Unsettled Traveler

Ethiopian-born singer Kenna finds himself and battles his demons simultaneously on New Sacred Cow

As the first-born grandson in a family of 20 aunts and uncles, Ethiopian-bred synth-pop singer Kenna was accustomed to royal treatment.

His grandfather, by virtue of cultural decree, demanded his respect, and the child was doted upon by nannies and some of the best teachers in Ethiopia. But, initially, there was one key element missing in all of this early-stage nurturing -- his parents.

"There was an overthrow in the government. My parents left the country and went to school at Cambridge [England]. They left me with my grandfather, which was kind of government insurance, if you will, that they were going to come back," says the 27-year-old Kenna (born Kenna Zemedkun), whose debut album New Sacred Cowhas won him critical praise and the right to tour with Depeche Mode's adored front man Dave Gahan.

From Ethiopia by way of the Neptunes: Kenna bares his synth-pop soul.
From Ethiopia by way of the Neptunes: Kenna bares his synth-pop soul.

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"I was the first-born grandchild of a 22-person family -- my mom and her 10 brothers and sisters, and my dad's 10 brothers and sisters. I was really important and was treated that way. I had a nanny and respect and nobody could touch me," he says.

His life changed abruptly, however, when his parents returned to Ethiopia to reunite with Kenna. They left the strife-riddled African nation as quickly as they returned, settling in Cincinnati, Ohio, after stays in Kenya and London.

"My dad was working at the University of Cincinnati on his doctorate. We moved into student housing with one bedroom. My bedroom was a closet," the singer says. "My parents read Curious George books to me so I would learn English. But I didn't want to learn."

The culture shock was too much for him, Kenna says. The preschool-age Kenna went from having everything to living holed up in a small closet. Because he couldn't speak English, Kenna was mocked by the Midwestern children.

"It was a massive [culture shock] -- as a kid, just to come [to the United States] and to be dressed funny and live among other people that speak a language that you don't understand, and being ridiculed because you're kind of mute. That was an early wake-up call for me."

He admits his culture shock kick-started an authority complex and a pattern of obsessive-compulsive behavior he has since learned to control. Kenna and his family moved again when he was 10 to Virginia Beach, Virginia. A firm believer in the corny but prescient maxim "everything happens for a reason," he met a young musician at Kempsville High School who would later boost his career -- Chad Hugo of the prolific hip-hop-production machine the Neptunes.

They didn't know each other well in high school, but Kenna called upon Hugo when he heard about the Neptunes -- the celestial tag of Hugo and exotic partner Pharrell Williams.

"One day he came to my house with a guitar and started playing," says Hugo. "It wasn't like he was singing R&B songs. He wasn't just this black guy who comes up to me starting to do crazy R&B stuff. He was playing guitar songs that sounded like U2. He sounded like Bono. I thought, Wow, this is really different.' He told me that that's what he wanted to do. He didn't know where he would fit in because he likes all types of music.

"He thought he had something to say and wanted to do something different and artistic. I was like, Shit. So do I.'"

The two recorded in Hugo's basement in between his Neptunes projects. Originally, New Sacred Cow, Kenna's debut record, was set for release on Interscope, thanks to a deal brokered by label vice president and Limp Bizkit front man Fred Durst -- a man who demonstratively has an authority complex of his own. However, Kenna says, Interscope wasn't supportive of the album. Kenna and Durst decided mutually to part ways, leaving Kenna to sign a new deal with Columbia Records. Durst's publicist at Interscope couldn't be reached for comment on the amicable split.

For New Sacred Cow, Hugo and Kenna drew on their love of '80s synth-pop and bands such as Depeche Mode, the Cars and the Talking Heads. Kenna's voice, in many ways, is frighteningly similar to that of Gahan, especially on "Man Fading" and "Sunday After You."

"Chad's much more of a Depeche Mode fan than I am," Kenna says of his partner-on-loan. "I'm definitely a fan. He was one of those people who, back in the day, got into that whole scene with the goth vibe. My record's heavily influenced by Chad being a programmer and a musician on it as well."

He explains that although Hugo had a heavy hand in the making of the album, the end result is exactly what he sought.

"It was absolutely what I wanted to do. When I came to Chad, I was trying to communicate with him who I was as a person, and how I needed that to relate to my music. I couldn't have it be a cookie-cutter or any one style because I wouldn't be that person," says Kenna, whose video for the kitschy "Freetime" was nominated this year for two MTV Video Music Awards.

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