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Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Kenna: Going Mainstream For A Cause

Kenna (Facebook)

Kenna is consciously stepping into the limelight to raise awareness about the clean water crisis. (Facebook)

Kenna has been in the music business for years, but you may have never heard of him. Despite being nominated for a Grammy in 2008 for his single “Say Goodbye to Love,” his music has never gone mainstream.

In the 2005 bestseller “Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking,” Malcolm Gladwell dedicated a chapter to the Ethiopian-born Virginia Beach singer called “Kenna’s Dilemma: The Right — and Wrong — Way to Ask People What They Want.”

Now Kenna has made the conscious decision to step into the limelight for one reason: to raise awareness about the clean water crisis.

Kenna speaks with Here & Now’s Robin Young about his new EP “Land 2 Air Chronicles II: Imitation Is Suicide Chapter 3” and his life’s mission for Ethiopia and the rest of the world to have clean water.

“I’m from Ethiopia, my father was born in a very rural town, I have so many family members that don’t have clean water,” Kenna says. “It behooves me now to pursue more of an overt approach on my music and my art, to reach the masses so that I can be in a much more significant position, so that I can cause change.”

Kenna, 'Love Is Still Alive' (2013)

Kenna, 'Say Goodbye To Love' (2007)





The performer Kenna is successful by most definitions. There's his music. Here's 2009's Grammy-nominated "Say Goodbye To Love."


KENNA ZEMEDKUN: (Singing) I feel like I'm nowhere. Just say goodbye to love.

YOUNG: Then Kenna's pal Justin Timberlake convinced him to take on the job of chief vision officer for MySpace. And he's also a philanthropist. But if you haven't heard of the Ethiopian-born, Virginia Beach-raised artist, author Malcolm Gladwell says it's because you just can't put a finger on his genre. In Gladwell's 2005 bestseller "Blink," a whole chapter is dedicated to Kenna.

It's called "Kenna's Dilemma: The Right - and Wrong - Way to Ask People What They Want." Gladwell concludes that Kenna causes so much enthusiasm, but isn't a superstar because listeners just can't figure out what box to put him in. Kenna joins us from the NPR studios in New York. Your thoughts on Gladwell saying you make people think more.

ZEMEDKUN: Well, I'm happy they have to think more. I kind of look at it more like in a Steve Jobs kind of mindset of people don't know what they want until you tell them, but only if you actually are challenging them and if you take the time to introduce them to something and nurture the relationship with them and grow their interest in you. As an artist, in my case, I think you can win people over. It takes time, but it's worth it in the end because it will be you. It won't be a version of yourself that you made to fit into a genre or into a box. I've just chosen never to be conformist in any way and hoping that my fan base will grow naturally over time. And I won't sacrifice my integrity for anything.

YOUNG: Well, you're following so many young artists who are successful and have these huge hits and online followers. Ralph Waldo Emerson.



YOUNG: Tell us about this because we know you're releasing these new online EPs, "Land 2 Air Chronicles: Imitation Is Suicide." These are three-part EPs inspired by Ralph Waldo Emerson's essay "Self-Reliance."

ZEMEDKUN: Yeah. I actually just re-read "Self-Reliance" a while back, and it re-inspired me to focus on my music. So I started writing these chapters, "Imitation is Suicide," to explain the focus that I have on bringing my dreams into reality and focus on new ways to do it so that I can't be deterred.


ZEMEDKUN: (Singing) Imitation is suicide. Hey, yeah, you're (unintelligible) because imitation is suicide. Yeah, you know who you are.

YOUNG: This essay, a lot of people are familiar with it, from the American transcendentalist themes of voiding conformity and false consistency. It has this very famous quote: A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds. But what does that line mean to you?

ZEMEDKUN: I kind of just put it as simply as you can't dumb it down. That whole essay for me has so many different pieces of the puzzle as it relates to me. The first in the "Land 2 Air" series is called "Chaos in the Dark," basically about the things that hold you back. The "Imitation is Suicide" series is actually about standing true to what it is that you are, but also recognizing that you've been influenced and not being a complete thief at the end of the day because, you know, you will always be influenced in the things that you make come from some place, so acknowledging that.

And then the last one for me is an EP called "Genius," which comes from - where he says, to know the truth inside of yourself as the truth of all mankind is genius. And I just feel like on all levels, you cannot dumb it down. You have to be strong about what you believe in, what you are learning and impart that upon your fan base and let them understand that you are growing, you're evolving like everyone else is, and the music is the soundtrack of that evolution.

YOUNG: That's heavy, you know?

ZEMEDKUN: Yeah. I try to bring it. I'm on NPR.


YOUNG: Well, let's listen to a little - this is "Relations." You re-released it as a remix with rapper Childish Gambino. Let's listen.


ZEMEDKUN: (Singing) I think it's crazy. We've never met before. I'm wondering if we were supposed to meet in another life. I'm wondering if tomorrow never comes. I don't want the sun to rise. If I could find you, find you in the dark, then I'm all right.


YOUNG: So Kenna, you know, there, trying to get to the meat of existence. You know, let's talk to each other. Let's, you know?



YOUNG: And as you said, trying to be your own person, not conformed. And yet you're going kind of mainstream recently. We see you in a Gap ad. We see you working with MySpace, trying to build that up with one of the new owners, Justin Timberlake. Why are you doing that?

ZEMEDKUN: Well, all this stuff kind of leads to a crescendo for me. I've been working a very long time in music but at the same time working to build new ways for creatives and artists to have more power in what they create. And, you know, it's a new world. And the onset of technology and globalization and social media and social currency being such a powerful vehicle for talent to reach their audience, it's a new distribution. It's the intangibles becoming tangible.

And, for me, at the end of the day, it's about clean water. I'm from Ethiopia. My father was born in a very rural town. I have so many family members that don't have clean water. And it behooves me now to pursue more of an overt approach on my music and my art to reach the masses so that I can be in a much more significant position, so that I can cause change for that and dig more wells and bring awareness for the cause. And it's a mission and it's my life's mission to do that. And my art is the vehicle for that.

YOUNG: It's so fun because you're so surprising, you know? We wander around the corner, and there's Ralph Waldo Emerson. We wander around another corner, and there's clean water. And as part of that, we mentioned chief vision officer. Sounds like a Monty Python skit, you know?


ZEMEDKUN: I love that. Yes.

YOUNG: "Ministry of Silly Walks." But you are the chief vision officer for MySpace.


YOUNG: And one of the things you're doing is trying to connect with the audience there with a remix competition for your single "Love is Still Alive." Let's listen to a little of your version of "Love is Still Alive," and then we'll hear some of the remixes.



ZEMEDKUN: (Singing) Love. All I want is love.

YOUNG: And here are some of your fans and their mixes.


ZEMEDKUN: (Singing) I'm searching for a meaning tonight. And I'm watching all the words as they come alive. I'm seeing how dimensions divide, but I'm feeling that this love is still alive. I said love is, I said love is.

They're building their own versions of the song, and then posting them. And I get to listen to them and give them notes and encourage them to be a part of the music in new ways as well as just honing in their own skills. I'm just trying to find ways to engage with them and have them be a part of my journey. And their versions of my songs are equally as powerful as my original version.

YOUNG: Well, we started by saying that people don't know what box to put you in. If you had to put yourself in a box, what would it be?

ZEMEDKUN: I just never would. It's not because I wouldn't want to say that I'm a part of a certain community of artists. But I'm just a fan of music and I'm honored to be able to be considered a peer of those artists, and I just try to make sure that I incorporate that plus a little bit of the future, a little bit of the design of what I believe is ahead of us. Technology to music, to water, I try to bring them all together and just innovate in all spaces.

YOUNG: That's Kenna, as we heard, a musician, philanthropist, chief vision artist for MySpace. His new three-part EP is "Imitation Suicide," and we'll let you know much more about his Summit to Summit clean water project at Kenna, thanks so much for speaking with us.

ZEMEDKUN: Oh, thanks for having me.


ZEMEDKUN: (Singing) Day and night people searching, searching high and low.

YOUNG: And by the way, the remix of - rather the winners of Kenna's remix contest will be announced January 13th. We'll link you to the more than 400 submissions at From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Robin Young.


I'm Meghna Chakrabarti. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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