In 2003, Kenna was poised to become a superstar. With a load of online buzz and a powerful label (Columbia), he had opened for No Doubt and Dave Gahan of Depeche Mode. It looked like Kenna would takeIn 2003, Kenna was poised to become a superstar. With a load of online buzz and a powerful label (Columbia), he had opened for No Doubt and Dave Gahan of Depeche Mode. It looked like Kenna would take home some MTV music video awards, and he had his debut, "New Sacred Cow," produced by high school pal Chad Hugo of the Neptunes.
But the spotlight heading his way somehow passed him by. "New Sacred Cow" was met with only 2,000 sales in the U.S., according to Nielsen SoundScan. "I guess there's only so much room in world for superstars," Kenna laughs.
The 29-year-old is giving superstardom another shot with the release of his sophomore set "Make Sure They See My Face," and he's well on his way. The Ethiopian-born songwriter, born Kenna Semedkun, has now earned his first chart ink, climbing on board The Billboard 200 at No. 124 and at No. 1 on Top Heatseekers.
Perhaps it was a matter of what America was and wasn't ready for. Kenna's big, soulful voice is mixed with big dance beats, rock riffs and elements of New Wave, R&B and pop. That's not a combination that makes it easy for radio programmers to finesse, but it's always been Kenna's M.O. to do something different.
"It's not radio's responsibility to create something to do something new and different, their job is to fill airtime, which sells advertisement," Kenna tells Billboard.com. "To sit and be upset about them not playing my songs... that isn't fair. Art spills into business. People respond to art, and business responds to people. It's my responsibility to making something different."
That isn't to say Kenna hasn't had a little help from his friends. After signing with the Neptunes' Star Trak label (in conjunction with Interscope), he also roped in the other half of the famed production duo, Pharrell Williams, to helm the decks. Justin Timberlake, whom Kenna supported on his FutureSex/LoveShow in Europe, leant guest vocals. Author Malcolm Gladwell even devoted a chapter of his bestseller "Blink" to what he called "Kenna's Dilemma"; he makes a cameo on the album as well. Kenna also toured the U.S. with Nelly Furtado and is currently supporting She Wants Revenge on the road.
"Justin's a great example of someone is comfortable with what he does and his team around him," says Kenna, who says the key to making his career successful is surrounding himself with the right people. "Making a record with Star Trak is like making a record with my family. There's no ego in it.
"If I were to describe the industry as I see it now, it comes down to one question: does it matter? Does the music matter? Does the artist matter? Did it matter beyond meetings about quarters and numbers? I'm learning what it matters to me and to my family and friends around me now."
This struggle of making something worthwhile and totally reflective of who he is as an entertainer is apparent on "Make Sure They See My Face." Lyrically, he touches on the themes above with tracks like "Static" and "Better Wise Up." "My spirit was going through a lot of struggles with making a sophomore record. It really is hard to make! They mean it!" he says. "After ['New Sacred Cow'] came out in 2003, a couple months later Columbia asked me to make another one. I wasn't upset about it Ð everybody's gotta make the doughnuts Ð- but I wasn't in a musical mindset. I hadn't reached the top of my life's mountain, so I decided to climb an actual one."
Kenna literally set out to ascend Mount Kilamanjaro in Tanzania and made it to 18,200 feet before he fell ill after taking altitude-sickness medication.
"I told my dad about it... he asked 'Why didn't you make it?' I told him it was the medicine. 'What was it made of?' Sulphur. 'I'm allergic to sulphur, you're probably allergic to sulphur.' Then he said 'Maybe you hadn't reached the top of your life's mountain, so you did it artificially,'" Kenna recounts. "The song 'Sun Red Sky Blue' is about having faith of waiting to the last second. You have to be still, comfortable in your own skin. It's about finding my face, but also accepting it."