What Christmas means to KEM

Dec. 13, 2013 @ 09:57 AM

WHO: KEM “What Christmas Means Tour,” with guests Anthony Anderson and Yolanda Rabun.
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Monday
WHERE: Durham Performing Arts Center
123 Vivian St., Durham
TICKETS: $54-$112

Rhythm and blues artist KEM starting writing his new song, “Jesus,” years ago. It’s featured on the new deluxe edition of his “What Christmas Means” album and features fellow R&B greats Patti LaBelle and Ron Isley.
The singer said he’s a songwriter first and is always cultivating something. He thinks there is divine timing. “Sometimes it takes 10 minutes to write a song – this took a decade,” KEM said about “Jesus,” his favorite song on the album. He spoke with The Herald-Sun by phone last week from his home in Detroit before he set out on his “What Christmas Means” tour. He’ll perform at the Durham Performing Arts Center on Monday.
“What Christmas Means,” the album first released in 2012 and this season with a few new tracks, includes KEM’s take on familiar holiday songs like “We Three Kings” and “The Christmas Song” as well as several original Christmas songs in KEM’s smooth R&B style. “Jesus” is his favorite because LaBelle and Isley are featured on the song.
“It brought tears to my eyes when I heard its final edition. It tugs at hearts. They’re testifying,” said KEM, who has worked previously with Isley and had him in mind for this collaboration. KEM hadn’t met LaBelle personally before, but was a big fan. So what’s it like to meet other famous artists?
“It’s strange. It’s like you know them because you know their music,” KEM said. “I definitely know more about them than they know about me because of their music and celebrity. It can be intimidating, producing, because how do you ask Patti LaBelle to sing something over again?”
The two-time Grammy Award-winning diva LaBelle was a great first date, though, he said. She brought him fried chicken and potato salad the first day they worked together. The next day, he brought her flowers.
KEM also recorded with LaBelle for her upcoming album, too. She’ll be coming to DPAC herself soon, for a concert Jan. 11.
For the “What Christmas Means” concert, KEM will sing some favorites off his regular studio albums that have sold millions, as well as Christmas songs. He’ll be joined by comedian Anthony Anderson. Local singer Yolanda Rabun will open.
“Christmas is first and foremost a celebration of the birth of the Christ,” KEM said. His interpretation of it doesn’t end there, but also includes gifts and sharing. It’s his favorite time of year. “What Christmas Means” the album is a different album, he said, as it’s not a “tinsel-tinged, jolly record. It’s thought provoking, at times introspective, sensual, thought out.” He knows Christmas isn’t jolly for everybody, and people experience loss during the holidays or are dealing with economic difficulties. “Christmas is a time of hope. I would encourage people to have hope,” KEM said. He said for those struggling, he’d tell them what he would all year – to hold on and surround themselves with people and things that nurture them.
KEM’s own Christmas, after the concerts this month, will be spent at his home in Detroit, the city where he grew up. He’ll host a Christmas brunch and invite family, neighbors and friends over on Christmas morning, then after they leave, watch the game.
KEM was born in Nashville and grew up in the Motor City. Detroit is where his parents, his children and his roots are, he said.
“I’m a Midwest cat by nature,” he said. “There are other places I love, but Michigan will always be home.” Detroit gets beat up a lot, KEM said.
“I really think our best days are ahead of us. With the bankruptcy filing, a lot of people are going to be hurt. Any time you make major changes, some things are going to be sacrificed, and people are not all going to be pleased,” he said. “It gives the city a clean new slate to build on. What’s not talked about is investment in the city – it’s becoming a great foundation for small business. This is not the only community struggling.”
KEM said it’s a time of a lot of anxiety and great opportunity in Detroit.
After the interview, KEM was heading out to complete his Christmas shopping for his daughters, ages 18 and 3. His 18 year-old, Troi, was part of the writing sessions for the song “Glorify the King.” She has the aptitude and all the makings to be a great songwriter, he said. “Hopefully we’ll be able to do more,” KEM said.
KEM prepared for the “What Christmas Means” tour by going through rehearsal, wardrobe, packing and making sure he knew all the lyrics.
“You think you know them until you have to sing them,” he said. So KEM has forgotten lyrics on stage? What does he do then? “I can’t tell you the secret because people will know,” he said. But options include letting the audience sing or making up new words and getting “your freestyle on.”