(Please note due to technical difficulties with the audio, the text version has been amended with additional quotes from Keke)
KeKe Wyatt has always been a fighter. From being the only female in her school's all male wrestling team, to fighting her way out of bad record deals and an abusive relationship. Justin Kantor gloves up and takes his corner...
JK: Hi, this is Justin Kantor from Soulmusic.com, and we’re talking today with Keke Wyatt, who first hit back in 2000, with her smash hit with Avant, ‘My First Love’, a remake of the classic by Rene & Angela. Keke has had a few other hits since that time, such as ‘Put Your Hands on Me’ and ‘Ghetto Rose’, but unfortunately both of those records were plagued by record company problems. Now she’s back in official form with a brand new album on the Shanachie label entitled "Who Knew", which is full of songs that Keke penned herself. So, I’m going to talk with Keke today about her history, and the new album.
JK: I’ve been enjoying the “Who Knew” album, with the tracks that I’ve heard so far.
KW: Thank you!
JK: The single, I’m really liking a lot, and several others really jumped out at me. I was wondering, how does it feel for you to be officially back in the game now after a few false starts the last couple of times around?
KW: I’m happy to be back in the game again, which I really never left, actually. I did take a little chill, a little break, but I’m very excited about this album, because I have more of a chance to showcase Keke Wyatt, who she is as a person, and when I’m able to sing about it, it’s therapeutic for me. When I write, it’s like talking to a psychiatrist. When I go through things, it has to come out somewhere, so when I can write about it and then turn around and sing it with feeling and soul, it’s a pain reliever. I was able to release a lot of tension with this album, which I’m very excited about.
JK: Music is the best form of therapy, I find. Did you write a lot of the songs on this album?
KW: Yes, I wrote the majority. I didn’t write all, I’m not stupid. I’m not trying to be one of those ones where every song is mine. No, I didn’t write every song, but I did write quite a bit, because I have a story to tell, and I feel like R&B is a story about your life, and I think people should sing about what they go through so that other people might be able to relate and see that we go through stuff too, that they’re not the only ones going through stuff, and that just because we’re famous, or we’re celebrities in their eyes, that we don’t go through everything, well I want people to know that honey, I’ve been through the same stuff that you’ve been through.
JK: We’re all living life and experiencing our trials and tribulations. Let’s talk about some of your experiences in music and in life, that have led you to where you are now. I know that you’re from Indianapolis, and music was at least a sizeable part of your upbringing from a very young age. From what I understand, you performed a song called ‘Beautiful’ when you were around 5 years old that was your first public performance?
KW: Yes, I sang that song. My mother taught that to me when I was 2, and I finally wanted to get up there and sing it in front of everybody when I was like 5. That’s true. I grew up in a musical family, a musical home. My father, he still plays the organs, he still ministers, my mother still sings at church, I still sing at church, my brothers still sing at church, so that part never left. I appreciate my upbringing.
JK: You also got involved in the recording end at a pretty young age too. Was it a song called ‘What If’ that you recorded around that time?
KW: Oh my God, yes! Where do you get all this information from? Dang! You pulled them out of the hat, boy. Yes, I think I was about 9 when I recorded that song. I was a little bugger. I did that for a guy named R.H. Duncan. He had his own gospel label in Indianapolis, Indiana, so I got to record that song and put it on his Gospel album for a big church convention that was going on, and I was really happy about that. It was my first real time recording, and people did not believe that I was a little girl. Just like when I first came out, they didn’t believe I was 18. I don’t know why my voice is big and wild, but I do know my mother sings like that; she’s a very soulful singer. I remember when I was a little girl, I would pray then, and I would say, “Lord, I want to sing louder than my Mommy.” Everybody always says she has a built-in microphone and a big ol’ mouth, and I got it! I guess I did enough praying honey, because my voice is loud, singing and talking.
JK: So you got that little competitive edge going from a young age, too. Not only was music a part of your life, but from what I’ve read, you were athletic as well. What I had read specifically was that you were on a varsity wrestling team in high school.
KW; I was on the wrestling team in high school, on an all-male wrestling team, I was the only girl, and I was pretty good.
JK: How did you get into that, being so into music? Was it just another side of you that you wanted to explore?
KW: I’ve always been into wrestling, since back when I was a little girl. I used to watch Hulk Hogan and Jake The Snake and all of them. I used to watch all of them, and I loved it so much, that when they said there was going to be wrestling tryouts in room 235 after school I was like, “Okay!” When I got there, I was the only girl, and I was like, “Uh oh, what did I get myself into?” The coach said, “Are you here to try out, or what are you here for?” I said, “ I want to wrestle!” and he said, “Oh, okay. Here’s the gear, get geared up.” And I said, “Okay!” He made me wrestle one of the heavyweights, and I didn’t lose. He was like, “You’re a little fireball.” So from then on, I was on the wrestling team. I trained with the guys, I had to do the weigh-ins with the guys, and when we weighed in, we would have to be naked, so I would have one hand over my boobs and one over my sally, and I would just weigh in like the rest of them. I grew up with brothers, so it wasn’t weird for me. It was actually quite normal.
JK: You were really confident at a young age, at trying new things and breaking barriers.
KW: Yeah, I was in the newspaper and everything for it. Everyone was like, “Where did this girl come from?”
JK: Not many girls could say that.
KW: No, but I grew up with brothers, so I was kind of rough. I’m still rough.
JK: I know another aspect of your childhood that you’ve talked about, that I’m sure provided you with some positives and some negatives, was growing up bi-racial. What were the good and bad parts of that, especially where you grew up in Indiana?
KW: It was rough, but you can’t help what you’re born as, and I’ve learned to except it over the years, but I really hated it growing up, because I didn’t understand it, and I couldn’t understand why the white girls didn’t want to play with me, and the black girls didn’t want to play with me. It would hurt my feelings, because I simply didn’t understand. When I got older and went to middle school and high school, and the girls would say, “She thinks she’s all that because she’s light-skinned” or the white girls would say, “Oh my God, look at your butt! You’ve got big black girl butt.” I was like, “Now I know why nobody wants to play with me, it’s because my Mom is white and my Dad is black and Indian. How about that?” They don’t understand me. To the black girls, I would be like, “What’s up nigga?” and they would be like, “You ain’t black! You can’t be saying that!” I’m like, “My Daddy is black. Why not? Who do you think you are?” Little do you know honey, its not a colour, it’s an ignorant person, and that goes to show that she is a nigger, because she don’t even know the true meaning of nigger. I had it hard, but I’m good with it now. I tell them to kiss my behind. I don’t care.
JK: So they were pretty cold to the bone, and I guess obviously at home it wasn’t any big thing, so like you said, it took you a while to realize why they were even having the nerve to act like that or say cruel things like that.
KW: Kids are cruel, period. It doesn’t matter. Kids are going to be mean, because they’re kids, and if they don’t understand the situation, they’re going to be mean. It’s like a child that has sucked his thumb for too long and he might be buck-toothed, kids will tease him and make fun of him, but dang, all it would take is for me to get some braces, and my teeth will look just like yours. Kids are very judgmental, but whatever. You know what, adults are too. I’ve had people try to tell me, “You ain’t black!” I’m black, I’m white, I’m Indian, I’m all of the above!
JK: Especially in the entertainment industry, it’s a very judgmental industry by nature, so just by being part of that, you probably encounter it sometimes.
JK: There are the ones who say, “If you’ve got an ounce of black, you’re black” and then you’ve got the ones who say, “You’re not black. How can you understand our struggle?” and I say, “You don’t understand my struggle.” I am you, and I am my mother. You don’t understand my struggle.
JK: I don’t know if you ever watched Girlfriends, the sitcom, but they did an episode where the character Lynn, who is bi-racial, had gotten a recording contract, and she was on the roster, but they kept delaying her getting recording time and it came out that it was because she wasn’t black enough and they said, “We don’t know if we can do this with you or that with you.”
KW: They really do that, and it’s mean. You’d be surprised. If you’re not bi-racial, you would never understand. It’s funny, because of half of these people out here, nobody is solid nothing. Nobody’s all white, nobody’s all black, nobody’s all nothing anymore. We’re all everything, if you know what I mean.
JK: Oh, definitely. Everybody comes from somewhere, and they came from somewhere else before them.
KW: Look at Charles Barkley. He’s got Asian in him, and he doesn’t even know. He says, “I’m a black man” but he’s not even all black. I just think people are funny. We live and we learn, you move on, and who cares. Anyway, I’m so excited about my album coming out on February 23rd, and honey, I’m trying to make 2010 my year.
JK: Tell me about a few of the songs on there. One of them, of course the title track, the lead single ‘Who Knew’, I couldn’t make it out exactly, but I know the first line you say, “Word on the street is I’m something.” I couldn’t understand what it was you were saying exactly.
KW: I was saying, “I’m sure that you heard the rumours about me, word on the street is I’m that ‘B’.
JK: Okay, I thought you were saying something else. Was that something in response to media, or was it something from a personal standpoint?
KW: It’s just lyrics to the song. Just lyrics.
JK: What about the song ‘Never Do It Again’? In that one you wrote, “What kind of woman would rather be at the mall then spend time with you?” What inspired the theme of that song?
KW: It’s not personal, but that situation has happened to a lot of relationships, and people think it’s always the guy, but sometimes it’s the girl. My best friend, she’s so independent that she’s hard to deal with as a girlfriend with her male friends, and I’m like, “Girl, stop being so independent all the time. Go home! Why are you out working when you don’t have to be? You could be at home with your man right now.
JK: You also did a remake of Rachelle Ferrell’s ‘Peace on Earth’. I read that was a song that you had originally recorded for the “Emotional Roller Coaster” album that didn’t come out. Is this the same version that you recorded for that, did you do it all over, or what was the story with that?
KW: I re-recorded it for label-changing reasons. I love that song, I think it’s a beautiful song, and it really speaks the truth that we really need to get our lives together.
JK: Is Rachelle Ferrell as a singer, someone that is a favourite of yours, or how did you happen upon the song?
KW: I love her. I think she has a wonderful, creative voice and she’s not afraid to try different things, and a lot of people are, and I respect the fact that she doesn’t care. The song was actually brought to my by Cassandra Ware. She worked at another label and she was a really good friend of mine, and part of my management back then. She was like, “Keke, this is my favourite song” and I was like, “Yeah, but Rachelle Ferrell did it. I’m going to have to really sing the song.” She was like, “You could sing it!” and I was like, “Let me think about it”. I saw some stuff going on in the street when I was in LA and I was like, “Oh Jesus, we need peace, we need help” so I sang the song from my heart. That’s one reason why I did the song.
JK: Do you get involved with the promotional aspect of your album, especially now that you’re with an independent label, or is that something that you leave to the executives? I’ve heard you speak before about how with the major labels, there were so many competing artists and you kind of got shuffled to the side a lot. How much input do you have, as far as the marketing, in how you’re presented and all that stuff?
KW: I have quite a bit actually, because I feel that it’s me, I’m not a new artist, so I should be able to say what I like and what I don’t like, because I have sold records, and I have been there, done that. I think I know a little bit about what’s up with me and what people like from me. I have quite a bit of input, and I like that.
JK: I was just curious, and I know it’s going back a ways, but what made you decide to leave your first deal that you had with MCA Records after going Gold and having the success you did?
KW: They were switching over to Geffen, and all the people that I was used to working with were leaving, and I just thought, “If y’all leave, I’m leaving” so that’s when I went and worked out a deal with Cash Money Records and put that album out, but a hurricane came through and washed everything out. Then I went to TVT and they went bankrupt. I was like, “Are you kidding me?”
JK: Did you ever have any question about whether you would continue in the music industry when those things happened?
KW: No, I was kind of disappointed when things didn’t pan out the way I wanted them to, but no.
JK: You’re working with a lot of great people on the new album. You have The Underdogs, Troy Oliver and others. Was it different recording this album in any way, than the last 2 that you had done, or was it pretty much something that is pretty much the same when you go into the studio and record an album?
KW: I just get creative and have fun. I like to have fun recording, because I love to record, it’s like my favourite part of my job. A lot of artists hate the recording process, but I love it, because I can be creative. It’s fun for me. It doesn’t take me all year to record; I get in and do what I have to do and get out.
JK: Do you like it even more than live performance?
KW: I can be more creative when I’m recording, but I still get a serious thrill from performing live, but I love to record. I can’t say which one I like better. It’s like, when I’m doing it, I love that, at that particular time. When I’m recording I love recording, and when I’m performing I love performing.
JK: I haven’t had the chance to see you perform in person, but I know one performance of yours I saw back in the day on BET when you sang ‘If Only You Knew’, the Patti Labelle song. Was it always a favourite of yours?
KW: Yeah, I like to perform that. Whenever I get a chance to sing, and my management says, “Keke, sing this and such and such” and I’m like, “What about ‘If Only You Knew’?” and they’re like, “Do you want to do it?” and I’m like “Sure I want to do it!” and they’re like, “Okay, but you’re not getting paid for it. They’re only paying you for 3 or 4 songs, and that’s the 4th or the 5th” and I’m like, “I don’t care. I love that song and my fans love that song, so I’m going to sing it.”
JK: Tell me about the experience of auditioning for and being accepted in to “The Dollz” (the first incarnation of Destiny's Child) and why you declined.
KW: I didn't really audition for the group, I was put into the group. I never wantred to be in a group, my mom thought it was a good idea. I just knew I was a solo artist.
JK: How did you come to be featured on "My First Love" with Avant - Is it true that it was recorded several years before it was released?
KW: We were in the studio and he was recording his album and Steve Huff was, like, "Keke you gotta get on this song." It wasn’t suppose to be a single. Radio picked it up, started playing it and made it a #1 record. It was recorded about 2 years before it was released.
JK: To much of the public, your career seemed to get sidetracked by personal issues. Tell me about the domestic abuse situation - how it went down. Set the record straight.
KW: I will set the record straight for my fans. They continued to support me, bought my record and stuck by my side and I love them for that. For more than eight years, I'd been secretly hiding the physical abuse that was going on in my marriage. One night it just came to a head and I could not take it any more. I had a paring knife and I used it to get my husband off of me. I was fighting for my life. I think I did what any woman would have done. Today, I use my voice to empower other women that are going through what I went through. Find someone you can trust, confide in and get out. You deserve better! I am happy to say that I have left that relationship and I'm in a happy place. I am back! Happier, stronger and bettter than ever.
About the Writer
Justin Kantor is a freelance music journalist with published works in Wax Poetics and the All-Music Guide. A graduate of Berklee College of Music's Business and Management program, he regularly writes liner notes for reissue labels.