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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

They can finally see his face

Musician Kenna climbs into the spotlight (+VIDEO)

Published: December 7, 2007
Section: (Audio/Video), Arts, Etc., Video

120707dc5.jpgSo, you’re up at 2 am and there’s nothing to do. If you’re like me, (and you have cable), then of course you’re vegging out to those weird artsy videos they only show late at night on MTV2 (about the only time they show music videos at all, to be honest).

A particular video catches your eye. It’s kind of sad, yet kind of catchy, and while you didn’t hear all the words, you know that what you’re listening to is pretty deep. The video itself, displays some inherent truths about consumerism and how we, literally, exchange our happiness or our inner glow as the video shows us, for recognition, fame and money.

Kenna – Hell Bent

Was I on some kind of psychedelic trip? No, although after staying up until 4 a.m. it starts to feel that way. I, in fact was watching the video for a song called “Hell Bent” by the artist Kenna.

Kenna Zemedkun spent the first three years of his life with his grandfather in Ethiopia, where his family is from. His family left Ethiopia to flee political persecution when Kenna was merely an infant. Kenna eventually joined his parents in Cincinnati when he was three years old; however, he spent his formative years in Virginia Beach, where he met high school friend and future partner Chad Hugo, one half of the acclaimed, all star production team “The Neptunes”.

Kenna got his official start in the music business in college. A demo tape he’d made with the help of Chad reached Limp Bizkit’s Fred Durst, who was affiliated with Interscope Records. Even though he was impressed by what he heard, Durst was unable to get the backing from Interscope to support this artist. Undaunted by a little adversity, Kenna struggled to get signed.

A recurring problem with Kenna’s marketing was that he was too unique (this was before, of course, being unique became the paradoxical trend that it is today). Companies did not know how to pitch his album. Finally Kenna found a home at Columbia Records, which eventually released New Sacred Cow in 2003. This, however, would not be his last move to a new label.

Kenna’s music, as previously mentioned, is very hard to classify. His production ranges from synth to pop to rock. His vocals are very much his own style, although there is a definite tone of Bono in his delivery. This makes sense as he is strongly influenced by U2’s music, specifically their album Joshua Tree, which inspired Keena to pursue a musical career. Messages prevalent in Kenna’s music involve social change, revolution and self-reflection. In his song, “Hell Bent,” Keena sings, “am I the key/ of fiction and heartache/ and the pain/ is of no consequence.”

Yeah, pretty heavy stuff. Despite the semi-success of his first project and the establishment of a loyal following, he is now striving for more. He recently linked up with Star Trak Records, the record label headed by The Neptunes (Pharrell and his friend, Chad Hugo). Last October, he dropped his sophomore effort, an album entitled Make Sure They See My Face, a direct play on his former obscurity in the mainstream media.

Make Sure They See My Face is a schizophrenic album, a fact that Kenna pokes fun at in the skit entitled “Blink Radio.” Kenna is an artist split up into different interests, sounds, styles and feels. Leave it to Pharrell and Chad to not try and suppress this as record labels had done in the past, but instead to harness it and create a truly unique and eclectic musical journey through the mind of a unique and provocative artist.

Kenna’s internal splits are represented quite nicely on the album, with upbeat tracks co-produced by Pharrell Williams himself, in which Kenna adopts the Skateboard P persona. This is something we see even more clearly in the music video for this song, directed by acclaimed music video director Hype Williams. Kenna dons some stunner shades and dances around an Atari-character laden, rainbow-colored backdrop, with scene cuts to him running through a busy street and going atop a mountain (which is a reference to Kenna’s real life attempt to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro, a trip which was one of the many inspirations for the album).

The rock songs on the album are co-produced by the more obscure member of The Neptunes, Chad Hugo. In the tracks he does with Chad, Kenna, in a very deliberate and artistically sound move, discusses the benefits and comforts of his obscurity, and how “Out of Control,” as one of the songs puts it, life can become when fame becomes a factor. Perhaps acting as a voice for, or mirroring the feelings of Chad, Kenna grapples with himself on how fame is affecting him, the same issue, many believe, that caused Chad to stay low-key even when his partner and best friend Pharrell Williams, rode the wave of mainstream fame.

There are also songs that Kenna did independently of The Neptunes. Therein he discusses internal struggles similar to those of his first album. In the song “Static” he even goes on to question the whole existence of the album itself as well as his musical career, asking, “…don’t know if I want you to understand me/ or go/ don’t know if I want you to see through me.”

Whether he is ready or not to accept it, Kenna’s latest album has garnered him some of the attention he sought after. At the beginning of November, People magazine declared him “one of music’s best kept secrets” and a week later he was named MTV’s artist of the Week. It is not hard to picture a promising career and a future of really good music from this schizophrenic, confused, convoluted, and truly poetic artist named Kenna. Kenna should serve as an example for many current and up and coming artists. He refused to change according to what record labels wanted and yet he still managed to make sure that we saw his many faces.