Kenny St Brown is a one of Nigeria’s most consistent contemporary gospel artistes. With a career spanning over a decade, she brought a fresh feel into the previously laid back regard for gospel music at the time of her entry, and is one of the artistes responsible for putting gospel music into the mainstream of the Nigerian music industry. Starting her music career in 1997, she took a bold step into an industry that was not as attractive as what it is today. From her early tracks like ‘You are Worthy’ and ‘Heaven Came Down’, to the more recent ‘Turn Me Around’ and ‘Mo Ti Goke’, her music has evolved to suit different tastes and a wide group of listeners. She was the recipient of Soundcity Music Video Awards for Best Gospel video in 2010.
The life of Kenny St Brown since she broke in to the music industry has been filled with a number of twists. Her short and failed marriage to a member of the former Remedies group, Eddie Montana, grabbed a lot of media attention and remains at the top of her biggest challenges. But Kenny has stayed strong and her career has continued to wax stronger. At her home where we had a chat, she played the role of a good host and a doting mother as she intermittently chided her playful children.
Her story is an interesting one that is better told from the beginning.
Your name ‘Kenny’ short for the Yoruba name ‘Kehinde’ implies that you are a twin. Who is your ‘Taiwo’?
I have a twin brother who relocated from America about two years ago but he doesn’t go by the name Taiwo, he goes by the name King Shaka. He is also into entertainment. He just started building his own company.
Where did you grow up and what schools did you attend?
I grew up in Ijebu-Ode. I went to Moshood Abiola Polytechnic. From there I went to Ogun State University for my first degree in English Arts then I went for my Masters at University of Benin where I got my MBA and I specialized in multinational corporations and international finance. Then I went to Bible College for a Post Graduate Diploma in Theology at RCCG Bible College.
With a Diploma in Theology, you must be deeply involved in activities at your Church.
I was a Sunday School teacher and at a point I was an Assistant Pastor at the RCCG. Now I’m a coach. I am more like a teen pastor but I’d rather be called a teen coach.
Her “Call” into Music
With your MBA and Diploma in Theology, music didn’t seem to be where you were headed. How did you come about being a musician?
I didn’t know I was going to sing early in life. God called me into it after my Masters Degree. You know after an MBA, after being trained to be an executive, I was ready for that. But God said, come and be an executive for me, come and work for me. I was inquisitive, I said “God, when I work for you I need you to get me a job with Chevron, or Mobil, or a multinational corporation.” For me to have gone ahead and done my Masters Degree, it was such a big deal and so I wanted to be a career girl with an oil company or airline or no where else. And here was God saying I should come and work for him. But there is a Yoruba adage that says, “you cannot go into partnership with God and make a loss” and that was how the journey started. The job wasn’t come and sing, it was come and pray, come and be a burden bearer. So I did that in the UK at the RCCG Jesus House where I was in the prayer team and so when it was time for me to go back to Lagos, God told me well done, you’ve done well, and he gave me music.
You started singing at a time when the music industry wasn’t as developed as it is now. What made you take that leap?
Actually, God told me that there was going to be a revolution in the music industry in Nigeria. Then, it was the likes of Ras Kimono that were holding sway. Hip hop music hadn’t started. So I called my brother Keke (Kenny Ogungbe) and said I wanted to do music and he said yes go on, go and do it. That was in 1997. My first album came out in 1998.
It’s a common regard by most people that you were able to achieve success and fame in the industry because you had the support of your brother and his record label, Kennis Music.
I started Kennis Music. It wasn’t that there was Kennis Music and I had to come and ride on that. The music industry was kind of winding up then. My brother’s greatest passion is broadcasting and entertainment journalism and that is why everything he is doing is unfolding in that direction. So when I told him “hey, I want to do music” he said “hey, that is good news”. My brother is my greatest inspiration, my greatest fan. He is somebody that just trusts me. He is somebody that believes in me, believes in whatever I set my mind to do. I came back from the UK with some songs but they were not suitable for the Nigerian market so he suggested I had to record them again. It was when we finished, we started looking for who would market the song. So I told my brother, “hey, we can actually start a record company”, and he said “really?” and I said “yes”. So he said “OK, let’s start”. You see, everybody needs to have the kind of brother like Keke in their lives. He does not discourage.
So, what is your role in Kennis Music?
When we started, he was the President and I was the Vice President. But I stepped down later because I found out that my passion wasn’t to be the music executive but to be an artiste. I didn’t have much time to write songs anymore. We started a revolution then, we were discovering young talents. There were so many.
Your record label has seen a lot of artistes come and go, many of them going on to make negative comments about Kennis Music. Why is this so?
Those of them that say stuff like that, what do they have to say for themselves? Look at Kelly Hansome, he is a troubled child. We discovered him in Enugu when we heard his song in a club and then we went out into the city to find his CD. He was already in America. Keke sold some of his shares and went to America to find this guy, spent money on him, did videos for him and then brought him home. If you are restless, you are restless, it’s not anybody’s fault. For 2Face and Eedris Abdulkareem, they just wanted to move on and some of the others, their contract expired but it wasn’t like their records were selling and Keke couldn’t continue carrying their weight. It’s out of bitterness that they go out and say negative stuff. Artistes are natural ‘Oliver Twist’ and they always want some more.
Your first Gospel album ‘Totality’ was quite different from your most recent ‘Turn Around’ which had a more contemporary feel. What would you say is the genre of your kind of music?
The literary meaning of gospel is good news. I sing gospel. We should not just relegate the good news to just Sunday morning. The mindset of people about gospel music is that it must carry anointing, and the blood of Jesus must be dripping with Jesus still hanging on the cross. This is the 21st century and we have to put a way to sing this good news. We cannot condemn the people in the club because they are not in the church and say they are for the devil.
You have done a number of collaborations with contemporary artistes like elDee, Don Jazzy, Ice Prince and more, recently. What was it like working with all these artistes?
I wanted to take the Kingdom song to the mainstream. These are the people that are in the mainstream so I couldn’t fool myself. I had to align myself with the talents and gifts that God has given them to make it work. They were fantastic, they drilled me, they took me to school again. Especially elDee, he brought a lot of wonderful suggestions. They have the ear of the streets, of the people in the club, of the DJ; they know how a song should sound to pull in the people and so I had to surrender and let them do their work.
You recently started a food-order-only venture with KSB foodies. Where did you get the inspiration for that?
It is brand merchandising that inspires it where as a celebrity, I want to use the name I’ve built over the years and use it to brand something that brings me extra money. If I say I love cooking, it’s an understatement. I’m passionate about food, about the processes that go into preparing a meal.
Where did you learn how to cook?
I have five brothers in between myself and my elder sister. If she isn’t cooking, I gotta cook. But she left home early so I was left with mum to learn how to cook but I would say that my sister taught me how to cook.
You brought a unique and different twist to your business by naming the dishes after celebrities. What inspired this?
I wanted to merge entertainment with music, bring something new, something that people would be inquisitive about and will endear them to a particular meal. I want it to excite people, so that if you are in love with Genevieve (captivating smoked stew), we’d make a meal that would make you remember her. We called a particular sauce Don Jazzy (ofada sauce), so that when you eat this food, you’d remember all the wonderful things he’s known for. We are not giving you jollof rice like everybody is giving you jollof rice, we give you Essence, we give you Alibaba (ogbono soup), we give you 2Face (Rice and beans), we give you Pasuma and Jenifa (Amala and gbegiri) or Kate Henshaw (Afang). We are using it to honour our celebrities and also to celebrate our African food. It’s just to glorify the entertainment industry and to immortalize the names of our celebrities so that when they are not so popular, we’d still remember them with the food. We make food presentation look like entertainment.
How has business been since you started?
It’s been interesting. Orders haven’t stopped, they come in everyday. If you’ve tasted it before, you’d ask for it again. Some people in my church don’t even bother to cook on Sundays. They just call me and order for their pots of sauce or soups and I deliver to them.
Controversy and Marriage
When Whitney Houston passed away some few weeks ago, you went on Twitter and wrote a comment about your similarities with the late pop icon that sparked up some controversial responses. What was going on in your mind when you wrote that?
People feel that they have this power over you to check you. I’m a blunt person. Whitney Houston was my idol and I didn’t realized how much I had idolized her until I became Mrs Brown. I followed her kind of pattern of marriage and I didn’t know, it was unconscious. I had idolized her so much and I was devastated at her death. I was tensed. I felt she wasn’t honest. I felt that even when she sang the song “I look to you”, she didn’t surrender everything.
Another comment you made that sparked up some controversy was when you won the SMVA Awards in 2010. “Dem say I no fit sing. Well Kirk Franklin cannot sing or rap but has since remained relevant.” What did you actually mean?
I had been singing for more than ten years by then and that was the first time Nigeria gave me any award. Even when my songs were so popular, like Heaven Came Down. They will put me for nominations and at the end, I will not get any award. In my mind I was thinking why, why did you deny me? Why did you think I wasn’t good enough? When someone as relevant as Kirk Franklin doesn’t really sing, he mostly talks but is still being recognized.
How have you been since your divorce?
You know what, I’m not divorced. It’s been six years of separation and that is why I’ve been Kenny St Brown. I’m just about to start the processing of my divorce. God is telling me now to do it. That is what people don’t understand, I was never divorced that’s why I kept the name.
So if you get divorced, you will no longer be Kenny St Brown.
I will still maintain the KSB. Because I want to be the best at whatever I do, because what I want is the best of God, I want to be known as Kenny St Best and just keep the B. I’ve seen the worst of shame and ridicule and I still want the best of God.
How do you cope with raising two children as a single mom?
I’m not a single mom, I’m a single parent. Single moms get cheques, they get their houses and children’s school fees paid for but I don’t. I’m not going to put any pressure on my ex. He does the little he can do but that little is not going to pay lesson fees.
What would you say were the things that went wrong in your marriage that led to your separation?
I don’t want to go into that please. Those days my children couldn’t read, but now that they can read, I don’t want to tell them that their father is not the best father in the world.
When celebrities get married, they have a lot of media attention placed on them like you did while you were married. Would you say this had any negative influence on the outcome of your marriage?
It’s not the media attention, if you were never friends it can’t work. It’s a fact. The friendship really matters. That is what I discovered with my ex. We were not friends, we didn’t bond. Marriage should be for friends, let the friendship makes you say I cannot live without you; that I cannot live without our friendship. It’s not just for celebrities, it’s for everyone. Marry your friend because at some point, the butterflies will stop flying in your stomach and what will keep you going is your friendship.
Will you say the separation came as a relief?
If after six years it can’t be worked out, it can’t be worked out. We’ve both moved on.
Is there anything you wish you had done differently that could have sustained your marriage?
Absolutely nothing, really. If I had done it another way, then I would not be this person. Then the destiny will not be this destiny, the songs I’m singing would not be this songs and the life I’m living will not be this life. The power of God I’ve experienced would be something else. I usually don’t regret stuff. My mistakes have made me a better person.
Are there any chances of you getting married again soon?
I just want a friend. Once bitten twice shy. What am I looking for? I have two kids, a boy and girl. My girl will be 10 in April, my boy is 7. God has been with us and people too have helped us. If I go into a marriage and I’m not friends with that person, I’m punishing myself and the guy because he will go back to his friends and cheat.
When you think of all you’ve been through, what would you say you are most grateful for?
I’m most grateful for the kind of family I have. My brothers, my sisters, because they don’t interfere with my life, they give me space to sort myself out which means I don’t lean on people. It’s helped me to tackle my responsibilities.