Kesswa turns inward with contemplative neo-soul

Bands to watch

Jan 22, 2020 at 1:00 am
Kesswa. Noah Elliott Morrison

Kesswa asks a lot of questions, many of which there are no answers to.

A Detroit native, former Buddhist, natural hair braider, and sociology major, Kesswa, born Kesiena Wanogh, emerged last year as her latest and truest incarnation: a multifaceted electronic neo-soul singer whose debut EP, Soften, revealed a meditative and blooming desire to dismantle self-doubt and trust the process.

A daughter of Nigerian immigrants and one of five children, Kesswa, 27, was encouraged from an early age to pursue more traditional career paths, despite having experienced the undeniable magnetic pull of late '90s and early 2000s R&B, which, as she got older, grew into a life-altering internal conflict.

"I grew up listening to a lot of traditional Nigerian music, and then I'm second to last in a family of, like, five kids, so I have all of these influences from my siblings and my older cousins. Like, there were lots of R&B girl groups. I was so inspired by the perception of sisterhood, and beauty, and femininity, and girl power," she says, recalling having been transformed by a Destiny's Child video. "And they just looked like they were having fun, which had the biggest influence on me. I was like, this is what I want to do. But life didn't really work out that way at the time."

Once Kesswa graduated from Wayne State, she began working in the field of sociology straight out the gate and very quickly realized that something wasn't clicking as her gnawing artistic impulses became a distraction and a guiding light. From the professional dissatisfaction, Kesswa began to emotionally problem-solve, as she pieced together the possibility of being able to utilize her understanding of social theory and intersectionality to further embed herself in Detroit's rich hub of like-minded artists.

"It was clear, but it was scary because I put so much into it," she says of her change of heart. "But at the same time, I feel like I'm in perpetual awe of my ability to create life for myself and to be a part of this artistic community because I never really thought that it was something that, not even that I physically had access to, but that I could belong to. We spend so much of our lives at work, and if I'm going to give my life to something, I want to give my life to something that feels restorative and inspiring and empowering and allows me to connect with other people."

Once she let go of interpersonal and societal expectations and confronted her personal hurdles and fears, the fog began to clear and Kesswa's artistic path became more expertly paved. The first step was securing income by embracing a creative and communicative skill developed early on: braiding hair, which she does at Textures by Nefertiti in Midtown. This decision freed up emotional bandwidth and allowed Kesswa to feel as though she was not compromising her destiny for the sake of stability.

The next frontier was music. "My initial intention was [to] record something that I truly, genuinely love and put it on Bandcamp and call it a day," she says. "It's such a complex feeling, that release, you know, because Soften was so deeply personal. It connected so much of my process of releasing the old narratives that I was holding onto from childhood about being worthy of my desire and perfectionism and being able to express myself creatively and be confident and fearless and owning it. And standing in it. And repeating it again and again and again and again that I will find my dreams, I will manifest my dream." 

Written as a series of mantras, Soften, Kesswa says, is a moment in time forged from Buddhist principles and inspired by Anita Baker, Underground Resistance, traditional African music, Afrofuturism, and what Kesswa refers to as Afro-surrealism. Though she hopes the EP will continue to evolve and resonate with people, her next project, which is in the works and on pace to be released later this year, explores an even softer side of Kesswa.

"Now that I feel like I'm standing on my own two feet as an artist and I know what I like and I know what I want and what's important to me and what matters to me, I can create from a space that is lighter, more fun, less pensive, and less brooding, but still meaningful," she says. "And, of course, you can dance to it."

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