R&B vocalist, songwriter
Kem has carved a niche for himself in the music world. His jazz-influenced contemporary R&B vocal styles are claiming a loyal following in an African-American musical environment dominated by hip-hop sounds. When he signed to the venerable Motown music label and his debut release, Kemistry, climbed to the top reaches of industry urban-music sales charts, these events marked the beginning of a new chapter in Kem's life. His career accomplishments were personal milestones as well, for they came at the end of a series of trials that extended down to the depths of homelessness. With a five-album deal inked at Motown, Kem stood ready to make music that fit neatly into a set of retro trends that had appeared in African-American music, and at the same time was rooted in his own experiences.
Born in Nashville, Tennessee, Kem has refused to discuss his age, and his characteristic shaven-headed appearance makes it difficult for observers even to feel confident that a guess is reasonably accurate. But he told the New York Amsterdam News that "I grew up in the late '70s, early '80s, when most of the radio stations were Top 40." He said in 2002 that he had been sober for 12 years, and the period of his life that he lost to drug and alcohol abuse took place during his late teens and early 20s. Kem was probably born, therefore, in the late 1960s. His birth name was Kim Owens; the "Kem" spelling was a mistake on an associate's part that the singer adopted because he thought it sounded distinctive and marketable.
Kem's family moved from Tennessee to the Detroit suburb of Southfield, Michigan, when he was young. When he was four, he began to explore the keyboard. "My grandparents had a piano in their house and my earliest memory of playing was on that piano," he told Jet. "There's something about a piano that turns me on." He made little headway at first. A babysitter taught him to play the harmonically ambitious "Color My World," by the pop group Chicago. "I played that song for about three years straight," Kem told Cleveland's Scene Entertainment Weekly. "But what that did was it gave me an idea of what chords were all about."
Also influenced by R&B giants of the day like Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye and by jazz-popsters Steely Dan and Grover Washington Jr., Kem became fascinated by music in high school. He sang in the choir, kept up with releases by Michael Jackson, Prince, and jazz-pop phenomenon Al Jarreau, and gravitated toward musically talented classmates like keyboardist Brian O'Neal. The two spent their lunch hours in the school's band room. "Kem would come in and just watch me, and I started teaching him a couple of things," O'Neal recalled to Ebony. (Other than that, however, Kem was essentially self-taught.) The two dreamed of a musical career. "But after high school, he went in one direction and I went the other," O'Neal said.
Kem couldn't attribute his later problems to the surroundings in which he grew up; he remembered his childhood as a happy one, and he was raised, he told Ebony, in a "professional, middle-class family." Underneath, however, his feelings told a different story. "I left my parents' home when I was 19," he told the magazine. "And I left as a teenager who was lost, depressed, insecure, full of fear and trying to mask all of that with alcohol and drugs." His descent into homelessness was gradual; at first he limped along by staying with friends, and then, when he had to take to the streets, he stayed at first in shelters in Detroit's affluent suburbs and was relatively well taken care of.
Kem has refused to discuss his life on the streets in much detail, but it seems clear that his life went into a downward spiral. He ended up at a downtown Detroit shelter not far from the city's notorious Cass Corridor drug markets. "I was down in the corridor doing the shuffle," he told the Detroit Free Press. "My homelessness was a result of addiction." Finally things got even worse, and he took to sleeping outside, near a newspaper printing plant on the Detroit River. And that was when he bottomed out and, he says, turned to God.
"He was waiting on me," the singer told Ebony. "There was no flash of light or anything—I was just tired and I didn't know how to fix it.… On that particular day, I realized that I was not living the life that I wanted to live. I'd always had these high hopes and expectations of what I wanted out of my life, and I was nowhere near achieving those." The first step in Kem's recovery was to seek help; he has chosen not to identify the program to which he turned, but he later became a member of the Renaissance Unity Church in the Detroit suburb of Warren, then led by pastor and nationally famous author and radio host Marianne Williamson.
After becoming sober around 1990, Kem put his life back together with a series of nonmusical jobs. For a time he worked as a waiter at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in suburban Dearborn, Michigan. Estranged from his family during the period when he was homeless, he reconciled himself with them, and they supported him strongly when he returned to music once again. Looking back on his experiences, Kem never talked in terms of regret. "The journey is where it's at—getting here," he told the Detroit News. "All of the things that have happened to me in the past are definitely what brought success to the Kem CD."
The most important thing that happened to Kem during this period of recovery was that he began to get together once again with some of his musical friends. O'Neal performed with his band sometimes, although the keyboard sound heard in most of Kem's music is his own. Saxophonist David McMurray joined Kem in a band and became the group's musical director. Other members of Kem's lineup, which remained remarkably stable over a decade of performing, were guitarist Quentin Baxter, bassist Fred Robinson, and percussionists Andre Driscoll and Wild Bill Curry.
While most of the musical world was headed toward the exploitation of electronics, Kem moved in the opposite direction. The Kemistry album, almost alone among recent R&B charting releases, was the creation of live musicians. "That's the key to the magic of this record," McMurray told Ebony. "I think he has something really unique." The group began playing around 1993 and had its first major gig when it won an opening slot for singer MeShell NdegeOcello at the Royal Oak Music Theater outside Detroit.
From then on, Kem's rise to national prominence was mostly due to the hard work he put into the enterprise of self-promotion. Other opening slots, for War and Donald Byrd, followed, and the singer made some outside income by writing music for a McDonald's commercial and singing for weddings. He also sang with the Church of Today choir, based at Renaissance Unity Church. His band performed at Detroit's African World Festival and began to generate a buzz among frequenters of the city's active urban music scene. Along the way, he became the father of a daughter, Troi (as of 2003 he was engaged to be married, but kept the details private). In 1999, he recorded a live version of what became the Kemistry CD at a Detroit coffeehouse. A severe self-critic, he wasn't pleased with the results. "I just didn't like it, and I decided not to release it," he told the Scene Entertainment Weekly.
Detroit music fans had a different opinion of the music, though, and unofficial copies of the album circulated around the city. Kem passed an important turning point when he quit a nine-to-five job in 2001 in order to devote full time to his music. Aware of the demand for his music, he decided to record a studio version of Kemistry. He financed the project by running up debt on a credit card.
When Kemistry appeared in 2002 on Kem's own label, also called Kemistry, it was rare for a completely independent release to make much of an impact in urban music business. But Kem marketed his CD to beauty salons and black-oriented restaurants, persuading them to play the music on their sound systems and to sell the disc on consignment. "I gave lots of CDs away," he told the Washington Informer. Word of his talents continued to build, and version two of Kemistry sold an impressive 10,000 copies over a five-month period.
That got the attention of executives at the Motown label, who signed Kem to a five-album contract in 2003 and released Kemistry for the third time. National critics like Ebony's Lynn Norment praised Kem's "emotionally rich" music; his sound was often compared to Al Jarreau's, but his lyrics had a depth and a tendency to take unexpected turns even when they dealt with conventional romantic subjects. "With my stuff, you have to pay attention to the words," Kem explained to the Michigan Chronicle. "There is not a lot of kick behind it, not a whole lot of driving beat." The singer's four-octave range was another musical attraction. The album's leadoff single, "Love Calls," received heavy airplay on jazz and adult contemporary radio stations; Kem took to the road nationally; and the album cracked the top 20 of Billboard's Top Hip-Hop/R&B Albums chart.
A sign of Kem's rising profile was that he successfully recruited Marsha Ambrosius of the innovative hip-hop duo Floetry to participate in a remix of "Love Calls." The singer looked toward a more specifically spiritual project for his second release and often stressed that his own past life had played a role in the music he eventually made. "The rough spots in our lives give us character," he explained to Jet. "I don't regret the past…it's an integral part of who I am." Music fans were just happy to hear such a fresh take on old-school traditions. "What I'm most grateful for is that I didn't give up," Kem told the Detroit News. "Don't quit before your miracle happens."
Kemistry, Motown, 2003.
Atlanta Journal-Constitution, April 10, 2003, p. C2.
Chicago Defender, April 6, 2004, p. 15.
Detroit Free Press, April 19, 2002, p. D6; August 24, 2003, p. E1.
Detroit News, February 27, 2003, p. E1.
Ebony, May 2003, p. 32; October 2003.
Jet, September 1, 2003, p. 40.
Michigan Chronicle, March 13, 2002, p. D1.
Michigan Citizen, March 8, 2003, p. B1.
New York Amsterdam News, May 29, 2003, p. 20.
Scene Entertainment Weekly (Cleveland, OH), December 24, 2003.
Washington Informer, March 19, 2003, p. 20.
Washington Post, August 22, 2003, p. T7.
"Kem," All Music Guide, www.allmusic.com (August 4, 2004).
—James M. Manheim
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