By Charles Hallman
A Michael Jackson cover makes the United Kingdom top ten hits charts. A music video of the song was aired on a cable music channel. The song helped the artist that did the cover earn Grammy best artist consideration.
Kenya McGuire Johnson left her career several years ago as an educator, clinical instructor and higher education administrator and took “a massive leap of faith.” Now Kenya, the jazz/R&B singer — who uses only her first name professionally — is now working on her third CD.
The young musician recently spoke with the MSR by phone from her Chicago home.
“I did a lot of music growing up” in Denver, Colorado, including being active in choirs, and jazz bands, recalls Kenya, who has been singing since the age of eight. While in college, she was a member of the Howard University Gospel Choir. She then began her physical therapist career after graduating from Howard with a physical therapy degree, then later got a masters degree in counseling and student development. She later got married and became a mother.
But something was missing from her life.
Admits Kenya, “I’m a mother and wife, and those things are challenging anyway. I was very restless and just feeling like something was missing. There were a lot of things going on in my personal life — everything was just overwhelming. I started [going to] counseling, and my counselor was amazing and once she got a better view of my history, she [told] me that I wasn’t doing any music.”
After Kenya enrolled in a nighttime music theory class at night at a local community college, soon thereafter those formerly dormant roots soon began to get watered: “It was something to get back to [music] that was really home,” continues the singer. “I’m blessed to be in a situation where I could take that risk. [So] I went ahead and did it.”
Being a musician isn’t easy, she quickly warns. “Anytime you want to do a passion [such as music] that has no financial guarantees, the hardest thing is [figuring out] how do you pay rent… I had to really plan for that and so did my husband,” noted Kenya.
Her first EP, Starting Over was released in 2010, and two years later her second, Jazz Made Rhythm, a five-set CD is all covers, including Jackson’s “I Can’t Help It” and Bill Withers’ “Lovely Day,” was released in 2012.
“Those songs on Jazz Made Rhythm are songs I have rearranged and performed but never recorded,” says Kenya, a regular in the Chicago area who performs at local restaurants and clubs.
“I’m a huge Bill Withers fan, too. He’s a fabulous songwriter,” she admits. “I want people to hear the lyrics more, to what [the song] is saying — I rearrange it specifically so you can actually hear the lyrics. It’s just a pretty song.”
When asked who are her musical influences on her smooth styling, Kenya easily responded, “I’m a musician and I love all kinds of music. I don’t have an artist that I necessarily try to adopt what they’re doing, but I would say Stevie Wonder, Lalah Hathaway, Dianne Reeves, and Nancy Wilson are probably people that rings in my ear a lot — only I’m not trying to sound like any of them, but [emulate] what they do to their songs and how they make them theirs.
“I don’t think I necessarily try to sit down and try to capture what [other artists] do. I do think that when I sing, I try to make sure people feel where I’m coming from. I try to be original in what I do, and not try to repeat what someone else done. I want people to hear the lyrics more, to what [the song] is saying — I think sometimes people just get caught up on the beats.”
Kenya also admits that her style is probably best suited for small clubs. “I think the intimate places are very well received — I’m very comfortable in that space. The biggest space I’ve performed in was the Tralf [Music Hall] in Buffalo, New York. There were over 300 people that were just for me — it was my show, no opening act. It felt fine.”
Kenya’s career, which still includes being a wife and mother, appears to be on track. “It is still a challenge. You have to create a new normal. My first priority is my family — they come before the music. It’s definitely challenging but I do have an incredibly supportive spouse and supportive family,” notes Kenya.
Although she didn’t get a Grammy best jazz vocal album nomination, “It was on the ballot,” she says. “That’s a huge massive honor to even be considered. That also will give me some recognition to go forward.”
Now she’s working her third recording, which she plans to release sometime this year. “It is going really, really well — actually better than I thought it would go,” believes the singer. “It will be all original music, no covers. I do have two musicians who wrote two of the songs but the other songs are written by me. Right now the goal is for the single to be released either in March or April, then the full CD probably in the summer. In my brain it will be out in June, but if it is out by December, I’ll be happy,” predicts Kenya.
“I’m not well known quite yet to the masses at the commercial level,” she concludes.
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to [email protected]