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q & a with kenny allen

Musician, songwriter and producer, Kenny Allen, also known to his many, many fans and friends in the United States as K'Alyn, is an extraordinary talent living in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia since 2005. Our Ethiopian brothers and sisters are blessed to have such a talented musician performing and creating music in their land. I met Kenny, a Washington, DC-native, nearly ten years ago while he toured as a background vocalist with the legendary, Meshell Ndegeocello. I am not alone when I say that Kenny's music and his commanding presence onstage is dearly missed here in the US. Kenny is still doing what he loves, he's just doing it in Africa. We're not mad at him for that, we just miss being able to find him performing at intimate venues in DC or LA because he most definitely owns the stage from the beginning of each set to the very end.

I caught up with Kenny via Skype (ahhh... the joys of modern technology) just the other day. Read below to either get your first introduction to the great Kenny Allen or to learn something new about his music, his inspiration and his growth as an African American musician living, loving and learning in Ethiopia.

LeslieWrites: Kenny, when did you first discover your love for music?

Kenny: I guess for me music started even before I was born. Both of my parents are musicians in their own right. My mother is a classically trained pianist and teacher, and my father is a jazz drummer. Basically I started in church choirs and my mom taught music in school so I was there for band practices. My father always had rehearsals and jam sessions. Music was always around me.

I didn’t view music as something extraordinary until I became an adult. Now obviously I know it is something extraordinary. It was so ingrained in my day to day that I didn’t think of it as something I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I guess it didn’t hit me until after my first year of college at the University of Maryland College Park when I came home for the summer and a friend of mine had written a song for a girlfriend he was having problems with. He was sort of a lyricist and I had been making music since I was young so he asked me if I could compose the music to this song. We created a great song and his girlfriend liked it but she didn’t take him back. This was around the time of Boys 2 Men. We formed a group including actor, Michael Ealy. During the school year we would practice a cappella in the dormitory bathrooms. One of the members of the band decided he wanted to pick up the guitar and I had been playing keyboard since I was a kid. Naturally I thought, “Well if he picks up the guitar, I have to play guitar too cause that’s just how it’s gotta be!” I grew this love for the guitar even to the point where I would fall asleep next to it or drive with the guitar in my lap. Since then I found this songwriter within me. This is where my love for music began.

LeslieWrites: What inspires you to write songs about life, love and the human condition?

Kenny: I tend to be a bit of an observer. Even going to a nightclub you’ll typically find me in some corner just watching the room and studying the way people move and the way people interact with each other. Also, living in a foreign country and not fully understanding everything that goes on around you, you tap into your “inner observer.” As far as songs are concerned, these are just snapshots of moments that I’ve spent observing life. Also, songwriting became sort of an outlet for things that I felt inside that I might not have been able to deal with internally. It’s like if you have a hot, juicy secret and you have to keep your mouth shut but you’re bursting at the seams. Songwriting became an outlet for expression. I’m more or less trying to write songs as stories so that when people hear the songs they are be able to easily envision the story I’m trying to tell.

LeslieWrites: What took you to Ethiopia five years ago?

Kenny: When I came to Ethiopia I was just sort of seeking a change. I had been traveling a lot trying to uncover my talents to the world if you will, with the help of band members I've played with over the years. Without a major corporation or a label, it becomes extremely difficult to maintain the creative side. You then become everything you didn’t want to be like the road manager or the booking agent. I was performing with a singer named Wayna. She is Ethiopian-born and grew up in the states. The promoter of one of our shows was opening a club in Ethiopia. I sang a few songs and he liked my work. He was very interested in having me come to Ethiopia. Winter was coming and I started going to Los Angeles a lot where it was warm. I didn’t really want to deal with winter that year. I kind of wanted a different experience. The promoter suggested that I come to Ethiopia for six months and I took a chance. When I came here it was indeed that type of experience. The phrase that rings true is: there’s just something about this place. When you get here you get into a rhythm and it’s hard to snap out of it. Also, there was a lot of opportunity to hone my craft and learn things that I probably wouldn’t have the time to learn at home because it’s so fast-paced. So here I found life to be very simple and very human. You know, people here spend time with each other. They have lunch together. They have tea and dinner with each other. Even though I’m still an on-the-go kind of person, I have my neighborhood stops that I do just to say “what’s up.” Inevitably, no matter how quickly I want to stop in I gotta sit down and have coffee. I enjoy it and I appreciate the simplicity of life here.

LeslieWrites: How has living in Ethiopia changed you?

Kenny: It’s possible that I might not know that until I’m not here. As a person I believe I’ve become a lot calmer emotionally. It’s like you can never imagine a scene that you’ve never seen before. What I’m trying to say is that everyday you will see some adversity that you’ve never seen. I’m not trying to say anything to put Ethiopia down but it’s a very humbling place to be. You see the ranges of people... from people who just have their spirit to people with lavish homes and cars. The contrast is very bold. You will never see this kind of contrast in the states. I mean, in Ethiopia you can’t be upset if you don’t have something small. You try to keep focused and do the best you can. It’s a very human experience. Ever since I came here I just totally put my life on the God level. What I mean by that is that I’m not forcing anything to happen out of my life. I just try to love my brother and my sister and just share the gifts that I’ve been given. And so far I feel like I’ve made more strides than I did when I was actively trying to promote my music in the states. I’m showing and proving through my work. It’s not about timelines here. Everyday I’m just trying to be better as a human being than I was yesterday.

LeslieWrites: What’s the music scene like in Ethiopia? How have you contributed to and/or changed it?

Kenny: The music scene in Ethiopia is growing, I can definitely say that. There was a huge two-day jazz festival recently, the Acacia Jazz Festival. It’s the second year that they’ve done it and I also performed last year. It was very successful and many people came out. It’s a testament to the fact that people here really do enjoy and appreciate live music. When I came here live bands weren’t really happening. There was sort of one man, a keyboard and a rotating cast of singers. That was the live music experience. Emmanuel Mekuria had a vision along, with his partner Jordana Kebeda, to revive the live music scene in Addis Ababa. They made a huge investment to bring me here and we revolutionized the music scene here starting five years ago with the help of my band, the 4 Star Band, which was a group of veteran musicians who have played with all of the great Ethiopian singers over the last 25 to 30 years. With their expertise and their real sensitivity to the Ethiopian culture, we were able to put together an impressive run of jam-packed Friday nights at the clubs. The people of Addis Ababa even gave me the title “The King of Friday Nights.” It’s been a very exciting time. We changed it, you know?

Now there’s not a night you can’t go out and see a live band. That’s how I feel I’ve made an impact. Also, I made a great song with a hugely popular Ethiopian artist named Jonny Ragga. The song is “Shiftaw Lebu,” which means Unfaithful Heart. We recorded it sort of casually and three years later it’s a bit of a cult classic. There’s a music video for the song that airs on the national television station. If I go anywhere in Ethiopia people know me because of the song. It gave me huge exposure in Ethiopia. Then I was on the radio for a year and a half and that was an amazing experience, something that I might not have been able to do in the US.

You have to be patient here, nothing happens quickly. But if you’re able to be patient it’s a place where blessings fall. There’s so much praying going on in this country, you can almost feel a spirit in the air. It’s a very spiritual place and for that reason I feel like whenever a bad time arises, like clockwork there is some rescue. My point is that it’s a very blessed land and you feel it.

LeslieWrites: Musically, what have you learned from our Ethiopian brothers and sisters that you can share with those of us in the US?

Kenny: Right now I feel like all of Africa is looking towards the west from a music perspective and that’s a little disturbing because there’s so much tradition and history in Ethiopia that needs to be preserved. The new generation of Africans is kind of like someone from Chicago but with their native tongues. In some ways it’s sad because western media is trumping everything else. I encourage African youths to yes, embrace technology and yes, be influenced because hip hip is cool but put in some traditional elements… modern traditional but still Ethiopian. The unfortunate thing about Ethiopian music is that most Ethiopian artists tend to make music only for Ethiopians. There are so many cool things about Ethiopian and African music and it needs to be shared universally. That said, there are some amazing artists and singers from Ethiopia that get international recognition. There’s one such producer who is like my mentor here, almost like a musical hero. His name is Abegaz Shiota and he makes music for the international audience. Elias Melka is also a fantastic producer. There is a singer name Zeritu who’s like an international pop star. She has a beautiful voice, she makes great songs. But my true musical influence from Ethiopia is the old music from the 60s and 70s. It’s like Motown meets Ethiopia. There are western influences but it’s still very “rootsy.” There are these amazing melodies and this music is so intricate to the western ear. To hear people sing in these scales is amazing. There’s one Ethiopian artist that I have to give big ups to. His name is Mahmoud Ahmed and he’s my top Ethiopian artist of all times. He’s like an international hero. In Europe he sells out night after night. He is like a true pioneer of Ethiopian music. I even attempted to do one of his songs and I put it on my last album as a tribute to how great he is as an artist. I call him the Marvin Gaye of Ethiopia or the Frank Sinatra of Ethiopia depending on what you’re moved by.

LeslieWrites: How do you describe your musical style?

Kenny: I mean ever since I started writing songs I’ve modeled my style after the likes of Sting, Stevie Wonder, Bob Marley and Prince because they have used all kinds of music just to tell their story. They didn’t narrow themselves within any genre of music. When you think of these artists, you don’t really think of them as R & B singers or rock & roll artists, you just think of them as great artists. So that is what inspired me to make music in the first place. In that way I try not to categorize the music. There are different elements. I’m like a musical explorer. I just want to try anything that helps me tell the story.

LeslieWrites: Tell us about your first album released in Ethiopia, The 251.

Kenny: The 251 is basically a collection of stories about life as an African American in Africa, of how I saw the world from this new perspective. You know, human conditions and how people are just living and breathing. That was the inspiration for the record. 251 is the Ethiopian international phone code and a friend of mine always referred to Ethiopia as the 251 like hip hop artists refer to their cities by the area codes. Honestly I’ve heard the term '251' in more songs in the last year than ever before. It’s caught on and people appreciate it. It’s even the name of my band now.

LeslieWrites: Talk about some of the artists you’ve worked with throughout your journey as a musician.

Kenny: There are so many people who have co-authored my journey. It all started with my dear friend Sean Rickman, who is a producer, an artist and an engineer. He’s a complete prodigy. His father is Phil Upchurch who played with Michael Jackson. Sean and I had a connection early on and I have always had great admiration for him. He produced my album called Coco in 1996 and he shared the album with Meshell Ndegeocello. She really liked my work and she had me come on board with her as a background vocalist. This experience basically opened the doors of the world for me. If it wasn’t for this experience, I may not have traveled out of the US. We toured Europe and Japan and traveled all over the place. That was really the time that I felt like, “Wow, I really want to travel the world and see different things.” I’ve also worked with a keyboardist named Frederico Pena. Sean and Frederico really gave me a university education in music. They showed me how to direct a band and how to arrange a live show. Between Sean, Frederico and Meshell, they showed me a lot of amazing things. I also toured with the talented, Grammy-nominated artist, Raheem DeVaughn.

LeslieWrites: While this interview is really about your music and who you are as an artist living in Ethiopia, I’m curious about your views on the civil unrest in Libya, particularly because Ethiopia isn’t very far from Libya. I’m wondering what kind of news coverage you’re getting in Ethiopia and about your thoughts on Muammar Qaddafi and the fighting in Libya.

Kenny: Everything that I see on the news, all the tensions and the fighting, it’s almost surreal and because of way they’re broadcasting it here, it’s hard to feel the magnitude of what’s really going on there. It’s very safe here in Ethiopia. People are very God-fearing. The military and the government have a very strong presence and it’s peaceful right now so to see what’s going on in Libya and experience life day to day here is a huge contrast.

I think there are more peaceful means of solving problems. However, conditions in Africa and the way things work in Africa are very different. People in Africa are very strong and they uphold tradition, customs and values in a very serious way. That makes the people of Africa passionate about what they believe in and what they think of. Many times when long leadership regimes are in place you never really know when it’s time to step down. As a leader for that many years or decades, maybe you become slightly out of touch. That’s why its important for young leaders to move up through the ranks because they’re more connected. I never condone any kind of violence or protests because I think that we are more advanced as human beings. What I hope for the people and the powers-that-be in Libya and around the world is to try to find a more appropriate method of resolving conflict and communicating so that more lives do not have to be lost in the process.

LeslieWrites: Do you plan to continue living in Ethiopia long term?

Kenny: I mean my plan is just to make great music and let the music take me or keep me wherever it needs to have me in order to get it out. I really do enjoy my life here but I would like to travel a lot more and just gain a little more perspective. I wouldn’t even mind going to Senegal or Mali for a long time just to embrace the music of those regions.

LeslieWrites: What would you say is your greatest joy?

Kenny: My greatest earthly gift and joy is being able to wake up in the morning and sit down front of my computer or with my guitar and compose music. Just being able to make music and perform music is like the balance of life for me in an earthly sense. On a spiritual level, it’s just being tapped into trying to be a better person and trying to guide oneself. It also brings me joy to see kids playing outside my front door and they come to greet me and say hello. I’m just a regular guy here. My joy is also being appreciated but still being grounded enough not to let it get to my head.

LeslieWrites: Give me one word that best describes you.

Kenny: Alright, let me think about this for a minute... Thoughtful. It’s easy for a person who lives a dream to get totally consumed by that dream. You have to consider others. I wouldn’t describe myself as considerate because I’m human and I’m not perfect but I do consider things and I think about the ramifications and what could come out of my actions and my words. I just try to be thoughtful and not hurt anybody. I try to spread a loving feeling to the people around me. I just believe that with hard work and determination anything is possible.

LeslieWrites: Truer words have never been spoken...


You can find Kenny Allen's latest CD, The 251 on iTunes. You can also find him on Facebook.

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