‘Off The Wall’ is great too. Michael – his name is definitely in that hat. Prince Sign O The Times. That was my favourite record from him. I love Chaka Khan, I’ve worked with Chaka Khan and she’s great. I like Charlie Wilson, My Name Is Charlie. I think he should do another Gap Band record, because they sell, they do shows, The Gap Band plays everywhere. Why you trying to do the solo thing, by why don’t you do another gap band record. I like that one song, the guy can sing. Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, Jackie Wilson. Marvin’s What’s Going On.
SoulCulture: I love your Love Calls remix featuring Marsha of Floetry…
Kem: I think Kedar Massenburg was the president of Motown when we did that, and I think that might have been his idea. The idea was to have a female vocalist and I think at the time that Marsha was the first choice. She’s ridiculously bad [he says approvingly]. She’s great. She just came to the studio and laid it out, we didn’t do anything, there was no production or anything. I love their first record.
SoulCulture: Why did you start singing?
Kem: I don’t know. I think it was because…. I started singing in front of my classmates in like the 5th grade, I think it was the first thing that I’d ever done that I got a positive response from it… and I was like ‘Yo, I like that’. It was a lift to the self-esteem, it was gratifying to know that I could sing and people listening would dig it. It was a very validating experience at a young age.
SoulCulture: When did you start performing?
Kem: In front of an audience, 5th or 6th grade (about 10/11 yrs old). I didn’t start getting paid ‘til MUCH later!
SoulCulture: Were you shy?
Kem: Always; to this day, still. I try to get better and better at performing. I like it when it’s good and I’ve had it when it’s not. I’ve gotten used to it, there was a time when it was difficult. I wasn’t passing out backstage or getting sick before the show, but a lot of mental gymnastics had to be done in order to see it through. And today I’ll have them, but if I’m uncomfortable before I go on that’s just what it is and I’ll go on anyway – they can’t eat you.
SoulCulture: What’s the toughest crowd you’ve sung to?
Kem: Toughest crowd I played was… I don’t know… every audience is different. I’ve had some tough shows, man. I don’t think there’s ever been a negative response, depending on the audience they may not be as responsive as you would like them to be. A lot of times they’re not responsive but they love it, it’s just a different vibe, or they’ll be bourgie. That can be stressful – you can’t let it throw you. I’ve seen that happen to Earth Wind and Fire. I’ve seen that happen to cats who are great, who I’ve grown up admiring. It happens to everybody. When you see someone perform you’re only seeing like a window of their entire career. There are a lot of good shows and there are a lot of shows that from an artist’s perspective may not be great but you do it and you keep doing it. Unless you get booed, usually people have something positive to say about it. You’ll hear something back from somebody who’s objective, saying “oh we heard you were in such and such and we heard you throw down” and I might have felt horrible about it. I’m probably harder on myself than the audience ever will be. That keeps you ahead of the game.
SoulCulture: You’re spiritual in your music. Do you think it’s important for someone listening to your music to be spiritual to appreciate it?
Kem: No, I don’t think it’s important for them to start out that way! [laughs] But that’s the whole point, to hopefully drop seeds and to hopefully reach people on a deeper level at the core. I don’t want my music to just be entertaining. I want it to move people – and if it gets you thinking about spirituality, good bad or indifferent, whether it gets you thinking about it in a good way or in a bad way, I always think it’s better to be thinking about it than not thinking about it at all.
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