If you listen closely, Kem Owens will tell you a little about his life. Listen closer still, and he’ll tell you what it’s taught him.
And people go from bad to good, and yes, he’ll sing, in the blink of an eye. Then he’ll bring it home by admonishing his humanness. They can go from bad to good, I guess. And so can I. It’s a matter of time.
The Dogon tribe of Mali, in Africa, holds high the proverb that time is blessed, for it heals many things. Kem is no exception to this rule. As he sits in a coffeehouse in Ferndale, he discusses the impact of time in his life. Time has been the man’s balm. It’s given him ample space to fuck up, fix up and free up his life. And it’s brought him to this point, where his latest CD release, Kemistry, is poised to confirm him as Detroit’s best-kept soul secret. He shouldn’t be a secret for long, however, because he’s singing clearly enough for a whole lot of people to hear.
He’d spend his whole life chasing heaven/but never seemed to find it/’Cause heaven resides (ooh, yeah)/on the inside.
Kem is an interesting cat to look at and listen to. He’s a bald black man of average height. Big, deep eyes advise that he’s got stories you may never hear. But those same stories fuel his creativity. Kem is unpredictable, sometimes offering one-word answers to questions that leave plenty of room for more inquiries. (“My childhood, in one word? Necessary.”) A few minutes later, he’s flippant and quick with the wisecracks. (“You can’t be a dishwasher with $15 million dreams in your heart.”)
Music is one thing in his life that has been constant. As a child, music played on his parents’ car radio all the time — Grover Washington Jr., Steely Dan, The O’Jays. It wafted through the wind in the schoolyard at the Michigan Institute for Child Development, where he held court (in elementary school) as young classmates watched him belt out George Benson’s “On Broadway.” It lived in the piano at the home of his Baptist minister grandfather.
“I do remember being interested in piano at a very early age,” Kem says. “Playing was my first interest. There’s something about a piano, man, that really turns me on. I would sit at a piano, and not know how to play. Y’knowhutmsayin’? I’m just listening to it and absorbing the sounds. ‘Color My World’ was the first song I learned. And I played the shit out of it for about 12 years.”
The music stayed there, and Kem spent years sorting piano notes until they became harmonious. Self-taught, he matured musically. In 1994, he released the EP Can’t Figure U Out on Undercurrent Records. It bubbled underground, and was the best project too few people heard. Still, it scored him two openings for Me’Shell Ndegeocello. He also recorded a radio spot for McDonald’s. Back then, Kem’s vocal tone was a warm cross of Al Jarreau and Prince. It would be his last release for years. In the interim, time would work its healing ways in his life.
He auditioned for and joined the Gospel Truth, the new choir formed at Renaissance Unity (formerly Church of Today), whose spiritual leader Marianne Williamson wanted to incorporate a music ministry in a church that traditionally had had none. The Gospel Truth placed Kem in the working company of local vocal powerhouses such as Thornetta Davis, Michael Brock and Lori Kramer. “Being on TV didn’t hurt, either,” he added, in reference to the church’s Sunday-morning broadcasts. The choir’s work regime helped Kem move away from the Prince-Jarreau thing, and into something that was much more original. He went back to the studio, this time with no label support. For the first time, he was going to put out his music, his way.
It’s a matter of time.
The music stayed there, through the light times, and the heavy ones. Years before the Gospel Truth, and Can’t Figure U Out, music went with Kem to a place that would forever change him. It was with him through an addiction to drugs and alcohol. The music went to places like Cass Avenue, where Kem existed when his addiction led to homelessness. Who knows what the music sounded like on Cass Avenue? Whatever its rhythm, it staked a fateful claim in Kem’s life. Without the influences that came from these streets, however, songs like his sublime “Matter of Time” may never have been written.
He’d take us downtown to the mission over on Mack and Third/to hear some of the strangest sounds we’d ever heard/He’d say that bad things they happen/but it’s all divine/Please don’t let this crazy, cruel world make you blind/’Cause people go from bad to good …
“The rough spots in our lives give us character,” he says. “I wouldn’t have it any other way. There’s a line in the recovery circles that we don’t regret the past on which we shut the door. It’s an integral part of who I am. Had those things not happened, I might not be content.”
It would be inaccurate to call Kem a recovered addict and leave it at that. He has been sober for 12 years, and can shed humorous light on many of his darker days. When asked about the difference between Kem then and Kem now, he cracks up at his own answer. “I won’t take your TV out your house. You invite me to your house, and I ain’t gotta raid your medicine cabinet.” He then steels himself. “I’m truer to myself today than I was then.”
Like Sting, Kem has such control of his voice that he can sing a song live and it sometimes sounds like the original recording. You’ve seen that done before, right? Watching television, watching Whitney or Mariah, swearing that they’re lip-synching, thinking, “Damn, they sound just like the record!” An artist can do that when he’s beyond the transparency of contemporary R&B, beyond cookie-cutter themes and skimpy costuming.
Half Past Three’s red room is packed. It is Kem’s recent CD release show, and people are here hoping to catch a glimpse of Detroit’s newest and brightest. Kem launches into “Brother Man,” a sonic dialogue about faith. His band plays a bouncing groove that complements the poetry in the verse. Settled behind his keyboard, legs stretched out and mouth to microphone, Kem closes his eyes and sings — talks — to the whole room. Everyone listens; nobody is leaving this man.
“There’s really a place in me to let people know that they can have, and live, the life that they want to live,” Kem says later. “Not just material, but the whole thing.”
Time has revealed to Kem that his path is already laid. One gets the feeling that he simply has to walk it. Along the way, he’ll be singing, maybe to no one, maybe to anyone. He knows someone will listen, and love, to his music. It’s just a matter of time.
Visit www.kemistryrecords.com.Khary Kimani Turner writes about words and beats for the Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected]