His latest album, New Sacred Cow, is a labyrinth filled with enigmas. One such is the fact that the album was co-produced by Chad Hugo, one-half of the superstar production team the Neptunes. At first listen to this synth-fueled album of '80s-style pop, you would never, ever guess it was orchestrated by the same man who, along with Pharrell Williams, orchestrated such contemporary classics as "Shake Ya Ass," "Hot in Herre" and "Pass the Courvoisier (Pts. 1 & 2)." Since Cow possesses none of the Neptunes' signature electronic-funk sound, Hugo's involvement seems as unlikely as Kenny G backing Metallica on sax.
"Chad and I went to high school together, and we're good friends," explains Kenna over the phone from Washington, D.C. Don't go looking for the producer's name in the CD booklet -- Hugo is credited on Cow as Chase Chad. ("He's a super-producer, so you always have to chase him," jokes Kenna.)
But where is that spotlight-hogging skater boy Williams? Even though Kenna considers Williams an ingenious lyric writer and melody maker, he wanted those parts of the album to be his and his alone. "It's not that it's Pharrell-less for any one reason," Kenna says. "But I ended up doing a lot of the writing myself. I wanted to have my own perspective on the record."
Another bit of confidential information: Although the album has just been released, Cow has been in the can for more than a year. The reason? A major-label run-around. Kenna was once signed to Flawless, the label run by Mr. Nookie Man himself, Fred Durst. Kenna joined Durst's roster when Hugo played his old high school chum's demo for some folks at the label.
"Chad played it for Fred's people. Fred's people played it for Fred," Kenna remembers. "Fred signed me, and then Fred let me go make the record I wanted to make."
Kenna and Hugo went into the lab to make the album. When the product was finished, Durst was pleased with what he heard. But unfortunately the higher-ups at Geffen/Interscope, Flawless's parent company, overrode Durst's decision to release it. "Geffen/Interscope didn't understand it," Kenna says. "So Fred let me go, and I signed to Columbia and put the record out."
Having to find a place where he belongs is nothing new for the 27-year-old who was born Kenna Zemedkun. It's practically Cow's motif. Most of the songs deal with Kenna's alienation, and the eventual acceptance of self he found after recognizing his individuality at an early age. Kenna plays it all nice and angsty -- he's far more eloquently disillusioned than Avril Lavigne -- and along the way he creates another soundtrack for a John Hughes movie that hasn't been made, although Kenna still has his hopes up that the king of teen cinema will make another picture.
"He needs to go write one of those movies now and just put it out, so I could make my own music," he says.
All this leads up to Kenna's dirtiest little secret of all: He's a black dude. Following his birth in Ethiopia, his family immigrated to Virginia Beach when he was three. "There was a governmental change in Ethiopia," he says. "So it was something my family had to do." His family bought a ranch in Virginia, where Kenna bathed in the classics of the Reagan era. He studied U2's Joshua Tree religiously. (Today, he may sound a tad like Bono, but the man does Simon Lebon better than Simon Lebon.) Speaking about his obvious influences, he simply says, "I'm a child of the '80s. I kinda feel like it's who I am."
Growing up as an exile in America, he lived out his own version of Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man. "I was raised...not fitting," he says. "I'm a nonconformist, and at the same time, I always wanted to be able to find a spot that I belonged to. I never did find that. I'm a chameleon. I had to kind of join whatever crew and every crew to find perspective on myself. Even to this day, I'm still fighting the fact that people have a perception of me versus who I really am. I think it's a battle that I'll probably have until the day I die."
Kenna doesn't want his skin color to be a selling point. He doesn't appear on the album's cover. He does only a cameo in the video for his newest single, "Freetime." (In the clip, he's briefly seen on a magazine cover, and even then, he's shielding his face with his hand.) Apparently, he's taking the Ellison-esque way of living he reluctantly adopted as a teen, and using it for his public image as a musician -- and making a point at the same time.
"That's all I wanna convey through my music," he says. "It's not about the color of your face. It's not about the style of your music. It's about accepting everyone for who they are, period, and not trying to pigeonhole them."
So it doesn't matter to him if you drop him in the electroclash craze with Fischerspooner and Peaches and the rest, or say he's another artist who longs for the days when the Thompson Twins and Depeche Mode ruled the airwaves. Kenna just wants people to recognize his music, not the guy playing it.
"I don't care," he says. "Lump me in with whatever you gotta lump me into. As long as I'm not pigeonholed as Jimi Hendrix without the guitars."
And as far as the whole dirty-little-secret thing is concerned, Kenna says his life is an open book -- albeit one of those lengthy, complex books you have to reread just to see if you do, in fact, get it.
"No dirty secrets," he says. "They're not even secrets. If anyone asks, I'll tell them the truth: They're words from my spirit."