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By Kenny Herzog. It makes perfect sense that Kenna’s intent on giving credit to artists who blurred lines before him, going so far as to dub his latest series of EPs Land 2 Air Chronicles II: Imitation Is Suicide. More specifically, imitation without repping your influences. As the Ethiopian-born, Cincinnati-bred, Virginia Beach–molded singer/musician/producer/entrepreneur/philanthropist will readily offer, “I’m like the most famous non-famous person on the planet.” And indeed, for more than a decade, Kenna’s bobbed and weaved through musical consciousness like some kind of Zelig, but with a guiding touch. His 2003 debut LP, New Sacred Cow, was impacting on the likes of Timbaland.

The follow-up full-length, ’07’s Make Sure They See My Face, nearly ensured that titular imperative via breakout single “Out Of Control (State Of Emotion).” And by the time his Land 2 Air Chronicles 1: Chaos & Darkness EPs arrived in 2011, it sounded like ever major artist in R&B on the radio—be it Bruno Mars, Drake, Santigold, or The Weeknd—had shared in his vision of expression sans boundaries. But despite a prolific yen these past few years—no small feat given his efforts raising funds and awareness for the global clean-water crisis and serving as MySpace’s Chief Vision Officer—and pop music seeming to at last catch up with his fantasies, Kenna’s mainstream profile remains puzzlingly, comparatively obscure.

No matter. As the man tell us, creativity serves a purpose higher than one individual’s commercial achievements. Kenna’s not so much interested in pursuing entitlements as trusting his ear and intuition. Still, we’ll say it for him: Land 2 Air II—whose three EPs, or “Chapters,” are produced by Chad Hugo, Himself and RJD2—are the sum total of that FM sound you hear right now, one he helped pattern and is now pointing toward the future.

Shortly before the release of Chapter 1 (Chapter 2 arrived Oct. 22, with Chapter 3 to follow Nov. 26), Kenna talked about all that’s tangential and essential to making and preserving music, staying humble and happy for others’ accomplishments, and channeling his “nerd swagger.”

Does it feel like there’s a zeitgeist happening now that Land 2 Air might fit right in with?
Yeah, absolutely. You know, what’s really interesting is it’s a very small world when it comes to the tastemakers that make the music we listen to. One of those people is Justin Timberlake. And to be honest, when “Suit and Tie” came out, I think Justin technically slowed radio and music listening down from the frenetic pace of what was happening with music right before that song came out. I always joke around with him, and I’m always saying, “Yo, build me a highway,” because anytime he does something, it kind of just decimates whatever sonic is being pushed, and it becomes the conversation or the sound of things. Right after that’s when “Blurred Lines” was written, recorded and put out. Daft Punk was putting out an album no matter what, but I think it didn’t hurt that that song went to the two-step. So, yeah, I think there’s a paradigm shift right now, and I’m really happy that it’s musicality that’s come back and there’s some level of interest from people to hear it and love it and partake.


What are your expectations for singles from Land 2 Air crossing over that way?
Let me say this… I don’t know…. I’m like the most famous not-famous person on the planet, and I think I’ve been really thankful for that. I don’t really pursue my music for the idea of stardom. It’s really much more about making great shit that I think will resonate with my peers and resonates with what I call “the exploring crowd” that listens to music and is in search of something dynamic and something unique and something that pushes the boundaries, and I hope I’m able to create something like that. My focus has always just been let me have a dedicated audience of people I respect that respect me, let me make my music, and let me get it to them. Mind you, I wouldn’t be angry if a song blew up, but it’s not my goal, never been my goal. In the EP structure that I’m putting out, it’s really about re-introducing myself as an artist. I know I have to start fresh. I’ve been working on other things for a little while, so I’m just respecting my fans and saying, “Look, here’s music, I’m making music, and I am an artist first.” And everything I’ve been doing up until this point, even when I stepped away from focus on music, has all been so I can make music and put it out the way I want to. So it’s really more about that. I’m happy for my friends, I’m happy when they blow up, I’m happy when their records do really well. I’m there to celebrate with them. If one of my songs does well, then God bless, but it’s not where my brain is at.

That said, your music has a generous spirit, so it’s not like you don’t want it touching as many people as possible.
Let me say this: I’m not averse to one of the songs being incredibly successful. I’m not. [Laughs] But if you go into it with that mindset, ambition can be ugly. I’ve had rocky road up and down, left and right and center. So for me, being focused on making great shit is actually the only thing that’s got me through. And so I hope people hear my music. That’s the one thing I think these Land 2 Air Chronicles are about bringing a dream into reality, and my dream is to be heard. My dream is for the music to touch as many people as possible, so yeah, I definitely hope for it to have success. But again, I’m happy the sounds of music have shifted so that my music is relevant to that. I guess I’m managing my expectations a little bit.

And you have to make sure you enjoy the writing and recording process, which is also ephemeral.
Yeah, that too. And I think working with Chad [Hugo] and Pharrell [Williams] and Justin and everybody else, to RJD2 to whoever, what I get out of working with them is so much more powerful for my life and my personal well-being than any kind of success. I think what happens is they push me to be a greater artist and to be a greater human being. One of the main things that Pharrell said to me when I’d kind of stepped aside from Make Sure They See My Face and was about to focus on philanthropy, he said, “Make something greater than yourself.” And that really struck a chord, cause I’ve always tried to do that, but I wasn’t able to verbalize that, and so everything that I’ve been doing with my music and otherwise is just to be a part of something greater, and that’s really how I see everything, and those guys helped me be greater. And them being a part of my world, musically, creating what I do, that’s where the benefit of being an artist is. It’s in making music.

You mentioned re-introducing yourself. How much attention do you pay to how your contemporaries approach the business?
I think we all look for inspiration. It’s funny. Every time I walk in the studio with someone I respect, if it’s [Kid] Cudi or Lupe [Fiasco] or whoever, when I’m in the studio with them, what happens is I either walk in the building and walk out of the building going, “Yep, well, cool.” Or I walk in the building and walk out of the building thinking, “I gotta get to work.” And I’m always looking for that opportunity to be inspired by my peers and change the game of what I’m doing musically. I definitely stick to my lane and I have my own sound and I knew who I am, but it’s a really great thing to feel something from other music that’s happening in the world and feel like you either can do that or you can one-up that. The real thing is just trying to one-up it. You wanna kick that music’s ass so that you feel like you’ve been a part of pushing the boundaries. So yeah, I’m always looking around me, I’m always looking at what’s happening. I’m also a little flippant about certain kinds of music that’s out and that I don’t give a shit about and I think is bullshit, but I’m also not one to mention who or what. I just ignore them and then focus on the ones that are changing the game.

Without naming names, I think we can agree plenty of artists pass themselves off as more eclectic than they are.
[Laughs] The funny thing now is the artists that really do come out wanting to seem eclectic. That’s the most amazing thing ever. And those are the ones that don’t acknowledge where they get their music from. Imitation is Suicide is literally about that. I’m not afraid to name off every single artist that made “Relations” sound the way that it sounded, because in myself I already know I am an artist. My DNA is I’m an artist. I’ve proven myself as an artist. I’m not afraid of anything when it comes to that. No one’s gonna check me for anything. But the people who come out and act like they’re exactly an artist that already existed and not even give credit, it makes me livid.

It usually is one of two scenarios: An artist doesn’t know who influenced the producers and writers who shaped their sound, or they’re not being generous about sharing their influences.
And that as well, definitely. I was on the train in New York from D.C. doing some advocacy stuff on the Hill, and I was on the train coming back and there was a kid sitting next to me. And this no slight on Usher. I’m just gonna say this to make a point. But this kid was on the train and he was listening to Usher’s record really loud on his headphones, and I’m sitting next to him the whole train ride and I kind of tapped him on the shoulder and was like, “Yo, so, you must love Usher.” And he’s like, “Yeah, I love Usher. He’s unbelievable. His music is amazing.” And I go cool, “What do you love the most.” And he goes, “I love the way he dances. He has the most incredible style ever.” So I go, “Oh, cool, so you must love Michael Jackson.” And he looked at me, and God as my witness, he said, “Who?” Each one of the EPs has a storyline, but [Imitation is Suicide] is like, I have to make sure people know where my music’s coming from, because I also believe those people should have the rich culture of music taught to them as well. They need to know that there are brilliant people like David Byrne, and there are brilliant people like Michael Jackson, for God’s sakes. You might be born in 1995, and you have no idea who Michael Jackson is other than what you’ve seen in the news, but it’s our responsibility if we’ve been informed to claim those influences and thank them. I was born in Ethiopia, raised in Cincinnati in the inner city, raised in Virginia after that around the Neptunes in a suburb. I’ve got this crazy, eclectic history. That DNA will always influence what music I make. It will always be original because of that. I don’t really worry about explaining who I get my music from, and/or I will always study as much as I can where I’m getting my music from so I can present it to the world as a whole. It only benefits me. It doesn’t kill me to do it. But it does kill you to not do it and have people see you copying a sound and then basically strutting it as if it’s yours, and it’s not, and you know it.

But would you want to go so far as to break down what parts in individual songs came from which influences, or do you still want that to be more of a scavenger hunt for listeners?
The truth is this: I may reference two people from a song, but at times, I don’t know where something is coming from until I’ve listened to it 50 times and go, “Holy shit, that was a Joni Mitchell riff,” or, “That was something I heard on a Sam Cooke record.” It’s so a part of my life now, this music I’ve listened to over time, that it will come out in me with my frequency and infused with my history, and it will be something else, and it will take a long time for me to figure out what it was. I’ll tell you straight up musical references, whether I do delayed guitar on a certain section and it sounds like the Edge or it sounds like something Police. I’m not gonna really know, vocally, where I’ve gotten certain things, but that’s where it happens the most. Most of the influences live in my voice. That’s why so many people come up to me and say, “This song sounds like Hendrix’s “If 6 Was 9.” I’m like, “Wha? Lemme go back and listen to it.” I don’t deny them, because it’s usually what they loved that they reference me to, and I’m always thankful to be referenced to whatever it is people have been influenced by as well. So yeah, you’re never gonna listen to my stuff and know all my influences. You’ll know the main ones, the overarching ones, but there is plenty of room for you to find nuances.

It almost sounds like you make records as a future time capsule for yourself.
Yeah, it can be that too. I think you can look at it like that. I’m just thankful to be very diverse and have had a very diverse life. Mostly, what I get out of my music is a time capsule of where I’ve been and where I’m about to go, which is crazy, because sometimes my music actually tells the future. New Sacred Cow, for example—I was a very happy person before I made that album. And I was a very happy person as I made the album. It was crazy how melancholy the record was as a whole and how jaded the record seemed and felt. And then it took two years or three years to come out, and I went through a lot during that time. And when the record did come out, “Sunday After You” meant something completely different than when I first wrote it. And that’s what happens with a lot of my music, is it’s foreshadowing of things to come, so I’m interested to see what these EPs will play out for me.

Do you view Land 2 Air more as a collaboration than a Kenna project?
Going back to what Pharrell said, “Make something greater than yourself,” I even shifted my symbol to the greater-than and less-than symbol with these three markers in the middle, which kind of represent us. The whole thematic of my music, my life, my existence as a person is that nothing is greater or less than us. Everything that I’m doing now is a true recognition that you will never get anywhere without the support mechanism of many allies and collaborators and partners that make up the greatness that you might be able to achieve. I’m very lucky to have somebody like Chad [Hugo] in my life, because he is an innovator, and he pushes the boundaries all the time. He’s borderline savant. I mean, I wouldn’t say borderline. I would just say he was savant. And he’s constantly reaching into the void and coming back with something that inspires me, and that’s really hard to find. I’m blessed to have had that at a young age and to have been able to make music that I think has been a part of changing the [land]scape of music, even as it would be in the background, more like architects. It’s really amazing to have people like Timbaland tell me they listened to New Sacred Cow backwards and forwards in the years before a Nelly Furtado record came out. And Justin’s FutureSex[LoveSounds] album, and to know that songs off of Make Sure They See My Face and New Sacred Cow inspired [Kid] Cudi, or to have Drake come up to me and tell me things like that, that they really listened to the records. Or The Weeknd. I’m really blessed to hear from as many talented people [as I have] that Chad or I, along with Pharrell on the second album, have been a part of musical culture as a whole. That’s what you want. When I die, my legacy is my work. It won’t be as many Tweets as I’ve put up, and it won’t be anything else that has become a perpetual motion of social culture. It will be my work. My work will stand the test of time, and Chad Hugo is significantly, and will always be, a quintessential part of why I’m able to exist as an artist, and I’m lucky to work with him.

Chad Hugo has said you sometimes overthink things. Are you in your head too much?
Yeah, I’m heady dude. It just depends on the day. I write pop songs, and I’ll write things for other people. Other artists, it’s really easy for me to write for them, because I can take a story in their lives and twist it just enough so that it becomes interesting. It was a mission for me, when I met Ashlee Simpson for example, it was a mission for me after she had that SNL debacle and all the drama around it, I knew she’s a cool chick, and she’s Cyndi Lauper, ya know what I mean? And she missed the opportunity to be that person because she had so many handlers and so many things around her. So it was a mission for me to sit down with her and exec produce her album and work on it to the point where she found a sound. I brought in people who no one even knew existed, like Santigold, to write on that record, and the Timbaland team and Chad, and really shifted her sound and gave her something new. If you go back and listen to that album, which ended up getting a New York Times Critics’ Choice, you really hear who she is on that record. And that’s easy for me to do. I love doing that. But when it comes to me, to my records, for my fans, for what I believe I stand for and what I believe the united front of, call it the nothing-is-greater-or-less-than-us crew of music, I feel very responsible for all the kids who have tats of my symbol on their bodies. I feel very responsible for making sure that I make music that represents that kind of greater good. So yeah, I get heady, and then Chad comes in and he says… two people have said this; Justin said it when we were writing “Rockaway Life” on my early record, he said, “Kenna, you can’t save the world in four minutes,” and then he turned around and wrote the song [“4 Minutes”] for Madonna. And the second time was [with] Chad in the studio for “Relations” and he was like, “Bro, don’t think.” I was exhausted anyway. “Just, here’s the beat, sing whatever.” And “Relations” came out of literally me being delirious, but I did have a thought in my head. There were two things that were happening. One was, my friend was asking me to go out, and I know I have no game. It was like, “How do I give a nerd swagger. What would I say to a girl?” But then it was also just this idea of relations in general, like how disconnected I feel having as many followers on Twitter. I don’t know, it’s the weirdest thing in the world to know somebody on your Facebook or your MySpace page but not know them at all. So the idea of, “Let’s have relations, let’s really connect. What is this really about? Who are you? Do you wanna know who I am musically, thematically? Do you want to know, or are you frontin’? Are you just out there to get what you want? Is it about you?” And “Relations” kind of came out of that.

Overall though, it seems like if someone wants to know about you, they should just listen to the music.
Yeah. It’s in there. It’s all in there. Not to sound like a Ragu commercial. [Laughs] But it is in there, and it’s there for people to find. And what’s really interesting about what I’m going for is I live a very complex life as an artist. I’ve set missions for myself. I wanna be an innovator. I wanna be a pop-culture architect. I wanna be somebody that you don’t know the X, Y and Z, but then later in life, the laundry list is broken down for everyone and they realize I’ve had a good life, and that I’ve been a part of a great many things. And it’s fun, because my team have gotten a chance of seeing all the things that are a part of my life, and it’s been maybe difficult to explain, and we’ve had to simplify: “Yeah, he’s a musician, this is what he does. He’s an artist on that level.” But I’m a lot more than that, and I’m happy to have a chance to get people to understand who I am through my music first. But when you dive in, you realize I’ve been really blessed with a great many opportunities to do and shift things in the world that we live in, and that I’m gonna continue to do that, and I’m gonna continue to do that on behalf of my peers and artists and creatives in the world. That’s why I’m at MySpace, for example. That’s why I’ve built Summit on the Summit, climbing Kilimanjaro and fighting for hundreds of millions of dollars in appropriations. I’m here for the greater good. My art is for the greater good. I’m from the Bono school of music and the Michael Jackson school of music, where giving is in tandem with the music that I make.

Is it possible your destiny is as more of a musical Zelig than household name?
[Laughs] I think I’m a change agent. My job is to shift things. I’m here to push and force perspectives. I don’t want you to believe what you see when you meet me or only to understand me through the sounds that I create, because those sounds may change. I’m definitely one of the people who could give a shit about being the front and center of anything. I’m a leader. I’m applying for the job of leadership at all times. If a song blows up and people know who I am, then I want to be an example. I want to be someone that a young musician can look at and say, “That’s the business I want to be in, that’s the kind of artist I want to be.” And I’ve been lucky to have a lot of artists feel that way about me up to this point, and I’m not planning on letting any of those artists down.

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