From the choir to the charts

Aug 27, 2003 at 12:00 am

This story is for the ones who knew it the first time they heard him sing “Sad & Lonely” from the Can’t Figure U Out EP. This is for the congregation at Renaissance Unity, the ones who cried because they’d never heard anyone sing “Thank You, Lord” so sincerely. This is for the people who saw him perform early shows, like the one at Cleary Auditorium, where he did the entire performance with his fly unzipped. It’s for those who saw both opening performances for Me’Shell NdegeOcello, knowing in their hearts it would be a matter of time before venues like the Magic Bag would become too small to house his following.

If Kem were a thug, he’d have every right to stand at the western tip of Belle Isle, right on its rocky point, look to Detroit and shout, “What!” To his credit, though, he just says thank you for each of his nearly 200,000 CD-buying fans so far, and for the countless others who’ve turned up at the Jambalaya Festival, Chene Park and will, next week, see him at Arts, Beats & Eats.

When Kem and I sat in a Ferndale coffee shop a year ago and discussed his then-independently released album, Kemistry, the conversation focused on his local buzz. At the time, his single “Love Calls” was getting spins on WGPR-FM 107.5 and WMXD-FM 92.3, and there was interest in Chicago, Miami and a few other cities. Today, Kem is signed to Motown/Universal, which re-released Kemistry as-is after it sold 14,000 copies on its own.

This week the CD sits at No. 14 on Billboard magazine’s Current R&B Album Core Stores chart, which follows retail album sales. The single “Love Calls” has been Top 10 at urban AC radio formats for more than two months. Kemistry sold 10,951 CDs last week, and Detroit is its top-selling market, with Philly a close second. WJLB-FM 97.9 plays his single in power rotation, which amounts to about 30 spins per week.

Syndicated radio host Tom Joyner calls Kem’s album the one you pull out for friends, saying, “You don’t know nothing ’bout Kem.” His partner Jay Anthony Brown adds, “Then when they ask to borrow it, you tell ’em …”

“Nooo, my brother,” Joyner cuts in, finishing the sentence. “You got ta get yo’ own.”

“That’s what we all hope for in the industry,” Kem says on the phone from a Motown Records office in LA. “When it takes place, man, it’s a great thing. But I kinda take everything in stride. I kinda like to stay low, keep movin’. ’Cause everybody loves you when the record’s selling. I don’t think I’ve arrived yet.”

The velvet-throated Kem is what one might call a soul deity in Detroit right now. But you knew that, especially if you were one of the 4,000 people who packed Chene Park to see him perform with Japanese jazz ensemble Hiroshima, or the estimated 2,000 more who cooked out and camped out on the lawn outside the venue. It was easily the fastest-selling concert in the Chene Park summer jazz series, and Kem was so caught up in the moment that he sang to the boats on the Detroit River. He sang for Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, who then came on stage and sang with him.

“Chene Park, man, was an out-of-body experience,” he says. “My voice wasn’t there. I didn’t physically feel well. I was concerned about my voice throughout the show. And I stepped on stage, man, and it was on. We have a show, but things were added to the Chene Park that we do not normally do.” One of those things was a surprise rendition of Prince’s “Do Me, Baby” during the encore. The audience went bananas.

“We had practiced it, but we ain’t plan to play it live,” says Quentin Baxter, Kem’s guitar player. “When he started playing the notes, we were like, ‘OK, we gon’ play it, then.’”

Earlier this year, Patti LaBelle asked Kem to join her onstage for an impromptu duet of “Lady Marmalade” at a benefit for Gilda’s House, the cancer research charity named after the late Gilda Radner. The invitation-only event was organized by society writer Chuck Bennett.

“He invited me, man. And he introduced me to her [LaBelle] right downstairs. It was a pre-function type of thing, before the show. She was taking pictures and everything, and I met her. She was like, ‘Maybe I’ll have you come up and sing something onstage during the show.’ And I’m, like, cool. But I’m thinking to myself, ‘Dog, I do not wanna get up on stage with Patti LaBelle!’ I’m like, ‘Dog, I hope she don’t call me.’”

Kem’s apparent humility keeps him grounded, as it did the night of the benefit. He and Labelle reportedly tore up “Marmalade” with just a piano backing them. Anita Baker was in attendance, and when Kem introduced himself, she responded, “We’ve met. I have your album at my home.”

“I was just like, yeah,” he says, then jokes, “That’s right! She got the CD in the crib.”

His modesty also seems to hide a strong confidence in his own ability. I’ve known Kem for 10 years. He has the kind of personality that can easily be mistaken as arrogance. That’s a notion a bit removed from the truth. The cat is certainly introspective, and even reclusive. He’s always reminded me of Prince in the way he marches to his own beat, looks at you for 30 damn seconds after you say hello, then offers with profound simplicity, “How you doin’?” He’s not an asshole; if anything, he’s shyly solicitous.

The success of Kemistry has stirred up lots of activity. “Kem is the talk of the office at Motown,” says manager Toya Hankins. Hankins has been Kem’s closest professional confidant since 1993. Word is Motown wants the album to hit gold by ’04. The label expects a Grammy nod. Chaka Khan’s people have approached Kem to submit songs for her next project. The action is hot, but he stays cool by trying to do the things he did before it all happened.

On a recent Sunday morning return from an out-of-town show, Kem felt the urge to visit his church, Renaissance Unity, formerly the Church of Today. A song on Kemistry, “This Place,” is dedicated to the church. Kem is still a member of the choir, along with local favorites Thornetta Davis and Michael Brock.

“I went back a couple weeks ago,” Kem says. “I just wanted to be there, and got off the plane, went home, changed clothes, and drove directly to the church. Just to be there, in a community of fellowship, people I know, unconditional love, and the choir. And I wanted to sing in the choir. I came in at the end of the second service, and sang. I’m very grateful to have that in my life. And I needed that, that day.”

Before signing Kem, Motown flew him in to perform for the label’s top execs. They set up a stage in Universal Music Group President Monty Lipman’s office. Behind it was an enlightened sign on a plasma board that read “Universal Welcomes Kem.” Kedar Massenburg, Motown’s president, was in the room. Kem was scared. He didn’t have his band with him, and he felt unprepared. One prevailing thought, he says, kept him cool. “If God says it’s going down, it’s going down. Not even you can stop it.”

He did three songs from the album. When he finished, label prez Massenburg congratulated him and Hankins on their successful independent campaign. Then he asked Kem what he thought separated his project from other Motown acts like India.Arie and Erykah Badu, noting that both artists’ sales were down this year. Kem’s response was simple: He didn’t know.

“I don’t know how they worked their projects,” he says in a way that leads me to believe he’s totally sincere. It’s as if he’s only happy with the opportunity that a big label affords to have his music reach as many people as possible. Everything else is out of his hands. See, Kem so far has never tried to do anything that doesn’t speak to his heart. And that’s precisely why he’s able to speak so clearly to others.


Kem will perform Friday, Aug. 29, at Arts, Beats & Eats in downtown Pontiac. For info, call 248-975-8850.

Read other stories in the SOUL PURPOSE: DETROIT HIP HOP 2003 series.

Khary Kimani Turner writes about soul and hip hop for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]